Your Country Needs Geeks Like You

ob2Just 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.

Undercover Manga

shimajiro appI’ve been wondering for a while when the Doraemon bomb was going to go off. Every time I’ve been to China in the last three years, amid ever-escalating sabre-rattling over the Senkaku Islands, I have found the locals avidly denying any interest in Japanese culture. I have found media students unprepared to work on papers about anime, for fear that the word “Japan” will be on their resumé ever more. And I have watched, every day, as two Japanese invaders march in right under Chinese noses.

One is Shimajiro, an infant tiger cub who appears in a hybrid kids’ show that is part anime, part live-action play school. I’ve watched Shimajiro sing songs about London Bridge and demonstrate how to go to the toilet, and nobody has noticed that he’s really Japanese, because the broadcasters have stripped out the original live-action framing footage and replaced it with Chinese people. Also, they don’t make the mistake of calling him Shimajiro, either. In China, he is known as Qiao Hu Dao, the “brave and clever tiger.”

doraemonThe other is Doraemon, that time-travelling blue robot cat who recently enjoyed the surprising honour of a 12,000-page manga translation funded by Japanese government boondoggle money. Doraemon remains a popular movie and TV figure with anime audiences, but was also the subject of so much manga piracy in decades past that he is known by several different names in the Chinese world. My favourite is Ding Dang the Robot Cat (ding-dang, you see, being Mandarin for ding-dong, if you ever need it). He’s even the subject of an exhibition in Hong Kong, which trilled, unwisely, about his true origins.

The Japanese authorities, excited at the amount of love for Ding Dang all over the mainland, have made Doraemon a cultural ambassador, thereby pushing their soft power agenda by showing the Chinese that a perennial favourite was actually from the other side of the water. This has entertainingly backfired, with a schmuck-bait editorial in the Chengdu Daily pointing out the blindingly obvious – that Doraemon was an effort to make Japan look cute and less threatening – and several lesser newspapers getting increasingly irate about the idea, with the Global Times frothing “we must never let a little robotic cat take control of our minds.” Top tip.

This article first appeared in NEO 131, 2014. Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, in shops now (UK/US).

Nakama Britannica

The folks over at Nakama Britannica have moved heaven and earth to get their podcast interview with me, Jonathan Clements, out in time for Scotland Loves Anime. If you’re at all interested in the history and direction of the anime industry, there is a lot of information in here, real-world statistics and behind-the-scenes gossip. You can download the podcast here.

0:00 The loss of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the great unseen anime, disappeared from the record in an unfortunate boating accident. Scotland Loves Anime — the logistics of getting Japanese guests to Glasgow. And a quick plug for my latest book, the new translation of the Art of War.

10:00 What is anime? Nowhere near as dull a question as it sounds, leading to all sorts of gossip about the battle for anime’s soul between the spirits of Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki. Includes the words: “Communists”, “witchhunts” and “crappy”.

20:00 Anime as Soft Power. The size of otakudom. The meaning of TV ratings. How anime form follows function. How much is the anime business worth? Includes the words: “chimpanzee”, “over-engineering” and “popular”.

30:00 What is a silver otaku? The impact of Heidi and Yamato.The phenomenology of fandom and misremembering Evangelion and Gundam. The influence of Tadao Nagahama and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Includes the words “pander”, “toss” and “Aznable”.

40:00 Traditional concepts of storytelling, and how unlikely you are to find them. How “traditional” was the Hakkenden. The ethics of tying anime directors to chairs and slapping them. Noh drama and Gasaraki. Jinzo Toriumi’s Introduction to Anime Scenario Writing. Includes the words: “fallacy”, “posh” and “pervy”.

47:00 Wimmin. Do 125 million Japanese people all like hentai? The demographics of female anime fans and the birth of Noitamina. Fujiko Mine and the line between sexy and sexist. The role of women within the anime industry. Includes the words: “mind bleach”, “boobs” and “jellyfist”.

57:00 The chivalry of chauvinism and its impact on anime staff rosters. The evolutionary role of colour recognition. Women in powerful positions, like CLAMP. Includes the words: “xerography”, “concordance” and “primal.”

67:00 Aloha Higa and the unpleasantness over Polar Bear Cafe. How many fingers am I holding up? Includes the words: “sod off”, “Disney”, and “torpid”.

69:00 The nature of originality: giant robots and schoolgirl witches. Downton Abbey the anime, and what a production committee might do to it. Creativity within limits. Includes the words: “tropes”, “Metallica” and “Minovsky particles”.

73:00 Three trends for the future: Kickstarter, mobiles and China. The size of the informal anime market. Issues for intellectual property. What’s changed in Sino-Japanese relations since the publication of the Dorama Encyclopedia. Includes the words: “crowd-sourcing”, “Margaret Thatcher cyborg”, and “sandwich-making”.

84:00 The Death Note backlash in north-east China. Cosplay in China. And goodbye. Includes the words “boobs” and “grabbed”.