State of Play

Another extract from Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, a Newtype USA column about how toy companies make their decisions.


State of Play

The room was packed to the brim with toys. Robots and dinosaurs, tanks and action figures. It was every boy’s paradise, and there was enough here for Santa to supply the entire East Coast without ever leaning on help from his elves. A small huddle of intense-looking European market analysts and designers faced me from across a small table. Several of them had notebooks in hand and pens poised at the ready. They watched me expectantly.
“Okay,” I said nervously, “I’m here, like you asked. What do you want me to do?”

The Europeans conferred for a moment and seemed to elect a spokesperson, a spectacular German brunette with eyebrows that went on forever, Spock-style.

“Ve vant,” she said with Teutonic precision, “to vatch you play.”

My life has always been pretty surreal, but being paid great lumps of cash to revisit my childhood had to take the cake. But I have spent the last week debating the relative merits of Gundam and Godzilla. I turned into Tom Hanks in the movie Big, holding up a transforming building and asking the designers what made them think it would be fun to play with.

I was there as a writer, as one of several ideas-people being consulted by a major corporation for tips on toys and stories. But I was also there as a Japan specialist, as someone who knew my Pokémon from my Monster Rancher, and was able to quote TV ratings to back it up. Because when these people talked about Sailor Moon, they didn’t just want to know about who wore what color. Nor did they merely want to know more in-depth fanboy trivia like how the season one ending differed in English and Japanese. They wanted every scrap of information I knew about the series, couched in diamond-hard business terms, from Bandai’s need to find something new for their US Tamagotchi factories to make in the mid-1990s, to Studio DIC’s loss of the optimum timeslot, to Bloomsbury’s decision to drop the manga translation after the series bombed over most of Europe. And so I talked and talked, draining my mind of everything it knew, from sales figures to pin-up preferences, while a row of Czechs, Americans and Frenchmen made dutiful notes like earnest Olympic judges.

“Am I boring you?” I said, when someone asked me to explain how Digimon related to Tamagotchi.

“No! No! No!” said the German girl. “Zis is all verrrry interesting. If ve had known zis two years ago, it vould haff saved us…” she made a brief mental calculation, “fifteen million dollars.”

It was the moment that I realized this was all for real, and that these people were spending Big Money. It also gave me another reason to love my favorite anime of all time, Hideaki Anno’s Gunbuster.

In Gunbuster, we have Noriko, a heroine who remains a perpetual schoolgirl, decorating her cabin with posters for Star Blazers and My Neighbor Totoro, while she heads off to her day-job piloting a giant robot. Noriko quite literally stays eternally young, playing with toys while her friends grow old around her. Thanks to time dilation and relativity, she is still in her teens when her former school friends are hitting middle age. There is a telling moment in the last episode when she is given a photo of a girl who was only a toddler when she last saw her. Though only a few weeks have passed for Noriko, back on Earth her “niece” is already nearing her twenties. It’s when it all hits home, and Noriko bursts into tears.

Those of us who work in the entertainment business get to have fun for a living. We don’t pack sardines in factories or saw bits of wood in half, we get to fly spaceships and shoot bad guys and race hotrods. There are people here at Newtype who are paid to watch anime all day, or sit down and go right the way through a computer game. What you do for fun, we do for a living. And I’m not complaining.

But when fun is a full-time job, you tend to become a workaholic. And your friends, the people you know with real lives, can drift away. It starts to irritate them that they have to save to buy something for their kids that you get given for free. They get annoyed when you get paid to watch a movie that costs them money. And sometimes, they can get resentful that they had to stop playing with spaceships when they were seven, but that you still get to do it at thirty-two. Trust me, people can get really snitty about that. They tell themselves that you’re still a child while they’ve grown up and faced their responsibilities, which is why Gainax’s observations in Gunbuster are so on the nail.

And when your mom calls to ask how your week’s been, you have to tell her that you spent much of it chasing a pretty Norwegian girl around a room with a model pterodactyl, making “ARK! ARK!” noises. And she thinks you’re joking.

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6 thoughts on “State of Play

  1. I remember reading this for the first time and realising how much of what we talked about in the pub was grist to your columnist’s mill, and how much of a warning this was to my newly-media-biz-enjoined self about how people I thought I knew would see my life, and myself, from then on. It’s never been the same, and it doesn’t get any better.

  2. Pterodactyls don’t go ‘Ark!,’ they go ‘Klakk!’ (Sorry, Doctor Who fanboy joke.) But I hope the Norwegian girl enjoyed it.

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