An Interview with Danny Choo
Date: 2017 July 26th Wednesday [15:27] | Posted By: Lee
One of the great things about writing for Otaku News is that you get to meet interesting people. At Hyper Japan we caught up with Danny Choo a professional otaku, entrepreneur, Japanese Cultural ambassador and inventor of the Smart Doll Fashion Doll.
Danny was born and raised in the UK and has been living in Tokyo since 1999. We managed to get an exclusive with interview him at his Smart Doll Booth and he revealed some interesting up products. Read on to find out more.
How did you get into anime?
I think everything started off with the Sega Megadrive. I got an import machine, I can't remember where from but probably somewhere in Carnaby Street. I wanted to learn more about the Megadrive so I went to The Japan Centre and started to discover more Japanese culture, like Anime, Manga, Idols. Then I was in China Town one day and I bought Macross the Movie and I was like "This is Japanese Animation, this is absolutely fantastic" and that's where it all started.
Would you say Macross still has a special place in your heart?
The last Anime I watched, the whole series of was ワンパンマン (Wanpanman) (Editor: One Punch Man), which is quite funny actually. The latest movie was 君の名は (Kimi no Na wa) (Editor: Your Name), which was kinda cool. I've also watched the Code Geass series, both one and two again. Also the Cowboy Bepbop series again as we have been working on their Smart Dolls right now.
You call other friends of anime "Comrades". How did this come about?
I don't know. I think Comrades are folks who share a mutual hobby and we all have a mutual understanding and we are like minded I guess so I think Comrades is a fitting word.
Well there is also a lot of friction in the community as well. As much as we are all comrades I have noticed there is lot of negativity in the community as well. Why do you think that is?
I think that the internet, while it is a great place for folks to find information and meet other folks as well, it's very easy for folks to attack other people and all you need to do is type something and hit return. You don't need to see the person you are being abusive to and while I think the internet has been great I think it's also very evil as well in the way that it allows people to do this. I think as long as you are on the internet, whether you are browsing for information or whatever , you will come across this and the most important thing is to not spend your time absorbing it because you can either spend time dealing with negative karma or spending your time discovering things which enlighten you, which educate you and thing brings value to your life. It's very important to focus on the enlightening parts of the internet and don't focus on the negative things.
Mirai Suenaga has been very popular. Where do you think the popularity came from?
I think some people, when they see Mirai they see some of me, and the way that I have tried to empower people with the knowledge that they need to go out and manage their careers and use some of the advice that I have given to manage their life, their business, careers and manage people. I think that can be one of the reasons why.
Where did the idea of Smart Dolls come from?
Mirai has always been a two dimensional image and I wanted her to be in the real life amongst humans, so I thought that the perfect platform for that would be not a figure but a fashion doll. It has been three years since we launched and she has been doing really well and fashion designers are contacting us and want to work on apparel for the dolls so it's really coming along!
How tricky is it to design such intricate clothing for them?
I have been very fortunate to meet folks from the human fashion industry and I've convinced them that this is another platform that they can use to hone their skills. So they can make stuff for humans and then they can make stuff for dolls at the same time as well. So it's good for them and it's great for us as well as we get to make parallel items at a very high pace.
Who would you say is your target market for the dolls?
Our largest market is the US actually. It makes up 30% of our sales. It's a huge market for us, then it's Japan at 20% and then the rest of the world. The UK is at 3% which may sound small, but that's out of 65 countries so it's still quite big for us.
We've tried to focus on exposing our products to folks who have never seen this type of product before. So very recently we were in the Daily Mail in the UK and they were talking about these products and how people take them out on holiday and on business trips and so on. I've had some people who saw that article and came to Hyper Japan and bought a few. I think when you are running a business, obviously you have your target audience, but it's also very important to grow your other audience at the same time as well and cultivate your audience. Just like Steve jobs who came along and convinced people they needed an iPad, there were no tablets back then until an iPad came along and now everyone needs one. That's the same kind of mentality we have where we want to cultivate and create more folks who will see our products for the first time, be enlightened by them and be inspired by them.
So the dream is for them to be the next iPad?
I guess so, yeah.
How did you come up with the name of Smart Doll?
Originally it was an April Fools. We made a few Smart Dolls with robotics inside. You have Smart Phones, Smart Watches so I decided to call it Smart Doll. Today's meaning of smart doll is not only the smart looks but also the way we run our company and the way we do business. We always try to improve on what we have done, even though we have just implemented it and say to ourselves that there has always get to be a smarter way to do something. That's what our products are so that's what it stands for.
What do you think of anime fandom in the UK as you are in a unique position to be aware of both Japanese and UK fandom?
This is my first time to attend an event over here and I see lots of folks cosplaying. I attend events all over the world and I see that the common theme is that people who love anime really want to express it through drawing or cosplay or even through dressing up our Smart Dolls. I think it's a very common theme that fans know that you don't have to be in Japan to enjoy Anime. There's probably a bit more room to have more of the big Japanese publishers come over. At this event I don't see too much of that, I don't see big figure makers over here. Nintendo is here, but I think there is more room for folks to come over and share their goodies.
Do you think there is more room for you to expand in the UK market?
Definitely. Being born and raised over here, and even with being away for 20 years, I still know my way in and out and I think there is a large pool of human resources who are interested in our products and we want to open up a company in the US at the beginning of the next year, but we want to open up a company in the UK as well. It will most probably be based on our Smart Dolls, but we could also be working on our other side of the business which is working with the anime business and we do consulting for them, we make their websites. For example, we do Bandai's website, we do Good Smile Company's website, we've done Konami and so on. Sometimes I would bring these anime producers over to an event so we can do something like that as well. However, it will be mostly to focus on the Smart Doll.
What do you personally get out of being so heavily involved in the community?
I think for me, one of the most satisfying things is that...well we have ups and downs...even though most of our time that we spend are to be honest downs. There is so much hassle in making these products, there are quality control issues, the moulding depending on the time of the year because in Japan the seasons are very very different, depending on the time of the year when you are moulding something may make things turn out very differently. So we have quality control issues and it's a headache making them. However, the amount of joy we get out of seeing customers with our products outweighs all the hassle we have in making these products. That's a big motivator for me.
What do you think of the emerging markets of Indonesia and Malaysia for anime /manga fans? Especially now their economies are gaining traction and fans there now have a growing disposable income to spend of goodies?
I think that more and more people continue to discover anime, but I think that the important thing is to take that content and expose it to people who are very unlikely to come across this culture. You will see the majority of companies at Hyper Japan showing their good will mostly attend Japan related events. They won't go to a design event or a fashion event. I think it's important to take that culture and expose it to people who haven't come across it before and that will be the way to grow the market.
How do you think you fit into spreading the culture worldwide?
I think for me...before I used to focus a lot on spreading Japanese culture around the world and I did that through the website and the TV show, but these days I am doing that through the products. Mirai is a mascot for Japan tourism and I'm working with Japanese fashion brands and soon I will be working with...well I haven't announced it yet but some sports thing happening in 2020 , but we aren't going to talk about that now! So that will help expose more about Japanese culture to the world through our products.
Apart from your recent work with Sunrise, what's your favourite collaboration been?
It was announced last week - One Piece. That's a big deal for us. No other Japanese figure maker or doll company has been able to get the licence to do One Piece characters so the only company that has is Bandai and their subsidiaries so we are pretty happy that they chose us to make a Smart Doll of Nami. She will be revealed first at Wonder Festival. That hasn't been announced yet either! It will be on the 30th of this month. It's a big deal for us. It's going to be awesome.
Why have you taken a break from going to AX? After 7 years straight going to AX, why have you stopped attending now?
The US is a pretty established market for us and we do want to focus on other areas of the US. We do go back to Los Angeles in January, we will be attending Anime New York which is going to be this November. We are going to have a booth there and I am going to be doing some MC stuff as well and we are going to have lots of our products there. So while we continue to focus on other parts of the US we also get to focus on Europe as well which is mainly during the summer time, so while we didn't do AX, we did do Germany, DoKomi which is a huge event, REALLY huge and also we get to do Hyper Japan. If we continue to do AX, because it's so close to DoKomi and Hyper Japan it's very difficult to focus our resources. So yeah, focusing more on Europe and other parts of the US.
Are there any other conventions in the UK that you want to attend?
MCM London Comic Con. October is going to be quite difficult but we will definitely try to do next May. As soon as table or booth space goes up we will apply for that so we will be back in London next May I guess. MCM is going to be good. We are doing American Action Heroes Smart Dolls as well so those are going to be really really cool. I think MCM will be a really good place as by then we are going to have a few super hero girls at that time so it will be great as we can cover the Japanese pop culture stuff and American heroes as well. Our first contract is with DC.
So Super Girl? Everyone loves SuperGirl right?
Yeah, she's a cutie.
What would you say your main goal is?
I would say our main goal now is to have this product in the homes and.in the hands of as many people as possible. One of the reasons is that I truly believe that they are really cute and I just want everyone to have them. I really believe it should be our product over other companies products that should be in the hands of consumers. Fashion dolls up until now have been marketed at two extreme spectrums of the market, so you have stuff aimed at little kids and those dolls you can buy at the price of like a meal which is reflected in the build quality and then there's this other spectrum aimed at adults where by it's a hobby oriented...hobby I guess where you need to have specialised knowledge to buy these products and most of them are available on eBay and they are difficult to get hold of and there's no in between and there's nothing that caters for kids and for the hobby spectrum and for everybody so in order to build and design products like that we have had to come up with a design that is accessible for many different people. So that's what a Smart Doll is. It's not perfect by any means right now but it's always evolving and I think in the very near future the worlds standard is going to be Smart Doll. Sooner or later it's just going to happen.
So it won't be Barbie Doll, it's just going to be Smart Doll?
I think it's just going to be Smart Doll.
What do you see is the future of anime/manga fandom and what is your role in this future?
What's interesting in what we are doing is that this type of product is aimed at anime fans and we are at an anime event and Anime fans are a very important part of our business but taking this product and convincing people who have never seen this product before as part of their lifestyle is a challenge and it gets us to be very creative in doing that and so far we have been very successful in doing that and 80% of our customers have never seen our products before. So coming up with the creatives, the look and feel and the branding to be able to do that is very creative for us and something that I enjoy doing.
As a final question, is there anything you would like to tell your fans?
A long time ago I used to write a lot on my website Culture Japan and do the TV shows. These days it's very difficult to find a balance to do that and run the business and running the business is pretty much a full time job of 10 people. While I can't share what I'm doing in terms of sharing my life in Japan what I do want to do in the very near future is talk about how I run a business in Japan. I think that would be very useful for folks who are thinking of venturing out to do stuff on their own and I just need to sort out a few design aspects of my website to present the content in a way that is much more consumable. So yeah, I'll be back doing some writing but I need to get my act together and hopefully I can do that sometime this year.
Otaku News would like to thank Hyper Japan for helping us arrange the interview and Danny Choo for giving such awesome answers.
All images used in this article are copyright of Danny Choo and have been used with permission.