Bandai’s sword-brandishing robot begets yet another corporate acronym

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CEO, COO, CFO and even CSO (chief strategy officer) are part of today’s simmering pot of corporate alphabet soup as Japan Inc. increasingly adopts U.S.-style management regimens.

Yet, Kazunori Ueno is probably the only one who sports the title of CGO. The 49-year-old managing director of Bandai Co., the country’s largest toy maker, assumed the newly created position of Chief Gundam Officer in April.

“Good joke,” is the inevitable comment by those who first see his business card, with “CGO” in a fat font and the shadow image of the robot Gundam wielding a sword.

In the history of Bandai, also known for Power Rangers and Ultraman, it is the first management title crowned with a character’s name, a move underlining the growing importance of character merchandising.

The “Mobile Suit Gundam” series, which first appeared as an animated TV program in 1979, has spawned a batch of TV and movie sequels.

For Bandai, the sci-fi saga is a cash cow whose milk only gets richer as time passes; Gundam-related merchandise alone logged 45.2 billion yen in sales for the year through March, representing nearly one-fifth of total group turnover. The figure has more than doubled in the last three years.

Since they were first released in 1980, 340 million plastic scale models of Gundam and other robots from the series have been sold.

The firm also started marketing Gundam products overseas three years ago, hoping to sell as much as it does in Japan.

The new CGO’s role is to coordinate the group’s diverse Gundam character business, ranging from toys to candies to stationery.

According to Ueno, who watched every “Gundam” episode again upon taking the current post, what separates it from other sci-fi animations is its realism as a complex human drama.

“The original ‘Gundam’ especially presents character growth and struggle as a shared life experience with viewers in an otherwise unrealistic setting,” he said, adding that it is not a simple good vs. evil story nor a childish robot action series.

The CGO is also in charge of maintaining and enhancing the Gundam world nurtured by these myriad human stories.

“Many of our staff joined the company because of their love for Gundam, so I don’t have to worry much about policing” to protect the character’s value, he said during a recent interview.

Rather, he has to guard against a tendency toward jealously protective attitudes among these in-house aficionados.

“They tend not to try out new things, such as those that divert from the (Gundam) tradition,” he said. “Honestly, some of them don’t even want their Gundam to become too commercially successful.”

One of the challenges Ueno faces is to keep catering to “core fans” while nurturing new generations of followers.

Having relatively deep pockets, these core fans — mostly people in their late 20s and early 30s who grew up with the original series — today make up the strong customer base of the Gundam items.

When the company released a 147-cm-tall scale model of Zaku, a popular enemy robot, at a hefty 198,000 yen two years ago, these enthusiasts snatched up all 1,500 units quickly.

Yet, such a heavy reliance on Gundam buffs can be risky, so the firm hopes to foster new generations of fans, ideally the 12- to 13-year-old crowd.

The latest animation sequel, “Mobile Suit Gundam Seed,” which began airing last October, has succeeded in attracting a new generation totally unfamiliar with the original series.

In terms of product development, the company tailored the plastic scale model to the TV-game generation by adopting easier-to-assemble and multicolored parts.

TV commercials are also designed to attract two different generations, featuring young parents and children who like to make models.

Since its release in October, some 1.5 million scale models of the Gundam Seed character have been sold, and about half of the buyers have been children, whereas most other Gundam kits are bought by grownups.

But the balancing act of satisfying core fans and attracting new ones is often a tricky business.

“Mobile Fighter G Gundam,” which aired in 1994, was a drastic break with the Gundam tradition, adopting more marshal arts elements, a tilt toward the likes of “Street Fighter.”

“It was criticized by those who value the original Gundam world,” Ueno said.

But he said even angering core fans is sometimes necessary to keep the characters alive.

“We need to present a different world view, otherwise, the (Gundam world) will thin out,” he said. That means at times intentionally betraying core fans, while at other times appealing directly to them.

“That’s what brand marketing is all about,” he said. “Even brands like Louis Vuitton . . . they hire new designers or make very strange designs once in a while.”