Informational Interview Excerpts Answered by Good Smile CEO, Takanori Aki
How the company was established - An excerpt from “Akiba Kenkyu”
It seemed that you started as an entertainment agency; why did you become a figure-maker?
The short answer is, the entertainment company was not successful. During that time, I was helping one of my staff named MAX Watanabe with his work. And my “hobby” job eventually became my main job. It’s not that I was strongly interested in figures, but when I saw them up-close, I thought it was amazing. I wasn’t interested, but good things are good. At the same time, I also thought there were things that could have been done differently to do better. That thought was not only towards Max Factory and its surroundings, but towards the industry in general.
So you thought there was room for improvement?
Yes. I questioned if the products were delivered in the best way possible. Figure products at the time were based off of garage kits, so they were distributed through model kit channels. Communication methods with the customer existed naturally, alongside business models structured around model kits that have been in the market from long ago. I felt that using the business model for pre-existing model kits did not work for collectible figures and hobby items. For example, a Himeji Castle (Japanese historical castle) model kit might have value even after 20 years of being in stock, but it is not necessarily the same with anime and game characters that may have already expanded over time [due to plot development]. I felt that the distribution system for model kits did not match these type of products, making it more difficult for customers to purchase. After having such questions in mind, I approached distribution and production methods, and implemented communication with the customers through pre-orders, all while having the image in my mind that “figures are not that different from subculture trends.” I do feel that I was able to be of help to the industry a little bit since it was not a thought process that existed in the industry at the time.
How was product quality back then
I felt that there was a limited selection of products, and there were not much of quality products. It was also difficult to keep the quality of a well-made prototype after having it mass-produced. The factory and I had a hard time reforming production aspects and to be able to produce the same quality figure as once presented (prototyped).
And that was during the early 2000s?
Yes. At that time I was not thinking of making Good Smile Company a figure “maker,” but rather, a company that would support the project planning and model production of an already existing team. After 3 to 4 years I saw an expansion into a new market, and I felt that the methods we thought of produced results, to which I thought, “this seems like it will go well.”
Was there no one else at the time that has the same mindset as you, Aki-san?
I think they just happened to not be in the hobby/toy industry. I was in the game and entertainment industry myself up until that point. Game software’s had large potential in commodity, required a well-structured marketing, and many people were strategizing around how to deliver the products to customers. With that kind of experience in hand, I felt that some kind of discomfort in the hobby and figure industry, and I felt that I was able to help. If I was in the hobby industry from the start, I probably would have not felt any discomfort. From the industry at the time, I feel that I was some kind of outside virus. Kind of like, “Hey, some weirdo came in from the outside.”
How Nendoroids were made, part 1 - An excerpt from “The21 online”
I believe that the Nendoroid series is one of the most representative products of your company, but how did they come to be?
I felt strongly about character figures having a short product life span, so I was in pursuit of what was the most efficient and convenient way to deliver and produce the products.
However, I didn’t have that kind of thought in mind when I made my first chibi figure. And it was high quality more than I imagined. It was common to think that chibi figures were “cheap toys” that simplified a lot of features, but that idea was wrong. And the head is big so there is some weight to it. Thinking “this would be successful,” I released one and it was extremely popular. And it just became a series after that. This series came to be without much strategy behind it. Currently, there are more than 600 of them, and I definitely have an attachment to them!
How Nendoroids were made, part 2 - An excerpt from “Animate Times”
Are there products that come to life based on your personal interests?
Yes. It happens pretty often where something I am interested in becomes a product. Same thing with figures. At first, I got involved with a simple thought of “it seems interesting.”
Is it the same for your popular product, Nendoroids?
The Nendoroid series were made on a whim. We did not have a sculptor that was able to make high-end scale figures right and left, so it was started based on the idea that “maybe we can do this (chibi figures)?”
How did it develop from there?
The first ones to make a Nendoroid was not even the sculptor but the staff. They held a trash can between their legs to make sure that the carvings would not fall on to the floor. It was a very small-scale production.
Reflections on hitting 15th Year Anniversary - An excerpt from “Future Factory”
MAX Watanabe: Aki, please let us know how you feel reflecting back to your 15 years.
Aki: I don’t have much consciousness [about it being 15 years]. I feel like I pushed through while being punch-drunk and I don’t feel like I exactly had the feel of accomplishing or completing something, and I feel like I haven’t gotten a grasp of what to do for the future yet, to be honest. The 15 years passed hazily.
MAX Watanabe: But it really went by quick.
Aki: I really can’t believe 15 years passed. I felt that it was worrisome to not have a specific goal in mind to run towards, but I figured that’s who I am.
MAX Watanabe: I see.
Aki: I really do feel that way. Good Smile originally started as an entertainment agency and there was a lot of tasks that involved supporting others from behind the scenes. I didn’t like that people who had talent, effort, and passion were not fulfilled. And there are a lot of creators that take a step back and see what could be improved.
MAX Watanabe: Right, like something is missing.
Aki: They have their strengths, but at the same time have weaknesses. I love people like that. Where everyone around them can tell instantly that they can improve on x and y [but they themselves cannot see]. Those kind of people usually care about others’ opinions, especially creators. Of course, they care about customer feedback, but for example if you are a sculptor, then you may care about how other sculptors view you.
MAX Watanabe: Those kind of things do definitely come in mind.
Aki: And I think to care about what others’ think is a good quality; as rivals and as role models, but for us to keep doing what we like, it’s necessary for us to make it into a service and have customers purchase those services, which leads to income that connects us to our next step in deciding what to do next. I personally feel that I am good at focusing on those managing points, but those features are also our opinion, and 15 years have passed so maybe someone else can help us now. -laughs-
About other company establishments - An excerpt from “Akiba Kenkyu”
As a representative of a racing team called “Good Smile Racing,” how do you connect motor sports to the figure industry?
I don’t connect between those two. -laughs- In the beginning, I was asked to help out in the project, but I ended up being in a leadership position. And now that I was in that position, I wanted to produce results or else it would be an unfortunate collaborative effort. In racing terms, I needed to win. But just winning didn’t add any value to the project in terms of continuity so I had to find profitability in this project as a racing team. That is a pretty difficult thing to do. Thinking in terms of things that are supported by customers in terms of patrons and donations, and having sponsors make related merchandise; Good Smile Racing is a very successful project. There are many kids that come visit the circuit now knowing they can meet Hatsune Miku, following small car figurine merchandise releases. In terms of gaining interests from new audiences, Good Smile Racing is great.
Did you then think of separating motor sports and figures entirely?
When starting a project, it’s easier for there to be some kind of synergy. For example, we are relatively successful at collecting dedicated fans to the brand. Racing too, has established through strong fans. Thinking of what kind of information to provide to the already existing layer of fans, and how to communicate the fun part about racing to new fans - thinking of strategies to communicate these kind of things are our strength. To spend years to build a relationship between us and the fans. It’s hard to say you “win” or “lose” in real life, but in racing you are able to use strong words, such as “I lost” to explain your situation. Sharing that strong emotion between the racing teams and the fans make it really interesting. Because there are customers that purchase related merchandise because of their liking to Good Smile Racing, I would say that the two (Good Smile Racing and figures) are meshing quite well. But if I look at them in terms of individual business, where they don’t rely on each other at all, then Good Smile Racing is a bit weak still, so it’s more advantageous to have race and collectibles work together.
How are you involved in the making of the form-changing headphone, “THP-01 Stealth Black” and Radio Speaker “Hint”?
For the headphones, I am involved in suggesting and thinking of the design itself and how it form-changes. Additionally, I also overlook production, check audio quality, and think of which artists can collaborate with this item. I have strong connections with overseas artists and musicians, so I definitely want to take advantage of that avenue I have.
You are a positive person that takes the opportunity if available; is that true?
I think so. If there is someone that wants to do something, then I will gladly help and regardless of the request, I will always ask for details first. I always intuitively ask if they are actually ready (for me) -laughs- Japanese creators are not as active as they could be on a global level. There are talented people in the cinema, game, and figure industry that don’t earn as much. These past few years, it has been my motivation to “put them out into the outside.” Utilizing the hobby/collectible industry’s resources and produce happy challenges that stimulate the industry positively...I have an environment where that can take place and I have more allies on board.
Extra interesting figure information, answers provided by Aki.
How Nendoroids were born.
It’s already 5-6 years since the serialization of Nendoroid figures, but I just had in mind the idea of it being cute and I wasn’t thinking of much else. I didn’t have serialization in mind at all either.
At the time I started Nendoroids, scale figures were really popular, with 1/6 and1/8 size scale figures becoming competitive. Until this time, figures made from PVC had this image of it being low quality, but I was lucky to have come across an amazing factory, where the harder we worked on the prototype, that effort reflected on the mass produced product. While I was thankful of that, it also meant that the product lineup heavily depends on the sculptor’s capabilities. Projects become dependent on the sculptor’s skills and resources. So before I start or make anything, what becomes important is what mainly supports the sculptor. Even making 3 to 4 products was overwhelming since there was not that much production resources or factories. It was the time I was hoping it would be lucky of me to find a product lineup.
But to be truthful, in the figure industry, it was the time that chibi style figures were not as popular in the figure industry -laughs- Perhaps it’s because we knew nothing about the industry that we were able to produce a chibi-style figure. Even trading figures were to scale and not chibi style, so if I were to approach the same situation now, I probably would have thought there was no point in trying to start up something that was already done. Now knowing [about the industry] was a strength at the time.
The birth of a high-spec chibi style figure.
The first Nendoroid figure, Neko Ark, was already close to a chibi design, and it was a project discussed with Type Moon to further simplify some parts and producing it. Making characters chibi is at the core, simplifying certain design features, but when the time comes to actually make one, there are different aesthetic demands that come into question, such as what would make the design more cute, or if the sizing of something is not too big. While changing stuff up like deciding to add gradients and upping the production process, or adding more parts to add play value, these figures ended up being high in specs. And the mold that was completed should be a chibi figure but the result was a high quality, detailed, and a rather large figure. I was worried that it was not what was demanded or trending in the market at the time, but I actually liked how dense it felt when I held it in my hands so I thought of the series name [Nendoroid] just in case.
As a result, Neko Ark was a hit. Our next project that was in the line up was making a figure of Tsukurimonoji’s “hetare” art style that came up in the Fate series. It is from this project where the production team and I began realizing how interesting making a mold for chibi proportion was. This is when we gained more production knowledge and thought, “Hey, maybe we can push for this Nendoroid series.” The “hetare” Saber that came out had over 10,000 figures sold, including both limited and regular edition. Comparing this to sales data back then, the amount sold was comparable to a1/8 scale figure. It was not just the amount that was sold [that was amazing] but also the fact that customers who purchased it all felt that is was “different” and “bigger than they thought” compared to what they saw in magazines. Conversations came out of that between customers and the company, and I knew this was it. There was a discussion at the time to make the Nendoroids smaller because the magazines made it seem a lot smaller, but I really liked how unexpected the size would be so I pushed through that part with no changes. The serialization flow came from making the other Tsukurimonoji designs into figures, which helped expand and establish the serialization of Nendoroid as a figure series.
A style determined through Haruhi and Miku.
In the early stages, we limited Nendoroids to characters and designs that were already chibi, so I was rather lost in terms of direction as to which characters to add to the line up. There were products back then that we made with great quality but had a very limited amount in quantity. Thinking back to it, I do realize that we were not able to respond to customers’ demands back then.
Soon after comes the first break point, which is the Suzumiya Haruhi [Nendoroid]. There was a key visual that already existed, but this was the first time we had to illustrate the figure itself and had the mindset of “Nendo-fying” this character. This was the first time we had the figure design illustrated from the conceptual stage, then had Agata-san make the mold. And for some time, we considered “chibi-fying” as “Nendo-fying,” and wanted to put out more figures in the world that has high play value. This was when the second break point, which was Hatsune Miku. At this point in time, our production methodology started having more structure. It was with Miku that we started noticing that in order to make the figure look more like the actual character, that it was not as simple as having a one-size-fits-all mentality, and that in order to achieve variation, we needed to have various adjustments.
As a side note, Miku is Nendoroid number 33. We didn’t have the wittiness to make Miku Nendoroid number 39 [based off of the first letters of each number in Japanese to be pronounced as Miku] -laughs- We were just working really hard towards the release date. Miku was the first Nendoroid made across multiple factories. I did feel that there was a lot of extra work might have went into this specific figure, but I also knew I was seeing development and realizations that can help with future Nendoroids.
A Nendoroids position in the company.
Even within Good Smile Company, Nendoroids have a variety of roles. They are one of our signature product lines, but also a great diplomat, since they create links to other companies through collaborations. It is through collaborative efforts that some characters that would be difficult to develop become a product. Nendoroids also serve as a great way to gauge if certain creations match the customer base.
Back then and presently alike, scale figures tend to be a one-shot chance for sales. If it releases and does not do well at that moment, it feels as if the one year that went towards developing it all becomes meaningless. I also value Nendoroids in the sense that it is flexible and rather quick when it comes to the actualization of the products. If I have just barely acquired some kind of communication with the customer base [of a certain fandom], it is a Nendoroid that I first start developing to see how well it does in the market and consider other characters in the line up. Because more people know about nendoroids now, it has become easier to do collaborations, so rather then Nendoroids having a specific role or position in the company, I see them as versatile and I think they will continue to develop in many different ways.
Pursuit of even more “kawaii”
I would like to brush up the designing process more and make it more cute...or rather, I want to have Nendoroids exist as a forefront when it comes to the chibi style. There are many different ways to simplify into a chibi style, but I personally wouldn’t consider it to be successfully “chibi-fied” if it is not cute. I want to develop and find a “cuteness” that people would realize is special because of it being a Nendoroid specifically. I have found a way to make realistic characters, or cool-looking characters, cute. So, my next step is for people to find the products cute, not only because of the character or the design, but because it’s a Nendoroid.