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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! This and the previous post on "whither cool Japan" are excellent! I would also commend to you the series at neojaponisme, especially their "death spiral" theory of fan market contraction, buried in pt2 of the series that starts here:


While I (sadly) agree with your essay, I hold out hopes for originality and cross-cultural synthesis from fan production. Something besides porn must eventualy filter out of the great engines of comiket in the form of new manga, vn/games and light novels. Hope springs...

On an obverse note, have you ever heard of the western solo effort "Analogue A Hate Story"? Faux Korean scifi! Sounds fascinating, but my game chops are sadly lacking.

Cheers and thanks!