Social-media influencers who review products on platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram are now pillars of marketing agencies worldwide, especially when their consumer base skews young. Whether the product is hand soap or ham sandwiches, in a world where “expert” has become a dirty word, getting a push from a social-media star with over a million followers can make or break a sales campaign.
One major Japanese publisher and producer is seeking to capitalize on the phenomenon in pop culture with a concrete if highly unusual approach. Last July, Kadokawa Corp. soft-launched a subsidiary of its Book Walker Co. Ltd. digital e-book division called GeeXPlus (“Geeks plus”) Inc., whose main goal is “connecting Japanese brands to global influencers” by providing “promotion planning, production and distribution” for English-speaking YouTubers.
In October of last year, GeeXPlus invited three anime YouTubers to live and create their posts in Japan: Garnt Maneetapho and Connor Colquhoun from the United Kingdom, and Sydney Poniewaz from the United States. The company will announce its official launch on Feb. 17 at a private event in Tokyo’s Michelin-starred Inua restaurant, which is produced by Kadokawa.
For the three English-speaking anime influencers, the opportunity to live and work in Japan mere minutes away from the studios and creators they love is a rare and unexpected gift.
The 29-year-old Maneetapho was raised by Thai parents in Brighton, U.K., and started posting anime reviews and recommendations to YouTube 13 years ago, while still a teenager. He was one of the first anime vloggers on the platform in 2007 (YouTube itself had just debuted in 2005). He started, he says, because he grew bored studying for his engineering exams at the University of Bristol, preferring instead to watch and talk about his favorite anime series, “Bleach.”
“Back then, I was happy when I woke up and I saw that five people had watched my (first) video,” Maneetapho recalls, laughing. “I didn’t get my first comment until like a week later. Anime wasn’t yet popular enough to make any money (on YouTube).”
After graduating, he got a technical project manager job at the BBC that delighted his parents but left him dissatisfied. He continued producing anime commentaries for YouTube in his increasingly limited free time — at the meager rate of three per year.
In 2016, inspired by an online Canadian friend who made a living reviewing anime, Maneetapho quit his job and plunged into anime YouTubing full-time, telling his parents he’d give himself one year to make it or else return to his BBC day job.
Today, his anime-focused channel, Gigguk, boasts over 2 million subscribers. He credits Patreon, the U.S.-based crowdfunding platform for independent creators, sustained by fan donations, for driving and maintaining his ongoing success. YouTube ad revenue, he says, is unreliable.
It’s not easy: Maneetapho works long hours scripting, shooting, producing and editing his videos with one colleague. But now he not only makes a decent living out of his passion for anime, he’s doing it in Japan — a far cry from what he describes as a sheltered and provincial upbringing in Brighton.
GeeXPlus, which brought him here, is partly the brainchild of its 27-year-old director Meilyne Tran, who is originally from San Francisco. Tran says its seeds were planted a little over a year ago, when the Japanese government announced plans to increase the number of working visas granted to non-Japanese involved in the production and promotion of Japan’s “cool contents.”
“The government has actually started recognizing ‘YouTubers’ as legitimate entertainers,” she says, “because they do the same thing as tarento (TV personalities).”
Book Walker began sponsoring Maneetapho’s video reviews of its manga and light novels three years ago. The ultimate goal of its GeeXPlus division is to introduce non-Japanese YouTubers to Japan-based writers, directors and producers to help put a face to names in the Japanese pop culture industries.
Officially, GeeXPlus is an “influencer agency,” Tran says, focused on non-Japanese otaku.
“We (Kadokawa/Book Walker) had to establish a new company as a talent agency. We couldn’t just sponsor talent as a publisher,” she explains. “With GeeXPlus, we can now fly the talent over here and at least help them get housing by acting as their guarantor. It’s still really hard to get Japanese landlords to accept foreigners as tenants, even with Kadokawa’s backing.”
Maneetapho and his two fellow GeeX Plus clients, Colquhoun and Poniewaz, now live in the same neighborhood in northwest Tokyo. The anime YouTuber community remains tightly knit, Maneetapho says. The three have known each other for years through their videos, messages and in-person meetings at American anime conventions. After embarking on their Tokyo adventure last year, Maneetapho and Poniewaz became engaged and will be married later this year.
“Anime YouTubers are becoming more and more popular,” Tran says. “They’re almost too popular now. Garnt only makes three videos per month, so we now have to compete with other companies in anime, manga or gaming for those sponsorship spots.”
She admits that she was surprised when Kadokawa’s Book Walker division agreed to invest in the GeeXPlus project, but the proof of anime YouTubers’ power was in the data. When her employer saw the positive results of social-media influence (a 400 percent sales increase in Book Walker’s global online stores, for example), it greenlighted her plan.
“Working together with the industry gives us (anime YouTubers) a stamp of legitimacy,” Maneetapho says. “We’re no longer just a bunch of angry kids sitting around our bedrooms making videos.”
On the verge of turning 30, he hopes that his presence in Japan can inspire other anime fans to turn their passions into careers. After all: Who needs the BBC?
Roland Kelts is author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.