Producer Vincent Imaoka on bringing brands like Pacific Rim into anime

Over the last few years, Netflix has bolstered its anime roster by giving brands like Castlevania, Godzilla and Pacific Rim the anime treatment, with adaptations of Tomb Raider and Skull Island in the works.

We caught up with Producer and Franchise Developer Vincent Imaoka to find out about his career to date, including successfully giving brands the anime treatment.

Hi Vincent, welcome to Brands Untapped. First off, how did you get into the entertainment space?
I grew up in LA, near Hollywood, so I was always very interested in the entertainment industry. When I was in High School, I would go to movie premieres and hang out with the cast and crew, and I even did a couple of background acting jobs here and there.

After I graduated from university in Tokyo, I got into the anime industry. I started at a company called DLE, which did a few high-profile anime that didn’t really leave Japan but was popular there.

“Any brand can embrace anime. Look at something like Blood of Zeus – the base idea is based in Greek mythology. It has nothing do to with Japanese culture and it was one of Netflix’s biggest hits last year.”

Just to establish early on, for anyone reading that is not familiar with anime, how would you describe it?
Well, up to this point it’s been 2D hand-drawn animation from Japan. That’s generally the idea of anime. But we are now seeing studios take up CG animation, like what we’re doing with Polygon Pictures on our original anime Pacific Rim: The Black.

Anime is becoming a lot more international and expanding the definitions of what it can be. It’s for all age ranges, it can be for kids, it can be for adults. It’s a very open genre that expresses things that can’t always be expressed in live action.

Fantastic; thanks for that. Back to your start in this space, you were telling me about working for DLE, so what sort of anime did you create there?
I worked on a collaboration we did with DC Comics called DC SuperHeroes Vs Eagle Talon. Eagle Talon was our team of bumbling comedic villains and it saw them go up against the Justice League. It was just before the big live action Justice League was landing in cinemas in Japan so it was part of a big marketing push there.

Vincent Imaoka, Netflix
That looks like quite a mash-up
It really was! And I was there for about three years as an Assistant Producer and then I was scouted by Hasbro and joined the team in Inventor Relations/Concept Acquisitions.

So from anime to toys – was it quite a jump?
Well during my time at Hasbro, I was still working with lots of entertainment partners just like I was at DLE. Hasbro had a big studio in Burbank that was run by Stephen Davis and I got to know him and we worked on a few projects together, including the upcoming new My Little Pony movie and a couple of TV shows.

Most recently you worked at Netflix, is that right?
Yes, from Hasbro, I joined Netflix’s anime team as an Anime Producer, working on shows like Pacific Rim: The Black, which comes out on Netflix on March 4th, and the upcoming Magic: The Gathering show.

What did your work entail?
Most of it was assessing bible pitches and producing, working with budgets and that sort of thing, but the great thing about working on that team was that we got to give creative input as well. I’d look at scripts and get to put my thoughts in, working alongside the scriptwriters and the showrunners to flesh out their ideas.

If we zone in on Pacific Rim: The Black, many people will be familiar with the live-action movies, so what was it about that brand that you felt would make for a great anime series?
It’s a little easier for Pacific Rim to make the jump into anime because it was already based so heavily around Japanese culture. It was already inspired by Godzilla and giant Japanese robots, so it felt more like Pacific Rim was coming back over to anime because it lends itself so well to that platform and that style.

Looking at the likes of Tomb Raider, Magic: The Gathering and brands that, on paper, don’t look an obvious fit for the anime treatment – what appeals about bringing these kids of brands into anime?
Netflix is still building up its anime portfolio. It’s best known for its big titles in live action, but Netflix wants to bring audiences over to anime. Rather than doing something traditionally anime, the company wanted to start with properties that fans already know, like Pacific Rim or Castlevania. It helps bring in people that aren’t typical anime fans. They  realise that anime is really cool and start looking at Netflix’s wider anime portfolio, which then leads them to core anime titles like Naruto or Demon Slayer.

What sort of brands do you think lend themselves particularly well to anime?
I really think almost any brand could embrace anime. Look at something like Blood of Zeus – the base idea is based in Greek mythology. It has nothing do to with anime or Japanese culture and it was one of Netflix’s biggest hits last year.

It proves a brand doesn’t have to be born from Japanese culture to be turned into a great anime. Anime is a broad stroke now, and stories can come from anywhere.

All of these brands have avid fan bases. How do you ensure you’re creating something that works for both the die-hard fans as well as those coming to a show without that inherent love for an IP?
A good example of this is Transformers: War for Cybertron. I’m a huge fan of the brand and I know the lore, but I was also looking at it from the perspective of people who aren’t already fans and don’t already know the story of Cybertron or who Unicron is. Netflix want it to work for those audiences too. It’s a balancing act. You need to put enough lore in there so the hard-core fans love it, but don’t want to alienate the new mass audiences.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also worked on a few shows based on existing IP that I’m not familiar with. I didn’t know the story so I’m the general audience. You have to wear two hats when developing shows: the superfan and the newcomer.

Vincent Imaoka, Netflix
As anime gets more mainstream, have you seen a difference between anime that comes from Japan and anime being created in other parts of the world?

For sure. There are definitely themes that are very specific to Japan. There are hundreds of hours of Japanese anime that gets broadcast every season, but lots of it doesn’t make it to international audiences because so much of it is made specifically for the domestic audience.

On the other hand, you’ll get shows like Naruto or One Piece that do travel abroad because the stories aren’t so firmly tailored to Japanese audience. One Piece is about pirates, so international audiences can engage with it easily.

Vincent Imaoka, Netflix
It also has an impact on the art style. A lot of Japanese anime is 2D and hand-drawn, but Netflix do both 2D and CG because international audiences can be really receptive to CG animation. It’s finding that balance between the expectations of the Japanese anime audience and where we can go with the international audience.

Looking at IP targeted at a more family audience, where does that sit in the anime world?
Anime in the West is definitely seen as something mature and adult, but the family audience is still a major driver, as with all forms of animation. Pokémon will always be the king here around the world, and it’s a great brand that appeals to kids and adults alike.
Part of the large profitability of anime comes from consumer products, and kids fuel that market with their want for toys, apparel, and games. So, a lot of times, when developing a family accessible anime, we need to think about a full 360 experience from entertainment to merchandising as well.
On that, how well do anime brands translate into consumer products?
I think these brands can extend into lots of categories, and not just the ones you might expect like high-end action figures. Toy brands like BeyBlades and Transformers were based around Japanese properties originally, and you do see adult anime fans paying $500 for a statue of their favourite anime characters, but that maybe isn’t true of the mass audience.

“Anime is becoming a lot more international and expanding the definitions of what it can be. It’s for all age ranges, it can be for kids, it can be for adults. It’s a very open genre.”

And how do you personally keep your creative juices flowing?
I think you’ve got to be a fan of what you create. I also try and consume as much media as I can.

Before I let you go, I can’t help but be amazed by that vast wall of toys behind you! Is there one that jumps out as being particularly special?
Yes, it would be this Optimus Primal toy – I’m currently working on season three of Transformers: War for Cybertron. I’ve always been a big fan of Transformers, since I was a kid, and the Transformers: Beast Wars was iconic for my generation.

When I was a kid, I always wanted an Optimus Primal, but I didn’t grow up in an affluent family. We weren’t poor, but buying toys was a little out of reach. All my friends had Optimus Primal, but not me! I finally bought an Optimus Primal for myself and it was my ‘I’ve made it’ moment!

Well, any kid would look at your wall now and be incredibly jealous at all the fun stuff you have up there and the shows you’re working on. Thanks for making time Vincent. One last thing, I know you’re currently open to opportunities so how can folks reach out if they’d like to contact you?
Thanks Billy! I can be reached at [email protected].

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