When advertisers and sponsors first became involved in the anime business, it was tentative and haphazard. Masaki Tsuji reports phone early calls arriving at TV Asahi from pencil manufacturers and card companies, who wanted to stick some of the earliest 1960s characters on their merchandise. When he picked up the phone, he realised that, quite by accident, the TV channel completely owned the relevant rights in Eightman. By the time of Sailor Moon, interests in tie-ins had ballooned to such an extent that one beleaguered Bandai official complained he had “literally no time to go to the toilet” when the phone was ringing. Literally…?
But how can sponsors get returns on their investment, apart from advertising in the commercial breaks? There is, of course, simple product placement, where cans of soft drink, storefronts and even blatant advertising billboards are placed in-shot. This is mostly harmless, although if you have a fantasy film like Berserk, it’s difficult to have the cast setting aside their roast dolphin for a Happy Meal. In such cases, extra artwork is often generated, such as the Lotteria tie-up campaign, which featured the powerful mercenary Guts and albino general Griffith tucking into a hamburger and a milkshake. The androgynous Griffith was also depicted with a shopping bag over his shoulder, looking like a Lady Who Lunches, in a campaign for a department store.
But some anime go beyond product placement into context integration – imagine a hypothetical anime movie, let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis Goes to London, where five minutes are set aside for characters to travel on a well-known airline, and then get mixed up trying to locate their hotel, causing them to repeat its name a dozen times. But this has been going on in anime for decades, most notably with the Gundam series, for which a company wanted its toys to be part of the story. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto once called Yoshiyuki Tomino the “pro’s pro”, for being able to take such behind-the-scenes demands and to fashion them into a story that still entertained the viewers. It’s being able to still be creative, amid such immovable limitations, that contributes to the unique look and style of anime.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #106, 2012.