Service, Merchandise

by Justin Sevakis,

There'll be some minor cosmetic changes to the column this week. You see, since the column's inception way, way back in 2001, we've always laid things out the same way. Questions in italics; answers in bold. Back in the day, both were pretty short, so that worked pretty well. But as the column has evolved, questions have stayed short, while nearly everything gets an essay-length answer in response. Reading a whole, long article in bold case can get pretty straining on the eyes. It was time to shake things up a little bit.

So now, we've made a few tweaks to bring the look of the column up a notch or two. I hope you like it.

InvalidName asks:

Right Stuf's Shawne Kleckner's comments about anime merchandise on last week's ANNCast, particularly merch for mid-tier franchises and not just big hits, reminded me of the company "Great Eastern". I saw their name and logo on a Cowboy Bebop wallscroll I bought at Anime Weekend Atlanta a decade ago and assumed they were an importer, but looking at their Facebook page, I gather they're more of an actual licensor/manufacturer. What can you tell us about this company?

Great Eastern Entertainment is a company that I didn't know a lot about either, but I know they've been around forever, and I occasionally hear about them acquiring new merchandising rights for anime shows. I reached out to their CEO Kent Hsu, who was nice enough to spend some time on the phone with me to fill in some cracks.

Great Eastern was started in 1995, when Hsu -- a lifelong manga addict who owned a gigantic Chinese-language manga store in Southern California -- tried to strike up some licensing deals to become a manga publisher. The companies he approached rebuffed him -- they already had distribution strategies in place -- but suggested that he might try his hand at the merchandise market instead. As it so happened, Hsu's family in Taiwan had been doing manufacturing for decades, and had connections everywhere in that world. So that's what he did.

As of today, Great Eastern is the leading manufacturer of licensed anime and manga merchandise for the US market, with offices and manufacturing in Los Angeles, Taiwan and in Mainland China. It's still a fairly small outfit -- only 80 people --despite having hit licenses for shows ranging from Naruto and Bleach to Free! and Hetalia. The company keeps a low profile. They maintain the Facebook page you linked to, as well as a Twitter account, but they don't bother getting a booth at anime conventions. "If I went to Anime Expo, of the 200 or so booths there, probably 70 are selling my product. I wouldn't want to compete with my customers like that," Hsu explained.

He needs the support of retailers, since bootleg merchandise is rampant, still accounting for 85% of the market, he estimates. Most consumers can't tell the difference, and many retailers love the lower costs. "Bootleg manufacturers have complete freedom. They don't have to get approvals, they don't have to pay royalties, and they can move a lot faster. They also can manufacture a lot more at a lower cost and sell worldwide, where we can only sell in North America."

Still, things are good these days, despite the limited retail space given to anime products, and the virtual firehose of new shows constantly coming out of Japan. Hsu can only juggle around 200-300 shows at a time, but he constantly bids on new shows, just to stay an active participant. Product is sold online and through specialty shops, as well as through stores like Hot Topic, Books-A-Million, TransWorld and Hastings. But with over 2,500 products available, no retailers can carry it all. Product lines range from keychains and T-shirts to wall scrolls, posters, headbands, bobblehead figures, towels and nearly anything else you can think of.

Hsu is still a fanboy, and still reads a lot of manga (though it's mostly seinen stuff these days). He's also trying to expand into non-anime properties too (with dedicated non-anime staff -- last time he tried this, he realized he didn't care about non-anime stuff and let the product lines wither). But his overall goal is still trying to make cool stuff that makes fans happy, to the extent he's allowed to by licensors, at least. "I really wanted to make a Death Note notebook, but the licensor wouldn't allow it," Hsu lamented. "They were too worried that someone would get their name written in the notebook and then get murdered, and somehow they'd get sued for it." Which, sadly, IS something I can totally see happening.

Paul asks:

Will we ever see more titles licensed for streaming by multiple sites? Last year a number of series, such as Kill la Kill and Nobunagun, were streamed by multiple sites. This made me hopeful that this would become more common, which would be good both because it would make subscribing to only one site more convenient and because it would mean that they would have more incentive to compete on service quality or price rather than content. That does not, however, seem to have happened.

It's a good thing for fans when shows get streamed on multiple platforms at once. For the companies doing the streaming, however, it's not such a good thing. First, you have to deal with the logistics of delivering huge, high quality video (with subtitles!) to multiple parties at once, and have to meet their standards for delivery (which might not be the same). It's twice the amount of legal legwork, getting agreements signed with each platform. It's twice the number of royalty statements you have to keep track of and tallied.

The streaming sites don't like it either. For example, Funimation is none to happy to share their licenses with Crunchyroll, and vice versa. Having a hit show exclusively means that it gives your site value over your competitors. Without that benefit, it's simply not worth as much to have the rights to a show. The licensing fee offers are lower. If it's a B- or C-list show, they might just rescind their offer entirely without some measure of exclusivity. A few months, at least.

Generally, the only compelling business case to be made for non-exclusive streaming is when the licensor considers it important to have the show EVERYWHERE, because it's going to be a big hit, and needs to be seen by as many people as possible, and that it's a high quality enough show that all of the streaming partners won't put up too big of a fight and just deal. I don't expect it to ever be all that common.

Tripp asks:

The recently released Anime Terra Formars is sure to be one of the top Fall shows this year, with its interesting story and characters, and after reading the Manga, I can see why. But how can the author or even the studio allow themselves to censor the show so much? Why place in Jojo's time slot, knowing that the audience might be younger? Its one thing to censor some scenes, but for someone to watch 24 minutes of black screens every time someone dies seems over the top, especially given the type of series it is. I would hope maybe you could explain the studios decision, and if I and my friends are the only one upset by this, or if there is outcry in Japan as well.

You're certainly not the only person complaining about the copious censorship in Terra Formars, which is pretty egregious, sometimes obscuring half the screen during action scenes.

TV networks in Japan, just like in the States, are pretty strict about just how disgusting you can get on the open airwaves, and they've become progressively more strict over the past few decades. There are simply things -- gore, nudity -- you just cannot show. I'm quite sure the creators of the show wouldn't want to pull punches with a dark action horror show like that. They want to show gut-splattering violence in all its glory!

The thing you must remember about late night TV anime is that it's a commercial for the DVD and Blu-ray releases. Those discs are the "real" product, not the TV show you're seeing now. Those discs will almost certainly be uncensored. So from the perspective of the creators, censoring the TV broadcast is a way of teasing the disc releases, AND not compromising on the level of gore they wanted to include. Best of both worlds.

Of course, this does backfire. Fans, both in Japan and the US, get pretty annoyed with not being able to see the action in a show. When that happens, the rest of the series has to be good enough to make up for that annoyance, or fans will get frustrated and lose interest. From what I've been reading on forums, it doesn't sound like that's the case with Terra Formars. But it's never the intent of show creators to make a less-than-amazing show, just as no mother sets out to have an ugly baby. And yet...

Jake asks:

I have noticed in a few rare instances that openings or closing songs are in English. On the other hand you have some very old song selections like in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, which I understand has tons of music references, uses YES's song “Roundabout” and The Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the anime Speed Grapher used Duran Duran's “Girls on film”. The only pieces I have ever heard that came out when the anime did and was not associated with a Japanese label, as far as I know, is Paradise Kiss use of Franz Ferdinand's “Do You Want To”. Why would a studio pick an English-speaking bands song over a native band? Are English speaking bands in general, not just the top 1%, that popular in Japan? Why would they choose an old song over something more commercially relevant? What kind of issues might they have trying to license outside musicians work?

Song selection for anime is mostly the domain of the director of a show, but most of the time there's a music publisher involved with the production committee, and the whole reason they're chipping in for the show is so that they can use it to sell music. And so the director often has no choice but to pick from the record label's roster of talent, and a handful of songs they have at the ready (or commission a new song just for the series). Most of the time, this works just fine.

But occasionally the director will have a bit more power to choose the music he wants for the show, and in cases like that, he may want to go English. In that case, the music simply has to be licensed from the Japanese distributor of whatever artist they want. It may cost some money, and not immediately come with international rights (which are likely more expensive, particularly in the US). But unless the band itself is super restrictive with the use of their music, getting the rights usually isn't very hard.

English music is 100% mainstream in Japan (and most of the rest of the world). Every Japanese karaoke bar has an English section in their song book. Musical acts from the West, mainstream and obscure, play shows and sell tracks all over Japan. As some of the world's biggest media consumers, Japan gets everything -- even exclusives from American bands that the rest of the world doesn't get. In sheer numbers, they aren't quite as popular as Japanese mainstream artists (or even some otaku "bands" like μ's from LoveLive), but they're still a big business, and benefit from promotion in anime nearly as much as the local acts do. The funny thing is, what's popular in Japan can be hard to predict, and there are pockets of fans for virtually everything. For example, my indie musician friends' band The New Division, who you might know from the ANNCast opening theme, actually had their last album featured at the big HMV Records in Shibuya not long ago. (They also managed to attract the attention of Hideo Kojima, of all people, who gave them an unsolicited plug on Twitter.)

As a result, directors who are into music often have ecclectic tastes, and can opt for an English song to match the mood they have in mind for a show. Sometimes they'll have a specific song in mind, sometimes they'll just want something in English, because they consider it better at evoking the mood they're going for. The audience might not immediately know what they lyrics mean, but English is used almost for decoration in Japan anyway, so it doesn't really stand out.

This has led to a few notable English tracks on Japanese shows. Backstreet Boys' hit song "I'll Be The One" was used as the theme for the 2002 family series Hanada Shōnen-shi. Susan Boyle sang the theme to Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW. Jean-Jacques Burnel of the punk band The Stranglers performed the opening to Gankutsuou. Ergo Proxy used music by Radiohead. Eden of the East had a theme song by Oasis. The list goes on and on. And this is in addition to music composed specifically for shows that are in English, or by local Japanese bands that perform in English or composed of Western expats. It's common, REALLY common.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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