Sunday, July 7, 2013

2003, Part 1: The Cresting Wave of Cool Japan

When Bradley Meek is not coding, sleeping, reading or playing Dota 2, he's watching every kind of anime he can get his hands on. At times, this means he subconsciously channels Madarame from Genshiken, which is known to frighten away women and small puppies. Sometimes he writes on his blog, Those Damn Cartoons, but to be honest, he would usually rather watch anime than write about it. You can find him opining about cartoons over on Twitter (@BradleyCMeek).

Do you remember superflat?

That bizarro pop art movement of the early 2000's where Andy Warhol, street graffiti, ukiyo-e and thirty-plus years of anime and manga were dropped into a blender, dished out onto canvases and sculptures, and then served to the world of high art in Tokyo, New York, Paris and London? It featured art that was a cheery mix of kawaii mascots and apocalyptic imagery, with dollops of a potent mixture of sexiness and child-like innocence familiar to anime fans. It was a grab-bag of forty years of Japanese culture informed by much older, more traditional Japanese art styles, and it was, by all accounts, a big success. One of the short-lived movement's primary authors, Takashi Murakami, was profiled in the New York Times in 2005, and it's an instructive read.

Murakami was an otaku throughout the 80's and 90's, and that meant grappling with the destructive legacy of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who embedded a nasty impression of otaku on a culture that was already suspicious of them. As the article recounts:
"When Miyazaki's room was revealed to the public, the mass media announced that it was otaku space,'' Murakami once told an interviewer. ''However, it was just like my room. Actually, my mother was very surprised to see his room and said: 'His room is like yours. Are you O.K.?' Of course, I was O.K. In fact, all of my friends' rooms were similar to his, too.'' Murakami added that Miyazaki was only ''different from us'' because he ''videotaped dead bodies of little girls he killed.''
Miyazaki's murders were a dark cloud that hung over otaku, and superflat was part of Murakami's attempt to wrestle with that legacy and contextualize it in Japan's larger cultural struggles to define itself. Riding a wave of renewed interest in Japanese culture, he found international success and inspired others who would make similar work.

What interests me about superflat isn't so much what it was, but what it represented to anime fans in Japan and elsewhere: legitimacy. Here was the world of high art writing flattering profiles and gallery reviews of art that was inspired by anime and its culture, and in the same way that Roger Ebert's enthusiastic reviews of Ghibli movies galvanized and inspired fans, the renewed interest in Japanese culture gave fans who had been around for years reason to hope that more mainstream recognition was soon to follow. And the growing popularity of superflat in high art was reflecting a trend elsewhere: anime was becoming exponentially more popular, with growing fan convention attendance in the US and bigger and bigger sales of home media and merchandise in Japan. Anime and its fandom really left behind the long shadow of Miyazaki and other basement-dwelling creeps and was coming into its own as a medium to be recognized by even the most mainstream and highbrow of cultural critics and consumers.

There's 2003 as a summation of what anime was out at that moment, what was popular and watched by people in Japan and elsewhere, and then there's 2003 as a feeling, a summation of the excitement that was growing over Japan and Japanese culture, here in the US and elsewhere. I'll get to the former in my next article, but I think it's important to set the stage here and explain why, a decade ago, the biggest difference between anime in 2003 and 2013 wasn't so much what was on TV as it was the excitement that surrounded it and similar hobbies, an excitement that's increasingly hard to find now even though, just as an issue of numbers, anime is more popular and has more mainstream penetration.

In the early Aughts, that renewed interest in Japanese fashion, music, food and art was given a name in Douglas McGray's December 2002 Foreign Policy article: "Cool Japan." While often appropriated by people looking to make a buck off a "brand," in 2003 "Cool Japan" meant something more, especially to the Japanese. Being a cultural powerhouse looked like a promising way to stimulate the still-flagging economy. Japanese culture and entertainment was something that, by definition, the growing economies of China and Korea couldn't undercut with cheaper labor like what happened with Japan's much vaunted electronics industry. It also meant recognition in the rest of the world for things other than World War II, efficient factory management or supposedly bizarre foods and cultural mores. And, arguably even more importantly, it was something for the Japanese to be proud of, and in the midst of a seemingly endless stagnation, they needed that.

The first half of the Aughts was that attitude growing to a crescendo, and 2003 was in the middle of it all. And even though general interest in Japanese culture has waned significantly since then, this attitude still animates government policy. The Japanese still spend millions of yen every year on projects to boost various cultural products and entertainment, including anime, with the long term goal of quadrupling their share of the world's entertainment economy. Things like the Young Animator Training Project, which gives grants to studios to create short anime projects for the training of the next generation of animators and directors, would probably not exist without the idea of Cool Japan to motivate the government to set up the program for the long-term health of industry. While Cool Japan can feel like a hollow, self-serving idea today, it will probably turn out to be a net good for the industry and its fans in the long run.

But more than any government program, article or brochure, the anime that aired on TV in this swirl of excitement and renewed interest would be what really shaped what Cool Japan meant to fans and newcomers. It was there that the idea, at least how it related to anime, would be made or broken. 2003 was a busy year, with lots of new anime airing that would eventually become revered in American fandom and a few others that would become notorious. We'll talk about those more broadly in the next part, but first I want to dwell on one series in particular that stood out. It was almost certainly animated by the idea of anime as a cultural powerhouse in Japan and elsewhere, focusing on one of its most beloved characters and looking to create a series with a grandeur that reflected how popular he was, and how far the industry had come since his iconic television anime debut in 1963.

Astro Boy (or more accurately, Atomu the robot, not Tetsuwan Atomu the show) was born on April 7th in the far-off year of 2003, and in the real world, he was reborn in a new television series by Tezuka Productions. Much like how a world's fair gives a nation a chance to flex its technological and cultural might, to entertain as well as make a statement, Astro Boy was to be the grandest anime ever made, a flexing of Japan's growing might as a cultural powerhouse. Backed by the deep pockets of Sony, the series would not only celebrate one of anime's biggest icons, but also reintroduce the rest of the world to the character. So Tezuka Production made sure The Mighty Atom looked his best. The series was lavishly animated, clearly the product of a lot of time, thought and love from Tezuka Pro. Today, its massive budget and festive animation gives it the feel of a milestone, one of the apexes of Japanese animation, a true prestige series...and if you're like me, you'll probably never finish watching it.

One of the challenges and frustrations of being an anime fan is that many of the series that were milestones for the medium--the kind of anime that should be featured on this very blog!--are either very difficult to find in English or outright impossible. Some, like Ashita no Joe, Doraemon, many of NHK's World Masterpiece Theater series or Star of the Giants, have for various reasons never seen a licensed release and have never been fully fansubbed, if at all. Some have been released on VHS and DVD, or even fansubbed, but are now either gone for good or just hard to find. Most anime that fit this description happen to be very old, so it seems bizarre that that the same is true for a 2003 series based on a popular property, airing in the time when English-language fansubs were booming in popularity.

Sony has released their dub-only localization on DVD and it's easily available on Hulu, Crackle and Netflix, but it's notorious for several reasons. The original's grand orchestral soundtrack was replaced with grating techno, the dub was badly bungled, some episodes aired out of order or were simply removed from TV and home video, never to be seen in America. The dub also changed much of the story, obscuring Atom's complicated relationship with his father and softening some of the darker aspects of famous storylines. Though I recommend that everyone should see at least the first few episodes of Sony's release, it's not an easy watch, and not just because of a bad dub. It's haunted by the grander series it could have been.

To be fair, it seems that the adaptation wasn't the only misstep. Tezuka fans were reportedly also unhappy with how the series changed several iconic storylines, or how its tone was darker than seemed appropriate for an Astro Boy adaptation. Other countries got an uncut release, and while the series was better received elsewhere than in the US, it doesn't seem well remembered or liked now. And thus, what should have been an iconic iteration of one of anime's greatest characters, the climax of the story of a franchise that has been a common thread connecting many GoldenAni entries together from the beginning, comes to a sad end for its television run.

Even before Astro Boy, anime fandom in America has almost always a contentious relationship with localized anime. We would almost certainly not be here without the work of adapters like Fred Patten and Carl Macek on shows like the original Astro Boy and or the chimera that was Robotech, but today and even in 2003 to an extent, many fans will take issue with any anime being edited for content and time so it can air on TV, potentially introducing the medium to more fans. We see less of this now, in part because fans hate it so much, but also because most networks see anime as a really inefficient use of a timeslot. Now they want to air their own properties, where they can retain the home media and merchandising rights. Only a small handful of 2003 anime would be licensed for children's TV here in the US, including the bizarre parody Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo (that title is impossible to write without Googling), the Shonen Sunday property Zatch Bell (which is largely remembered for airing in a block on Cartoon Network with the much more popular One Piece and Naruto properties), and Sonic X (which took a bizarre, long path to get to TV as it was tangled up in licensing issues and 4Kids' financial problems.)

In an age where the Internet has granted synchronous access to what's airing in Japan at this very moment, talking about anime being licensed for American TV makes me feel like I'm talking about ancient history, simply because television is such a small part of how I and every other fan I know interact with anime. It's all online now, and it’s probably there to stay. While I don't mind that the present and future of introducing anime to kids will be entirely online, I do get a little sad when I think about how, say, every American Danball Senki and Pretty Cure fan in the US are adults like myself. On top of that, the difficulty of getting anime on American TV really undercuts the idea of Cool Japan, because television still has an air of prestige that simply being online doesn’t carry, no matter how expensive the production or how large the audience that watches it. If you can't get on TV like a real television series, then what good are you?

2003 television also had two other trends that would soon undercut the idea of Cool Japan, one still fairly new and the other originating that year. The latter is a familiar mainstay now: fanservice fighting girl anime, in the form of the popular adaptation that started it all, Ikki Tousen aka Battle Vixens (aka That Series That Did Really Well on DVD in the U.S. But I Sure As Hell Can't Find Anyone Willing to Admit That They Watched It). The series has a gloriously dirt simple appeal: buxom cartoon schoolgirls in short skirts and tight shirts fight each other in a softcore pornography adaptation of the Three Kingdoms saga. We'll see this idea inspiring the premises for similar series like Sekirei, Ben-To, Queen's Blade and Kampfer, and we seem to get at least few similar series every year.

I happen to think it's a great premise for a cartoon, but Ikki Tousen was also emblematic of nearly every similar cartoon that came after in that, creepy fanservice aside, it was hard to enjoy because it was so boring. Many of these series have aired on obscure cable channels and are produced by small studios with tiny budgets, so in the grand scheme of what's airing at any given moment they don't matter much, but they're so popular on DVD and streaming here in the States that they can be hard to ignore. Even though most anime writers and critics would archly dismiss them as "pandering" (and it can be hard to strike up a conversation with a fellow fan because no one will admit to liking these kinds of things), this particular kind of ecchi series endures. People end up noticing that and mark another notch against the idea of Cool Japan.

But you and I both know that the biggest marks against the idea of anime being cool and hip are the moe otaku series, and in 2003, they looked especially dire. While I haven't seen any series from 2003 that fit that peculiar genre--well, there was Di Gi Charat, but we'll talk about that later--I have seen and remember plenty of other anime from around that time period. Visually, this kind of anime looked terrible to seemingly everyone except its fans, featuring grotesquely large eyes lodged into big heads stacked on top of small bodies, making for a mix of childishness and sexiness that creeps most folks out. That particular kind of character design is dead and gone, though, and good riddance to it. I've enjoyed watching plenty of moe shows myself, and have watched the genre change a lot over the last seven years or so. In 2003, it was a small but clearly growing part of anime on TV, and this period could be considered its awkward teenage years. Moe- and otaku-centric anime would become more sophisticated and popular in the near future, but for now, it was largely obscure.

To be honest, I think the best thing that came out of moe series from 2003 is how many would eventually become great fodder for entertainingly scathing reviews from sites like Anime Jump. Shows like Happy Lesson and Ikki Tousen were a turn off for casual and potential fans, because most people don't really make nuanced distinctions between different genres of anime, it's all just anime to them. However, both of those series would do well enough where it really mattered: they were profitable, and in an industry that runs very tight budgets and needs every reliable yen it could count on, that meant a lot, and it meant making more like them.

So there you go, the dizzying promise of Cool Japan and three troubling trends that would undercut it, all of which is almost as good a summation of the narrative of Japanese animated television in 2003 and its effect on the fandom everywhere else. However, this is incomplete, because a lot of anime that aired that year was actually really cool, and some of it would take off worldwide and create new fans, while others would be missed or forgotten but are still worth watching today. Tellingly, that part of my series promises to take twice as long as this one, so next time, so we'll see if I can go another 2,000 words without mentioning Fullmetal Alchemist.

Next time: Part 2 of our analysis on 2003, as we examine the shows in more detail.


  1. As someone who got into anime in the year 2003 (as in, graduated from watching Pokemon and Yugi-Oh! on TV to downloading fansubs of currently-airing series), this article makes perfect sense to me. I too remember the excitement about Ghibli films and Japanese fashion in the mainstream American media, and that probably contributed to pushing me over the otaku cliff that year.

  2. Well, you found someone... I have no problems admitting that not only did I watch Ikki Tousen, I actually liked it!

    Ok, that's last part is not quite true... I though it was an ok series the first time I watched it back in '04. It was more so the later 2nd & 3rd seasons that I really enjoyed, largely due to the character designs of some of the secondary characters eg; Kanu, Shiryu. And also because by that time I had gained a somewhat of an appreciation for 'excessive fan service' ahem. For instance I started to watch a very similar show, Daphne in the Blue, in 2004 as well and I absolutely hated it! Couldn't even get halfway through it before I dropped it, which I rarely do. 6 years later I decided to give it another shot and I thought it was great! And believe it or not, but I can honestly say that was not my sole reason for liking them.

    Strange how time can change one's perspective so dramatically. But admittedly ones interest in such shows really depends a lot your appreciation, or tolerance for, excessive fan service.