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The View From Japan: Anime Wheat and Chaff
by Michele Christopher
The View From Japan is an occasional column at FTTW, written by Gordon who is, obviously, living in Japan.
It's a funny thing. When I first started thinking about coming to Japan, I was really interested in Japanese pop-culture, specifically in manga and anime. I also watched Japanese films, especially those creepy ones. No one does atmospheric horror better than the Japanese.
After I got the job with GEOS, was all set to come over, I delved deeper, downloading hours upon hours of anime, making video CDs, and picking up my copy of Shonen Jump every new comics day. I read every manga by Shirow Masamune that I could lay my hands on, the entire run of Battle Angel Alita, Akira...all the cool stuff.
I arrived in Japan in May of 2004. By July, I had watched all the anime I had brought with me, and had started buying manga. Only problem was, I couldn't read the stuff. I noticed something, too.
In Japan, the weekly manga are printed on paper that is not quite as elegant as newsprint. The inks smudge easily and you can't make out the details in the drawing. The print quality is VERY different than in the trade paperbacks and books that I was so proud of at home.
I noticed something else, too. There were LOTS of them. Many, many magazines, each containing many many stories, ranging from ridiculously puerile to downright pornographic...sometimes in the same magazine. Some good, lots of very derivative irrelevant crap. For every Ghost in the Shell, 20 half-assed GitS ripoffs.
Which is not really suprising when you take into account the sheer volume of comics cranked out every week. I can think of about a dozen books that publish weekly, each the size of a city phone book. It takes a lot of material to fill those covers, and of course it ain't all gonna be Eisner Award material.
And really, it isn't intended to be. Manga is generally regarded as a light, throwaway experience, a way to kill time on the train or bus. Those big fat books only cost about $3 and quickly find their way to the recycle bin, or wind up abandoned on the aforementioned buses and trains. I've actually picked up quite a few books this way.
Animation also has a very broad range of quality, maturity, and availability. On the broadcast channels, there is the standard fare of kids stuff in the afternoons...Doraemon, Pokemon, Hamtaro, and their ilk. Prime time is blocked up with news, cheesy dramas and inscrutable panel dicussion/variety/comedy extravaganzas. Then, sometimes, very late at night, you can catch a little more "grown-up" anime. No tentacle-rape, but a bit edgier than Ampanman.
There is also a Japanese "Cartoon Network", but it also tends to emphasize the kid-friendly fare. Older shows like City Hunter and Cutie Honey appear, as well as sports anime, especially baseball cartoons. Interesting stuff pops up here much more frequently, but not on a set schedule as far as I can tell...it just kind of sneaks up on you.
I've actually rented quite a few really cool titles (Planetes springs to mind), but most of them don't have english subtitles, so it gets a bit confusing. Mostly I've stopped worrying about anime and TV in general...not because its bad or anything, its just simply too much work.
I think the sheer volume of anime and manga (and PS2 games) is the reason for my waning interest in the genres, and the cause of the rise of Otaku. Otaku, an epithet sported with pride in the USA, is really a very negative thing here in Japan. Otaku are cut off from the rest of society in a very real way here. Going through the reams of comics and sitting through hours on end of animation leaves the otaku with very little time to interact with his of her fellow men, which in turn leads to serious atrophy of the complex Japanese social etiquette. The isolation of the otaku comes from the resulting lack of meaningful social contact, and drives them deeper into the ever-widening ocean of pop.
Sounds dire, doesn't it? In reality, however, very few otaku are driven to this extreme. Most folks just decorate their desk with little Gundam statues and spend their weekends browsing the stacks at the local used book store (75% used manga). It really takes a long time to parse all the stuff to find the nuggets, and these folks enjoy doing just that. They find it, then share it with friends and draw the attention of the larger populace to the work.
It is at this point in the cycle that a comic or anime blips on our radar in the states. By this time, the work has undergone a thorough vetting by a decidedly picky Japanese audience, and has proved to have enough substance to merit a wider distribution. This process is almost invisible to the average American manga reader, but it is decidedly invaluable. The obsession of the Japanese otaku allows the rest of the world access to the good stuff in Japanese pop without having to go through all the crap to find it.
For me, this process is why I could find so much great stuff to read back home and so little here. Language concerns aside (I'm studying...), I'm on the wrong end of that great editing mechanism. I'm overwhelmed with choices, and not well enough equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff. I can only try a little here and a little there and hope that I pick up a tasty morsel. Mostly, though, I stick to the tried and true series, like GTO or Gunnm (Battle Angel Alita...I'm rereading it it Japanese). Its a lot like strolling into a Tower Records and picking up a copy of Appetite For Destruction or Synchronicity...but hell, I do that too.
Maybe I'm just getting old...