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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Obscusion B-Side: Segata Sanshiro vs. Pepsiman: I'm Holding Out for a Hero 'til the End of the Night!

Advertising is likely much more complicated than I think most people expect it to be. Still, the fruits of all that labor to showcase how awesome someone's product is has given us some truly memorable commercials. Some people might want to forget them, while others love to indulge in the nostalgia. In Japan it's very much the same, but due to cultural differences Japanese commercials can seem different from what we get in North America. Okay, they can be downright bizarre & confusing, but sometimes it's because of that oddness that we end up loving them as well. During the mid-90s two companies had mascots to help advertise their products, and both were not only highly successful but simply downright weird. They were so weird, in fact, that both have loving fanbases to this very day. Therefore, in the vein of what I did last December with Ehrgeiz vs. Ehrgeiz & Colorful vs. Colorful, I will be doing what has never been done before & pitting two of the most iconic Japanese commercial series mascots against each other.

This is Segata Sanshiro vs. Pepsiman!

During the mid-90s Sega of Japan needed something to help promote their 32-bit video game console, the Sega Saturn. Taking inspiration from the 1943 movie Sugata Sanshiro, the debut film of legendary director Akira Kurosawa, SOJ created Segata Sanshiro, a Judo master who actively hunted down anyone who wasn't playing Sega Saturn. In true Japanese commercial fashion, however, instead of simply explaining how awesome games on the Saturn were Segata Sanshiro preferred to simply beat down anybody in view, before commanding them "Sega Saturn, Shiro!/Play Sega Saturn!"; the line was a pun, as it sounded similar to his name (just swap the "ta" & "Sa" around). Seemingly defying all logic, these commercials were an instant hit & helped make the Saturn a massive success in Japan. It also helped that Segata Sanshiro was played by Hiroshi Fujioka, the original Kamen Rider himself & Japanese cultural icon. These commercials ran throughout 1997 & 1998, finishing up when the Dreamcast launched in Japan in November of '98.

Not too long before Sega created their Saturn-loving Judo master, though, PepsiCo did something similar in Japan. To help promote Pepsi in that country, PepsiCo Japan created a mascot of their own: Pepsiman. Designed by Canadian comic artist Travis Charest (Darkstars, Ultimates SagaWildC.A.T.s/X-Men), Pepsiman debuted around 1995/1996 on Japanese television. Much like Segata Sanshiro, Pepsiman's commercials were simple in concept, featuring people who were thirsty & in need of a drink; Pepsiman would arrive just in time to quench their thirst. Unlike Segata Sanshiro, though, Pepsiman was a giant klutz, consistently getting himself in trouble or badly injured shortly after helping those in need. Pepsiman would end up lasting a little longer, however, with his last real appearances in Japanese media happening around 2000 or so; he's supposedly still the official mascot for PepsiCo Japan, but I can't verify that.

Now that the introductions are out of the way, let's finally get this Vs. battle started! The categories we'll be looking at are as follows: Concept & Commercials, Design, Theme Music, Video Games, & Memorability. A nice odd number to make sure that there aren't any ties, right? Well, let's get straight into things, shall we?

-Concept & Commercials-
Segata Sanshiro is a very simple concept taken from a classic Japanese movie, but twisted around. The movie character Sugata Sanshiro was inspired by Saigo Shiro, one of the earliest Judo disciples & the first to be given the title of shodan (a.k.a. 1st dan) by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo (& namesake of the grandfather in Yawara!). I haven't seen Kurosawa's film, but reading about it the main theme is that of learning about yourself, with Sugata introduced as a stubborn & strong youth who becomes a more noble soul through Judo. Segata Sanshiro, then, is essentially the opposite of that by being a stubborn & strong old master of Judo who forces people to learn about the glory that is the Sega Saturn. There's no doubt about it... Segata is an outright asshole, not even wanting to accept the ideals & hobbies of anyone outside of gamers who play the Saturn; just remember that if you're not playing it all the time he will destroy you, too. All in all it's a completely absurd concept, and for all intents & purposes Segata Sanshiro should be utterly unlikable, but he becomes so absolutely awesome simply because the commercials obviously were made to have fun with the concept.

It all starts with the original commercial, which has Segata approach three kids coming home from playing ball, only to have Segata take all of them down with judo throws & submissions holds. It has nothing to do with the game it's advertising, Sonic R in this case, except for a quick blurb at the end. It definitely sets up the general idea of the early commercials, which show Segata taking out an entire club full of civilians, both men & women, & even making children cry when he rips off the Santa mask he came to them wearing. We also see his training regimen, which includes mashing the buttons of a giant Saturn controller with his fists & delivering a Rider Kick (naturally). Seriously, the only thing I can do is simply explain what's shown in these commercials. Segata can do interpretive dance, take numerous baseballs shot at his chest, take on a legion of zombies (though that might be too much for even him), self-replicate to create hundreds of himself, & blow people up simply by throwing them(!). To the credit of the people who made these commercials, however, they don't make Segata out to be utterly unstoppable. In the Solo Crisis ad we see him a little dizzy after breaking an insane amount of bricks with his head, he gets a red card for moving an entire soccer net to keep a goal from happening in the World Cup '98: Road to Win ad, & in the Winter Heat ad, which was him race an ice skater barefoot, we see Segata desperately try to warm his feet up. Sega knew that embracing the silliness & poking fun at the character in little bits would help endear him to fans, and it certainly does. We even see Segata play tag with Sakura from Sakura Wars. Each commercial is intensely enjoyable & you can tell Fujioka had a fun time playing the character.

Pepsiman's concept of being a nigh-helpless superhero isn't really original in any way, it's been done in comics numerous times before, but what helps him out is that he actually isn't helpless. Seriously, Pepsiman is always able to give those who thirst a Pepsi to "save" them. He's even a superb runner, can snowboard & surf, & he even wears a sweet chain around his neck. In fact, he's so good at his job that he's looked at as a true-blue hero. If there's any "weakness" to Pepsiman, though, it's that he's really bad with the follow-through. For example, his very first commercial has him giving Pepsi to a mother & child, & then failing an exit through the window by bashing his forehead on the upper frame. When it comes to appreciation from the people, however, it's a mix. Everyone he gives Pepsi to cheers him, and he even has some people actively hunt him down for a free drink (freeloaders...), but that doesn't stop children from doing things like squirting him with water. There's an inherent silliness in Pepsiman that makes him hard to not like, honestly.

The commercials, however, do tend to be very one-note, though there are enough variations to keep them from going stale. Sure, the general idea is the same, but the situations differ along with the pain Pepsiman suffers afterwards. He shows off his sick snowboarding skills? He crashes & needs to be taken to an ambulance. He gives a boxer some Pepsi at the gym? His face becomes the speed bag. He does a high drive into a pool? He hits the pool so hard that his head gets stuck in the floor. Some cool twists are to be found, as well, such as a man lost in the desert celebrating the appearance of Pepsiman, only to realize that it was a cactus the entire time. Probably the most notable is the commercial where Pepsiman is running away instead of running to, as he's being chased by a Coca-Cola truck (yeah, it says "Cave Pizza", but we all know what it's meant to be); turns out the driver wanted a Pepsi. The weirdest one of all, though, is also the simplest: Pepsiman drinking a can of Pepsi, nothing more than that. I do like the sight of a Pepsi can at the end, though, showing some sort of damage based on what pain Pepsiman suffered in the attached ad. The final ad, however, is interesting in that it introduces Pepsiwoman, a female equivalent who advertises Diet Pepsi. Truly, each of the Pepsiman commercials are worth the watch & none overstay their welcome. The most inexplicable thing, however, is the fact that North America never got these commercials, especially when it's obvious that every one of these were filmed in the United States, using American actors, in cities like New York and the Los Angeles area. Unfortunately, the one-note nature of Pepsiman's ads do limit the entire thing, while Segata Sanshiro's ads are pretty varied & contain more to work with.

Winner: Segata Sanshiro

Segata Sanshiro's design is simple, and I mean extremely simple. It's literally nothing more than Fujioka in a white gi with a black belt; Segata doesn't wear shoes, sandals, or even geta. Fujioka's hair even looks pretty poofy for someone who's supposed to be a master at judo. Still, it's that simplicity that works so well. It puts the focus on Segata's personality & actions, which are simply astounding; it also helps that Fujioka pulls them off extremely well. With such a simple design one wouldn't immediately think of a man who can hit home runs with his feet, race ice skaters with his bare feet, & (because it must be stated again) blow people up simply by throwing them(!!). The simplicity really let Sega think up seemingly whatever they wanted for Segata.

Pepsiman is similarly simple, but with a sleekness factor added. There are no sharp points to Pepsiman's design, and the metallic sheen honestly looks really cool. The Pepsi logo appears down his chest, making him look like an actual Pepsi can, and does change slightly with the alterations made to the logo & cans during his commercial run, but it actually doesn't look totally intrusive. Travis Charest really was able to make the character a blatant Pepsi advertisement without making him look obtrusively so. Pepsiwoman, however, is almost a little too curvaceous & even sexy; it's just about "uncanny valley" territory. Luckily, though, she's only seen once or twice. While Segata Sanshiro was performed by an actual actor, Pepsiman was all CG, but the CG seems to really hold up quite nicely with the years. I really hate to have to do this in a battle that needs a definite winner, but I honestly can't pick one design over the other here; both Segata Sanshiro & Pepsiman have excellent, simplistic designs.

Winner: Draw

-Theme Songs-
Yes, both of these characters had their own theme songs, and both are amazing... But which one is better? Segata Sanshiro's theme, "Sega Saturn, Shiro!", is sung by the man himself & acts as both an effusing praise of the man himself as well as an overview of what makes a man like Segata Sanshiro so awesome. In 1998 Warner Japan helped produce a music video for the song, & the CD single that came out shortly after apparently sold more than 100,000 copies. The song itself is purposefully ridiculous in how far it tells people to play (Saturn) games, lest they feel the wrath of Segata Sanshiro. It's both an anthem for long-term gaming sessions as well as a little bit of a joking exaggeration of how far to take your gaming habits, like Segata telling people to play until their fingers break. It's intense, anthemic, & the chorus of "Segata Sanshiro! Segata Sanshiro! Sega Saturn, Shiro!" is immediately chant worthy. The music video is also entertaining, showcasing some of the best/silliest parts of the commercial series.

Pepsiman's theme, however, is a very different type of song. "Pepsiman" by James & Gang is a completely instrumental song, outside of the occasional enthusiastic chanting of "PEPSIMAAAAN!!!!!". The first thing you hear is a bass line that will absolutely, positively never leave your mind upon hearing it. It then builds onto it by adding on a guitar line, drum line, & after the initial scream of Pepsiman's name you simply know how amazing this song is. It gets even better about 30 seconds in, once the synth instruments come in, creating a bit of a verse, followed by a simply sweet sax to seal the deal. There's no denying it, because it could never be denied; to do so would be tantamount to admitting that you have no soul. This is seriously one of the best anthems to anything in the world. It works exquisitely in short bursts for the commercials, but James & Gang didn't simply rest on their laurels. Instead, they expanded on that theme song & created an amazing instrumental out of it. The final chorus of "Pepsi, Pepsi... PEPSIMAAAN!!!" doubles as not just a blatant piece of Pepsi propaganda, but also a sing-along that you just have to sing with. I'm sorry, Segata Sanshiro, but as great as your theme song is, it's only best in certain moments. Pepsiman's theme song, however, is best at any point in life.

Pepsiman's theme song is life.

Winner: Pepsiman

-Video Games-
As if having theme songs wasn't enough, both characters even had their own video games! The Judo master's game was created as a farewell to the character due to the introduction of the Dreamcast. The final commercial, which was made for this very game, sees Segata save Sega headquarters from a missile that's launched by an evil rival (generally thought to be Sony) by diverting it into space. The man's final moments has him chanting "Sega Saturn, Shiro!" on top of the missile before it explodes in the safety of open space. The game itself is titled Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi/Serious Game, developed supposedly by Ecole Software (Death Crimson series, Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax), & is nothing more than what it says it is by being a mini-game collection.

After selecting between Stero or Mono audio (the only thing in the Options menu) you have four choices in the main menu: Playing the mini-games, "Voice of Segata Sanshiro" (you can listen to all of his radio ads!), watching the commercials themselves, & the high score list. There are ten mini-games in total, and to the game's credit there's a nice variety to be had, and each has an intro that features voice work by Fujioka & narration by Kiyoshi Kobayashi, the narrator from GaoGaiGar! The first one is nothing more than 10 rounds of Simon, where you have to match the button presses (every thing but the Start button) that Segata does. The second game has you try to help Segata take on a series of robots in judo while in the middle of a minefield; you only get one chance here. The third features Santa Segata throwing presents down chimneys while avoiding hazards like birds, skyscrapers, & caves. Number four is a test of strength, ala those old Mortal Kombat mini-games, to help Segata break a bunch of cemet blocks with his head. The fifth has the Blue Dragon from Panzer Dragoon fly across the screen en masse, and you have to properly count how many had Segata on them; see if you can last all 10 rounds.

Number six has you control Segata as he automatically runs up each floor of a burning building, making sure he gets to the top. The seventh game challenges you to find the six silly images of Segata that match the sample you're given; the images have shutters opening & closing randomly to make it tricky. The eight game is all about alternating between two face buttons in rhythm to help Segata barefoot-skate his way down ice; the longer you go the faster the rhythm gets. The penultimate mini-game shows Segata's environmentalist side, having you help Segata kick garbage into a giant wooden receptacle. Finally, the tenth & last game is a Cloumns clone, but with marine life; you have to get combos in order to keep Segata from drowning! Sadly, however, the games are a mixed bag. Some, like the dragon watching & burning house games are actually pretty fun to play, with some nice tricks to challenge you, but overall just about all of them are either really basic & generic or just downright obtuse or cheap. The minefield judo game is impossible to figure out how to play, the test of strength feels too difficult to get the timing down, & the Columns clone moves so slowly that it feels like a chore to play. The best game of all, however, is the ninth game, which has a very Game & Watch-esque simplicity & fun to it. Oh, and those commercials? You have to earn them by beating the high scores on each mini-game. I guess that adds some replay value, but overall Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi is nothing more than a novelty for fans, which is sad; a beat-em-up would have easily sufficed.

Pepsiman's game, on the other hand, is a.... Wait, Pepsiman has two games?! Well, kind of. His first game appearance is in Sega's 1995 fighting game Fighting Vipers, where he's a hidden fighter. As a bit of a joke regarding the character, you can fight Pepsiman by simply letting your first opponent beat you with a perfect victory; you'll fight him next. In the 1996 Saturn port he's even unlockable upon beating him! Hell, he's even overpowered among the characters!! The inclusion, however, was simply a bit of promotion, as Pepsi ads are all over the stages in the game. It must be noted, however, that this is only in the Japanese version, as all of the Pepsi ads (& Pepsiman himself) were removed for the international releases. There was even a long-standing rumor that Pepsiman was also in the Japanese version of Fighters Megamix, a Saturn-exclusive crossover between Virtua Fighters & Fighting Vipers (among other Sega oddities), but this was never true; he would have easily fit, though. With this out of the way, let's finally get to Pepsiman's own game.

Said game, simply titled Pepsiman (though the cover only shows our hero with "DRINK!" right behind him), was developed by the now-defunct KID (Summer Carnival '92: Recca, Board Game Top Shop, Treasure Strike) & released on the original PlayStation in 1999. Instead of taking the relatively simple idea that Sega did with Shinken Yugi, however, KID decided to make Pepsiman more of a complete game, though it's still a simple idea. You play as Pepsiman & you have to get from the beginning of the stage to the end, collecting Pepsi cans for extra points & avoiding/jumping over/sliding under obstacles since you're constantly running forward; you can speed yourself up in short bursts, however. Nowadays, this concept is known as the "endless runner" genre & is most well known by the mobile game Temple Run, but here's Pepsiman doing the same type of game with a little more complexity & stages with actual ends more than a decade earlier.

In between stages you get live-action cutscenes featuring Mike Butters (Paul Leahy in Saw I, IV, & V), completely hamming it up with some Engrish ("Pepsi for TV-Game") & seemingly watching you play the game. The game is massively inundated with Pepsi products, it's apparently the only liquid Butters stores in his fridge, but it's so insane that KID was obviously in on the joke. Outside of that, there isn't much else to Pepsiman, but at least it feels like a fully realized game. Sure, the gameplay is simple, the Pepsi advertising is through the stratosphere, & it's really damn short (if you know what you're doing it can beaten within a half-hour), but at least it still comes off as a game made to be played over & over. You can always come back to Pepsiman & have a good time playing through it & seeing the absurdity... I can't really say the same about Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi. Hell, Pepsiman is also on the very system Segata championed, doing exactly what his game should have been about: Beating the crap out of people!

Winner: Pepsiman

The final category is a simple one: Which character has had the stronger legacy? Which one has become more memorable to the people at large? Certainly, the advent of the Internet being easier to access compared to the 90s, combined with the creation of streaming video, has given both Segata Sanshiro & Pepsiman larger fanbases than what they had in Japan. So, taking everything into consideration, how have these two advertising mascots been treated in the years since their heyday?

Since his "death", Segata Sanshiro has been seen, or at least heavily referenced, in other Sega titles. The most notable one would be the fact that in Yu Suzuki's epic Shemue for the Dreamcast, Ryo Hazuki's father Iwao is obviously based on Segata Sanshiro, right down to having Hiroshi Fujioka voice the character in the original Japanese version. Yes, Ryo Hazuki is Segata Sanshiro's son; my only guess is that Segata had to change his name after all the suits that came from his blatantly violent & illegal behavior. It certainly makes Lan Di seem all the more dangerous when you consider that Shenmue begins with Iwao's death. He has also made in-name cameos in Virtua Fighter 4, as an AI profile for Akira Yuki, as well in the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, as a character named Shiro. Segata makes a full-appearance cameo in Rent-A-Hero No. 1 for the Dreamcast & Xbox, too. His most recent game appearance was in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, where he makes a cameo by riding that final rocket if the player is in the lead for the final lap of the Race of Ages course. Since then there has been a live appearance of the character back in March of last year, during a live concert Sega threw in celebration of Segata Sanshiro. Fujioka donned the old gi one last time during the character's theme song; Otaku USA covered the concert at that time. Finally, Segata Sanshiro has attained internet meme status to some extent, even being considered more manly than Chuck Norris (some memes claim that Segata taught Norris everything he knows).

Pepsiman, in comparison, hasn't been seen too much since his PS1 game. Sure, people have since cosplayed as him in numerous places, but the same can be said of Segata Sanshiro (though to a seemingly lesser extent). Interestingly enough, however, Pepsiman was parodied in an episode of Yakitate!! Japan, which has Kawachi rescue a little girl under the guise of Pepmiman. The PS1 game has also been a seeming favorite of YouTube personalities, both via review & Let's Play; can't really say the same about Segata Sanshiro's game. There are also a variety of Pepsiman merchandise that can be found, including bottle caps & action figures. There was apparently an action figure for Segata Sanshiro as well, but it had a very limited run & is now a massive collector's item that's rarely seen. If anything, Pepsiman has had more merchandising put towards him & is much more collectible in that sense, his game even goes for much more than Segata's on the second-hand market, but Segata Sanshiro has had more of a legend status throughout the years. His commercials are now considered a big part of why the Sega Saturn was so successful in Japan, especially when compared to elsewhere in the world, & Segata has also simply added to the legacy of Hiroshi Fujioka. Pepsiman, in comparison, is usually looked at simply as a bizarre, but highly entertaining, Japanese oddity. There is a fight put up here, but there's no doubt that Segata Sanshiro wins when it comes to memorability & legacy.

Winner: Segata Sanshiro

-Final Verdict-
Well, I had honestly hoped to see a definitive winner in this "Vs. Battle", but in the end I couldn't decide on a victor when it came to Design. Yes, that means the verdict is a Draw. To be fair, however, that's not a bad thing. Both Segata Sanshiro & Pepsiman saw massive success in Japan via their commercials & both likely saw large amounts of money go to Sega & PepsiCo, respectively. There were other advertisement mascots in Japan at the time as well, but who honestly remembers the likes of the Coca-Cola Kid (outside of maybe people who played his Game Gear game)? Segata & Pepsiman were pop-culture icons in Japan & are now loved by people all around the world. This battle only proved to me that both are equals, and I'm certain that if the two would have ever met they would have simply sat down & enjoyed some cans of Pepsi... Seriously, why isn't there a picture of that happening online?

And, anyways, after finishing off the Pepsi the two can teach those poor fools the majesty that is the Sega Saturn. Now that should be a picture!


  1. Just one small correction: Ichiro Tomita sings the Segata Sanshiro theme. Fujioka only voices the narration in the middle of it. However, there is a cut down version of this song where Fujioka does attempt to sing. I say "attempt" because his singing is pretty terrible. :)

  2. Also worth mentioning is that there is a second Segata Sanshiro game that was released on a PC/Mac hybrid disc. It's more of a media disc than anything else, but it does have a few minigames. I doubt it's inclusion in this article would have influenced any of your conclusions.