「ダイナミックスのブログへようこそ！」My Japanese is pretty rusty, but I believe I wrote “Welcome to the Dynamix Blog!” At least, I hope that’s what I wrote … don’t worry, the rest will be in English. Anyway, this post is about Japanese Media Mixes, and how they differ from the western transmedia formula.
We discussed previously, the Western transmedia approach and how certain companies are implementing multi-platform storytelling techniques to better engage with an active consumer base.
Whether it’s the MCU’s use of standalone stories to build an All-Star Team Up, Captain Marvel’s politicised social media campaign, Lego’s transbranding of video games, merchandise, and film franchises, or even Alan Partridge’s multi-platform world-building, there’s no denying that Western media is undergoing a shake up when it comes to storytelling.
The Japanese equivalent, “Media Mix” is however a little different, with aspects pre-dating modern multi-platform distribution channels that we have with streaming services.
So, this post will serve as an introduction to Japanese transmedia, see how it differs from Western properties, and whether we can incorporate some of the world-building techniques from their Japanese counterparts.
WHAT IS MEDIA MIX?
In principle, Media Mix is the same thing as transmedia storytelling – creating a story and world built up across multiple platforms. But of course, it’s Japanese. Naturally the platforms, demographics, and cultural taste may vary (with Japan placing a bigger emphasis on animé and manga being read by both children and adults), but the core principle is the same.
This practice has existed in Japan for a long time, with modern day practices getting a real start post WWII and being heavily featured during Japan’s “Industrial Policy” in the 50s and 60s. Cultural icons like Astro Boy, Godzilla, and Iron Man No.28 rapidly became popular in all forms of media.
Of course, in the US during the 40s, we saw the likes of Max Fleischer’s Superman series take Superman from the comics to screen, along with the Batman black and white serials, and radio series. In principle, they started off identically, using different mediums to expand on the character and mythos.
However, things started to change as time went on, and our modern understanding of Media Mix has a key case study that transformed the media industries both in Japan, and in the West: Pokémon.
COOL JAPAN: A POP-CULTURE HISTORY
I find that a bit of history is important when looking at consumer behaviour, and why certain countries place an expectation and level of engagement with their media.
Japan experienced what is referred to as an “Economic Miracle”.
High growth 1950s to 1970s saw the country become a heavily industrialised nation, exporting everything from cars to electronics on a global scale. This continued until the 80s, which saw the birth of a bubble economy and the country’s growth begin to stagnate.
Reinvention was needed in the 1990s which led to the birth of “Cool Japan” – turning to soft power initiatives to transform Japan into an exporter of culture as well as goods.
Think about the rise of Japanese media and culture over the past decades. Everything from Hello Kitty to Dragonball saw a large rise in Western appeal. However, these were (for the most part) exceptions to the rule. There are hundreds of Media Mixes in Japan which have struggled to break into the Western market – notable examples include Ultraman and Yo-Kai Watch which have multiple films, trading cards, toys, and TV series, but only receive vague acknowledgement by your typical Western pop-culture enthusiast (although Ultraman did feature in a Simpsons couch gag – I think that was the most mainstream it got).
Marketing these properties on a global scale didn’t so much revitalise the Japanese economy, so much as it advertised Japanese culture through media channels. Instead, I bring this up to establish the connection between government policy, the consumer, and Japanese pop-culture. Whereas government policy may be to promote Japanese culture and ideology across the world, Media Mixes are reliant on the relationship with consumers.
THE GAME CHANGER: POKéMANIA!
Pokémon undoubtedly had an enormous impact on how franchises could function, and how fans can become more active. Whereas the Japanese approach to Media Mix was already well-established, the West had not truly encountered a property that influenced practically all aspects of the entertainment market. Even now, this franchise continues to redefine markets, with the AR game Pokémon Go transforming the mobile games industry.
By 1997, Pokémon had impacted video games, television, trading cards, merchandise, manga, toys, and just about everything. For a while there was even an American-only Pokémon musical (although this isn’t officially canon … and pretty surreal).
To best illustrate how the franchise grew, below is a basic diagram of the key areas of the industry it impacted, and just how early this franchise was co-ordinated.
Unsurprisingly, this success led to similar copycats in the 2000s with studios looking to option the rights to capitalise off of the “Cool Japan Phenomenon”. Everything from Tamagotchi, to Digimon, to Beyblade, to Medabots, to Mega Man, to even the lesser known Monster Rancher, and 4Kid’s all-American Chaotic (its own trading cards, online presence, and video game series) were influenced by Pokémon in some way.
But this was all a naïve early-2000s approach to this phenomenon, and we really haven’t seen this level of early investment with Western transmedia.
MEDIA MIX V. TRANSMEDIA
So, why don’t we see this much rapid growth in the West? Firstly, it costs a lot of money to pull a transmedia franchise off. Imagine a film budget, and then imagine video game, graphic novels … yeah, it’s going to come to a lot. Which is why, even companies with big transmedia ambitions are more often just going to begin with a single property, and see how the audience responds.
To really appreciate the rapid growth of Pokémon, you need to look at a Western equivalent of similar global appeal – the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Despite a decades-long history, the MCU had very humble beginnings – beginning with Iron Man in 2008, and the less-successful Incredible Hulk released the same year. But it all really took off in 2011 with Thor and Captain America, the same year it experimented with short films and comic tie-ins, before it truly expanded into other platforms and streaming services (and even then, we haven’t had a true video game expand the universe in any way).
If you want to go all in with a franchise, you need to be certain that it’s going to be a solid success. Even with decades of history, the MCU still only started with Iron Man. This is why The Matrix is often cited as the true transmedia franchise (in a Western context). Sure, it was conceived on multiple platforms, but it was also being bankrolled by Warner Bros and their various other divisions.
So why do Media Mixes get such an early-investment compared to transmedia properties?
THE JAPANESE CONSUMER
For context, I spent a year living in Tokyo when completing my undergraduate degree. I travelled the streets of Shinjuku, and had an Aime pass for the arcades of Akihabara, so I have experienced the more … Otaku side of things first hand (right down to being in a smoke-filled third floor of an arcade late at night trying to rack up points on Taiko no Tatsujin – all educational, I assure you.)
For those unaware of the Otaku phenomenon in Japan, it’s where a fan will completely immerse themselves in media and isolate themselves away from society as a result in an anti-social manner. It’s proving to have a huge impact on the Japanese economy, and an incredibly lucrative market if you can break into it. Of course, not all Japanese fans are Otaku, but the amount of immersive media can enable this type of secluded lifestyle.
This does exist in the West, but to a different degree. Think about how much Star Wars fans are willing to engage with creating their own societies, lightsaber duels, fan art, fanon, fan theories, buying merchandise, and how much they passionately make the franchise part of their identity – a notable example being the 501st Legion. There is a commitment made to the Star Wars franchise, but it’s more of an appropriation than complete Otaku immersion.
You could view it as a distortion of what transmedia storytelling is trying to achieve in some respects and highlights a key difference in how Japanese consumers are willing to invest in a property compared to westerners. It is this difference in consumer behaviour that explains how, and why Media Mixes differ from transmedia properties. There is a greater willingness to immerse yourself in the world, and better engage with a property as part of a lifestyle choice.
I also believe that the Western engagement philosophy is different. Western fans engage with their properties in a real-world spaces; Japanese fans immerse themselves in more private, isolated, settings – becoming “Hikikomori” (translating as “Pulling Inward”), which appears to be a more culturally-specific fan.
According to anthropologist Morikawa Kaichirō, this consumer behaviour is a direct product of Japanese schools and societal expectation. Only through immersing oneself in this degree of fan culture, can one escape the pressures of the expectations of success and escape in a hobby.
I mean, this is understandable, and I believe that many fans use media as a means of escapism. But the degree with which Japanese society has created this type of consumer explains why franchises have a more receptive consumer base when it comes to selling a Media Mix product – complete with merchandise, video games, animé, manga, and just about anything you can imagine.
Going back to my first case study, Glass, we see the Western consumer more … hesitant to commit to a giant, sprawling, transmedia universe. Especially with a focus on experience and authenticity, as soon as a company puts out a whole load of merchandise, video games, announces a cinematic universe with half-a dozen films lined up, with a mobile tie-in, there’s an element of scepticism.
The first thought is along the lines of just wanting to make a quick load of cash, banking on a safe investment. Universal’s Dark Universe floundered under the weight of trying to set up a cinematic universe in the first film, and the fan response to the DCEU was equally less-than-enthusiastically received.
I mean, when you’re throwing that much money at something, you want to know it’s going to be something that people will invest in – something that can be very tricky with a Western consumer that’s increasingly seeking an experience.
I imagine that if a major studio announced an unknown franchise with merchandise, video games, and a television series without any prior warning, they would struggle to get past that consumer hesitancy. But this practice can still be seen in Japan.
It may be transmedia, but it’s a business-first. It’s the difference in culture and consumer mentality which can determine why these franchises have taken different approaches to their world-building.
Producers should consider the swiftness with which franchise growth can and should occur.
Growth can be even more rapid across the multi-platform. There is no longer a fan-hierarchy, media and technology are converging like never before, you can watch a film on streaming service, join a fan community, post to social media, order the merchandise, and read the book ALL FROM THE SAME DEVICE!
But what truly differentiates Media Mixes from transmedia is the consumer.
I think it’s always important to look at the ways in which Media Mixes use multiple platforms to create a world, and why they resonate with a global consumer.
But the real struggle lies in adapting properties from one market to another. Just how does an American producer cram an entire multi-platform spanning universe into a single film? So far, it hasn’t been done tremendously well – lest we remember Dragonball Evolution. It is a struggle, but I like to think that it is still doable.
If you are interested in more Japanese pop-culture, I highly recommend checking out Tim Craig’s Cool Japan: Case Studies from Japan’s Cultural and Creative Industries, and also Hector Garcia’s A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, and the Tea Ceremony.
Both offer a nice historical and personal context into Japanese culture and pop-culture, and I do recommend checking them out.
Until next time …