Just when life looks grim for slacker Shinichi Kano, he discovers that his love of anime, manga and games is a fast-track to a new career. Earth has opened a magic portal to a parallel universe, and now it needs cultural ambassadors to jump into a fantasy world and sell the locals… stuff! Walkmans and iPads, Nintendo consoles and cartoon serials about demon warriors, anything they will buy.
Shinichi is packed off to the magical Eldant Empire. Imagine some hipster salesman wandering around the set of Game of Thrones, trying to interest Queen Cersei in Viagra, and offering Tywin Lannister a better lock for his toilet door. But it’s a dream come true for the average sci-fi nerd, dropping in on a world of slave-girls and stirring swordplay, but still being able to pop home.
The anime series Outbreak Company beautifully captures a very modern sensibility. Look around any classroom of bleary-eyed teenagers, and you will see a bunch of kids who, only the night before, were leading armies of orcs, rescuing kidnapped princesses, and slaughtering legions of zombies… in their bedrooms. Fantasy worlds have made increasing demands on our time, sneaking out of books and films and into our daily lives, our games consoles, conversations and even our phones. And there is, indeed, money to be made. As the spoof advert that begins Outbreak Company makes clear, there is a chance, however slim, that geekish interests can actually turn into a geekish career.
This is only partly true. Take anime itself, for example, where the creation of such shows is a notorious grind, underpaid and unappreciated, and where hard-core fans are given short shrift by producers whose eyes are always on the bottom line.
But Outbreak Company is also a playful retelling of Japan’s own desperate desire to sell its culture to other countries. In the middle of a recession in 2005, the prime minister Taro Aso began a long-term effort to push “Cool Japan” abroad, and to recognise Japanese films, books and games as major exports. You’ve got it; you sell it; you’ve still got it! Some of these initiatives have spearheaded Japanese culture into foreign territories, and, presumably, inspired Ichiro Sakaki to write the seven-volume book series on which this anime is based.
So although your average Japanese salaryman hasn’t quite met a half-elf maid like the anime’s Myucel, or introduced someone like child-queen Petralka III to Japanese comics, they’ve probably done something very similar when trying to push sushi in Sao Paulo, and noodles in Neasden. There is a sense that when Shinichi arrives in this fantasy realm of dragons and accordions, he is like a Japanese tourist staring goggle-eyed at the weirdness of the mysterious West. Nor does Outbreak Company shy away from the fact that much of Shinichi’s sales pitch is offloading a load of junk – the anime equivalent of selling mirrors and beads to clueless natives.
The people of Earth are also busily interfering in the politics of Eldant, from do-gooders trying to bring an end to slavery to military personnel with secret agendas. What starts out as a celebration of fan culture and good-natured bridge-building soon takes a darker turn, as Shinichi is confronted with the economic side-effects of colonialism, and the prospect that cultures can exchange the bad along with the good. His trips to Eldant broaden his mind as he encounters a different way of life, but also leads him to appreciate the world he has left behind.
Commendably, Outbreak Company is not one long allegory for gap-year tourism. Instead, it starts off funny and satirical, and becomes increasingly wary of motivations for such initiatives. As well it might – only last year, the Chinese press in the real world accused the Japanese of trying to win them over by getting them to love the fluffy blue robot cat Doraemon. With ever louder sabre rattling in the South China Seas, some Chinese pundits began complaining that Japanese “soft power” – manga, anime, and games – was functioning as a form of insidious propaganda, and concealing their plans for world domination. Now, there’s an idea for an anime series.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #2, 2015.