In Japan, a little show called Yokai Watch is now a kiddie craze on a scale not seen since Pokémon.
The Americanized version of a little boy protected by a colorful (and collectible) cadre of “spirits” is set to premiere in 2016, Disney XD announced on Tuesday.
Companies are betting big on Yokai Watch becoming the West’s next big Japanese animation boom. Along with Disney, both Hasbro and Nintendo have finalized deals with the shows’ three co-producers—Dentsu Entertainment USA, TV Tokyo, and Level-5—to bring Yokai Watch entertainment and toys to the United States. Nintendo’s deal with Level-5 will bring a Yokai Watch 3DS game to North America in 2016, with versions in Europe, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand to come later. Hasbro’s toy line will premiere at the same time.
Make no mistake: Yokai Watch means to capture the hearts and minds of American children (and the wallets of their parents) with an aggressive cross-platform strategy. Toys, games, TV, and likely other channels including music and graphic novels will mirror the approach these companies used with a previous, highly successful Japanese franchise, Pokémon.
In 1998, Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back was a box office hit in the U.S. with estimated ticket sales around $85 million. It continues to be the highest grossing anime film inNorth America to date. Like all fads, Pokémon sales eventually waned, and companies again turned to the East for a replacement.
Companies could use another Pokémon, and Yokai Watch seems readily primed to be that. In Japan, the Yokai Watch franchise is booming. Toys and merchandise sales alone have already totaled $1 billion, and the franchise has only been around since 2013.
For parents who didn’t pay attention, Pokémon was about a boy and his friends who caught, trained, and battled “pocket monsters” like Pikachu, which they found around their world. Yokai Watch is based on a similar premise, starring a young boy named Keita who obtains a timepiece that allows him to interact with mischievous and mysterious spirits (known as yokai in Japanese). Keita is able to summon friendly yokai to battle those who would do him harm.
The question now is whether localization can smooth over the nuances of the Japanese mythology that inspired the show into a way North American kids can understand. Just like Satoshi became Ash Ketchum before him, Keita will become Nate in the U.S. Level-5 president Akihiro Hino has already confirmed that many of the shows’ yokai names will be changed, but that Keita’s Pikachu analog, the ghost cat Jibanyan, will retain his Japanese name in North America.
Already, Jibanyan outranks Pikachu in Japan. When a Japanese mall booked meet-and-greets with both cuddly creatures at the same time on the same day, a Twitter user observed: “You can just go up and touch Pikachu, but Jibanyan [is so popular he] needs his own queueing and ticketing system.”
Will American kids love Jibanyan the way they loved Pikachu? The argument can be made that the idea of a ghost cat—or any of its fellow spirits—is a purely Japanese one. Writing for Games Beat, Dale North notes that the localization teams have their work cut out:
“These beings… won’t mean anything to Western children, but Japanese kids are familiar with these mythical creatures and are able fully appreciate the silly, pun-based naming scheme that series’ creators went with. And it’s not just the lore that is Japan-specific: The locations, relationships, and nonplayer characters are all just as unabashedly Japanese.”
Then again, Pokémon’s pocket monsters were directly inspired by Japanese ghosts and ghouls. American Kids may not know the mythology, but that didn’t them from begging for Pokémon toys.