Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Religion in D&D

A couple of years ago, I did a brief workup of faith and ritual in the Forgotten Realms' Shadowdale.  This was a small overview of some ideas I had to deepen and broaden how I could handle faith and religion in The Forgotten Realms campaign setting.  I should clearly note that I do not use nor am I interested in any of the changes to the setting brought about in 4th (or now 5th) edition.

A great 2nd edition resource is the Faiths & Avatars book, which gives a really good write-up on the gods and the beliefs of their followers but the truth is, The Forgotten Realms, as presented, is a somewhat unrealistic approach to ancient polytheistic belief systems.  So, drawing upon what I know from Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, Burkert's Greek Religion, Yehezkel Kaufmann's History of the Religion of Israel, and a couple of other sources on pre-modern polytheistic belief structures.  I would love to have gotten my hands on M.A.R. Barker's article "Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit."  (I hear they have a copy at DriveThruRpg.)  This blog entry over at Game Over provides a nice review and summary of the article for those interested and it has helped me quite a bit.

To build on this, we honestly need to isolate a number of cultural/linguistic groups that inhabit the Realms and determine how tradition and ritual (which are very, very important parts of religion) interact with the societies. There is one, singular pantheon for all of Faerûn and that is something that really just pulls me right out of that precious suspension of disbelief because of how dramatically unrealistic it is.  After doing some thinking, I managed to pull together some ideas about how cultural interaction and communication led to a diffusion of deities throughout the Faerûnian ecumene.  This would be similar to how, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods of Mediterranean history you start seeing gods being identified with one another, mixed, and new gods form, like Serapis in Graeco-Roman Egypt, Zeus' syncretistic identification with other chief deities, and the introduction of entirely foreign cults, like Mithraism from Iran.

So, I started working backwards through Faerûnian history to break down the human deities into distinct and isolated pantheons of gods.  These are based on language groups that are also cultural groups of humans that dispersed through Faerûn--Talfiric, Calishite, Luskan, Damaran, Netherese, and Chondathan.  The Netherese gods are detailed in the 2nd edition boxed set entitled Netheril: Empire of Magic, although it is important to know that Chauntea (whom I identify as a Chondathan grain goddess) was synonymous with the Netherese goddess Jannath.

From there I started to do some work mixing and matching, looking at which gods were worshiped the most where through the sourcebooks and discovered, low and behold, that I could pull out a logical sense of consistency for a lot of these different pantheons.  It took some work but hey, back then I was a lazy college student who liked wasting time applying my new scholarship skills to frivolous stuff like D&D back in the day.

So, what are the values of these cultures?  Well, for starters, I'm going to take a look at the Chondathan culture before I start tackling other ones.  Chondathan culture is a very distinctly Western European plus good ol' corn-fed United States red-blooded American sturdiness.  The Chondathan diaspora has spread out from it's titular lands, through the Vilhon Reach, Cormyr, Sembia, the Dales, and out into the Western Heartlands where they mixed with and culturally replaced the Talfiric peoples.  Basically, the population of the Heartlands of Faerûn, from Waterdeep to the western Sea of Fallen Stars littoral, is almost entirely of Chondathan linguistic speakers.  Language and culture are intrinsically tied, so much so as to be difficult to separate one from the other, therefore, even if the genetic stock of a region isn't Chondathan, if they speak a Chondathan language, it is safe to assume they have overall Chondathan cultural traits.

Anyway, I'm digressing.  A lot.  So, let me circle away from this tangent and back to my main points.  Alright?  Okay.

Now, while reading the review of Barker's essay at Game Over, the blogger emphasizes one of Barker's key arguments about how to build these religions in his summary:

It's not just a matter of phoning it in by whipping up a few names and one-paragraph descriptors for your gods either; these are entities which are going to govern the lives and livelihoods of player characters, and so you're going to want to answer a lot of questions about the gods and the religions from the players. ...
That said, the single-paragraph description of the god is still there; Barker demonstrates just how much of a religions' nature can be derived from examining a detailed and well-written description of its god.  However, it's not actually Barker's recommended starting point. ...
...  I bring this up partly to illustrate that the essay has considerable value beyond the issue of building religions in fantasy games, and partly to demonstrate how Barker actually recommends building religions: from the ground up.  Worry about the social, the political, the economic situation on the ground, in the cultures where the player characters move - then get your arse up there and think about what kind of gods might appeal to those cultures, or might have formed those cultures through exerting influence on their situations.  Treat religion as the social process it is and you'll get something rich and deep for your trouble.

Start at the bottom then work your way up.  The problem with most DMs, setting designers, etc., is that they never, ever, ever consider the actual duties and functions of their deities within the actual structure of the society itself.  Oh, yeah, in the 2nd edition The Complete Priests' Handbook the writers and designers give all sorts of advice for creating gods, religions, clergies, etc.  It's only the tip of the iceberg.

Where can one start?

With studying actual polytheistic faith systems that really exist in the world.  No, I'm not talking about Wicca, Witchcraft, or Paganism in the modern world.  Sorry, they're honestly new inventions and while they seek to reclaim and restore much of the lost religions of the old gods of Europe, they are still very influenced by modern perceptions of those cults than the actual worship and practice of ancient religious belief.

But permit me to digress, once more, by citing an excerpt of the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book.
Some Faerûnians zealously follow one deity.  Others make sacrifices to many deities, while upholding one as their personal patron.  Still others sacrifice to as many deities as possible, shifting allegiances as their circumstances and needs warrant.  It's a rare Faerûnian who hasn't occasionally hoped to avert the baleful influence of an evil deity with a propitious gift, or thanked a good power for an unexpected blessing.  The belief system of most Faerûnians generally centers on a particular deity whose interests and influences are most likely to affect them, but acknowledges other gods as significant and important, too.  --The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, 3rd edition, pg. 93.
The first sentence in this paragraph describes henotheism.  The second sentence as well as the last sentence describe monolatry.  Everything in the middle describes standard polytheism or (at most) kathenotheism.  In function, however, especially through the cleric and paladin character class, what we mostly get in Faerûn is henotheism and monolatrism.  This smacks me as problematic, especially because the common needs of the populace will require frequent appeals to a variety of deities.

If you read pages 93 and 94 of the 3rd edition Campaign Setting, it paints a fairly believable and solid picture of religion in theory but in practice most DMs simply take the easy way out--monolatry and henotheism, all clergy are paladins, monks, and clerics, etc.  The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting makes it clear that "most of a Temple's clergy are not clerics."  It goes on to say, "They're experts, aristocrats, even commoners who serve as advisors and counselors to the faithful and officiate at routine observances.  A cleric usually leads any particular temple, shrine, or order, judiciously using her spells to aid sick or injured followers and assist the local authorities in maintaining law and order in the community as it suits the deity in question."

Here, the authors actually undo some of what they were trying to build--true actual polytheism.  The key here is where they say, "the faithful" and "followers."  This can mislead players and DMs alike into the assumption that the clergy of a temple only administers to those who follow their deity and their deity alone.

When studying polytheistic belief systems, I tend to lean toward the Graeco-Roman traditions (specifically because I specialized in Graeco-Roman history, society, and culture in my undergrad and grad school days) and modern-day polytheistic traditions like Hinduism and Shinto.

I have a lot of exposure to Shinto through my stuc., and receive a good-luck charm that would bless their efforts in study with hopes that they would pass their university entrance examinations.  These students were not henotheists or monolatrists like the bulk of D&D non-player-characters and player-characters.  The temple provided a specific service to the students by taking offerings dedicated to Tenjin and interceding with the kami in order to grant his favor to the students.

So what do temples do?  They provide services to the populace but also to the state.  Their job is to be a basis for tradition so as to curry favor with the gods so that peace and prosperity is ensured, misfortune and catastrophe are prevented or warded off, and the cultural traditions continue.  The D&D campaign worlds are far too influenced by Christianity (whether players and DMs like it or not) in that each god has a sort of salvation or promised afterlife for their worshipers.  Relationship with the divine is a part of Judeo-Christian faith (more Christianity than modern Judaism, though).  Polytheists don't often seek to have a personal relationship with the divine unless they're rulers or dies of Japanese history and culture, as well as having visited a couple Shinto temples in Japan.  What I saw, for example, at the Tenman-gu shrine to Tenjin, the Shinto god of scholarship, made me realize that D&D (in particular) and role-playing games' designers (in general) have religion all wrong.

I arrived at Tenman-gu around the time when Exam Hell was just starting to ramp up.  Students would come to the temple and make offerings to Tenjin in money, incense, etoracles and even then it is rare because too much attention from the gods invites calamity as much as fortune.

So temples don't exist for the individual to develop a relationship with the god.  They're not where the populace go in order to commune with the deity.  They're where the populace go to offer sacrifice and store-houses or treasuries for various offerings.  They could also be a place where certain things are stored safely, like how the Temple of Saturn in ancient Republican Rome was the site of the Roman state's treasury and also where legal documents (like contracts, wills & testaments, etc.), archives, seals, and original measurement templates were kept.  They could be clinics, like the temples of Asclepius, the Graeco-Roman god of healing, or places where sacred prostitutes were sought, like the Temples of Ishtar or Ianna in ancient Mesopotamia.

Alright, what does the clergy do?  The clergy has knowledge.  This knowledge could take many forms.  It could simply be the knowledge of when and where to plow, when to sow and when to harvest.  It could be analysis of the calendar in order to decide what days are fasti and which are nefas.  It could be knowledge of medicine and healing, or how to examine entrails or flights of birds to divine the gods' will.  Some clergies may have knowledge of exorcism and warding against ghosts, evil spirits, or plain bad luck.  Still others will observe and maintain the markers of boundaries.  Even irrigation and water management has been known to fall under the auspices of temples in Bali.  Most importantly, however, the clergy of a temple has knowledge of how to carry out tradition, how to avoid ritual impurity, how to be cleansed of ritual impurity, when and how to store and display sacred relics and cult statues, when and how to perform ritual dances, how to offer sacrifice, what hymns to sing and their words, what songs or stories to tell and when, how to recreate and commemorate sacred events, and how to communicate to the gods both the fidelity of the populace and their needs, wishes and desires.

Notice that I say "the populace" and not "the people."  Polytheistic deities were often perceived as detached and distant.  This is especially apparent in Republican Rome where the primary gods were gods of the state.  The gods were more concerned with Rome as a whole than with each and every individual living in the city or countryside.

A major important concept to note is that religion is going to vary from region to region, especially in the form of traditions, cultic practices, sacrifices, festivals, and other details.  While in a wide Faerûnian ecumene it is likely that specific similarities in practices and traditions are going to be common, there is not much likelihood of there being any strict set of doctrines and dogmas.  Shinto doesn't have much in the way of guiding texts or dogmatic scriptures, for example.  Hinduism has numerous holy texts and different sects of Hinduism value the various texts differently.  Buddhism has a great many holy texts.  Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religion didn't have much in the way of holy texts that were monopolized by the temples and considered specifically holy and sacred.

Thus, a great starting point for actually building a believable religious tradition for your role-playing world will start at the ground and work its way up.  A phenomenal example of a compelling religious tradition can be found in the video game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.  The Tribunal Temple, the primary religion of the dark elves of the setting, is full of lore, hierarchies, functions, dogmas, traditions, rituals, and volume upon volume upon volume of in-game sacred texts, scriptures, and writings that the player can read and participate in.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cool South Korea?

In my previous post, I asked, "What Happened to Cool Japan?"  My general answer was drawn from personal experiences and observations and somewhat informed by the articles and blogs I've read.  Basically, Cool Japan was smothered by the shrinking economy and the increasing insularity of a society that feels awfully beleaguered.  Although the likes of Murakami Haruki and Miyazaki Hayao have seniority and are somewhat insulated from any backlash against their art and the critical dissection of Japanese society via their well-refined crafts, there's no room for any successors to Murakami Haruki or Miyazaki Hayao.

The side-effect of this is that most of the forms of expression and entertainment have taken on an assembly-line quality, formulaic, derivative, and uninspired.  Occasional flashes to break through the fog, like Attack on Titan, but the overwhelming majority of Japanese intellectual property and immaterial culture is very repetitive and reeks with the pungent hospital-scent of corporate boardroom sterility.

In my last post, I described the process through which a close-knit American anime-fan* subculture evolved--specifically my personal experience of that process.  What I want to emphasize as I write this tonight is how the North American demand for Japanese anime was not matched by Japanese interest in its supply.  The activity was all on our side of the Pacific.  This is one of the reasons why Carl Macek is such a controversial figure--on the one hand, he butchered many of the shows he brought over to the United States; on the other hand, he was instrumental in Japanese anime getting airtime on American television and thereby increasing awareness of anime as a medium for entertainment and storytelling.

*NOTE:  I dislike the word otaku being applied to non-Japanese.  I'm somewhat of a language purist and I don't believe that the word has entered English parlance enough to be allowed a degree of definition shift.  I don't like to refer to non-Japanese anime-fans as otaku because the weight of meaning is not there in the American anime-fan use of the word, primarily all of the social and cultural baggage the term carries with in in Japan.

Throughout much of these developments, the Japanese were utterly passive.  Though the Japanese government and businesses were very concerned with exporting cars and electronics to the United States, they were much less interested in the exercise of soft power when it came to intangible aspects of their culture, such as intellectual properties, narratives, cinema, television, and music.  Although incredibly proud of those novelists and filmmakers that received worldwide recognition, they were much more concerned with the performance of artists and craftsmen domestically and very disinterested in the demands and appetites of North American markets.

That is why I wrote in my last post that we non-Japanese must come to grips with the reality that the Japanese are not concerned with the world beyond their shores.  Streamline Pictures (defunct, 2002), Central Park Media (defunct, 2009), AnimEigo (still around, barely), Manga Entertainment (also still around), AD Vision (defunct, 2009), and Funimation (still around) were all North American companies licensing and distributing anime and Japanese films.  The only two Japanese companies I am aware of that were involved in exporting anime to the United States are Bandai Entertainment and NBCUniversal (which started out as Pioneer, then Geneon, before North America's Universal bought it).  When AnimEigo started letting licenses lapse and most of their translated films and television programs dropped off of Netflix, I knew something was up.  When I started sniffing around, I discovered that after the crash of '08, a huge number of distributors dissolved.  Some of these companies were founded in whole or in part by Japanese individuals who came to the United States, but all of them were headquartered in North America.  When VHS and then DVD/BluRay distribution dried up and people could get their fix via Crunchyroll and Netflix, the licensing and distributing of the anime was no longer profitable.  Granted, things weren't handled as best as they could but the Japanese weren't coming down on fansubbers and non-profit online translator/distributor rackets.  There wasn't enough potential money being lost and the Japanese corporations that owned the IPs were not concerned with what went on in the white spaces on the edges of the map where barbarians and dragons roamed.

We've Come A Long Way Since Madame Butterfly
The fascination began when Europeans and Americans traveled to Japan and were moved to write about the culture and society they experienced.  In a way, however, they inadvertently did violence to Japan in the way that Edward Said describes European scholars did to the Near East in his Orientalism.  In the 1980s, however, Japanese imports into North American markets and Japanese investment in North American infrastructure and the U.S. economy brought about a huge paradigm shift.  This was the first time the Japanese were truly on equal footing with Americans and the American exposure to Japanese culture was no longer through a sort of racist filter the likes of which Orientalism described and decried.

Thus, as a young man, Japan wasn't the land of geisha and samurai, strange tea ceremonies and martial arts, but of brilliant manga artists and talented animators and storytellers.  It was the land that revitalized video game culture after the 1983 video game crash.  There was a mystique about Japan that fascinated us.  The JET program was started by a few Japanese visionaries in order to bring Americans over there and develop cross-cultural communication, not just to teach English to Japanese children.  Nevertheless, the JET program was somewhat of a fluke (albeit one with a lot of staying power) and one of those rare occasions when Japanese leaders realized how important the expression of soft power was in international politics.

The American view of Japan, as seen in World War II movies and films like Gung Ho, Mr. Baseball, You Only Live Twice, The Karate Kid, and Rising Sun, and even recent films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai, are nowhere near as influential to the Japanophile as actual Japanese films and television programs.  We weren't getting our own interpretation of Japan by itself anymore, we were receiving Japan's own self-expression.  We were demanding it.  University courses studying Japanese anime and manga, Japanese language programs, Japanese literature courses, Japanese film studies programs, all began springing up across North America.

Japan was exporting its culture not just to North America but to the entire world.  There was a vast demand for it and countries all over the planet translated and aired television shows like Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z on every single habitable continent.  And yet the Japanese were simply content to ride this wave.  Their insularity made them wholly inattentive to the tremendous political weight these cultural exports gave them in projecting soft power.

The Great Queen Seondeok on Netflix
I lived in South Korea for three years and the South Koreans are, in many ways, just as insular and xenophobic as the Japanese (perhaps moreso).  However, the impact the Hallyu has had on Korean self-esteem and self-image on the international stage has been extremely profound.  A country divided, jockeyed between rival superpowers, and the psychological damage of the Japanese occupation still in living memory, the South Koreans have a very pronounced insecurity complex with regards to their role in international affairs and the strength of their culture.  They're tremendously fragile, which means small victories mean a great deal to them, especially when those victories are against former oppressors like Japan.

So, the Korean Wave is inundated much of the Western Pacific with Korean culture in the form of television drama, K-Pop, and cinema.  Where once the major player was Japan, now Korea is emerging as an exporter of cultural IPs.  Korea was once a blank space on the map for the U.S., a very nondescript culture that was entirely uninteresting and little understood when compared to the gigantic mythological stature of China and Japan in the Western mindset.  Thus, Korea's breakout success with the Hallyu has stunned everyone and opened their eyes to a treasure trove of creativity the likes of which many haven't seen since the bursting of the Japanese bubble and the increasing insularity of Japanese society.

South Korea is determined not to let this opportunity slip away from them.  The South Korean government has been investing in the arts and entertainment industries with a keen awareness that their cultural products are just as important as their cars and electronics.  Although there is a powerful desire to quell dissent within Korean society, the tremendous success of Korean cinema both at home and abroad has given Korean intellectual insurgents a place to go to express their criticisms creatively through art and craft.  Some of the most powerful Korean films I've seen, such as Oldboy, The Chaser, 200 lbs. Beauty, and Secret Sunshine, are powerful commentaries on some of the darker aspects of Korean culture and the Korean psyche.

Is it possible that Korean arts will stagnate as they have in Japan?  Absolutely.  Is it likely that the Koreans are interested in what foreign audiences want?  Nope.  Not a chance.  They're as culturally and socially locked to domestic appetites and tastes as the Japanese are and also just as uninterested in outside input.

So what is the difference?  Money.  The Koreans are making sure they support their projection of soft power financially.  This will slow down the inevitable cycle of artistic vitality--artistic stagnation and give the South Koreans more staying power than the Japanese ever had.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Happened to Cool Japan?

Hearts of Furious Fancies and Ogiue Maniax recently posted on the state of the Japanese cultural export situation, with Hearts taking a more broad approach and response to Global Elite Magazine's post here that was a running commentary of this article from the Christian Science Monitor.  Meanwhile, Ogiue Maniax focused on the current state of American anime fandom.

Let's face it, I'm behind the curve here.  This is all news to me.  However, it is news by which I am entirely not surprised and honestly should have been aware enough to see coming back in 2007 when Toonami dropped off of Cartoon Network.  (Ogiue Maniax reports that its back and doing extremely well in the ratings department.)

So, what happened?  Where did Cool Japan go?  Was it really just a fad propped up by Gen X and Gen Y and now that both generations are (by-and-large) out of college and in the working world (or at least struggling to find and keep jobs) they have no time or energy to devote to youthful fancies and nostalgic hobbies?  Global Elite Magazine, riffing off of the CSM's article, attributes much of this to the cultural and socio-economic stagnation of the Japanese system.  Essentially, Japan is one big Good Ol' Boys' Club where age and seniority are inscrutable and those without seniority are loath to criticize their superiors.  Having just read You Gotta Have Wa and reviewed it, this latest series of articles and posts served to simply reinforce this impression of the tyranny of seniority.  The weight of the top-down society in Japan crushes dissenting voices.  What makes things worse is the almost universal resistance to outside criticism.
"Better yet, a debate is needed within Japan to improve Japanese culture on the whole, meaning: more power to women, youth, minorities and artists; less grovelling to loan sharks, Keidanren, and mandarins.  But any attempt to question the tenets of Japanese culture is likely to draw accusations of racism or Japan bashing.  Issues about how to heal the sickness in the heart of the culture--stress, alcoholism, suicide--aren't likely to come up during the two-week election campaign about the TPP and NPPs."  --Christopher Johnson, Global Elite Magazine
Johnson sums up succinctly and clearly the issue with outsiders who want to offer suggestions or constructive criticism (a concept nonexistent in East Asian culture).  The emphasis on "face" has created an enormous obstacle to progress and advancement in a society that seems to be stuck in a mud-pit.  Seriously, read Johnson's article.  It strikes the core of issues that are not unique to Japan, but also to South Korea and China as well.  There's a resistance to foreigners in these cultures and an insularity that makes the Ku Klux Klan look like they're positively egalitarian.

Spider Jerusalem would be utterly and absolutely unwelcome in Japan, South Korea, and especially China.

Yankee Go Back 2 4chan!
Unless you speak the language fluently, you're not very welcome in the East Asian cyberworld.  A funny and humorous example can be seen in this reddit series on playing online games with people when you're a foreigner.  Internet anonymity removes any and all barriers of taste and manners for many people, allowing them to express deep and pervasive prejudices, aggression, dislikes, and outright hatreds.  Make one mistake with your Japanese on 2ch and you'll get a plethora of accusations and admonitions to "go back to 4chan" where you belong.

CAVEAT:  Yes I am speaking in generalities.  Guess what?  Generalities and stereotypes exist for a reason.  Human beings learn from pattern recognition.  It is part of our survival mechanism.  It is a huge fallacy that stereotypes and generalities are bad--by themselves they are simply tools and like any tool, how they are used determines whether or not the result is good or bad.  No, not all Koreans, Japanese, or Chinese are like this.

A lot of foreigners who try to work themselves into Japanese social situations, especially the otaku subculture, invariably meet passive-aggressive resistance to their inclusion.  Part of this is the language barrier but much of it is due to the foreigner being a disruptive influence when it comes to wa.  We're noisy, obnoxious, opinionated, and individualistic.  We don't realize that you're not supposed to disagree with anybody.  It took a long time for me to realize this in South Korea, since I repeatedly encountered this.  When it dawned on me that I should just agree with what the consensus said, suddenly new Korean acquaintances stopped blowing me off, started wanting to hang out more.  Granted this is in Korea, but Japan isn't so far off.  You really can't let someone know what you really think until you and your Japanese friend have reached the honne stage of intimacy, when tatemae can be dropped.  Americans are just used to disagreeing with one another.  We can agree to disagree, stay friends, and get along because we've a culture that emphasizes individual uniqueness.

In East Asia, uniqueness is dissent.

We disturb the peace just from existing.  We're unpredictable.  And what really is the kicker, we're dramatically misunderstood and there doesn't seem to be any real interest in actually understanding who and what we really are.

Why Anime is Dead
I know, I know, it's not, really.  But for me it is, by-and-large.  Why?

The creativity and vitality is gone.

Miyazaki Hayao said that the anime industry is full of otaku and that's a really bad thing.
"With plenty of anime portraying characters without development or capability of change and agency, Miyazaki has a point.  In order to create compelling stories and characters, a person needs to both have well-rounded experiences and meet different people."  --Carly Smith, Escapist Magazine (article here).
Character stagnation is only one part of the problem that I've noticed.  It's only the tip of the iceberg.  My biggest issue when I look at the lists of anime on CrunchyRoll or Netflix is that I'm seeing variations on the same themes, over and over and over again.  I'm not interested in seeing the same stories repeated ad infinitum.

Shows that use a trope or theme as a vehicle to tell a story are dwindling in favor of formulaic plots and character designs.  There's always the bishounen guy who is super-confident and oh-so-cool, the megane girl, the tsundere girl, the sporty girl, the dark and tortured soul guy who hates everyone and his own situation, the Rei Ayanami clone, the list goes on and the characters themselves never actually evolve or develop into anything more than a two-dimensional (pun not intended) caricature.  The settings are always in some post-apocalyptic world, an alternate reality world, a war with giant robots, a typical Japanese middle/high school, a wonderful Japanese (or pseudo-French) boarding school for rich kids, a school for magical studies, a post-apocalyptic school, or an alternate reality school (my God, I am SO DAMN TIRED OF SHOWS SET IN HIGH SCHOOLS OR MIDDLE SCHOOLS!!!).  Everybody wears a school uniform.  Everyone is 15 years old.  Harem situations are ubiquitous.

The sad thing is, some of my favorite shows of all time have a lot of these tropes.  The difference is, they develop the narrative so that these tropes are just a vehicle.  They're tools, not the point.  Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Neon Genesis Evangelion had giant robots.  If you watch those shows, however, the robots take a back seat to the characters' internal struggles and dilemmas.  Legend of the Galactic Heroes has the bishounen blond Reinhard von Lohengramm, but von Lohengramm loses occasionally, especially to his foil, Yang Wenli, who is a lazy bum that just happens to be as much of a strategic genius.  Trigun, Vision of Escaflowne, and Cowboy Bebop were three of the best shows that came out when I was in college.

Is it just me?  Am I just being nostalgic?  I don't know.  I really enjoyed Attack on Titan's first season on Netflix, I loved the Ghost in the Shell series, and have a very soft spot in my heart for Alfonse and Edward Elric.

Love and Anime in the Age of VHS
We had to get a lot of our stuff fansubbed back in the 1990s.  We also had the hit-or-miss anime wall at Blockbuster.  For every video cassette of Neon Genesis Evangelion there was an abortion like Baoh.  Still, anime was so new and the storytelling tropes and narrative structures were so unique to us, who were accustomed to Hollywood and American television, that Vampire Hunter DNinja ScrollAkira, Ghost in the Shell, Fist of the North StarWicked City, and Iria: Zeiram the Animation were amazing.  We'd never seen anything like this stuff.  We worked for minimum wage on weekends and summers (around $4.50/hour), gasoline was $0.95 a gallon, and an anime VHS cassette was $25 at Suncoast Video.  It was cheaper to rent a video for 3 days at Blockbuster for $4.50, take it home, hook our VCRs together and bootleg ourselves a copy or two.  Everything was invariably poorly dubbed but occasionally, we could afford a $30 subtitled video tape.  Soon, our rooms were full of bootleg tapes with Dragonball ZBubblegum CrisisRecord of Lodoss War, and Ranma 1/2.  Sometimes we'd catch heavily edited and dubbed films on Sci-Fi channels' summer anime weekend festivals that happened every year (which is how I first saw Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer).

Those of us who actually got fansubbed anime were like gurus.  They knew the sites, got to know the fansubbers personally through email.  In the dark age before Amazon, we emailed our request, printed out the reply, cut a check for $5 a fansubbed tape (plus shipping and handling), mailed it, waited a month, and then received our prize in a U.S. Postal Service envelope.  During college, when we had access to the Internet through our campus networks (T-1 connection, baby!) we emailed away for fansubbed shows not available in the States through distribution, got our tapes, then copied them for our friends and traded around.  We had anime nights where we first watched shows that were already a year or two old in Japan.  When we watched a fansubbed Otaku no Video for the first time, we felt a real kinship with the anime fans in Japan.

Everything we got seemed different, unique.  Yeah, there were common threads we saw in all of the settings, characters, and narratives.  Nevertheless, it all felt different.  Each show had its own character, feel, and story that kept things feeling rather fresh and unexpected.  It was absorbing.  It was special.  You had to work hard to get your anime and since most of it you couldn't afford, you took shortcuts.  Yeah, that probably hurt the industry a bit, I'll admit.  But it probably didn't hurt it as much as the streaming and the downloading that would become rampant in the years following 2001.

Neon Genesis Evangelion hit the shelves of Blockbuster around 1997.  With our new drivers' licenses, we drove to Blockbuster, rented it, bootlegged it, and watched, rewatched, and re-rewatched the episodes.  Then, we sat at the diner and discussed our dozens of theories.  What is Gendo's plan?  What are the Dead Sea Scrolls and what do they predict?  What happened during the Second Impact?  What are the Angels?  Why are they attacking?  Hey guys, I bet you $20 that Rei is a clone of Shinji's mom!

Once VHS died, a lot of the culture surrounding anime in America changed.  Suddenly, anime became mainstream and the distributors realized that DVD could be more easily controlled and more difficult to copy (although enterprising individuals found workarounds on their computers).  Easily bootlegged VHS tapes vanished.  Blockbuster for rentals later collapsed when streaming emerged as The Way to Get Your Fix.

Suddenly, we were inundated with anime.  But the anime was different.  At first, it all seemed to be attempts by the producers and writers to recapture the cultural impact of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Once that started to fade, the otaku boom/Akihabara boom had already happened in Japan.  Densha Otoko and Akihabara@DEEP ushered in the short-lived, quasi-mainstreaming of "fashionable" otakuness.  Even the original Genshiken manga was a contributor and beneficiary of this development.

And overnight, manga and anime alike became by otaku and for otaku.  Stagnation set in.

The Overseas Market Doesn't Matter.  At all.  Ever.  And never will.
The occasional overseas collaboration like Afro Samurai are rare, noteworthy (especially for their rarity), and therefore unique.  They are exceptions that prove the rule.

The fact is, manga and anime have always been made for domestic audiences.  It doesn't matter that the distributors overseas started folding back in the late aughts.  It wouldn't have mattered if those distributors had marketed and sold anime in North America very effectively.  It doesn't matter how huge American otaku conventions have grown.  The foreign market has always been and always will be a distant afterthought for most Japanese mangaka and anime developers.

The Japanese anime market is dictated most strongly by the Japanese consumer and moe culture has gone haywire over there.  Selling hyper-expensive figurines is the primary drive for many anime programs.  Shops and businesses throughout Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town in Osaka pulled in otaku where they would exchange their hard-earned yen for dolls, posters, figurines, and audio CDs with their favorite voice-actors singing songs in character.  Merchandising is not new to anime and manga, nor unique to Japan but it seems that anime's greatest purpose is to be an object of consumption.  US consumption of all these peripherals pales in comparison to Japan, especially since shipping and distribution of all of these peripherals is much more costly and difficult than distribution of the anime and manga themselves.  That isn't the problem with the overseas market being ignored.  The problem lies in to whom the shows and comics are being marketed in the first place and since manga and anime are for and by otaku to a growing exclusion of other demographics in Japan, it is not only reinforcing the weird otaku stereotype but alienating anyone who is not specifically a Japanese otaku.

After the bubble burst in the 1990s Japan has been growing more and more insular, which is unsurprising since their economy is still shrinking and it is human nature to circle the wagons when threats are perceived.  Even when the Japanese economy was a powerhouse the Japanese were very resistant to foreign ideas and knowledge.  Their ability to tolerate dissent and critique has always been low but in the past two decades it has further shrunken dramatically.  Japan is producing no more Murakami Harukis, Mishima Yukios, or Miyazaki Hayaos because the hammer is falling more heavily on nails that stick up than it ever has since 1945.  The powerful impact of manga like Akira is in the excoriating scrutiny, examination and critique of Japanese society that provides.  There is no more room for mangaka like Otomo to evolve in the current Japanese climate.  The otaku consumer is, in this way, much like the mainstream American consumer--cheap escapist fantasy that is unchallenging and allows you to switch-off and veg-out is sold to them.  It's mind-numbing, comfortable, and ultimately empty.

Should We Go Back to 4chan?
American consumers like me who remember a time when anime challenged our worldviews, brought new dialogues and narratives into our awareness, and kicked us in the mind are going to lose interest in the same-old, same-old.  Granted, there were harem situations in the 1980s and 1990s and yes, after season 2, I got extremely bored with Ranma 1/2 and never got into Tenchi Muyo.  This was expected, though.  As I realized that manga and anime were mediums and not genres, I developed tastes for specific genres within the mediums as a whole.  The problem I have today is that the genres have become formulaic and certain genres have fallen off of the radar entirely.

What we non-Japanese have to realize and understand, though, is how much Japan does not care about what we think.  Indeed, if our criticisms even reach Japanese ears (or eyes) they'll invariably feel compelled to lock shields and take cover behind the tried-and-true "you're foreign so you don't understand our inscrutable ways" defense.  It's pointless.  The market that matters in this situation is Japan and Japan alone and the only demographic that matters is the otaku demographic.  We are irrelevant.

Outlook: Not So Good
So, what happened to Cool Japan?  Rampant otaku consumerism is one thing.  That killed one aspect of Japan's appeal--it's visual culture of anime and manga.  Although this is just a symptom of Japan's overall decline in artistic dynamism and creativity (discussed heavily in the posts and articles linked above), this decline has impacted one of Japan's most intense expressions of soft power and cultural (as opposed to material) export.

I'll discuss whether or not South Korea and China will be able to replace Japan in a future post.