Nothing describes the Chinese transition into capitalism quite as well as the Beijing Olympic mascots. Five little critters swarm all over the Beijing merchandise, in a move that guarantees a Pokémon style supermarket sweep for any parents at the games. Oh yes, you’ll have to catch ’em all, and since there are five of them, that’s five times the foreign currency for Beijing. Behind the scenes, the multiple mascots might have been intended to prevent any single Chinese region from speaking for the whole. You can’t have just a panda, as that only means Sichuan to the Chinese. Can’t have just a swallow, as that’s the symbolic bird of the Beijing region. A fish is too Shanghainese. What about a big red personification of the Olympic flame? What about a politically-sensitive Tibetan antelope? What about all of the above, darting across the merchandise like a squad of colour-coded Power Rangers.
Anime and the Olympics have been inextricably linked ever since 1972, when competition rules on “amateur sports” and sponsorship prevented a TV company from making a live-action documentary about the Japanese men’s volleyball team. Instead, the entire enterprise was animated as Road to Munich, topped long afterwards by Gold Medal of Tears – a TV movie about the infamous terrorist attack on the games. In 1980, when the Moscow Olympics had a bear on its logo, Nippon Animation decided to whip up fervour with the 26-episode series Misha the Bear Cub. Four years later, when Los Angeles had an eagle, the Japanese responded with the anime series Eagle Sam, in which an avian private investigator fights crime with the aid of his Olympic Rings.
Now it transpires that Tokyo is one of four contenders as the host of the 2016 Olympics. With anime a recognised “cultural export” and media companies keen to exploit merchandise for all it’s worth, what will they go for if they get the chance? A giant robot? A subservient maid? A tanuki sprinter… What about five mascots? A hundred? Gotta catch ’em all!
(This article originally appeared in Neo #48, 2008)