Summer 2005

Manga and anime: postmodern woodblock prints? [EXTRACT]

The first International Manga and Anime Festival (IMAF)

County Hall, London, December 2004

While most people only vaguely remember the 1980s and the meteoric rise and subsequent equally spectacular fall of the Japanese economy (from whose ashes came an influx of technological gadgetry, sushi bars and cheap, well manufactured cars) I have one enduring memory: the 1989 screening of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira at the ICA in London. Akira quite simply blew me (and every other person in the cinema) away. Here was a film that took a genre, which in its Western incarnation was still largely considered to be a prepubescent extension of fairytales and aimed it, culturally, at an entire population, not just a niche, juvenile market.

In Japan Manga and Anime, unlike Harry Potter novels and Disney’s output, are deliberately and intellectually cross-generational. People of all ages, genders and class are seen, quite happily, on a daily basis, in all spheres of public life, consuming this popular culture, ranging in subject matter as diverse as sex education, history, politics, globalisation, ecology, the occasional alien invasion and – in the style of Godzilla, Manga’s postwar sibling – nuclear apocalypse. To get an idea of the scale of Manga’s success and cultural status, one only needs to consider that sales of Manga magazines in Japan have now reached approximately two billion a year.

Yet, unlike the huge and sudden impact of the Japanese economic miracle, Manga’s growth in the West, including Europe and America, has been much slower. Here in Britain it achieves only a small proportion of the mass appeal it enjoys back home, though it cannot be surprising that France, with its own highly developed tradition of graphic novels, animation and celebration of popular culture, is the most successful market for Manga and Anime (itself a French word) in Europe to date.

However the current spurt of interest in Japanese popular culture in the West is not solely reliant upon the underground success of Manga and Anime sales alone. Last year saw the worldwide income derived from the sales of video games outstrip cinema, video and DVD takings for the first time, consolidating the position of the domestic gaming console market, dominated by Japanese companies such as Nintendo and Playstation.

Notwithstanding the success of non-Japanese titles such as Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto and The Getaway, it is the cultural impact of computer games within the home that has deeply affected a new generation, sparking a fully fledged renaissance of Japanese culture in the West. One could argue that Manga is to postmodernity what Japanese woodblock prints were to modernity in the late nineteenth century, in the sense that they have helped to create a Zeitgeist, paving the way for a wave of other products and genres from Southeast Asia.

Zhang Yimou’s resurrection on our cinema screens has coincided with a spate of Korean and Hong Kong thrillers alongside a number of popular Japanese horror movies. Moreover the effect on the insular US cinema market has been quite revolutionary. Not only has Hollywood gone for its usual tactic of ‘remaking’ horror movies like The Ring, the critical and box office success of the maniacally stereotypical Lost In Translation, together with the obvious eastern Martial Arts influences on big budget productions such as Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dovetail nicely with the films of Hayao Miyazaki, whose Oscar-winning Spirited Away was distributed globally by Disney.

In literature, too, Manga has taken up a place on western bookshelves next to the novels of Haruki Murakami such as Kafka on the Shore and the recent hit travelogue by Peter Carey, Wrong About Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son, chronicling a journey to Japan with his teenage son, exploring their respective love of Japanese culture old and new, high and low.

Although its initial marketing was somewhat subdued, the new County Hall Animation Studios Enterprise (CHASE) has chosen a good time to launch the first International Manga and Anime Festival (IMAF), which was held at County Hall in December 2004.

The festival drew a modest 40 films from nine European countries, but with prize money totalling ,000, this will surely change in the future. The aim is not only to raise the profile of the genre but also to develop a full publishing and production studio for Manga and Anime in Britain, catering to a specifically European market. The whole project is designed not just to complement the Japanese industry but to tap into the indigenous culture as well. (Details from www.imaf.co.uk.) [. . .]

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