Monday, May 23, 2011

I for one, welcome our new Chinese overlords.

Welcome to the century of American decline.

It's not what you think... ok maybe it is.

As I have mentioned before, what little impact that the American market has on anime and manga productions in terms of creative influence has more or less evaporated with the market bubble bursting a few years ago. Now it seems that China’s emergence as a substantial market force will ensure that such influence never returns (at least not easily), by expanding its own gravitational field into the minds of the key decision makers at studios and publishers who tell the artists and writers what to do.

Case in point, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty theme park is expanding in to China, not the USA. If you think that it’s geographic proximity that is the reason for this, then you seriously need to go back to 8th grade economics. I haven’t seen the actual data and analytics that no doubt took place in abundance before an investment of this magnitude got made, but I am quite sure that I can imagine what they looked like. The (very simplified) end results being something like:

Do this equation in the USA and the answer is more of a “meh” with a higher risk assessment based on lower brand awareness, higher costs for labor and what I am sure are more stringent safety regulations. This kind of business migration has been going on for a very long time in certain segments like manufacturing and agri-business (where Brazil is making a killing). Things progressing as they are, this is going to start happening in the entertainment industry as well and that includes manga and anime, as well as games, and stuff that has yet to be invented.

Many of the responses that came in from the Galapagos Article, seemed to miss the point it made, and argued that the absence of input from the American market was a good thing. That it created a unique difference in the type of entertainment media that manga and anime develop into, and it was exclusively because of that difference that manga and anime were “good.” However, that’s a flawed argument which seemed to be lost on those readers, despite it being highlighted in the same piece with the “mayonnaise on pizza” example. The Japanese put mayo on pizza as a standard, it developed because of lack of input from the American market, and it’s very different from American commercial pizza. Yet, most Americans don’t find it particularly appealing, and that’s because this quality of “difference” by itself is no guarantee of success in other markets. There has to be more than that in the equation.

It is the “more-than-that” which is in danger of being turned in a direction wherein manga and anime may become more appealing to other markets and less appealing to Americans. This is where China will play a large role. While still regarded as the “wild west” in terms of copyright there are two major factors that will continue to make it an emerging force in commercial media: 1) The government is still trying to crack down on copyright violations because as they enter a global economy, not being able to stop IP and brand piracy makes them look bad, and 2) Size Matters; Even if your property suffers 50% piracy, that’s still the other 50% of the Chinese market that didn’t pirate it, and 50% of China is 200% of the entire USA. That’s a profitable gambit no matter how you look at it. This means that when faced with the decision of story-lines, music, translations, release schedules, operations, and marketing input, China is going get a seat at the table.

It’s no guarantee that just because there is more of a minding of Chinese market and cultural sensibilities that it will result in an evolution of manga and anime into something that becomes unwatchable by American otaku standards... but there’s no guarantee that won’t happen either. The Chinese entertainment market is still under the choke-hold of a totalitarian government, hellbent on making sure that even the most abstract negative representations of itself or anything close to it, are ruthlessly stamped out. Creative freedom does not live in China, despite the PR blitz. Many of the citizens in the PRC are ok with that, and are drinking the kool aid. When I was living in Tokyo, the PRC Chinese students I was with actually made statements like “China has never violated human rights” with a straight face. When confronted by the below photo, they actually called it a fake, as they had never seen it before and had no idea what it was, when or why it happened.


So here you have a huge market, wearing blinders to their own government’s imposed artistic limitations, who want to see certain story lines and character archetypes that are quite unique and mostly dissimilar to the ones that the manga and anime market currently produce. Producers are actively including native Chinese speakers in development planning sessions, while native English is nowhere to be found. Size and logistics are really working against the USA in this situation, and with the American economy fucked every which way, it’s not an attractive place to be. If you don’t believe me just ask Tokyo Pop.

The reason this is a serious concern, is that this is a “pull” and not a “push” situation, and that makes for a deeper and more long-lasting set of changes. China is an attractive market and the motivation to do business there is coming from a genuine desire within foreign companies, not from China demanding this, that, or the other. There is no shortage of precedence when it comes to companies agreeing to play by Chinese rules to enter Chinese markets, but in the case of art & entertainment in particular, there have been no high-contrast external examples, until March of 2011. MGM (now Touchstone) announced that they would be changing the “bad guys” in the Red Dawn remake from the PRC to the DPRK (the DPRK is North Korea btw), and make this change retroactively all in post-production. This is the most glaring example of artistic story being bent to the will of industry executives, because those executives do not want to offend Chinese sensibilities. No Chinese bad guy for you!

The reason for this goes far beyond worrying about the Chinese box office for this one particular film. The reason this is happening is because this property is now over at Touchstone, and The Mouse wants in on China bad, and he's already plenty tied up in Chinese investments even now. To make Chinese investors angry is never a good idea, especially in his situation. With this change, he can claim he’s done something of value for the great People’s Republic by swapping them out for the Norkos (even though that makes the film itself seem pretty retarded... ok more retarded). An extreme example to be sure, but it proves the possibility of this happening not only exists, but can be brought to fruition. In order not to offend PRC investors and Government (because you can't separate those two), an American movie playing to an American audience is being significantly altered. Think about that for a minute.

This is from the movie.

I can't really get too angry about that though, as this change wasn't brought by the hand of a government agency, but rather the forces within the private sector, a field in which I operate in. Complaining about it is one thing, but condemning it is a bit too hippie for me. Since I don't own any Disney or MGM shares, the only influence I can exert is that I could either go see it or not go see it, buy the DVD or not buy it. One could also legitimately argue that other films (particularly ones form the UK) have had to make changes to be better adapted to an American audience because the studio wants in on the US Market, and this kind of thing isn't new. But this is a case of a film aimed at it's own domestic market being changed in its own domestic market for the sake of other business interests, not to make the film itself more competitive. That adds another dimension.

Back to the topic at hand; If it wasn’t already clear a few years ago, it should be very clear now, that manga and anime are drifting away from the need to even participate in the US Market. All you undergrad kiddies taking Japanese 101 and thinking you’ll be getting a job in the industry are just setting yourself up for a world of disappointment worse than the one Harold Camping is living in right now (Camping may be upset, but he’s still sitting on a pile of money, you'll have student loans to deal with).

The worst part about this situation, is that the only way the US market can increase its viability (outside of stopping scanlation and fansub piracy), is by getting Big Hollywood back into the picture. These players can shell out for massive theatrical licenses and marketing to the point where they are still the biggest kids on the block. This in turn, creates a market for a great many smaller licenses and spin-off productions which generate enough revenue to stay relevant. Unfortunately, that has been tried, and the result was...

Worse than going to the dentist.

The final curve-ball in this mess which is working against American otaku, is that the USA is still dealing with the near-fatal cultural damage caused by the CCA and the MPAA. Their many years of bully pulpit blathering, and acts of financial terrorism had firmly entrenched any works based on comic illustration (that includes all graphic novels and all animation) were viewed strictly as for kids or the “Family Segment” as modern marketing likes to call it. While it’s true that modern audiences are leaving those notions behind, and movie ratings have been exposed for the scam that they are, this mode of thinking is still much more firmly entrenched where it counts; the investment community. The lines that many audience members no longer see which restrict comics and animation to kiddy-land, are still very indelibly fixed when it comes to project funding. I once worked on a huge pitch for a *Big Toy Company that isn’t Mattel*, with a martial arts anime geared for the 8-14 boys segment. I put a lot of hours into it and was just starting when I was cut off by one of the suits, who said it wasn’t appropriate for boys because (get this) there was a female supporting character in it. Yep, the exec took a look at the crowd-shot with all the characters, noticed that one of them was a chick, and flat out stopped everything right there. When I pointed out that there were less female characters in my property than the multi billion dollar property that was Pokemon, the exec retorted that Pokemon was a “fluke” property. Not caring to ever do business with *Big Toy Company that isn’t Mattel* again (whoopsie me) I responded with “You don’t know what you’re talking about, it isn’t the 1980’s any more,” turned, and left. The mentality of firmly drawn demographic lines and age-exclusive mediums is still very much alive where it counts, and doing as much damage as it possibly can. With that mode of thinking still posing a significant barrier to audience development and engagement, China wins again, because that problem doesn’t exist there. They've got other problems to be sure, but that's not one of them.

This isn’t going to be instant, and the PRC does a great job at putting its foot in its mouth when it comes to trying to sustain an image of something other than Stalinism for the 21st Century. But business has to go where the money is, and people don’t care. If you cared, you wouldn’t have “made in China” stamped on all the crap in your house and probably the stuff your wearing right now.

To conclude, this is not a political observation. I am not Becking about some impending takeover a-la Red Dawn (it's a movie dude... empty calories for wasting the mind's time). I'm talking about rather pedestrian market forces here. These forces make certain facts a likely reality. The fact that in the future (not instantly, but within 10 years), the Chinese market will be a significant source of influence in Japan's manga and anime industry, is something that I think is quite likely. Additionally, it could mean some very good things for the industry and the type of productions that will be made, or it could mean not so good things and manga & anime it will have less of an appeal to American audiences and shrink its American footprint. It's a coin-toss. So prepare to gradually be exposed to manga and anime that are still “different,” but not the same "different" as we're used to.

I'm still gonna go see it.


Anonymous said...

I admit, I didn't read the full post, but I wanted to add that I was shocked when you mentioned that PRC students called the Tank Man picture a fake and didn't know about the demonstrations. Wow. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I think in light of North Korea's extreme isolationist policies, I thought that China had opened up a bit more (especially when reading recent articles that claimed young professionals there were okay with the gov't b/c of China's economic growth).

Anonymous said...

I read Wikipedia's article about the Great Firewall of China ( - I'm now a little more informed.

The Angry Otaku said...

Yep. The students from HongKong and Taiwan instantly knew what that was, but PRCs had no idea. There's still a lot you're not allowed to do/know-about over there. I should say that they didn't keep up the "fake" argument for too long in the face of everyone from 10 different countries telling them otherwise, but they insisted that the incident must have been "misunderstood" by western media and that whatever happened it must have been for the "Good of China" and that keeping those images from the public was the proper things to do in order to "Protect China." The best censorship is self-censorship.

Go as a tourist to Tianmen Square and start mentioning what happened there in 1989... you'll be surprised how fast the police will show up.

The Angry Otaku said...

The reason that's important in the sense of this post/blog, is that these people are now the largest retail market in the WORLD. And much like the whole Texas School Board thing with the textbooks, what they want is what gets made, and that may very well include manga & anime.