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Shinichiro Shirakura on Brand Strategy and Globalization


Shinichiro Shirakura on Brand Strategy and Globalization

Toei senior executive officer Shinichiro Shirakura explains the purpose of Toei’s Brand Strategy Department and what they aim to accomplish in Japan as well as overseas.

[Original interview conducted in Japanese by Sunakujira.]

In stories built around opposing sides, a sense of tension is a critical component. Where there is light, there is shadow. Where there is justice, there is evil. Stories have been built upon a foundation of these dualities since long ago. This is especially apparent in stories of justice versus evil as seen in productions like the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai series.

As the times change, the relationship between heroes and villains also changes, so how is this reflected on the production side? To get more insight, I made a visit to Toei’s Brand Strategy Department, a new department established in July 2023.

In charge of the department is Shinichiro Shirakura, a senior executive director and an accomplished producer who has worked with Toei’s superhero properties for many years. As he is someone who continues to work in the forefront of hero productions, I asked for his perspective on what the changes in the hero-villain dynamic are and how they have changed as the times and values have also changed.

Toei’s Brand Strategy Department, Modeled After Bandai’s Media Department

First, please tell us more about the Brand Strategy Department and its role.

Shirakura: At present, the department consists of four people, and its principal role is to promote said IPs to “evergreen” statuses or to a global market. We aim to be more flexible and mobile, unbound by the corporate framework. To put things in more straightforward terms, Toei’s organizational structure as presented in February 2023 was not conducive to the mid- and long-term goals of the department. As a media production company, Toei’s business model starts with the content to be made to film itself. Following that are toys, video production, distribution, events, overseas sales, and more. Toei is quite proficient in following this model, but it’s not suited for the business development of things other than the video content such as games, toys, and character-related merchandise. Look at Hello Kitty and how she started as a little purse with a clasp.

Is there a department you used as a reference point?

Shirakura: We drew from Bandai, a company Toei has a long history with, and their Media Department seeing as Bandai met spectacular growth after establishing that department. We can’t follow their lead completely as Bandai and Toei have different business focuses, but we used their department as a reference for our Brand Strategy Department.

It’s been about a year since the Brand Strategy Department was established in July 2023. Do the department’s mid- and long-term goals seem achievable?

Shirakura: I think we’ll get there in due time. We finally sowed the seeds last year with the department’s establishment, and now those seeds have started to sprout. It’s still a bit early to reap the benefits, but there’s no need to rush, either. It’s just as important to be mindful of the rate of growth. That said, these sprouts should be more like trees in another three years. Until we reach that point, we won’t be able to harvest the fruits of our effort.

Characters Changing with the Times

It’s been over 30 years since you joined Toei, so I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of hero and villain characters. How have you captured their shifts and changes as trends change over time?

Shirakura: While there are some trends, there seems to be demand from viewers recently for clearer portrayals of who’s good and who’s bad. Would you say you could keep a character consistent from when they’re introduced at the beginning of a story to the very end? A character that changes how they think or changes sides partway through breaks the established setting. Take a TV show, for instance. What you establish for a character in episode one has to be maintained all the way until the final episode. If something changes in how they think or otherwise becomes ambiguous mid-series, then you can’t live up to the viewers’ expectations.

For productions where episodes are episodic, something Toei is very good at creating, it is crucial to keep characters and their respective relations fixed, without deviation, in the face of the episode’s “problem.” Like what’d you see watching Sazae-san. On the other hand, the reality is that this makes it difficult to create an ongoing story. You can say that it’s more difficult to show character development and growth than before.

These days, I think political correctness seen in manga and anime is also an aspect to consider.

Shirakura: I find that particular shift to be fascinating. In Super Sentai, only having one female member in a team of five used to be the standard. It’s even easier to see in the Precure series where all-male and all-female teams are hardly questioned, but in a sense, what has persisted are unnatural team balances.

It’s not like Himitsu Sentai Gorenger established the role of the token female. Even before that something like Futaro Yamada’s Ninpocho series featured a female ninja character. We still make teams with only one female member in the Super Sentai series, but fewer and fewer are shown in stereotypical roles. You don’t see them in strictly girl-specific roles like “idols” or “mother figures” as much anymore. One could say that heroes these days are designed to be portrayed as “individuals” without regard for gender. As long as children are watching these shows, it’s necessary to give thought on what is “correct” in our premises. What is deemed to be acceptable in media is slowly changing with the times.

So this element of “creating characters with respect to their humanity.” Does it apply to villain characters as well?

Shirakura: That’s certainly a big question. (laughs) Let’s take live-action superhero programming as an example. For the most part, characters are represented by people, and we cannot forget that they are actors playing a role. Given that, people aren’t just divided between “good” and “evil.” On the production side, we really do want to show the appeal of the characters’ nuance as people. As I mentioned earlier, it’s always a female member playing the pink ranger in the Super Sentai series, but they’re not being put in stereotypical archetypes as much anymore. In a sense, we’ve become more able to create characters with respect for their individuality, and I feel this is a welcome change.

But in comparison, things haven’t changed so much between heroes and villains. Characters we present as “heroes” have to feel like heroes. On the other side, characters we set up as villains have to remain evil. In summary, it’s difficult to show “human” nuance in either hero or villain characters. These characters are less of “people” and more like a kind of “symbol.” Even in live-action productions, for instance, the heroes have to be on the side of justice and villains have to maintain their air of evil until the end. It’s very difficult to create an effective character that exists in the middle ground.

Kamen Rider Ryuki Showing the Gradation of “Justice”

Out of the series you’ve produced, are there any that deviated from the norm?

Shirakura: This wasn’t intended as such, but I’d say that 2002’s Kamen Rider Ryuki was very much one such deviation. Kamen Rider Ryuki went into planning directly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the U.S.A. At the time, TV Asahi requested that we produce a new kind of children’s hero with the aftereffects of 9/11 around the world in mind. So we drew things up from scratch after discarding the “heroes of justice vs evil faction” dynamic we had always used.

In its stead, we established a story of thirteen Kamen Riders fighting in a battle royale. In the world of Kamen Rider Ryuki, it’s not clear cut who is good and who is evil. While they may be “heroes,” they join the fight under varying circumstances and with different senses of justice. Among them is a character akin to a serial killer and one who fights to protect the one they love. Much like reality, we created a world where the characters’ values were shown across a spectrum. There’s no telling if characters would meet eye-to-eye, but with differing circumstances comes different ways of thought. Isn’t that why knowing the setting is important?

That’s the underlying message of Kamen Rider Ryuki. That fighting might ultimately be unavoidable. I’m patting myself on the back here, but how it was made differs from any hero production made before and after it. I myself was surprised by how influential Kamen Rider Ryuki was.

I imagine there was a popularity split between the 13 Riders.

Shirakura: The main character was the most popular, but it was eye-opening how popular Kamen Rider Ouja was. He’s a dark hero and by far the most villainous of Kamen Riders. We were in a rural area once, but there was still a sizable crowd of children gathered. So many of them held figures of Ouja, and I was blown away by his popularity. Even the actor playing him [Takashi Hagino] was shocked. (laughs) It didn’t matter that Ouja was “evil.” The children were probably taken by how strong he was.

On that note, what Toei villain was most appealing to you?

Shirakura: As one who grew up on Toei heroes, Android Kikaida left a lasting impression on me. It aired back around 1972, so it’s a rather old show. The hero, Kikaida, has a mechanical body, and in the latter half of the series, a rival robot named Hakaider appears. I thought it was silly that Hakaider was named after the word for “destroy,” but he had such an impact in the show. Hakaider is a hit-man set out to kill Kikaida, but as a robot, he doesn’t have emotions and can’t tell right from wrong. All he has is his strength.

And yet the dynamic between Kikaida and Hakaider would have a huge effect on dynamics between rivals in Toei’s later productions. Hakaider was hugely popular during Kikaida’s time, and a lot of characters to come would appear, taking after Hakaider. This dynamic of “main character versus enemy” continued in many productions following Android Kikaida.

The Challenge of Globalizing Hero Programming is a “Difference of Culture”

What do you keep in mind when creating a production where children are the viewers?

Shirakura: I feel that the consumption cycle of children’s programming is getting faster and faster. That’s why we have to act on creating programs with long-lasting perspectives. The first important point is that the show has to draw children’s interest. Now, this is just my own opinion, but I’m going to use Ouja as my example. Even if adults tell them that Ouja is a villain, children will still be drawn to his overwhelming strength. It doesn’t matter if the character is good or bad, but it’s crucial to show that they are strong. But at the same time, I want to value the characters’ human element. Whether they’re a Rider or a villain, I’ll present them clearly as individuals.

Children are unlikely to grasp that immediately, but as they watch the show, an impression will be left on them. Then one day, when they’ve gotten older, they’ll realize the meaning behind what they saw in the show back then. Children will carry the seeds sown, and whether it takes 10 years or 20 years, the seeds will sprout. Their time watching may pass quickly, and maybe they’ll stop being fans soon after. But when they become adults and have children of their own, they’ll remember the shows they used to watch and enjoy it with the next generation. That’s my aim, anyway. (laughs)

What kind of challenges are there in bringing anime and tokusatsu to a global audience?

Shirakura: They’re very difficult challenges. For the most part, we can present Japanese programs as is to viewers abroad within Asia. But for Central and South America, Africa, and most certainly in Western countries, the cultural sphere is very different, so underlying concepts in the production may not be understood at all. Our job in the Brand Strategy Department is to push our hero programs closer to as-is to a global audience. To do so, we have to come up with themes that overcome cultural barriers.

For instance, before even considering technical aspects or budgets, it’s difficult to use the “transformation” concept abroad. Looking at American superheroes, it’s usually shown as a change of clothes. In contrast, Japan’s “transformation” is depicted with a bright flash followed by a change in appearance, even a change in physical size, but most Western audiences have a harder time grasping that, even to the point of backlash because it’s “unrealistic.”

Even how we present characters is different. Japanese people have the notion that eyes are windows to the soul, so in terms of costumes, eyes are shown but mouths are hidden. You see this with masks accompanying costumes and with ninjas. In Western countries, it’s the opposite. The mainstream design of Western heroes are like Batman where a mask covers their eyes but not their mouths. Characters with their mouths covered tend to be villains.

I see.

Shirakura: There’s also the challenge regarding monster designs. In Japan, we draw from a culture of yokai and animism (spirits living in objects), so personifying characters like the umbrella ghost (karakasa-kozo) are easy for Japanese people to buy into. This is much harder for most Western audiences because they often use animals as the starting point of their designs.

Certainly, we’ve had characters like Godzilla that have surpassed this cultural barrier and have become hits. However, that is just one instance and not indicative of all productions. Additionally, expressions that are ordinary to us could cause outrage in other cultures. Therefore, what’s important for us is to determine what boundaries there are, bit by bit. When the time comes to take our shot, then we go all in.

Source: Real Sound

TeamTokuNet editor/translator living in Japan who also enjoys karaoke, papercraft, and dramas.

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