From the outside, it seems irrational. Fans of Japanese manga and anime (known as otaku) tend to have an almost religious reverence for their favorite shows, festooning their bedrooms and offices with merchandise and art as if they were shrines to waifu Erza from Fairy Tail or husbando Ace from One Piece.
But the otaku also share something in common with your dad, who couldn’t resist copping his James Bond Goldeneye Omega Seamaster 300 back in 1995: wristwatches. Seiko wristwatches, to be more precise.
Recently, Seiko announced a new limited Pokemon range. It follows their 5 Sports series for Naruto, which will be released in the U.S. this month. It’s not the first time Seiko has crossed over with anime — in fact, it’s not even the first Naruto collection. The brand has previously made watches featuring characters from Gundam, One Punch Man, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, One Piece, Detective Conan, Fist of the North Star, Haikyu!, a number of Studio Ghibli classics, games like Street Fighter and Metal Gear, an upcoming Cowboy Bebop and many more. These limited, highly collectible runs date all the way back to 2001 (when Seiko released a Final Fantasy-themed series) and most only see light in Japan, only find their way to Western wrists via the resale market. But that’s all about to change.
The reason? Otaku are going mainstream.
The anime industry makes $19 billion annually and counting, with half of its earnings now coming from outside Japan. Netflix, with its wads of cash and a golden snout for cultural trends, has already sniffed out the licenses to the most popular programs, becoming — along with the more specialized CrunchyRoll.com — the platform for audiences who want something beyond the stack of period dramas and dystopian horror stories that have long graced U.S. screens. And once these whimsical, sometimes fetishistic adult cartoons go mainstream, the spending habits that attend them are sure to follow.
Speaking with InsideHook, a representative from Seiko of America suggests there are plenty of westward-bound releases on the horizon. “The Ghibli Porco Rosso line surprised us all. It sold out immediately in America,” she says, referring to two luxurious Seiko Presage models based on a cartoon about a bipedal pig who flies an airplane. They retail up to $5,600 — the higher end of Seiko’s line before you scribble in the prefix “Grand.”
“It was a test of sorts,” she continues, “but now we’re looking to push out more of our anime and gaming collaborations in the States.” This is good news, of course, but don’t get your hopes up immediately. The popular Pokemon and Cowboy Bebop collections, for instance, will still be limited to Japan.
To be clear, these are not novelty watches: the quality and imagination behind each watch collaboration is thrillingly good, and the construction up to Seiko’s typically airtight standards.
On the highly sought-after JoJo’s Seiko 5 collection, for example, references to Guido Mista’s bullets are inlaid into the bezel. Gundam’s 40th Anniversary Prospex series, meanwhile, is ratio-to-ratio color-coded to match each giant mobile suit mech featured in the series, and includes the mind-bending yellow Spring Drive movement often reserved for Grand Seiko. There’s even a special Seiko Sports 100 Digiborg (a revived Bond timepiece) modeled on the one Solid Snake wears on his buff wrist in Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain.
And the design team in Japan tell us to expect similar details on U.S. releases, stating that the lead producer for the upcoming Naruto x Boruto collection is a “die-hard fan of the show himself, adding scattered bits of detail for fans to discover.”
If you are a fan, this isn’t merely a gimmick to shift some watches. “The team in Japan are very serious about this. They include followers of each show in collaboration with the animation’s producers,” Seiko’s rep adds. “The producers will often point out details we weren’t aware of at first and fit the animation with a relevant model … It could be weird if the Gundam series was on a dress watch.”
This is a feat made all the more satisfying by the fact that these watches are, well, Seikos: a grown-up watch for a generation who grew up on Dragon Ball or Pokemon in the ’90s and early aughts and are are now coming of age. They finally have disposable income, and will happily spend a little extra for Seiko’s incredible tributes to their favorite shows. Is it any different from the popular Omega Speedmaster “Snoopy” edition, or the uber-rare Mickey Mouse Rolex Oyster Perpetual? There’s always been a segment of the luxury watch industry devoted to commemorating characters and references that watch-buyers adored in the their youth. As our source adds, “I love the Street Fighter Capcom series … because it reminds me of when I was young.”
Of course, this ethos begs another question: Why would Seiko, a brand endlessly trying to prove it is refined and serious enough to play with the Swiss mob, add “luxury cartoon watches” to its roster in the first place? Maybe there’s a more endearing reason: “The anime, the games, they all represent another side of the Japanese heritage and artistry,” the rep tells us. “So we take these collaborations as seriously as we would for anyone else.”
While you’ll struggle to find serious watch press on any of these limited releases, Seiko isn’t overly concerned: as long as the fans pay attention — and the anime forums natter on about bezels or springs — there is enough hype to encourage a growing demand that has, as Seiko’s rep points out, “led us to start upping quotas in the U.S.”
If this pattern — limited collections, immediate sellouts, internet forums, lively secondhand markets — sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Seiko anime timepieces have, in essence, become the otaku Rolex: a conspicuous status symbol that connects a devoted group of enthusiasts around the world.
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