Substantive Images

by Peter Tatara, Dec 1st 2005

Substantive Images: An Account of a Conversation on Otaku Culture and the Global Influence on and of Japanese Animation



On November 30, 2005, the Japan Society (333 East 47 St, New York NY / www.JapanSociety.org) held a discussion titled "Otaku Unmasked: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Japan's Popular Culture," a panel billed as an exploration of Japan's otaku industry and the incestuous decline of the writing of Japanese Animation into a formula calculated to give otaku exactly and only what they want. I headed off to the Japan Society with a notebook in hand planning to jot down the main points and at the reception afterwards get positively smashed and give my business cards to a potted plant. Finding my notes somewhat more substantive than I originally expected, I'm now writing this. Stick around to the end to find out if there's a ficus benjamina in the Japan Society lobby with a stack of business cards shoved into its roots.

What follows isn't intended to be a literal translation of the event, rather an account hitting on all the themes and points discussed so that those unable to personally attend may take in and weigh what was discussed.

First, who exactly was discussing the life, death, and rebirth of Japan's popular culture? The Japan Society invited three guests to approach the question: Hiroki Azuma, Dai Sato, and Douglas McGray.

Hiroki Azuma is a notable postmodern Japanese cultural critic keenly interested in the impact of the internet, anime, and otaku on culture. He's published seven books including Animalizing Postmodernity and Ontological Postal, the latter for which he became the youngest recipient ever of the SUNTORY Literary Prize. Azuma holds a Ph.D. in Culture and Representation from Tokyo University, is an Executive Research Fellow and Professor at the Center for Global Communications, and a Research Fellow at the Stanford Japan Center.

Dai Sato is a script and screenwriter whose work includes Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Samurai Champloo, Eureka 7, Ergo Proxy, and the live-action Casshern. He started his career as an animation runner paid in leftover game show prizes before proving his chops as a writer. He is also responsible for the indie record label Frogman Records and one of the founders of the technological cultural consultant group FROGNATION. Sato, in addition to writing for television and cinema, pens regular columns in several weekly and monthly Japanese anime magazines.

Douglas McGray is a prolific writer whose essays, editorials, and articles have been featured in a diverse list of publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired, and Mother Jones. He's appeared on NHK, CNN, and The Charlie Rose Show. He's perhaps most known for his essay "Japan's Gross National Cool," a Time Asia cover story speaking about the worldwide appetite for Japanese Animation.

Once the above three men were introduced, McGray explained how the evening would progress, himself acting as moderator, posing questions and guiding debate, for the discussion and Azuma and Sato providing the majority of the comments.

Question 1: McGray asked, looking at the popularity of anime around the world, if we are currently in a Golden Age of Japanese Animation.

Sato agreed that anime's popularity is at an all-time high across the Earth; however, he felt the term "Golden Age" was far too great an exaggeration. Azuma asked how McGray would define a Golden Age, wanting to know if the qualifications were economic or cultural. Azuma stated that anime, economically, is certainly doing tremendously well, but he, personally, felt that while the commercial anime industry is making money, there is no analytical cultural boom associated with it, and thus we are not in a Golden Age. Azuma felt that while virtually the entire world is importing the images of anime, the substance of anime isn't leaving Japan.

Question 2: Following up on Azuma's image/substance comment, McGray asked Sato if he felt if "image" is what has made anime popular in the United States.

Sato nodded, feeling anime's visuals are the medium's primary draw outside of Japan. He said, though, that he hasn't received any personal feedback from international fans, knowing only that his work is popular around the world—not why it is popular.

Question 3: McGray asked Sato if writing Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo felt at all different, the first appearing more Japanese in focus and second looking as if it was created for a world audience.

Sato said that the audience didn't play a part in either show's creation. Rather, after working on Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe wanted to create something for The Animatrix, and both of these experiences led him to wish to explore hip hop, this project becoming Samurai Champloo. Sato said, if anything, rather than wanting to make a title that would appeal to the world, Watanabe wanted to make a title about Japan—wanting to make a show that would encourage the study of Japanese history.

Question 4: McGray asked what factor, when creating an animation, domestic and global distribution play.

Sato said that creatively he's not conscious of what'll happen to a show he writes when it goes overseas. Those involved at the business end of Japanese Animation are very much thinking about this, but Sato doesn't give it any thought. If anything, he's concerned whether what he writes will or will not go over big in Japan.

Question 5: McGray asked if anime will always have a Japanese feel. Looking at American shows like The Boondocks, McGray wondered, if in the future, there is a feeling that Japan will own anime less.

Azuma stated that global acceptance of anime doesn't mean a loss of Japanese-ness. It's the Japanese-ness of anime that draws foreigners to it. Azuma, again, stated that while the world consumes the Japanese aesthetic of anime, the meaning behind most animated works is lost. This doesn't matter to business interests, but Azuma has heard from Japanese fans that they are irritated by this phenomenon, and he feels creators must have lukewarm feelings over the popularity of their creations overseas. Azuma said that Japanese culture, history, politics, and social movements need to be understood to properly comprehend anime and that images without ideas are meaningless. Azuma mentioned Takeshi Murakami, a Japanese artist who has gained an international following because, Azuma believes, he is capitalizing on the global anime and otaku boom. Murakami promotes himself as an otaku, even though, according to Azuma, Murakami isn't in fact an otaku.

Question 6: McGray stated that the writers, directors, and creators of Japanese Animation don't see greater profits if their shows are global successes. He asked how Sato feels about not seeing big checks even though his shows are very popular around the world.

Sato said Murakami's work is regularly sold for $70 million because the word "otaku" is attached, but while "otaku" is positive in the United States, it has a mixed meaning in Japan. Sato explained it could appear Murakami sold out; however, while the creators of anime aren't making big bucks, there's also not the temptation to sell out. Sato said that, in the near future, the next time he's asked to write for a show, he's going to ask why they want him. For his heart, or for the money he can make businessmen.

Question 7: The Japanese government is becoming financially involved in the animation business. McGray asked Azuma and Sato how they feel about government support of anime.

Azuma said it was a difficult question, stating that the Japanese government supports Kabuki and other traditional arts for their cultural merit but that Tokyo is only getting involved with anime because it will make Japan more money. He went on to say that Japanese otaku are split, half very happy with more money going into productions and the other half upset that their otaku subculture is now getting mainstream attention.

Sato briefly revealed that when growing up he had to hide his manga from his mother and that parents used to tell children not to watch anime; however, today's parents are encouraging children to enter into the manga and anime fields. Personally, Sato said he was undecided over this issue and felt he had to stay in the middle of the road, believing that moving to either side leads to extremism.

Azuma told a brief story about Eiji Otsuka, a leftist manga artist and author. Otsuka, very critical in his view of the Japanese government, was recently asked to speak as part of an anime panel, but he was told he couldn't speak ill of the government at the event. Otsuka refused to sit on the panel. Instead, he attended sitting in the audience, and at one point stole a microphone from a panelist and started shouting about how manga and anime are antiestablishment, countercultural art forms and that governmental involvement will shackle their power. Otsuka was dragged from the room. Azuma then said he believes Otsuka's manga have been released in the United States but his books, of greater cultural value, have not.

Azuma repeated that he feels any governmental support of animation studios is because Tokyo feels it will bring more money into Japan and has nothing to do with the cultural significance of Japanese animation. He said that McGray's essay "Japan's Gross National Cool" is widely circulated in Tokyo and one of the primary documents cited by Japanese supporters of government involvement in animation production.

McGray said that he feels the Japanese government misinterpreted his article, the point of "Japan's Gross National Cool" simply being that Japan has become an economic and cultural powerhouse because of anime. Tokyo took it a step further by rationalizing that government involvement would only make it better.

Azuma told the audience that McGray is very, very well known in otaku circles in Japan and that Japanese otaku, right now, are hoping/praying/fantasizing that he and Sato are acting as official ambassadors of Japan's otaku, wishing for them to bring back to Japan a message from McGray.

McGray told the room not to listen to him. He's not an expert. Matters of business and matters of state should not hinge on "Japan's Gross National Cool."

Audience Question 1: At this point, the discussion was opened up to the audience. The first question was for Sato, an audience member asking if he had a favorite Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex episode.

Sato said he couldn't choose a favorite, but said he was satisfied with how the ninth episode of Second Gig turned out. Sato said he wanted to incorporate the 2chan.net community into the episode and received very positive comments from the site following its airing.

Audience Question 2: Are manga and anime an evolution of Japanese woodblock prints and other traditional art? Do you feel the otaku movement is, itself, protest art and how will this art change as it becomes more accepted?

Azuma stated he doesn't believe manga and anime can be traced back to Edo art. Instead, Azuma feels, manga, anime, and Japanese popular culture are all modifications of parts of American culture that were only first introduced to Japan in the Post War 20th Century. Rather than otaku being patrons of the arts, Azuma said they're motivated by consumerism.

Audience Question 3: An audience member stated she feels Americans appreciate more than just the visuals of anime, that many fans are learning more about Japan because of an interest in anime. She said that when watching Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex she appreciates the art but also greatly values the political nature of the story.

Azuma said that it isn't a matter of understand the politics inside Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or any anime series, rather what foreign watchers of anime cannot grasp are the politics going on outside of the animation. What's going on in Japan as the program is being created? What is the economical and political climate? What is shaping the vision of the writer and director? To fully digest the meaning of an anime, Azuma said one needs a significant grounding in Japan. He asked everyone in the room not to stop at just watching anime but to investigate further and ask, when watching an anime, what the creator is thinking.

Audience Question 4: Another comment about understanding animation, this one about FLCL.

Azuma stated anime has two components: the visual and the message. He said that while world fans are understanding anime more and more, there are cultural memes within anime that don't even register with foreign anime audiences.

Audience Question 5: Older anime storytellers such as Leiji Matsumoto were deeply influenced by WWII. With newer generations now entering into the anime industry, do you feel the importance of history in anime has diminished or shifted?

Azuma stated that the anime industry split in 1995—with the creation of Evangelion. After Evangelion, half the industry pursued more realistic animations and the other half went off to create works of complete fantasy.

Sato said he was moved by 9/11 and its aftermath when writing Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. After 9/11, following America's road to war, Sato wanted to capture some of the events in Showa Japan which led it into WWII. Speaking about Second Gig, Sato said he originally wanted its theme to focus on humanity and what makes a human "human." During the writing process, though, he began thinking about Japan's policy of not accepting refugees and, instead, wanted to play with it. Sato said that a great deal of what goes into manga and anime are the social fears, pressures, hopes, and issues circulating when something is made.

Azuma, speaking more on Evangelion, stated that in the ten years since EVA nothing has come out to transcend it. Unsurpassed, he thinks that many feel anime is out of fashion in Japan and that, without anything as substantive as Evangelion, Japanese otaku are becoming increasingly more out of touch with reality, eating only hollow stories.

Audience Question 6: Looking at the growth of otaku-dom in Japan, do you feel it has to do with an alienation from Japanese society?

Azuma agreed, to a point, but felt that this social withdrawal isn't antisocial behavior but de-social behavior. Modern otaku are, according to Azuma, refusing to participate in society. Finding nothing of value in it, they look to anime as their form of expression.

Audience Question 7: Directed toward Sato, an audience member asked what it was like working with Yoko Kanno.

Sato said he greatly regards Yoko Kanno and her ability to weave together so many genres. More, he is almost envious of how, while he uses words—which are limited by language—to communicate, Yoko Kanno's music can instantly express emotions, untranslated, around the world.

With this, McGray was given word to wrap the discussion up. He thanked Azuma and Sato, and he, the Japan Society's other guests, and the audience soon spilled out into a reception featuring Japanese nori snacks and French bubbly. It was an interesting mix, some in the room in suits and ties and others wearing Naruto headbands. The event had brought out both extremes, from fanboys to academics, and both were now discussing the talk.

The conversation wasn't exactly what I had thought it was going to be, but the waters charted yielded very surprising answers, none more astonishing, in my opinion, than Sato stating globally popular shows such as Samurai Champloo weren't written with world consumption in mind.

The night finished with the Japan Society having to push us all out, a good number of the audience still chatting and speaking with the guests an hour after the event officially came to an end, and it was on 47th Street, as the night was getting thick, that it all came to a perfect close. Getting to speak with Sato-san myself, we had a brief conversation revolving around such earth-shattering issues as my tremendous appreciation of his script for Casshern.

When it wrapped, the Japan Society's ficus benjamina was free of any business cards; however, Sato-san and I did exchange contacts.

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