Gen Fukunaga, founder and president of FUNimation Productions, Ltd, was born in Japan but grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana. Returning to Japan in the eighth grade, he was surprised at the sophistication of the animation there compared to that of the U.S. at that time.
“It was always in the back of my mind over the years, why this great animation was not in the U.S,” Fukunaga says.
After earning his Purdue degrees Fukunaga moved to Boca Raton, Florida, to work for IBM, but his desire to be more management-focused led him back to school to earn an MBA from Columbia University. He then held a position with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) before accepting a position at Tandem Computers in Sunnyvale, California. There he was responsible for strategy, R&D budgets, market analysis, marketing, pricing, and the overall success of a line of Tandem products.
But the memory of Japanese animation still remained on Fukunaga’s mind. “Finally, I asked my uncle, who is a well known producer in Japan, why not bring the Japanese animation to the U.S.,” he recalls. His uncle arranged a meeting with Toei Animation, and in their library of over 30 available titles, there was “Dragon Ball Z,” a television series that had already been wildly successful internationally and had generated over $3 billion in associated revenues. Fukunaga says, “We immediately saw the opportunity and jumped on negotiating with them to acquire the rights. We got “DBZ” in syndication in a limited fashion which we could use to show that the title was a strong title, based on ratings, and we were fortunate that a young, up-and-coming network, Cartoon Network, was willing to take the risk to broadcast it.”
FUNimation was established in 1994. “We looked for a name we could trademark, which is hard to find,” Fukunaga comments. “Also, we did not want to take ourselves too seriously since, at the end of the day, we are handling cartoons, not curing cancer, so we came up with FUNimation.”
Amanda Rogers, writing in the Fort Worth Star Telegram (8-24-2001) described the phenomenon of the new cartoon: “In case you don’t have a kid between the ages of 9 and 14 in your house, here’s the scoop on the ‘Dragon Ball Z’ world: Goku is a beefy alien who, with his buddies, uses martial arts to fight evil enemies to save themselves and the Earth. When they lose, they round up the seven dragon balls, which causes a dragon to appear and grant one wish.”
Fukunaga’s wife, Cindy, is cofounder of FUNimation and serves as vice president in charge of marketing. The two met at Purdue where she received an MBA from the Krannert School of Management in 1985. They live with their three children in Roanoke, Texas.
Fukunaga says, “My kids like ‘Dragon Ball Z’ and now our new title, Yu Yu Hakusho. They get a lot of attention at school from the other kids because of my job, though some kids do not believe them.”
He reflects, “I was interested in cartoons and games as a kid, and if I had not lived in Japan in the eighth grade, I never would have seen the opportunity, but it was my ‘MBA view’ of seeing the hole in the marketplace and seeing a low risk financial model that compelled me in the end to switch from high technology to take a chance on this opportunity.”
The rest was history. Since 1994, FUNimation has become a major, international brand management and home video company involved in producing shows, licensing and merchandising the characters in these shows, retailing through its Zstore.com, and the distribution of home videos throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand, U.K. and South Africa. Today, TV Guide reports that “Dragon Ball Z” is one of Cartoon Network’s most popular programs, with an average of 1.5 million viewers per episode, more than the network overall average. Not bad for a kid who loved cartoons.