Aquarian Age

by Jonathan Mays,
Japan may be the world's leader in merchandising tie-ins. Almost every high-profile music release has a song that's used in a TV show or film, and hardly a manga or video game hits the market without plans for a follow-up anime series. The card game is the latest way to cross-promote a successful franchise. Those collectable packs once reserved for sports and role-playing games are now invading the world of anime. And by dropping by your local comic book store, you too can join the collectible card game, or CCG, explosion.

If you're a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, you already know all about the card craze. With a show practically made to sell card packs, how could you not notice? Digimon also caught the card fever, as the show's plot became more and more dependent on the way Takato and friends used their cards in battle.

Sometimes an anime is a slave to its card-based profit engine, but other times the relationship is more creative. Take Aquarian Age, the latest series from ADV Films and Broccoli USA. Back in 1999, Broccoli recruited some of the industry's best anime and manga artists to create a new card game featuring beautiful women and girls. With names like Haruhiko Mikimoto (Macross), Narumi Kakinouchi (Vampire Miyu), Koge Donbo (Di Gi Charat), Aoi Nanase (Angel/Dust), Mutsumi Sasaki (Memories Off), Keiji Goto (Nadesico), and Kia Asamiya (Silent Moebius), the cards were an instant hit. They captured an enormous audience with some of the most beautiful artwork ever to grace the collectible card world.

Two years later, the card franchise expanded with the Juvenile Orion spin-off. This time, the cards showcased bishounen, impossibly attractive male characters. To draw the new cards, Broccoli reached out to Sakurako Gokurakuin (Night Walkers), Azumi Tohru (Final Fantasy), Tsukasa Kotobuki (Saber Marionette J), and Studio GONZO, as well as several mangaka from the original card set. The demand for new cards continued to grow, so Broccoli responded with two new sets in 2002 and plans for more on the horizon.

As Aquarian Age's popularity continued its ascent, the wheels of cross-promotion began to turn at Broccoli. Why not try to turn it into a manga or anime series? Granted, nobody had ever done it on such a massive scale before, but with money in the bank and an oft-overlooked plot already in place, Aquarian Age was well positioned to enter the new market. An Aquarian Age anime and two manga series based on the Juvenile Orion spin-off followed in late 2002 and early '03.

The anime and manga expand the basic story of the card game, a secret centuries-long war between five sects—each with different powers. In Juvenile Orion, a sixteen-year-old girl named Mana is endowed with the powers of a Mind Breaker, one who can awaken the sects' powers. She explores the history of the struggle and tries to understand the nature of her powers with the help of her childhood friend, Kaname. Its predecessor, Aquarian Age, features the same plot but reverses the genders; the Mind Breaker is a male, and his protectors are female.

Last January, American fans showed they were equally prepared to indulge in Broccoli's latest fantasy-romance creation. Volume one of the manga series debuted at #2 in manga sales and #12 in trade paperbacks at Waldenbooks, Juvenile Orion's exclusive retailer. The second volume just arrived last month, and ADV is already hard at work preparing to release the anime series. Naturally, CDs and stationary are also available through Broccoli.

Will the tie-in obsession ever fade? Not likely. But as Aquarian Age proves so exquisitely, sometimes mass merchandising can have a positive creative influence, even when it starts with a card.

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