Comics & Games Retailer
Sailing the Anime WaveBy Oliver Chin
In anime lore, Yamato was a mythic battleship in the classic series "Star Blazers", cruising outer space and fending off hostile aliens while trying to discover a new home. That 70's show kick started dormant Western interest in Japanese animation, and spawned a number of sequels as well as stellar merchandise and toys.
At the San Diego Comic Con this year, I noticed that the event had not only become bigger but also a home to more toy companies than ever looking for their own loyal audience. Of course, the burgeoning market for hundred dollar busts and statuettes have exploited comics fans' weaknesses for collecting. Naturally adherents to anime and manga also pride themselves in their extreme allegiances, and have been as eager to buy three-dimensional versions of their cult characters from their favorite series.
One of companies jockeying for attention on the floor and capitalizing on the expanding Western appetite for anime and manga-themed toy fare was Yamato USA. Specializing in figures (mini and action), statues (PVC and resin), it is based stateside in Torrance, CA and located online at www.yamatotoysusa.com. At the show I spoke with Yamato's Marketing Manager Douglas McNeill about the company's path to date and the star chart for its future course.
Shipshape and See-worthy
Back in 1998, I dealt with George Sohn who founded ToyCom. It was one of the first US start-ups to actively market anime-licensed toys (manufactured overseas) to American customers. But due to differences, Sohn left to create another ambitious toy company called Toynami but ToyCom kept going and just changed its name to Yamato USA, Inc. in 2004.
McNeill noted that Yamato now "is a wholly owned subsidiary of Yamato Co., Ltd., a hobby/collector manufacturer and distributor with headquarters in Tokyo, Japan" and is still dedicated to the "goal of directly offering affordably priced anime, manga and video game related collectibles to the North American market."
Back in the pre-Yamato days, Toycom made is initial splash by producing the iconic sluggers from Fist of the North Star and the mecha-morphing and machinegun-toting planes from the Macross anime. "The Macross Variable Fighters which are widely regarded as some of the most technically accurate cell-to-plastic translations ever produced; but these are just one of Yamato's many product offerings," noted McNeill.
Currently, Yamato has embarked on a number of productive courses with other popular licenses. "For the North American market, our best selling items this past year have been Yamato's original line of Story! Image! Figure! miniature collectible figures, in particular the series inspired by the Rurouni Kenshin (aka Samurai X), Love Hina Again, and Masamune Shirow's Intron Depot," reported McNeill. "Performing equally as well were Yamato's collaborations with Capcom: the Capcom Figure Collection and the Capcom Girls Collection."
Along with Shirow's Koukaku-kidoutai (a.k.a. Ghost in the Shell) and Appleseed, Yamato has also partnered with Yasuhiro Nightow's Trigun, Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop, Kentaro Miura's Berserk, and Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. But as video games continue to explode in popularity and usage worldwide, toy manufacturers have been scrambling over themselves to secure those property rights. Therefore McNeill stated that Yamato has collaborated with "Capcom's Street Fighter II, Devil May Cry, DarkStalkers, Rockman, and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, SNK's King of Fighters, and Sammy/Sega's Guilty Gear Isuka."
Swabbing the Details
However times have definitely changed since 1998, as the huge wave of anime popularity has caused the market to become much more crowded and tough to navigate. This is true for comics and videos and the merchandisers who depend on these trendy properties.
"Overall, the hobby/collectors market has been experiencing a period of softness, as has the boys' action figure market in general," concluded McNeill. "While not our target market, as the boys' action figure market continues to soften with boys opting to play video games rather than with action figures, we anticipate and have already seen that other, traditionally mass market, companies will attempt to capture a greater share of the hobby/collector market."
This highlights the dangers that manufacturers in the retail supply chain face. Keeping up with the fickleness of fashion is a two-fold gamble. Some properties may prove to be duds, and your marketing is for naught. But if you help make one license even more popular, then bigger companies will catch wind of them and try to elbow you out of the market you helped create.
Yet, McNeilll underscores how Yamato wants to be recognized for its "attention to detail and quality of the figures themselves" as much as for its notable licenses. "One needs to look no further than the paint application, especially within the figures' eyes, to see the care put into preserving the integrity of the characters upon which they are based."
Setting Course for 2005
Looking ahead to Spring 2005, Yamato is going back to the future. "In the forefront, is Yamato's 1/12 scale ATM-09-ST Scopedog from the classic anime, Armored Troopers Votoms," explained McNeill. It must be a maxim that boys can't get enough of fighting giant robots.
"Measuring over 12.5" and constructed of over 300 individual parts, the Scopedog is one of a kind, fully articulated and loaded with features -- removable armor plating, rotating lens turret, special internal spring mechanisms for simulation of arm punch and stand-by modes, as well as wheels in the base of the feet for simulation of the Scopedog's "roller dash" gliding action. The cockpit even opens with accommodating seating for the Chirico Cuvie action figure, sold separately. Window boxed, the Scopedog comes with its GAT-22 heavy machine gun with removable magazine, decals, and an extra set of hands."
If you're able to get your hands around that, then be prepared for Yamato's extensions for Story! Image! Figure! into miniature collectible figures and PVC Statues. Plus it will rollout more SKUs for Rurouni Kenshin (aka Samurai X), ROD the TV, Love Hina Again, Stellvia, Jubei-chan, Excel Saga, Gantz, S.Cry.ed, and Shin Angyou Onshi.
So though the captain of this ship have changed, retailers and fans should keep abreast of Yamato's whereabouts, and even consider booking passage to see where this star blazer can take them and their fantasy loving customers.