Japan Remains Foreign Despite Anime Exports, Consumption

Colette wrote a great little thing over at CNN’s new geek blog doohicky. But like a wonderful story with an ending you hated, I really had to react to the way it characterizes what is going on with anime today towards the end of the article. And by “today” I mean the past 5 years.

Okay, you can point to Eden of the East for a lot of cool doohickeys, but by not noticing its main social message, a message pointedly for the Japanese domestic audience, it kind of sinks the boat that the article was on.

I do have to say though, the first 2/3 of the article is a good summary, if it kept things brief in order to get to the point and you miss out on a few details. The last bit is just what seems off. It reads:

So what’s changed? Japan has. As Japanese culture evolves, so has the tone of Japanese media. The evolution towards anime with lighter subject matter seems to indicate that Japan needed to laugh more and worry less.

Around the time that “slice of life” shows started to explode in Japanese popularity, it became obvious to the dedicated Otaku viewer that the heart of anime was changing. For example, the average length of a show has changed from 26 episodes to 13, giving directors a little over half the time to build a story and allow characters to develop fan followings. Production focuses on quantity over quality, with twenty or more shows airing every season.

This lighter approach has not taken the reins of the anime industry completely: There are deeper stories to be found in its animated films, such as “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and series such as “Eden of the East”, which explored topics such as technology, terrorism and political uprising.

To some, it may appear as if Japan has traded a willing exploration into the darkness for escapism in the form of silliness, but the rising popularity of comedies shows that Japanese audiences are enjoying them tremendously. Especially after the Tokoku earthquake earlier this year, the country needs more reason than ever to stay positive and lighthearted, and perhaps shows such as this help to fuel them.

Okay, so we know that anime’s first golden age that America is aware of is in the 80s. The article seems to imply as much. And anime has always evolved ever since it was created who-knows-when in the early parts of 20th century. Even before Tezuka took it to prime time. Slice of life anime [ugh I loathe the term] has been around for a long time, too, technically dating back when TV anime was more stand-alone, kind of like cartoons on TV as we know it (as that’s what they were).

But what about the Akiba boom of the 90s? Maids? Tsundere? The parade of the database animals? Satoshi Kon? I mean Hosoda’s Girl Who Leapt Through Time is great and I believe Colette just watched it not too long ago, so the name stuck. But this geek view is more like the weeaboo view. It’s very mainstream-western-press-centric, American-centric, and misses the point of why anime like Eden of the East was created in the first place: to address its laundry list of social ills from the Lost Generation. There’s also the usual missteps regarding the licensing business about licensing internationally, like why titles that runs forever are shunned over for 13-ep shots that makes easier pitches and sales. With the economy in neutral gear, Japan’s desperate publishers and squeezed animator pool can only shoulder so much creative risks, once the OVA market dried up and shifted into the late-night anime model starting from the late 90s.

For a CNN article, it was pretty nice and I think it addresses well with the majority of the anime-familiar public audience that reads English news on the web. But in the end, the article poses a question about American perception of anime over time and wants to posit that wall of natural ignorance as its perch, the origin of the point of view. It seeks to empathize with other people on this perch and not those of us who’s gotten closer to the ground to see why things are the way they are, let alone the actual Japanese people and the anime industry that’s actually in Japan.

If this is the majority point of view for the American mainstream geek, I’m going to ask the next question: has anime really gotten anime viewers closer to Japan’s actual cultural and social interests? Do we really know what’s going on? The answer is obvious–because they rather care about how much fanservice is in anime today rather than why it’s there, like that, in the first place.

And what’s truly lamentable is how a post like that overlooks the development of the fandom in recent years. Precisely because now you have Americans (and other non-Japanese) with papers and thesis about the way Japanese pop culture influences Japan, America, and the rest of the world. You have books and books of academic press (and some non-academic stuff) about anime and manga and Japanese video games. You even have a Danny Choo, if you want another person who’s been on CNN. In fact, you have people talking about “moe blobs” or “tsundere” in the comments. Oversea fandom itself has since evolved from the time that everyone would put Cowboy Bebop on the highest pedestal: we have a generation of fans who are now asking the why questions, and engaging the works on a much deeper level. These are the people who are real geeks and nerds, those people who are not just tourists gawking at and enjoying these weird Japanese cartoons, but actually learning about them and engaging them on the ground level (or as close as their contexts would allow for).

Amusingly, Colette is the kind of person who asks the why questions. She even uses it to lead off the end of the article.  So maybe this isn’t really about Japan or even anime at all: this is more about a school of thought, a particular tribe within a subculture in America. I mean I remember when I was first watching Toonami’s Midnight Run. You know which title got me excited? Gundam Wing. Gundam! On American TV! For the first time!  The biggest Japanese symbol of geek has now landed on a channel everyone can actually watch! But it’s not even mentioned in Colette’s article. So you know, even before the narrative about the “downfall of anime” or whatever has begun, one could just easily say nothing about anime has really changed, when compared to the pairs of eyes watching Toonami before and after their formative, teenage years.

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