Japan excels at making you play. From its flower arrangements to tea ceremonies to karaoke, nothing much happens until you get into the game, and a big part of Japan’s appeal to non-natives is its invitation to engage.
Tourists and expats gleefully bear floats on their shoulders during Japanese festivals, don kimono for photo shoots and pound rice cakes for the New Year’s holidays. The otaku (obsessives) who gather for AKB48 shows in Akihabara pay to touch their idols’ hands, reenact choreographed dance moves and snap photos of the girls. At anime conventions in North America, Europe and Asia, attendees hand-make costumes to inhabit the roles of their favorite anime characters, often performing skits tailored to the series they love.
Making you play is at the heart of many of Japan’s most successful pop-cultural anime and game properties to date, “Pokémon” chief among them. As anthropologist Anne Allison notes in “Millennial Monsters,” her brilliant study of toys, economics and culture, “Pokémon” was an anime series built around a game at its center. The “exchange and battle” of the game made the anime story lines that much more intimate and urgent. A global generation was raised on the premise that you had to see the show to get a leg up on the game, and you had to collect the cards to play the game to keep up with the show. You couldn’t just watch and amass models à la “Star Wars”; you had to act.
Recent years have seen both the anime and game industries undergoing rapid transformation — consolidation, downsizing and outsourcing — to meet the challenge of cross-platform digital media and the proliferation of low-priced content or outright freebies and piracy. The global economic downturn of 2008 and the collapse of the Nintendo Wii’s market of casual users didn’t help. Industry-watchers and fans complain that the quality of the content has taken a downturn, too.
Anime-game tie-ups, mash-ups and co-releases give creators a shot at maximizing the value of popular characters and titles. Last year, Luffy from “One Piece” and Goku from “Dragonball Z” appeared in the same TV episode. Gaming giant Sega just announced that the forthcoming release of its new game “Hero Bank,” which already has a manga tie-in, will be followed by an anime series later this spring. RPG developer Level 5′s soccer-battle game, “Inazuma Eleven,” and spirit-hunting “Yokai Watch” feature manga and anime series — the latter of which launched last month on TV Tokyo amid rumors of an imminent overseas release, after Level 5 reportedly trademarked the title in the United States.
Another way around the content quandary is to follow Hollywood’s approach to classic comic-book heroes: Revive and update properties to reach audiences both new and old. At a private presentation two weeks ago, Bandai Namco unveiled plans for its forthcoming game and anime series, “Wonder Momo,” a revived property that first saw life as an arcade game — in 1987.
Bandai Namco’s Rob Pereyda, editor in chief and producer of ShiftyLook, the company’s Web-comic site and incubation platform, says that he wants to awaken “sleeping intellectual properties” from the company’s decades-long history, which includes an estimated 10,000 characters. The Internet provides for borderless interactivity: a platform for contributions from overseas artists and instant access to fans of Bandai Namco’s titles. The “Wonder Momo” comic series, already under way on ShiftyLook.com, is created by three artists in Canada, while the game is being developed and designed by WayForward Technologies, a studio in Los Angeles.
Pereyda chose “Wonder Momo,” featuring a wannabe idol with battle-ready superpowers and an extremely powerful kick, for its narrative potential. “Twenty-seven years ago, games didn’t have much of a story line,” he says. “But this character was so good, so interesting. Momo has appeared in other games, too, like ‘Namco × Capcom.’ So while she has only had one game of her own, she has a great fan base in Japan. And I think audiences overseas will see it as a sexy, cool action anime.”
The potential for cross-generational appeal is embodied in the game’s director, WayForward’s James Montagna, who was born the year the original “Wonder Momo” debuted in arcades. But Montagna grew up on a steady diet of anime, from “Pokémon,” “Sailor Moon” and “Dragonball Z” to titles that were then less well-known in America, such as “Ranma ½.” He points out that “Pokémon” originated as a game, a title created by Satoshi Tajiri for Nintendo’s Game Boy device. ” ‘Wonder Momo’ and ‘Pokémon’ have that in common,” he says. “They both started as games and were later turned into anime.”
“Wonder Momo” will push its retro appeal hard. The game features a unique token-earning system, Montagna explains, that will enable players to collect enough to continue playing when they lose. “Arcade gamers will find it nostalgic,” he says, “but it will be a new style for gamers who may have only played touch games, like ‘Angry Birds.’ “
Plus ça change, perhaps. But amid the mash-ups, revivals and tie-ups, you start to wonder: Is anyone creating anything genuinely new, a property that is strong enough to stand on its own?
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.