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If you start hearing about something called a Yo-Kai Watch in 2016, don’t be surprised: It was engineered to be the next big hit.
The Pokemon-style property has been ubiquitous in Japan since it launched in 2013, and it’s invading the U.S. with a murderer’s row of muscle behind it: a game from Nintendo, an animated series on the Disney Channel, toys from Hasbro.
Yo-Kai Watch is the latest in a string of hits from Japanese publisher Level-5. In most cases like this, a game might be designed first, with tie-in products licensed to different companies later. But you only need to play a little of the Yo-Kai game, read a few chapters of the manga, and watch an episode of the anime to see how different this is. The storylines and characters all sync almost perfectly. This does not happen accidentally.
“The concept was created to be something that would stay a long time in [Japan’s] culture,” said Level-5’s president Akihiro Hino, speaking by phone with WIRED last month. Level-5 consciously sought to create the next Doraemon, Japan’s next Mickey Mouse, something that would have longevity. To that end, Hino said, it had to have monsters. “Kids are really passionate about monster-like creatures,” he said. “In Japan, when new games or franchises come out, whenever they have ‘monster’ in the title, kids get really excited about it.”
To put a unique spin on it, Level-5 landed on the concept of youkai, creatures from millennia-old Japanese folk tales that aren’t exactly alive, but aren’t exactly ghosts, either. This gives Yo-Kai Watch a bit of a campfire ghost story feel, as all of the adorable monsters the main character collects are dead.
“There’s a big difference” between Yo-Kai and other games with collectible monsters, says Hino. Other characters “treat those monsters more like small animals, or cute pet type things… However, we wanted to make sure that the Yo-Kai are treated more like human things. Like an old guy, or a middle-aged man, or a cute girl.”
“It’s very different from what it used to be, when you’d make a video game first and then the spinoff comes out,” says Hino. Level-5 determines the design of the toys, the storyline of the animated cartoon, et cetera, in-house. Only then does it loop in the partners who’ll take those elements to completion.Nintendo
“They will simultaneously start working on those ideas on the same franchise,” says Hino. “While they are going through ideas in brainstorming sessions, they will work together and exchange ideas through the different media.”
The story pretty much plays out like Pokemon—an enthusiastic youngster (you can pick which gender you’d like to play) discovers the existence of Yo-Kai, and sets out to befriend as many of them as possible. The titular Watch is how they find Yo-Kai in the real world, and once they befriend one, the monster gives them a medal that they can insert into the watch to call on them again.
This of course lends itself perfectly to a never-ending succession of real-world toys—buy the wearable watch, then blind packages containing random medals until you collect ’em all.
Just two years in, Hino says that Level-5 has already created 400 monsters in Japan (there’s already a sequel game there, with third and fourth installments coming). Of these, he notes, only about 20 are patterned after specific creatures from folklore. Beth Kawasaki, the editor of the manga version at Viz, sees Yo-Kai‘s version of the spirits as being a little more universal, something that would translate to other countries.
“The concept of youkai in Japan is very different than here,” she says, because “kids grow up with them and learn about hundreds and thousands of youkai… We don’t have that in Western culture.”
“But,” she says, “they represent the fears that kids have. The protagonist, Nate, by befriending them, the thought line is that it’s a metaphor for kids being able to overcome their own fears.”
“Some of the content is very Japan-oriented, but what we’ve learned from previous experience is that instead of trying to heavily culturalize it… it’s more successful if we can bring the Japanese culture directly to the different market, and let people accept it as a fantasy world,” says Hino. “We want to maintain that the Yo-Kai Watch world is in Japan, the buildings people live in, and how they act.”
Of course, that didn’t stop them from changing the names of protagonists Keita Amano and Fumika Kodama to “Nate Adams” and “Katie Forester.”
Level-5 was “heavily involved” in the localization process, Hino says.
“It’s a nice way to work sometimes, because you do have all of those materials and resources up front,” Kawasaki says. There’s no need for guesswork over what characters’ names should be, no frantic phone calls to make sure that the manga and animation don’t contradict one another.
“Usually, the playbook really is that, if it’s a videogame tie-in for example, there’s the videogame first, and there may be discussions—we could turn this into a manga, turn this into an anime,” Kawasaki says. “But as far as the concepting and thinking through everything and really having it all tie in from the get-go at launch pretty near simultaneously, I don’t think that luxury is afforded to a lot of properties.”
Yo-Kai Watch hasn’t quite pulled off the total simultaneous launch here in the States: While the comic, animation, and game are all available now, Hasbro’s toy line won’t be hitting until early 2016.
All the careful planning in the world can’t guarantee success, even for Japan’s hottest property; you can lead a kid to Yo-Kai but you can’t make him buy it.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Kawasaki, “and would not say that about anything. But, it’s already a billion-dollar industry in Japan, two years in the making.”Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.