Monday, December 31, 2007

The growing shrinking gap,

Like other generations before them, young Americans are at the peak of a cultural fascination with Japan. Listen kids, don’t think you’re the first ones to open Japan up. Perhaps some out there will remember the craze of the 80’s when ninjas were just as common as they are today, and Voltron ruled over the imaginations of children while “Gung-Ho” made it seem as if you wanted a Job that was worth anything in the future you’d better learn Japanese. Neither that generation nor this current one was the first in recent memory to enjoy such an era of Japanophilism (s’that a word?). Films like “Sayonara” (1957), and the 007 foray into things Japonica which was “You Only Live Twice” (1967) show us that the then recent blood enemy had been transformed into a source of “new toy syndrome” to the fascination of Americans which went beyond anime.

Going back to the days of Commodore Perry Japan and America have been bound together in various ways not only in our own eyes but in the eyes of the rest of the world as well, as both countries were seen as relative newcomers on the world scene (America being less than a century old and Japan having just been forced to turn off its “cloaking device”), and one look at “Madame Butterfly” makes it clear that there was a sphere that both countries were put in when it came to the perceptions of the rest of the world powers. By the way if you have the chance to see Madame Butterfly I think you should definitely go see it.

There is an indelible link that has seen a progressive cycle of hills and valleys on this side of the Pacific. But now for the first time ever, we’re approaching what may just very well be a sustainable plateau. From food, clothing, to music, manga, anime, and even furniture and lifestyle, there is a level of acceptance and general recognition which stretches over demographic clusters that have no other similar connections with each other. How is this possible now and not before, you may be asking. Well like any complicated question the answer is one that covers a number of different causalities. At this particular moment, the perfect storm of media licensing, technology, unrestricted travel, and an ongoing history have combined with socio-economic congruences such as both Japan and America reaching the end of their life cycles as bases of manufacturing and having an emergent service and I.T. economy, and with U.S. suburbs experiencing a brain-drain of youth to our large cities, out lifestyles are growing ever closer in similarity. This perfect storm has been able to keep Japanese culture infused into American life, long enough to infuse itself over generational lines, meaning at the same time the early otaku have graduated from Japanese studies in college and are a good 8-9 years into their carears, there are a bunch of high school freshmen kids with anime DA accounts thinking that they’re going to grow up to be super manga-ka or work in the anime business. Why is this important? Because the top and bottom of this group are doing what they’re doing for the same reason; anime in the U.S.

At the same time, Japan has never been so connected to the United States, although you’d never guess it if you looked at the current political situation (also one thing Japan was able to do was correct it’s housing bubble early on in the 1990’s, while here we just kept it going spurred by the massive demand for housing initially created by the divorce rate… you know, kids competing with their parents for the same kind of housing en mass for the first time). In any case, in my opinion it is apparent that the two countries will continue this cultural and economic symbiosis unabated for years to come. The home media market in the U.S. is in a state of implosion and is taking anime with it, but only as a home media product, just like kung fu, documentaries, TV on DVD, indie film, horror, and every other genre that saw unsustainable growth in the DVD bubble. Anime stands to pull off a quick recovery by finding an integrated media delivery system here, because Japanese properties already have other strong legs to stand on such as manga, merchandise, and now an open window to broadcast, with the ever illusive co-production on the very immediate horizon. This connection and support for anime and Japanese influence will no longer take a back seat to a resurgence or pre-packaged formula-driven tripe like we’ve seen before. Our own domestic entertainment producers have been changed forever by the new otaku, the new audience demands a story arch, they demand character depth, they demand programs that are designed to fit these new times.

I was involved in a great example of this. There’s an American company out there that’s had its glory days back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but is still around and still can get things done. They were big in the toy field and then big in the cartoon business for a little bit. Now this company wanted to make an animated series out of their property “Micronauts” (that’s “Micro-Men” in Japan) and wanted to team up with Geneon. No the American company didn’t do this because they really wanted to do anything but get a show done as cost effectively as possible. Geneon was on board since after all, that property was hot in their own domestic market and this was a good way to pick up those rights for nothing. Que the stumbling block: Side A wanted to make each episode self-contained episodic and follow a formula, while Side B wanted to have connected episodes in an ongoing story. I’ll give you 3 guesses. So falls another possible co-pro. Now, don’t get me wrong, self contained episodes work or have worked for lots of properties; Star Trek, Scrubs, Kimpossible, Teen Titans, and even a huge chunk of Sailor Moon when you think about it. But this was going to be a new show. A new show for what is a new audience, they like anime for a reason. That reason is not because they’re a captive audience and will simply watch whatever is on TV at a certain time, it is because they are sick to death of what is being force-fed to the captive audience and want something better, smarter, and more in keeping with the times.

Would the series have worked either way? Probably, but we’ll never know since the American company refused to give their domestic audience enough credit and simply refused to allow for an interconnected story line in what was sure to be a promising series, and the first true co-pro to hit both markets. Instead it falls on top of the pile of other project carcasses (Shiden, people?) that might have been. Yet another thing to be angry about.

This Japanese interconnection and lasting influence will effect a change in how media companies view their productions and what they will look like in the future. Avatar is just the beginning, as the “Sopranos”/“Sex and the City” production roadmap is applied to animated entertainment for all ages. It took a Japanese invasion, but once the writers remember that working for a living is what most people have to do, a new creature will be born to international anime, the co-pro.

Oh, あけましておめでとう and all that.

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