Brain Diving
Mommy's Little Monster

by Brian Ruh, May 31st 2011


The great thing about having an interest in something like anime is that sometimes you can con people into taking your hobby seriously.

Okay, I don't really mean that. I mean, if anything, people probably accuse me of giving anime and manga more intellectual weight than they think they really deserve. This whole column grew out of the idea that not only is there something to be gained when we try to venture beneath the surface of anime and manga, it can be fun as well. And I certainly wouldn't want to undermine this point. At the same time, though, we now have various local and national agencies in Japan taking anime and manga so very seriously that they are promoting the vague idea of Japan as a “cool” place to come and spend your money. (I can't deny, though, that Japan needs foreign visitors now more than ever. I'd be there in a second if plane tickets weren't so expensive and the yen wasn't hovering in the low 80s to the US dollar.)
For instance, take the fact that Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has a whole “Creative Industries Promotion” office to strategically develop Japan's cultural or creative industries “such as design, animation, fashion and movies.” A bit late to the game, they've noticed the popularity of such products abroad and they have decided to use it to their advantage. This approach also ignores the fact that throughout most of anime's life, it hasn't had much in the way of government support at all and has seemed to do reasonably well. I'm not arguing that government assistance couldn't be useful – in spite of all the merchandising you see and the ridiculous price of DVDs and BDs in Japan, animators generally earn a pitifully low wage and consequently there is a dwindling pool of new talent. (Mamoru Oshii has famously said that one of the reasons he went with 3D animation for the flying scenes in Sky Crawlers was that there were not enough talented people in the industry anymore to pull off what he was envisioning in 2D.) If an infusion of money and promotion could boost the fortunes of the anime industry, I'd be all for it.

What Japan really needs are more kids. Think about it – throughout the late 20th century, one of the reasons why anime was booming was that there were so many programs geared toward children. There was a fair amount of long running, high quality stuff, too, like all of those World Masterpiece Theater shows. In the current climate for anime, it's becoming increasingly difficult to justify longer shows. Kid-friendly shows with large episode counts used to be the basis of the industry, whereas it's now the exception rather than the rule. So I say this to all of the otaku out there – if you want anime to survive through the 21st century, it is your duty to go out there and reproduce.

Concerns like “Japanese cool,” anime as commercial product, and the survival of the form itself are just a few topics touched on in the hefty book Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture. Published in 2005 and edited by artist Takashi Murakami, this sprawling book of images and essays marked the opening of Murakami's art exhibition of the same name. For those who have never heard of Takashi Murakami, for many years he worked to bring Japanese popular culture, particularly anime and manga, into the world of fine arts. His paintings are colorful and poppy, sometimes going for a generalized anime character aesthetic, while at other times referencing specific anime. He has also done work in sculpture – one of the most notable is probably “My Lonesome Cowboy,” which depicts a character reminiscent of Cloud from Final Fantasy VII creating a lasso out of his own, er, manly essence. Go ahead and Google it (if you're over eighteen, I guess). Murakami was also the original creator of a short film called Superflat Monogram, directed by Mamoru Hosoda, in which you can see quite a number of elements Hosoda would later incorporate into the OZ sequences in his own film Summer Wars.

The Little Boy book is a prime example of people who do not seem to be fans trying to make sense of the meaning behind Japanese popular culture. I include Murakami himself in this category. While he seems to grasp the aesthetics of the medium and can certainly appreciate anime on an artistic level, Murakami doesn't approach it as a fan might. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing – when you get away from fans’ perspectives, you're going to generate different ideas than you might if an anime fan was trying to create art based on his or her own fandom. (This is all too common in contemporary anime – too many creators seem to be influenced only by other anime, instead of taking in a wide variety of global film and literature as many of the best creators have done.) And if you look at just the first few pages of the book, you can get an idea of the scale Murakami is working on. The Little Boy exhibition was organized by the venerable Japan Society, with a sponsorship from Microsoft (among other noteworthy, but smaller, entities), and with transportation provided by Japan Air Lines. This was not some small exhibit intended for a tiny, niche audience; rather, it was a grand display of art complete with significant corporate sponsors.
Before I continue, I feel like I need to mention than only six years after the book came out, it is certainly showing its age, given that it came out around the height of the boom in Japanese popular culture here in North America. Back then it could still be argued that Japan was “cool,” and people who may not have been fans were at least curious to see how Murakami was reshaping Japanese cultural products. I think it would be much harder to stage a show like Little Boy these days. Regardless of the current economic situation, which puts a strain on everyone, I just don't think the widespread interest in, or at least curiosity about, anime and manga is nearly as prevalent as it was a few short years ago.

Even though Murakami uses anime and manga as the basis for the majority of his work, he is far from uncritical about it. He calls the vision of the world promoted in anime a utopia, but he's not being serious – it's really more of a dystopia, as you can see from his description of it as “a world nearly devoid of discriminatory impulses. A place for people unable to comprehend the moral coordinates of right and wrong as anything other than a rebus for ‘I feel good.’” He means to extend this critique to contemporary Japan as well, which was defeated by the United States in World War II and then occupied for another seven years (twenty years in the case of the southern islands of Okinawa, although you could convincingly argue that the US is still given free reign there for the most part). In fact the name Little Boy comes from the code name of the atomic bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima to try to end the war. Even though the nuclear effects have long since dissipated, according to Murakami the mindset of being conquered and colonized still persists. As he writes, “We Japanese still embody ‘Little Boy,’ nicknames, like the atomic bomb itself, after a nasty childhood taunt.”

At the same time, it seems that Murakami wants to retain anime as something Japanese, as something the country can be proud of in spite of its flaws. In his introductory essay, Murakami tries to draw connections among various aspects of postwar popular culture. Divided into discrete sections, he discusses Howl's Moving Castle, Dragon Ball, Akira, Daicon IV, the Crayon Shin-chan film The Adult Empire Strikes Back, Yamato and Gundam, the atomic bomb, Evangelion, otaku, convenience stores, yurui (lethargic) characters, V.S. Ramachandran's book Phantoms in the Brain, robots, and finally children. Unfortunately, some of these sections contribute more to Murakami's overall argument than others; for example, the Daicon IV section consists mostly of a description of the short film created by the proto-Gainax gang of animators. He concludes these meditations with the words, “After interminable mutation, a deformed abomination, a face hideous with scars, there is still meaning in life. Our culture may be repulsive, but I want the future to know the meaning of our lives.” This is incredibly pessimistic, but it also seems to point to seeing Japan as a unique outlier in world culture. In the next essay in the book, also by Murakami, he seems to put a more positive spin on this assessment, writing “now more than ever, we must pride ourselves on our art, the work of monsters.” In other words, Murakami's art, anime, manga, and Japanese popular arts in general are all a part of a hideous cultural deformity, but one that can be promoted and capitalized upon, apparently.

These essays by Murakami are part of the latter two-thirds of the book, which consists of a series of essays from various contributors discussing Murakami's work, the work of the other artists in his Little Boy exhibition, and the Japanese art scene in general. Like Murakami's essays, these pieces often touch on anime, manga, and otaku either directly or indirectly, so they make for interesting reading even for anime fans who have little interest in Murakami's fine arts approach to popular culture. The most interesting piece for fans in here is probably a roundtable discussion between Murakami, Toshio Okada (former Gainax member and the self-proclaimed otaking), and Kaichiro Morikawa (author of Learning from Akihabara: The Birth of a Personapolis – now that Hiroki Azuma and Tamaki Saito have been translated into English, this is the next book I'd love to see brought out over here). In this transcribed conversation, Okada and Morikawa discuss what otaku are and how they have come to be. This is particularly revelatory, since it discusses how otaku perceive themselves and the generational divisions that have developed. Okada, the old-school otaku, is very rigorous in his definition of an otaku, stating at the beginning that there are almost no pure otaku anymore since, as he puts it, “The otaku mentality and otaku tastes are so widespread and diverse today that otaku no longer form what you might call a ‘tribe.’” There is a definite contrast between the perceptions of otaku in Okada and Morikawa. Okada says that otaku like the objects of their obsession (anime, manga, figures) because they perceive those things as good, even though they may not be seen this way by people in general. Morikawa, who represents more of a new-school otaku viewpoint, says that part of the attraction of pop entertainment to otaku is the very fact that they are dame, or no good. If Morikawa is right, this could certainly explain why there is so much bad anime being made these days (although I'm probably more sympathetic to Okada's generation of otaku, so I would say something like that.)

In addition to these essays, the book contains a plethora of high quality images to illustrate the points that the authors are making. Since Little Boy is an art book, it only makes sense that the book would be very visual. Additionally, the first third of the book tries to introduce the reader to the themes and ideas that will be explored in more depth later in the book by presenting a series of large images with short notes about the subject matter. These images range from those that highlight art (including other artists in the exhibition as well as Taro Okamoto, whose sculpture Tower of the Sun was a draw at the 1970 Expo in Osaka and had a starring role in Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys), history (the atomic bomb and Article 9 of Japan's US-authored postwar constitution, which said that Japan could no longer engage in acts of military aggression), and popular culture (plenty of anime and manga examples as well as things like Godzilla and Ultraman).

There's a lot of opinion in Little Boy that I don't agree with. Even so, it's a thought-provoking and worthwhile read. At the very least, I encourage anyone with at least a passing interest in otaku (which I would think would probably be anyone reading this column) to check out the Okada / Morikawa dialogue. It's kind of a pricy book, but at nearly 300 color pages with plenty of visual appeal it's an enlightening addition to any fan's bookshelf even if you're not a Takashi Murakami fan.


Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.


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