Monday, December 22, 2014
The evolution of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, part 5...
In the previous blog I mentioned how the Japanese were crazy for all things Disney. The theme parks had done a great job instilling a sense of fun, imagination and quality when it came to Western cartoon characters. Outside the parks the Disney brand made its name in the arcade market. Not necessarily through games but rather through prizes in redemption machines. The library of Disney characters appeared in toy shelves and in many department stores but the younger fans would see plush figures, watches and other prizes in the popular claw-style arcade cabinets. Arcade machines could be found in many locations, making the figures easily accessible. Sega had the Disney license for decades and enjoyed the status that the partnership gave the company. In almost every arcade the Disney and Sega names were synonymous.
Universal knew that in order to make their brand and especially their park successful in Japan they needed to penetrate the arcade market as well. They released their own line of plush figures which could be found in the parks as well as in various prize machines but what they really needed was a marquee campaign. A partnership was formed with Taito (famous for Space Invaders) to create a line of products that could be found exclusively in prize machines. In order to catch up the rest of the world as to who Oswald was they decided that every plush figure featuring the character should come with a tag and description. Some of the figures even came boxed and a short introduction to the character was printed right on the box. On the various tags that came with the plush figures they made sure to highlight the fact that Walt Disney created the character in 1927. Universal knew that the Disney buffs in Japan would realize that this character predated Mickey Mouse.
Not every plush was available via the prize machines. A dedicated line was also created to be sold exclusively in Universal Studios Japan. Of course Oswald would have to be weaned onto audiences. Woody Woodpecker was the big draw at the park and the first mascot character that most saw when they visited it. Like Mickey Mouse the character was timeless. The face of Woody and his fellow cartoon characters would be plastered all over the park and even the various buses and trams that took audiences to the resort and surrounding hotels. Certainly there were newer animated characters, those from the Shrek and Madagascar films, and even live action characters from Harry Potter but Woody came from the golden age of animation and was therefore more respected.
Since Oswald was much older than Woody and created by Walt Disney himself he was expected to be well received. The Japanese animation fans took great pride in learning their history and revered classic figures. The hunch at Universal was right. People were fascinated by the blue furred rabbit. His most recent makeover went over very well, especially when a standee was placed alongside the rest of the Walt Lantz characters in the park. Oswald was set next to Buzz Buzzard, he was opposite of where Woody was on a two-dimensional photo op. This was around the end of 2004. Of course the Oswald standee was removed almost a year later when the rights were transferred back to Disney.
For the brief time that Oswald was in Universal Studios Japan the company made sure that he was integrated with the other icons. The sculptures in the studio store included a 3D facade of Oswald, this too was sadly removed a year later.
Oswald graphics were pasted around the park so that audiences would become familiar with the character. In one mural Curious George, another Universal license, was pulling on the rabbit's nose.
No trip to the studio store would be complete without Oswald plush figures. There were various sizes available for collectors from a small cell phone strap to an enormous pillow-sized doll. These figures could sometimes be found in the Taito prize machines. The larger plush dolls were rarer than the tiny ones.
Not every prize offered in the machines was a plush. There were watches, inflatable figures and even a CD-ROM available as prizes. Taito handled the majority of the licensing and figure creation but there were a few other items bearing the character that also came out at the same time.
Oswald mania was gaining ground. Through 2005 many Japanese visitors were aware of the character. News of his appearance made its way to the USA. Fans were eager to see Oswald turn up in the US parks as well. No sooner did Taito and Universal reintroduce the Lucky Rabbit to audiences than he was traded back to Disney. This sudden change meant that vendors had to pull the plush figures from the shelves and scrub any hint that Oswald was ever a featured character at Universal. Once the arcade operators ran out of Oswald figures in their machines they were out of luck. Taito would have to restock them with some other licensed character. This shift created an overnight demand from serious collectors but for the majority of the world it was enough that Oswald was back in the public consciousness.
One of the most important things that helped bring Oswald back to the people had less to do with plush figures or prize machines and more with clothing. Tee shirt manufacturers were interested in this rare character and were eager to try and collaborate with either Universal or Disney and get some shirts out on the streets right away. The next blog will look at how the tee shirt manufacturers had a hand in helping shape the look of Oswald.