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Arts feature

How Japan became a pop culture superpower

Virtually every childhood craze of the past 30 years has its beginnings in Japan. Today its influence is stronger than ever

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

There is an island nation, just off the main body of a continent. It gained an empire from the force of its military and the finesse of its trading contracts. The empire withered, as they all do, under the gaze of history. But that didn’t finish the island nation off. It simply took over the world in a different way, with something greater than arms and economics: popular culture. Its territory is now the television in your lounge, and the headphones in your ears.

Sounds like Britain, doesn’t it? We often boast of how, from the Beatles to this year’s Oscar nominations, our country punches above its weight culturally. But I had another island nation in mind. One with twice as much weight, in terms of population, and a hell of a lot more punch: Japan.

If you want to see a totem to Japan’s influence, then pop down to your local cinema this week. Among the new releases is the latest Disney movie, Big Hero 6. Its plot, about a boy and his robot taking on a supervillain, doesn’t really stand out. But its style and its setting sure do. Here is the splendiferous future-city of San Fransokyo, a perfect hybrid of …well, you guessed it. Huge neon cats grin from the top of redbrick offices. The cable cars have paper lanterns fluttering from their corners. Even old Uncle Walt is turning Japanese.

Nerds will point out that the immediate forebear of Big Hero 6 is actually an American comic book. This is the first Disney cartoon to use the Marvel characters that Walt paid billions of dollars to acquire for himself. But a quick read of that comic — particularly the five-issue series drawn by David Nakayama in 2008 — reveals a definite Asian ancestry. Not only is it set in Japan, but it also borrows enthusiastically from Japanese manga books. There are big mechanical battle-suits, big spiky hair-dos and big buoyant breasts. Not all of these make it into the Disney version.

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This mingling of Japanese and American culture has been going on for decades. It was soon after the end of the second world war that John Ford first visited the set of an Akira Kurosawa film. ‘Give the director my regards,’ he told one of the studio staff as he left. But 13 years later he could do that himself. Kurosawa was on one of Ford’s sets when the entire cast and crew stood up to applaud the Japanese director. The memories of a horrible war couldn’t undo the ties that bound these artists together.

Yet it’s the post-war generations who have really basked under the rising sun. Almost every childhood craze of the past 30 years has come from Japan: Transformers, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi, Pokémon and on and on and on. And together these have blasted through boundaries between different media.

One of the driving forces behind this cultural takeover has, of course, been money. Perhaps because of its island status, Japan has a knack for exporting itself and its goods to the rest of the world. A case in point is the company behind those Pokémon and so much else: Nintendo. Even before it had sold us hundreds of millions of consoles, Nintendo had already expanded into the United States. Apparently, the company’s president at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, had been inspired by meeting executives from — where else? — Walt Disney in the 1950s. He ached to turn his great-grandfather’s playing-card business into a global concern.

It’s easy to be cynical about art that emerges from boardrooms, as people often are about Hollywood. But the truth is that Japan’s cultural sector is sustained by the quality of its product. Nintendo’s most famous child, a high-bouncing plumber named Mario, lives in a detailed world that draws on classic fantasy and Japanese folklore — even if he was born to retain the custom of gaming arcades in America. You can’t get kids excited about branded lunchboxes and pyjamas if there’s nothing behind them.

And it’s not just for the kids: Japan likes to entertain adults too. One of the strangest things about the country’s culture, which only a qualified anthropologist could explain, is how it ignores puberty. If someone was into comics or cartoons when they were 12, why wouldn’t they be when they are 14 or 40 or even 80? They might prefer more mature themes as they age, but there’s no particular need for the form to change. Hence artists such as Masahiko Matsumoto — whose work is now being published in English translations by Breakdown Press — could sell crime comics to adults in the 1950s.

The latest Japanese megahit to detonate in the West is also aimed at adults. It’s an anime series, based on a manga comic, called Attack on Titan. I’d recommend that you watch at least the first episode, which captures the tenor of the whole thing. It begins with a great, skinless giant leering over the walls of a city. It ends with other giants turning the streets into a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. As the hero flees, he sees his mother bitten in half by one of the monsters, her blood splashing on the ground like slow-motion raindrops. Only in Japan.

But the rest of the world is learning. You can see this in the work of those Pixar folk who produced Toy Story (1995), who now occupy the upper echelons of the Walt Disney Company. Several years ago, they spent much of their time extolling the talents of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Here is someone, they said, who makes films for children that are also fun and rewarding for adults. Which goes to show that playtime doesn’t end when you get a job. That’s actually when you might have the cash to do it properly.

Speaking of cash, a 20th-anniversary version of another Japanese console, the Sony PlayStation, was sold in a charity auction for $129,000 last week. That sum could buy you around 13,000 tickets to see Big Hero 6 this weekend, but it’s equally part of the same phenomenon. Welcome to San Fransokyo. Population: all of us.

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