Friday, September 1, 2017

Back to Langley. Cool Japan Redux

 In Langley Esquire’s interview with Cool Japan honcho Yamashita Ichita, I said that both men somehow confused Cool Japan with “nation branding” and “soft power”.   A second, or third look compels a different take.  Langley and Yamashita are talking mostly about what Cool Japan is not .  They  clearly wish it was more.  

Right in the beginning Langley talks about how much he likes Japan – and why: “Cool Japan” should be “Amazing Japan”.  Great idea: after all,  Japan is much more than just manga and J-Pop!    Yamashita appears to agree and begins talking about American stereotypes of Japan.

Timothy Langley :  not a manga character

So, Langley and Yamashita are not talking about just selling manga abroad – they are talking about the way the world sees Japan – or should see Japan – which is a completely different thing, more in line with notions of “nation branding” or “soft power” – not that they use either of these terms.   

“Cool Japan” is -- by definition --“J-marketing” for Japanese graphics products and J-Pop. 

However ....“Manga
is not really a  Japanese medium! --just the Japanese word for graphic media such as comic books or bande dessine with Japanese stories.     The Japanese only began creating comics during the American occupation -- influenced by American comics so  there is nothing intrinsically Japanese about “manga” – except the themes  and tropes! 

Yes, you can make a vague connection to ukiyo-e in the Edo Period, but manga, as we know it today, did not exist until the Japanese got hold of GI's comic books. Doraemon meet Mickey and Donald.

The same applies to Japanese animation. Thank you again Walt Disney. 

The themes and tropes of Japanese graphic media match the market- which is huge and diverse, resulting in everything from ultra-saccharine gay love stories for young girls to ultra violent sci fi for young men.   Psychologically speaking this is a complex culture with complicated needs.   

Yaoi Manga (for girls)

I’m a media psychologist and semiologist -- -so it’s easy for me to identity the issues here.  That’s what I get paid for.

If you are not a media psychologist or semiotician, if you are instead a politician or political scientist, the issue of themes is a non-issue, compared to establishing "Japan's presence" abroad.

 Yamashita Ichita is a politician, of course.   But when he begins talking about American stereotypes of the Japanese he is heading in the right direction.  At least, we know that this issue is somewhere in his head  -- as it must be for anyone who reads a lot of manga --where characterization is 95% stereotypes.  

JoJo:    Young Punk Stereotype With Ultra Punk Modding

Nothing wrong with stereotypes.  Hamlet, sorry to say, was a stereotype.  So too John Milton's Satan.   Shakespeare and Milton's greatness came from individualizing these stereotypes.

"Art of any kind is all about stereotypes – which academics will call "memes" or clusters of memes, ( “memeplexes”) for these are part of the language of a culture and its dominant myths.

 So a person opens up a manga and sees a character which he identifies immediately according to stereotypical or memetic cues.  These cues tie to themes, which tie into ....?

Here's where things get difficult.

The great French semiologist Roland Barthes writes:

I am at the barber’s, and copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors ...

A single image can communicate the essence of a Barthean myth, which some would also call a "cultural narrative".   Be that as it may, such myths are how we organize the emotive context in which we exist.

Ukiyoe worked with single images, but each print told a story – without words – using such cues. Below, two lower level geisha on their way to work -- walking through the snow over a bridge tot he main town.   Followed by a tradesman -- perhaps -- or a guide, passed by by a man delivering food?  Where are the geisha going in the snow?   Who is the man behind?  There is a story here. But it helps to know the culture and history.

Manga, whether Japanese or foreign works always ties into a mythic universe that is culturally bound but tends to focus on ordinary people -- the same people who buy it.

 Peter Parker, is just a high school student,  who accidentally gets super powers and can now fight Evil in a mythic univerise where American values must struggle with Intrinsic Evil, a concept borrowed from the Puritans, and now called Donald Trump.  

In this universe, powerless people like you and me can make a difference -- if chosen.

Peter Parker  AKA Spiderman

Japanese manga is often much more violent and sexual than its foreign counterparts, appealing as it does to a nation of conformists and wage slaves, locked forever in pubescent angst.   It’s heroes are outliers and outsiders.  They often don’t even look Japanese –  somehow foreign -- taller, with longer legs and often blonde hair or blue eyes.  Most important of all,  they have what no ordinary Japanese has – a capacity for independent action.   They are not gaikokujin  -- but quintessentially gaijin.

In other words, Japanese manga gets you off through escapism.  Stuck in school all day listening to a boring teacher?  Just imagine stabbing him with a sword! 

Popular art is always escapist -- and to a degree --subversive.  You really don't want people going around stabbing people with swords when they get frustrated.

So why is Cool Japan subsidizing manga? They will probably say that they are not publicizing that kind of manga --meaning the violent or sexy stuff -- just the socially acceptable "kawaii" kind. Sorry, not quite true.  Even if they focus on Doraemon, they end up promoting the whole genre.  Hence the movie versions of Ghost in the Shell and Jo-Jo. This is not a "push" market".  It is a "pull" market and the market wants violence and sex.

This is not good for so-called Japanese "soft power' because the use  J-marketing in Cool Japan suggests that the values implied in Japanese entertainment products are those of Japanese society.

Popular art works -- as pornography does --by arousing emotions  just with a wider range.  The primary response is always uncritical.    

Willing suspension of disbelief!   When you experience popular art you don't want to separate myth and fact.  You want it to feel real.  Hence, the huge emphasis on special effects in movies.

The problem here is that popular culture, which is the "ground" for popular art" is full of   negative stereotypes  -- racist, sexist, whatever, --as we see with classic Disney movies and animation. 

Japanese manga and animation -- like Japanese film -- covers an  enormous range with a a few hundred sub genres. So the kind of of J-art that appeals abroad may not be the best for the image of the country.

Some of this stuff would suggest that the Japanese are innately violent or cruel or pedophilic?   Sadly, these characteristics that are already among the stereotypes in many foreign cultures.  

Such stereotypes or tropes were implanted years ago, when Asians were considered subhumans, famous for their cruel tortures. WWII atrocities made all that worse, kept alive by Japanese denial of responsibility for what they did.

What is racism but a set of stereotypes - -memes passed down from one generation to another?

In Japan, i
ronically,  probably the safest country in the world, the violence and sexuality of Japanese pop art may work in Japan as a kind of safety valve, compensating for the repression that the average person must undergo to "fit" in.     

But exported abroad to other cultures, it is going to be understood from a different cultural perspective – which means - -misunderstood.  What are the most most popular tropes in the foreign media?   Yes, yakuza, ninja assassins and geisha.   And the images of violence and sex in Japanese pop art merge with other disturbing images .

On the one hand, Japanese are polite, organized, and seem peaceful….. On the other,  they kill Flipper.
 And want to rape your little sister. 

So, how do you reconcile such contradictions?  

Basically, the foreign market decides what will sell in foreign countries.  So Beat Takeshi's ultra violent yakuza movies are a hit, especially in Europe along with remakes of the 13 Assassins and Harakiri directed by Takeshi Miilke.  In Miilke's case, the originals were classics, with clearly defined moral themes about honor and justice. The remakes are violence porn.   

Miilke will also direct the manga-based Jo Jo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable Chapter I a joint venture between Toho and Warners.  I shudder to contemplate. 

So Japanese are nasty, violent and sadistic.  They are also peaceful conformists.    Can they be both?  Sure - if you fall back onto another useful stereotype --  – the duplicitous Asian.  “Never trust a Jap. They are not like you and me!"

As you can see, Langley and Yamashita are very, very right to be concerned about steretoypes.   The images of WWII anti-Japanese propaganda are resurrected continually every time Japan avoids its responsibilities in WWII.

Cool Japan?   Problems, problems.    Next time:  the Chinese solution.  

1 comment:

  1. What an intense view on Japan, Julian! And wow, springboarding from the YouTube chat I had with Senator Ichita Yamamoto... well, thank you for the honor. This subject (Cool Japan) is far deeper and anchored on certain aspects of the "Japanese personality" that it is, as you point-out, difficult to put a finger on. You did a masterful job of cobbling it into something understandable Very educational, too! Thank you.