Thursday, 6 November 2008

Looking Inward / Looking Outward: Part 2

In part one, way back in August, I wrote about a trend within anime that derives from the inward-looking nature of a lot of modern, third generation otaku culture. By third generation, what I'm really talking about here is the generation that grew up in a world rehabilitated by the media, free from the shadow of "otaku murderer" Miyazaki Tsutomu, and spoiled by the rush of more intelligent and mature anime that Evangelion kicked off in the late 1990s.

Where the first generation of otaku were viewed by mainstream Japan with confusion and disdain, if they were noticed at all, and the second generation were treated with outright revulsion, the third generation are accepted and even celebrated. A clear example of this is the 2005 TV series Densha Otoko, which took a setting centred around otaku culture (Akihabara, anime fandom, Internet message-board 2channel) and crafted a schmalzy love story around it*, starring make-up commercial/mobile phone campaign girl Ito Misaki and targetted squarely at mass consumption. If that's not enough for you, the new prime minister of Japan, Aso Taro, is a self proclaimed nerd, who talks of anime and manga exports being used to boost Japan's economy and increase its soft power abroad.

Marxy over at his old Neomarxisme blog posited the theory that otaku were being rehabilitated because of the economic role they play as consumers and that they were being held up as an example to remind Japanese people what a good consumer looks like.
So the media shifts all attention to Akihabara, because they still purchase items, go the extra mile to find rare artefacts, and show an envious loyalty towards their heros and icons. It's not that anime or manga are "cool" all of a sudden but they are the only ones to show up on the field.

Certainly the rise of the third generation of otaku has gone hand in hand with the idea of the "media mix", where the anime, comic, light novel series, computer/video game series and drama CD are produced and marketed hand in hand. With this overwhelming influx of product, is it any surprise that, as I said in part 1, the modern otaku's frame of reference turns further and further inward? Compare Densha Otoko's opening sequence with the 1983 original (by the team who later formed Gainax). The original pulls in references to a wide range of both Japanese and Western pop culture -- the song is ELO, for fuck's sake! -- whereas the focus of Densha Otoko's parody is entirely inward.

But let's get back to Aso's comments for a moment. Regardless of how seriously you take the idea of anime reviving the Japanese economy (a 2006 estimate puts the total world value of the anime market, complete with all associated goods, at around $23 billion; in contrast, electronics giant Sony posted revenue of over $88 billion all by itself in 2008), there is only so much saturation that the Japanese market can take and so as otaku turn inwards, the industry itself increasingly has to turn outwards.

As a result, we are seeing increasing amounts of anime being made with overseas audiences in mind and the results are interesting. Generally speaking, it seems that most attempts have followed one of two strategies, looking either to the influence of Hollywood, or to the overseas success of directors like Oshii Mamoru and Miyazaki Hayao (or some combination of the two approaches).

Films like Vexille and Appleseed take the Hollywood approach, bringing in supposedly hip electronic artists to do the sountrack, chucking in sexy-looking action scenes, and writing shitty scripts. Vexelle makes an interesting inversion of the "anime nationalist" meme with its portrayal of the Japanese government as corrupt isolationists and the focus on an American heroine. One wonders if this decision was made particularly with the motive of selling the film to Americans. Is this the assumption that Americans will simply not watch a film where they aren't the deliverers of justice to poor, backwards foreign countries? If so, it is perhaps tempting to suggest that those in the West, and Hollywood in particular, might want to reflect on the image that they present to the rest of the world.

Foreign sales are also probably something that Studio Gonzo had at least half an eye on with their sumptuously animated steampunk/fantasy adventure Last Exile. Again the script is rubbish, but this is probably less down to the studio's low expectations of a foreign audience than it is their own more mundane deficiencies. Never let it be said that Gonzo don't spread their mediocrity around evenly. Like Vexille, Last Exile reaches out to the overseas audience with extremely high production values (far higher than any TV series could normally command) to give it a more Hollywood-like cinematic sweep, but also references Miyazaki's Laputa with its flying ships and cheerfully stupid child leads.

Ergo Proxy carries distant echoes of The Matrix (which in itself borrows heavily from anime going back through Ghost in the Shell and Akira to Megazone 23) and couples that with a script by Sato Dai, who gained a lot of kudos in the West for his work on Cowboy Bebop and various other well received shows. To polish things off, the closing theme is Paranoid Android by Radiohead, although the inclusion of opening theme Kiri by Monoral (at the time unknown outside Japan although both members are mixed race Japanese/other) suggests that the producers might have been cultivating an image of "foreignness" as much for the benefit of the Japanese audience as for an overseas one.

The list could go on, but the last show I'm going to mention here is the currently running Bonen no Xam'd (Xam'd: Lost Memories) by Bones. I interviewed the director, Miyaji Masayuki, for The Japan Times last month, and while there's no way that my editor was ever going to allow me to indulge in the sort of interminable navel-gazing I get up to on this blog, but it's worth reading over in relation to what I'm writing about here.

Xam'd is radical largely in how normal it is. It is remarkable for just how old fashioned and classical the story is, recalling shows like the older Gundam series' and movies like Gainax's Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. It panders to foreign audiences with its blatant Miyazaki references, and the inclusion of Boom Boom Satellites' song over the opening credits is probably partly an attempt to latch onto some idea of "cool Japan". I shan't talk about the series in detail here because the article says enough itself, but there are some points that are worth expanding on a bit.

First is the decision to release the series through Sony's Playstation Network rather than broadcast it on normal TV. By selling it episode by episode, they can target their audience more directly and are less beholden to advertisers' wishes or TV companies' own broadcasting restrictions on violence/language/sexual content etc. (presuming of course that Sony's own restrictions would be more liberal in that regard). Second is the decision to sell it in America first. The staff from Sony and Bones were hesitant to talk about the reasons for this but I think they must have been at least partially considering the greater numbers of Playstation Online users in America and the saturation of the Japanese anime market, perhaps hoping to make a splash in America and then sell it back to Japan on the back of overseas success. Also, I think Miyaji's point,
"I want to be able to reach out to a different kind of audience — video game, movie or film audience rather than just anime fans"
is interesting. By breaking away, at least partially, from the commercial restrictions of the Japanese anime world, releasing the show to an overseas audience through a games machine, Xam'd is representative of the dying days of the third generation of otaku.

Already the Internet has made Akihabara relevant more as a tourist spot like Harajuku than a place of crucial importance to otaku culture, and the creative peak of the third generation's "database type culture" has probably already passed (Haruhi, Lucky Star, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei). The Playstation Network style (although perhaps not PSN itself) of release structure, like iTunes is doing for music, will probably have the effect of fragmenting the anime world. Diversity of genres and styles aside, otaku culture nevertheless relies on a series of reference points and conventions that are universally understood amongst those within that particular society but not necessarily by those outside. The colour-coding of female characters' hair or Sentai series characters suits, the meanings of bizarre visual signifiers such as the ahoge, the increasingly deformed and disconected-from-reality characterisations that form the nebulous creation that is moe, the list goes on. Western anime fans won't automatically understand all the semiotics at play here, and as they become a more and more important market for anime, clever studios will learn to adapt their work to appeal to increasingly diverse range of subgroups. Japanese otaku culture as it is now will command influence over a narrower and narrower range of work being produced, and under the influence of this more targetted, less homogeneous release and marketing structure, increasingly fragment as well.

What we are seeing now is partly just one of the natural periods of directionless meandering in the industry that comes after a boom has started to subside. Shows like Strike Witches push moe culture to more and more absurd extremes whereas shows like Xam'd step back and focus on more classical cinematic views of storytelling, characterisation and structure; other shows stick to tried and tested formulae and try not to rock the boat. Nevertheless, the shifts in the industry that we are seeing now, as it moves in a more globalised direction and immerses itself more and more in digital distribution make me think that this fragmentation is something more than just a lull and one of its early repercussions will be the death of the 3G otaku.

*Yes, I know it's supposed to be a true story, but surely no one actually believes that, right?


Senile_Seinen said...

An unwelcome amount of Real Life (tm) has been happening, so hadn't checked in on you recently. Nice work here - I'm not used to seeing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche referenced in a discussion of shounen heroes.

Recently I've observed a little bit of this as well from a different angle - I'm finally getting round to watching Cowboy Bebop, which is about as free of the pressure of societal convention as it could be and still be Japanese.

I think you've explored the fairly linear path of development of the shounen mecha show hero (and you eponymously reference Grave of the Fireflies without talking about it). I'm curious, though: where do you fit things like Cowboy Bebop, Texhnolyze or Now and Then, Here and There into this framework?

Senile_Seinen said...

Oops...just realized that I commented the wrong post. Apply to the one that logically fits, please.

dotdash said...

Hi, I'm not sure how to move your comments to the right article but I know which one you mean. I'll reply over on the right thread to avoid confusion.

Papula said...
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