Japan: Anime’s Highs and Lows

Japan: Anime's Highs and Lows

This Week in Japan, Next-Gen looks at the history, impact and current state of Japanese animation, as well as its most recent videogame offspring. Plus… Brave Story, Xenosaga Episode III, new DS Lite colors (not just pink) and Koei…

I’d like to say that the sea of Japanese pop-culture contains a few glimmering pearls that manage to never wash up on Western shores. I’d like to tell you that modern Japanese entertainment consists of more than the tacky "idol" singers in brightly-colored clothes who dance and kind of sing in front of audiences of obsessed middle-aged men. I’d like to tell you that animated pornography starring girls and monsters in the Japanese style is actually being made by some other country as something of a practical joke.

I can’t really do this, however. Japan has been struggling to gain a kind of pop-culture for many years; that certain things are recognized as "distinctly Japanese" is almost unfortunate. I could go into a million examples. Instead, I’ll just point out that the "distinct" anime art style basically just came from Disney’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which was released with a Japanese dub long, long ago.

In the beginning, animators weren’t trying to make things with world-class appeal; they just wanted to make their own material, period. They wanted to create material in Japanese, in an artistic style that was proven to be a hit elsewhere in the world.

Japanese culture evolved thanks to a few well-placed forward-thinkers with attitudes like bratty young piano virtuosos — kids who tell their piano teacher Mozart should have changed this note to another note with such conviction that they cannot be doubted.

Warp the Product

Any Japanese notions of popular culture have been skewed from the start to basically take something that is already proven to be popular and add something so ridiculous it warps the product into something that can’t possibly already exist. If you’ve heard Japanese indie rock music with six distinct melody patterns, rapidly changing time signatures, guitar duets, and vocal melodies that mix hip-hop, jazz and punk-rock, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

If not, then maybe you’ve heard of "Cowboy Bebop" — it’s an animated series about bounty hunters in space; it involves kung-fu, guns, spaceship duels, casinos, samurai swords, espionage, a girl with amnesia, a guy with a dark past, crime syndicates, interplanetary travel, a post-apocalyptic earth, instant ramen, hackers, religious cults — basically, everything that’s ever been in a Japanese animated series, combined. What makes "Cowboy Bebop" work despite its sleazy concept is its miraculous execution. It was put together with true love for every type of entertainment it combines.

It was not very popular in Japan outside the hardcore anime fans. If you want to buy it on DVD, it’s about $80 per twenty-two-minute episode.

This isn’t about the price, however: it’s about the cultural motives. "Cowboy Bebop" was merely an experiment by director Shinichiro Watanabe to make the best-made program he could, not inspired by anything in particular so much as he was dumbstruck in love with the idea of making any animated series in the first place.