Interview: Bluefin and the World of Anime Collectibles

by Zac Bertschy,

If you've ever purchased a Gundam model kit in America, you've probably seen the name Bluefin on the back somewhere. Having recently opened a brand-new warehouse space in Southern California, Bluefin is currently handling a tremendous amount of distribution for a huge variety of Japanese brands – the company single-handedly shepherds Gunpla into the US, and has kept the Tamashii Nations line of Dragon Ball Z figures going for years. They were recently named Studio Ghibli's official North American consumer products and retail development partner, which means they're distributing all that sweet Ghibli swag you're seeing now in stores across America.

We sat down with Bluefin brand managers Jaren Kasan, Xavier Lim and Chiaki Yoshiro to learn a little about the company's history, the state of the collectibles market in 2016, who's buying anime merchandise and a whole lot more.

Zac Bertschy, ANN: Tell us a little bit about the history of the company.

Xavier Lim: So Bluefin was founded in 2002. Originally it was started with distribution of product into the hobby and independent stores. One of the first products that was brought over from Japan was these little remote control bit charge cars from Tomy Takura. But Bluefin also did the hobby related items from manufacturers like Aoshima. At one point we were Aoshima's big partner here for the US and they did special left-hand drive models of the cars. After that, the stores here were asking for Gundam models and so, at the time, the owner and CEO was able to source the product from Japan and bring those over here to the US. At some point in the late 2000s, Bandai noticed the volume that Bluefin was bringing in for the Gundam models and they asked if they wanted to partner directly—for Bluefin to become an agent of Bandai. This was the hobby department… So Bandai is split up into various different departments in Japan. Bandai Japan has a number of different ones that are specialized in certain categories and demographics. Also, as I mentioned Bandai Hobby, they're the ones that do the Gundam models. So they asked if Bluefin wanted to officially bring in the Gundam models, not just do it through other means. And so, Bluefin became an official distributor for Bandai Hobby, bringing the Gundam models into the US. Later on, Bluefin was able to, with that introduction from Bandai Hobby, they became a distributor for Tamashii Nations.

ANN: Right

Xavier: Tamashii Nations is the collector's edition for Bandai Japan. They make the SH Figure Arts, the Chogokin stuff. Then a few years later, another Bandai department, Bandai Shokugan, they do small trading figures. In Japan there's little candy that comes with the toys, that candy is removed for the US because of FDA regulations. And then, from that point we started getting other manufacturers of figures, including what we have today, which is like Beast Kingdom, Herocross, Sentinel, Comicave Studios, more recently products from the Studio Ghibli line, and also some others that are upcoming. Also, between the Gundam models and Tamashii Nations, the paint manufacturer GSI Creos, they make the support goods for the Gundam Models, we also started carrying their line as well.

ANN: In 2016, how would you characterize the collectables market right now as it currently exists? What is the biggest challenge out there?

Xavier: For the idea of a collectible, especially the ones from the Asian and Japanese manufacturers, it's a little bit different from what we find in the US market. Typically for these import collectables they're usually priced between $50 and up. And so for an American consumer who's used to the typical mass-market items that are out there like Wal-Mart, Target, etc, where they're up to 20, 25 at most, it's a bit of a culture shock, unless you were already invested in trying to find the best representation of an IP already.

ANN: Right.

Xavier: So a lot of—one of the challenges we've been facing recent for the non-Bandai stuff is simply brand recognition. Hero Cross or Beast Kingdom, these aren't really well-known brands, but they're pretty high up there in Asia and part of what we do, which is a little different from other distributors, is bringing out that name to the wider market, getting their products out for the consumer to get.

And we've started—one of the things that Bluefin has done which has been a key strength for Bandai is that we're at a lot of these fan events, like the Anime Expos and Comicons, but also some of the other lesser conventions, there's a lot of comic/nerd/geek cons out there where we're actively there and we're directly promoting the product to the consumer. So we have our setup with our displays, the wall cases that you guys see at Anime Expo. We use that opportunity for the consumer to see what this product looks like out of the box. What is it that I'm purchasing? We have all the branded logos for the various manufacturers and we have catalogs and other merchandizing stuff for the fan to see like, “oh, this company, I've never heard of this before,” maybe. There's literature about the companies and they'll be able to look onto it if they decide to purchase on it, see what other products are being offered by that same company.

ANN: The collectibles market feels saturated right now - where do you see yourselves within it?

Xavier: The collectables sphere is still relatively young in the US, especially for a lot of the ones that we specialize in, which are Japanese or Asian manufactures. Even though they are making a lot of Western IP licenses, like Star Wars is super popular, as is Marvel stuff currently, but a good chunk of the merchandise we're bringing in is anime-related or Japanese media-related. That's still relatively new to the US in general and so we're not exactly seeing that saturation for us. But there are, for more Western stuff, we do tend to run into certain things where there's a lot of X product out on the market. And for the American consumers I mentioned earlier, they're not, maybe, used to the price points of the high-end collectables, or maybe unfamiliar with the idea of the different accessories and features that go into what make up the larger price points. There might be some competition in that way. However, at the same time, the retailer space that we distribute to is not the mass, large chain stores. At most, we're doing specialty chains, this would be Barnes and Noble, Hot Topic type of stores that—they're not like the giant, huge box retailers. But they're flexible to the point where they are search for collectable opportunities beyond the typical price point you'd find at Target, Wal-Mart, etc.

ANN: Right. So you—the retail locations that you are in, you feel like your consumer is looking for your stuff there, of course they're not looking for it at Target.

Xavier: It's also a completely different consumer. The person who's looking for a $10, $15 action figure at Target isn't necessarily looking for the high-end stuff. For us, our distribution network consists of both these chain stores, but also online retailers and other independent brick and mortar stores as well.

ANN: But what are your biggest brands inside the world of anime?

Xavier: Based on just the sheer quantity of product, number one is Gundam, it's followed by Dragon Ball, and then Sailor Moon. It's your typical “what were people exposed to when anime was getting really large amongst the viewers in the mid or late 00s, I guess?”

ANN: Or late 90s, yeah.

Xavier: Yeah, the 90s, I'm sorry. I'm getting off with the years. It's that period that a lot of people associate with and a lot of these collectables now, the price point is that high because it's the understanding that a lot of these people who grew up with these things, they're adults and they have disposable income to want the best representation of whatever character that they were liking when they were younger. So for the SH Figure Arts, which is Tamashii Nations’ premiere action figure brand, the different hand parts that you can swap out to recreate all the fighting poses and hand gestures, the different facial expressions, those are all things we couldn't have as children because, “oh, we can't choke on the stuff.” But they're available now, and it's something the fans have been looking for and they are really appreciating at this point.

ANN: Do you have any that perform really well that people might see as a surprise?

Xavier: There are… hm, besides those three there are other titles… they're not as significantly large, those just stick out, but…

Jared: Saint Seiya.

Xavier: It's an interesting thing because we know what the demographic is for Saint Seiya. Even though the sales are recorded, we supply the US, the particular end consumer that's buying it, it's not the same as the other demographics that are buying the majority of our other products. It's an interesting thing because we know that Saint Seiya, the anime adaptation that did air on network television, it totally did not perform very well. But it has been streaming now. I think Crunchyroll is streaming the original and also the latest Soul of Gold series. That is a surprising one that most people won't really think about. But at the same time, the demographic that's buying it is also a little bit different from the others that are buying the other stuff that we have. We also started doing Studio Ghibli last year. There is merchandise for this.

ANN: Clearly.

Chiaki: Yeah we have the plush and also we have more high-end collectables like the music box, and also some more like a lifestyle items like plant covers and jewelry boxes.

ANN: What are you producing for Ghibli? Disney handles their home video releases, but not merchandise, that's all you.

Xavier: The relationship we have with Studio Ghibli is related to the Japanese merchandise, and we're bringing those directly into the US. So it's not necessarily the merchandise that was adapted for US consumption, this is literally what you would find in a Donguri Garden store in Tokyo. In that sense, we're representing their brand interests here in the US, along with all the different licensees that are making the product for this that are from Asia and etc.

I mentioned earlier that Bandai had approached us to be an agent for them, and so for Studio Ghibli as well, we're acting on their behalf and for their interests here in the US since they don't have their own office or anything here to see how the product is being put out into the market, or seeing the various oddities that separate the US market from Japan.

ANN: So in your estimation, how important is brick and mortar to your continued success? Is that a big cog, or is it increasingly shrinking?

Xavier: It's growing.

ANN: Really?

Xavier: Yeah. A lot of these stores, for this stuff, I keep mentioning a lot of this is still new to the US market. So this type of merchandise is extremely exciting. These stores know that the items… there's an audience that's looking for them, they're actually selling well with this type of stuff. For Barnes and Noble, there's a few items besides the Gundam models that are selling extremely well. For Barnes and Noble in particular their toys, games, educational division, that's been one of the departments within Barnes and Noble that's been seeing increases in their performance year to year.

ANN: What do you attribute that increase to?

Xavier: Part of the reason now, for collectibles, because of the price point and the features that are associated with them, there's a tactile aspect to these products that you don't really get to see being only an online retailer. There's still the joy of being able to walk into a store physically holding the thing you're purchasing, looking it over. Or, in some cases, like for Barnes and Noble and some of our other stores where we have the product displayed, you can see what it is that you're buying before you even get to the register. The tactile aspect for a lot of the collectible products is a very important part. Unlike a DVD, for example—okay, the case, there's a disc inside—all these products have different characteristics to them, that for a DVD you can mindlessly put it in a shopping card, but for a lot of this stuff, it's important to the collector that they're seeing what they're buying.

ANN: Bootlegs plague the import toy business; how big of a problem are they for your business? Do you guys have to combat that?

Xavier: We're an agent for a lot of our manufacturing partners here. For Studio Ghibli, we do act on their behalf to force the legitimate sale and marketing of their product. It is part of our agreements with these companies that we make sure that the official product is going out into this market.

ANN: Among the anime brands that you distribute, among those, which do you think has the most growth potential?

Xavier: I'm going to be super biased, because I manage the big Gundam brands, but it's actually Gundam.

ANN: It's already your best seller and now it's just expanding.

Xavier: Yeah so, the US as a whole, the market is still in its infancy stage for Gundam. But we've seen the Gundam model product—the sales continue to increase year to year. Part of that is because there's a lot of territory in the US, there's a lot of places in the US that haven't been reached yet. The US is such a large country compared to Japan, and so while Gundam in the Asian countries, because of their physical size, maybe they're at a certain point where maybe they can't go much farther, we're still in a very, very infant stage. And so, we foresee Gundam to be performance well for quite some time here in the US.

ANN: It's an exciting time for that franchise in particular too, because the anime does seem to be growing in popularity. Obviously you must track all that stuff, and pay attention to what the audience is doing. Has it gotten easier for you over the years, now that you can track the popularity of a season of anime and determine how your properties are doing among the general population?

Xavier: Yeah. So especially with some of the partners that we have agreements with we're able to get certain data to help make educated decisions on our purchasing needs. But we are still actively looking at the end consumer's reaction and response to what's being announced, what merchandise for something's coming out, what IPs and licenses they're clamoring on about. Tamashii Nations, one of the brands that we have, initially when we started with them no one knew who that brand was, but we were able through interacting with the end consumer, to bring up their name and rise it up from virtually nothing here in the US with their various products, leading the way with certain licenses. For Tamashii Nations we started with really emphasizing the Dragon Ball and Mega Man products that they had. Based on the fan and consumer reactions we were getting from our attendance at cons, events, and also from certain retailers we had that would give us their sell-thru data, we would be able to give Tamashii Nations data to produce certain products. At the time, the SH Figure Arts Dragon Ball Z line was not going to be having a bright future. But because of the data we provided to Tamashii Nations for how frickin’ well the product does in the US.

They were able to say, “oh, wait a minute, what's going on here? This product is selling abnormally higher everywhere in the US except maybe us.” And so we were able to provide data that allowed them to keep that line going. We ended up providing the character selections for their subsequent releases, to the point where the Dragon Ball SH Figure Arts line was surviving solely because of North American demand.

ANN: Wow, that's impressive.

Xavier: For Gundam in particular, because of the streaming stuff, the number of kits that are being purchased in the US has increased quite significantly. I know for the Iron Blooded Orphans kits, they only started coming out last October, but a number of them were already performing as well as some of the earlier Build Fighters Try releases that were out a year and a half before, they were already exceeding the numbers being sold. It's not like Gundam Wing level…

ANN: Sure.

Xavier: But it's pretty noticeable that Bandai did take notice, that they're like, “woah, this was doing really in the US.” So I mean, part of the advantages of those manufacturers have for us, because we're acting as their agent, is we provide sales data to them, and they're able to make more educated decisions on the products that are more appropriate for this market. It's something that not a lot of manufacturers out there have done yet, so there's still the idea that you need a branch here that's an extension of yourself. Where this is an alternative method of achieving that same goal of having boots on the ground in another country.

ANN: Where do you see growth in terms of individual product? Are you seeing growth for life-size figures, or the lifestyle stuff?

Xavier: Every area is seeing growth. Plush we just recently started doing, so it's a little too early to say. Because traditionally Bluefin was doing the hobby and figure stuff, so this is quite a bit different from our usual.

 

Jared: Life-sized stuff has actually performed surprisingly well. We currently have over forty orders.

ANN: Who's the demographic for that?

Jared: Actually a lot of the chains are ordering life-sized stuff.

Xavier: There's a lot of business orders.

Jared: Because it's an attraction piece. It's bringing people into their stores. We always have a life-sized item at our booth now, just because it's a huge Iron Man, people are coming to the booth to take a picture with it, and by virtue they begin to look at the other display pieces.

ANN: Right, that's cool.

Jared: So the life-sized stuff is really interesting to see grow. We weren't sure when we were offered the products initially, but now we're seeing a lot of interest.

Xavier: Given the type of product it is, and the expense associated with it, we were a little hesitant when we started offering them.

Jared: The question was “can we sell like even one?”

Xavier: Is anyone gonna buy a Hulkbuster?

ANN: How do you decide what's going to get the life-sized treatment? You do the most obvious stuff, right?

Xavier: Well right now our only partner is Beast Kingdom, who does the life-sized stuff and their license is for Marvel. All of their stuff is based off of the most popular Marvel movie characters: Iron Man, Ant Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk.

Another thing we've seen tremendous growth in is art collectables. So Bandai Shokan, they make a lot of low-priced trading figure type goods. The most popular item that we've had is this Dragon Ball Z scouter. For people to wear and be Over 9000, etc. that's not a collectable in the sense of like, an SH Figure Arts is, but we're seeing tremendous growth in that type of product here in the US. Anything that's small. Basically stuff that's $15 or less has tremendous selling potential, and we've seen the sell thru at a number of stores that give us their end-consumer data directly how well it performs, it's sort of mind-boggling how many scouters can sell in a given period. But there's also other items in that price class too, like Sailor Moon key chains that we supply to stores, those also perform about as well as the scouters.

ANN: Nice.

Xavier: We're talking about hundreds of thousands of quantity. It's like “whaaat?” This is like a little tiny thing that we'd expect interest for—not in the types of numbers that we're seeing.

ANN: Yeah, yeah, all the way up there. Well that's exciting. So for the Studio Ghibli line in particular, is the idea to go as deep into that merchandise catalog as you can?

Chiaki: Yeah, we try to increase the merchandise category too, and starting with more of the lifestyle products, and try to start negotiating with our other licenses to bring more up to the US.

ANN: Right, yeah, because they've got some cool stuff in the museum.

Chiaki: And that's still under negotiation, but we really wanted to focus more on… because, maybe for example, hopefully we can get bento boxes or stationary.

ANN: What's next? What's the next big thing?

Xavier: For direct to consumer, we already do some form of that when we're at events. We attend sixteen or so cons a year—that's actually a huge number now that I think about it. In the future, there's certain merchandise that's out there that would be best served as something that the consumer's able to get a bit more direct. This would be stuff like the life-size, it would make a little more sense for it to pass through just one hand, because of the nature of the product. We are still trying to determine the best course for something direct to consumer would work, but it's something we're entertaining, especially for certain types of product. But currently our focus still is on distribution and that we are able to supply product to retailers.

ANN: Are you three personally in to this stuff? What's the holy grail of your collection?

Jared: I'm a huge Dragon Ball fan so I love all the FiguArt Dragon Ball figures. I have all of them and just the level of detail on them, and how accurate they are to the source material, it just boggles my mind, so I love to get that stuff.

ANN: Do you have the whole Tamashii Nations line? How many is that?

Jared: There's like thirty plus? I don't know. I consider it to be a holy grail of my collection, because I grew up with that anime and I loved it and I have such a great representation of the characters on my shelf is really cool. And of course you can supplement it with all the different accessories and faceplates and stuff, so.

Xavier: Well… so I got into this kind of stuff through the Gundam Wing TV series was airing on Toonami. I'm more of the fan of the Gunpla product than a fan of Gundam itself. So I've accumulated quite a number of Gundam models over the years. A lot of them have actually become parts fodder, I actually have very few as-is products. A lot of my stuff now is custom creations. I do the whole pink thing, I'm the head organizer for the GBWC in the US, that's the International Gundam Model Competition. My interests are more geared towards that rather than the actual franchise—it's essentially irrelevant.

That's also part of the reason why Gundam seems to be doing extremely well for the US right now is because the Gundam model product… it's an oddity in that there's products that are best sellers in Gunpla that don't have an anime attached to it. One of these is the Gundam Astray Red Frame. For those who don't know, it's a red robot with a katana. It's attached to a manga that's actually out of print now.

ANN: Right.

Xavier: There are sequel stories they keep coming out with, but there's no way for anyone in the US right now, unless they find an old Tokyopop copy of a translated volume, to even read the story, but that item, that character, it consistently sells well year-to-year for us without any source material associated with it.

ANN: It's just a cool design.

Xavier: Yeah, people want it. They're buying it because it looks cool.

Jared: And I'm a great example of that, because I always noticed that model, and I always thought it was so cool looking.

Xavier: And Jared here started getting into Gunpla recently.

Jared: I was never into it, I never really got into building models or really understood it. But one day I had a sample and I just started building it and was like “wow, this is actually really fun.” It's kind of like a relaxation factor to it, sitting at your desk, cutting out the pieces, putting them together, and then at the end of two or three hours or whatever it is, you have this really cool looking model.

Chiaki: Terada Mokei, we just started. We have a paper model kit called Terada Mokei, which is a piece of paper, but you can build something. Xavier can explain it.

Xavier: The Terada Mokei stuff is really neat. They're paper models, like she was saying, in the sense of origami being paper model art, these ones are laser cut little people or nature scenes or objects onto paper. You remove it from the paper frame and you end up creating a 3D scene, maybe it's an orchestra, or a park, or I think… one of the favorite ones among the staff is a wedding scene, all individual pews of the church, the bride and the groom. It's all made out of paper! It's cool. It's a pretty amazing product that we started doing distribution for recently. I think there's only a few stores that were sourcing it from Japan directly. But because of our position as a distributor, we're going to be able to proliferate it onto the market a lot more easily.

Thanks to Bluefin for the interview opportunity.


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