Do you remember superflat?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.