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.


Alister Smith said...

Hi Dave,
Thank you for your thought-provoking article.
I realise you posted it more than a year ago but recently I've been thinking about the same thing - what happened to the Cool Japan I knew when I was growing up?

I'm from Melbourne, Australia and I have a very similar experience with you - Neon Genesis Evangelion was my Anime gateway-drug that got me hooked.
The characters were so interesting, the story-telling unconventional and unexpected.
I grew up in the outmost suburbs of Melbourne and so to watch anime I had to get my mother to drive me into the closest town and take the bus to the asian area of Melbourne where I could hire out VHS' from a store called 'Hobby Japan'. As far as I know, I was the only person in my school let-alone the area where I lived that did that.
I hired Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ranma 1/2, Tenchi Muyo, Ah My Goddess and others.
Like you said, compared with standard western entertainment Anime was so fresh and compelling, and depending on the show, hilarious.

When I went to University one of the first things I did was join the resident anime club with my friend who was studying a course similar to mine. In the years of university I noticed anime was subtly changing, but just like boiling a frog you don't notice that much until it's dead!

After graduating I largely ignored anime coming out as none of it held me like it did before then.

It's interesting to compare Japan to Korea in that Japan had it's meteoric rise in the 80s and 90s and is now declining, whereas while we were growing up Korea was unknown, definitely not as cool as Japan and wasn't making anything as cool or as good quality as Japan was.

However before university while still at school I studied Korean and found Koreans easier to get along with than Japanese - ironically when I traveled to Korea to study Korean further most of my friends were Japanese as they were my classmates and Koreans aren't as likely to study Korean!

The recent rise of k-pop and Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and LG have been fascinating to behold. Almost with a linear relationship, the decline of Sony, Panasonic, Toyota and other Japanese car makers has been sad to watch - who doesn't remember Sony's walkmans and minidisc players which were so much cooler and better than the competition back in the 90s?

Along with the decline in Japanese physical exports from car and electronic makers, I have felt the same thing with anime. Just like you said, the same tropes over and over again. In fact, until most recently with the advent of One Punch Man and My Love Story I haven't watched or enjoyed any anime except the Studio Ghibli stuff.

I could go on and would love to have struck up a dialog about this but suffice to say thanks for your article!

Dave Cesarano said...


Thanks for your comment. Haven't gotten around to responding to it because I've been busy teaching these past few semesters and it keeps me from writing as much as I'd like--that's why my posts have slowed to a trickle.

Your observations are spot-on! It is also interesting how different Japanese and Koreans are, culturally. I should probably get around to writing more soon, but midterms are coming up and I will be having a lot of grading to do. Hopefully, though, I'll get some time to put something up.

Love having dialogues. I've even considered starting a vlog channel on YouTube but I'm not the most photogenic guy in the world.