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Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination
By Anne Allison
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Peter and His Yu-Gi-Oh!
The boy is sixteen years old: a good student, a star athlete, and college-bound. A colleague's son, Peter is polite but bored as we chat on a warm North Carolinian fall day in 2003. When the subject turns to hobbies, however, and I ask about Japanese fads, the sober-looking youth immediately transforms. Practically jumping out of his seat, he announces, "I'm obsessed with Yu-Gi-Oh!"—an obsession his father confirms while confessing total ignorance about the phenomenon himself. A media-mix complex of trading cards, cartoon show, comic books, video games, movie, and tie-in merchandise that became the follow-up global youth hit on the heels of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! entered the U.S. marketplace in 2001, promoted by the New York–based company 4Kids Entertainment. Here, as my teenage interviewee makes clear, lies a fantasy world where monsters, mysteries of ancient Egypt, and tough opponents all entwine in card play—his preferred venue of Yu-Gi-Oh! play, as well as that of his (mostly male) high school buddies.
As I learned from fieldwork over the last decade, there is a veritable boom these days in Japanese fantasy goods among American youth. This is not the first time, of course, that U.S. mass culture has been influenced by Japan; Japanese cartoons like Speed Racer have played for years, for example, and Godzilla was such a hit in the 1950s, it spawned Japanese monster sequels for decades. But as one twenty-something young man told me recently, J-pop (Japanese pop) is far more ubiquitous today. According to him, properties like manga (comic books) and anime (animation) are "kicking our ass" because they are better, more imaginative, and way beyond what Hollywood can muster in terms of edginess, storytelling, and complex characterizations. The comparison with American pop culture is instructive. For what is new here is not simply the presence of Japanese properties in the United States or the emergence of American fans (I routinely meet diehards who, raised on Godzilla or Speed Racer as youths, have carried the flame into middle age). Rather, it is the far greater level of influence of Japanese goods in the U.S. marketplace these days and upon the American national imaginary/imagination.
As with Peter, part of the appeal of the game play is its novelty. Whether because of the Japanese script, foreign references, or visual design, Yu-Gi-Oh! has a feel that is distinctly non-American. Retaining, even purposely playing up, signs of cultural difference is more the trend today than simple Americanization of such foreign imports.
In 2003, for example, when the popular Japanese youth (comic) magazine Shonen Jump was released in the United States, it was formatted to be read Japanese style, from right to left. Yet, why such an aesthetic is enticing seems to do "less with a specific desire for things Japanese than for things that simply represent some notion of global culture"—as a reporter writing in the New York Times has said about the current manga craze in the United States. For the"Google generation,"worldliness is both an asset and a marker of coolness (Walker 2004:24). But whether the attraction is coded as global culture or as culturally Japanese, it involves not only a perceived difference from American pop but also a constructed world premised on the very notion of difference itself—of endless bodies, vistas, and powers that perpetually break down into constituent components that reattach and recombine in various ways. And, as with Peter and his Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, the pleasure of play here is studying, mastering, and manipulating these differences: an interactive activity by which something foreign soon becomes familiar.
Pokémon at LAX
It is a fall day in 1999, and a crowd of children gathers excitedly by a window at LAX airport. Gazing at the runway in front of them, they are captivated by a 747 just landing from Japan that has been magically transformed into a huge flying monster toy (figure 1). Cartoonishly drawn down the side of the aircraft is a figure recognizable even by adults: yellow-bodied and red-cheeked Pikachu, the signature fantasy creature from the biggest kids' craze of the decade, Pokémon. Known for its cuteness and electric powers, Pikachu is one of the original 151 pokémon (short for "pocket monsters"; there are now more than 300) that inhabit an imaginary world crafted onto a media-mix entertainment complex of electronic games, cartoons, cards, movies, comic books, and tie-in merchandise. By 1999, what had started modestly as a Game Boy game in Japan three years earlier had become a megacorporation and the hottest kid property in the global marketplace. Given the currency and spread of the Pokémon phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that children would thrill at the sight of its popular icon Pikachu plastered on the side of what otherwise would be a mere vehicle of transport. More remarkable is that an airline, a business usually prone to promoting the "seriousness" of its service to adults, would willingly turn itself into an advertisement and carrier for a children's pop character. Remarkable as well is the fact that this fantasy fare causing such a splash in the United States came not from Disney or Hollywood but from Japan.
For the children hugging the window at LAX airport, excitement comes from seeing a familiar pop figure extended onto what is a new and unexpected playing field: a passenger plane. Yet for those traveling inside the carrier, the encounter goes much further than an external facade; it defines, in fact, the entire flight experience. Attendants dress in pokémon-adorned aprons, and passengers are surrounded by images of the pocket monsters on everything from headrests to napkins to food containers and cups. For in-flight entertainment, there are Pokémon movies and videos. And, disembarking from the plane, passengers receive a goody bag (like those at a birthday party) filled with Poke-treats—a notebook, badge, tissue container, comb. To fly on an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Pokémon jet is akin to visiting a theme park; it means total submergence in Poke-mania, from the body of the plane to one's own bodily consumption of food and fun. According to an ANA ad aimed at Japanese children, such an atmosphere promises not only recreation but also intimacy and warmth: "It's all Pokémon inside the plane. Your happy Pokémon friends are waiting for you all!!!" (Kinai wa zenbu Pokémon da yo. Tanoshii Pokémon no nakamatachi ga minna o matteru yo). Commodities of play and travel become personal friends on an ANA jet thematized as pop culture.
Another ad, directed as much to adults as to kids, evokes similar sentiments (figure 2). The image, drawn to resemble the material of a snuggly sweater, shows a huge smiling figure of Pikachu set against a background of a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Flying into Pikachu's tummy and scaled at about one-tenth the figure's size is an ANA plane that looks as if it is trying to cuddle up against the monster. The cartoon plane has a disproportionately large head and a small tail that flips up cutely as if it were a baby bird practicing its flying technique. Against what is both a playful image and an image of playfulness, the message reads across the top, "Enjoy Japan!" or Make Japan fun! "(Nippon o tanoshiku shimasu!"). Here the referent for fun has shifted; Pokémon jets are not only imaginary friends but also vehicles for viewing, experiencing, and selling Japan. By appropriating Pikachu, this ad sells domestic travel around Japan for ANA airlines but also carries another message about the prominence of Japanese play industries in a national economy that has suffered a debilitating recession since the bursting of the Bubble in 1991. Exports in fantasy and entertainment goods (comic books, animated cartoons, video games, consumer electronics, digital toys) have skyrocketed in the last decade, providing much needed revenues at home and making Japan not so much a fun site (as the ad promotes) as a leading producer of fun in the global marketplace today. Douglas McGray (2002), an American reporter, has referred to this as Japan's GNC (gross national cool), noting how the stock in Japanese cultural goods has recently soared (the Pokémon empire alone has sold $15 billion in merchandise worldwide). Here the commodification of play becomes a national resource and cultural capital for Japan.
Crossover Vehicles/Global Culture
In such crossover character goods as Yu-Gi-Oh! and the ANA Pokémon jets, Japanese "cool" is traveling popularly and profitably around the world and insinuating itself into the everyday lives and fantasy desires of postindustrial kids from Taiwan and Australia to Hong Kong and France. This global success in transactions of images, imaginary characters, and imaginative technology marks Japan's new status in the realm of what is sometimes called soft power (by Joseph Nye and others) and cultural power (by the mass media and government officials in Japan). This is a recent development, because even when Japan was most economically strong (through the Bubble years and at the height of its economic superpowers in the 1980s), its influence in the sphere of culture (images, ideas, films, publications, lifestyle pursuits, novels) penetrated little further than its own national borders. Curiously, though, along with the bursting of the Bubble, Japan has started to soar in one domain of its economy: creative goods whose value outside (as well as inside) the country is taking off like never before. And, at the same time that Japan's place in cultural production rises in the worldwide marketplace, so does the hegemony once held in this sphere by the so-called West and particularly the United States begin to erode.
What interests me in these new global flows of Japanese children's properties are the ways in which fantasy, capitalism, and globalism are conjoined and (re)configured in toys like Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards and an ANA Poke-jet. The lines between these categories blur here, for whereas Yu-Gi-Oh! is more clearly a play product marketed to youth, a Poke-jet extends the meaning of "playtoy" in a new direction by (also) being a clever marketing strategy to extend profits for a capitalist corporation not usually associated with children's entertainment. Further, according to some people at least, both these products are also vehicles of/for Japan's"cultural power"—high-tech fun goods that, in traveling popularly around the world these days, are spreading Japan's reputation as a first-class producer of imaginative fare. As a group of American kids (aged eight to eighteen) told me in 2000, the associations they hold of Japan are neither of kimonos, tea ceremonies, or kamikaze pilots nor of Honda, Toyota, or Mitsubishi but of Nintendo video games, Sony's Walkman, and Pokémon. It is as consumers and players of Japanese manga, anime, video games, trading cards, and entertainment technology (Walkman, Game Boy, Sony PlayStation) that postindustrial youth today—an ever-increasing demographic in consumerism more generally—relate to Japan. And, given their abiding fandom of such properties, many of these kids also said they hoped to learn about Japan, study the language, and travel there one day. This is a fascinating shift from the early postwar period, when few American kids were interested in studying Japan at all, to the 1980s (the era of the Bubble economy), when Japanese-language classes were filled by eager American students hoping to do business someday in Japan, to the present, when Japanese fantasy creations are inspiring a wave of Japanophilia among American and global youth.
What exactly is it about Japanese anime or video games that is driving such a worldwide appetite to consume these virtual landscapes and imaginary fairy tales at this particular moment? Further, how are we to understand the interest(s) paid this "soft business" by the Japanese themselves, by a press that reports on the success of Pokémon overseas as front-page news, by writers who have proclaimed Japan the new "empire" of character goods, and by a government that is treating manga and anime like national treasures? From both sides, that is, made-in-Japan fantasy goods are becoming invested these days with particular kinds of (affective, aesthetic, financial, trans/national) value in the global marketplace where they are bought and sold with much vigor.
How to excavate, decipher, and situate these sets of values is the aim of Millennial Monsters. To be sure, the orbit of the Japanese play market today is global, and this is how I refer to it throughout the book. I have chosen, however, to focus on two specific sites in this traffic: Japan as the generator and the United States as one of many consumer marketplaces for Japanese cultural goods today. This is in part because these are the two sites in which I have lived and conducted research, but also because of the long-standing and particular attributes the United States brings to this nexus of trade/politics/ play/power with Japan. Because of its size and wealth, the United States is a coveted market. It is also loaded with symbolic cachet for the dominance U.S. cultural industries have held in setting the trends and standards of mass entertainment around the world. In Japan, too, and particularly during the decades following its defeat and occupation by the United States, American influence on popular culture and, more generally, on shaping desires for a lifestyle marked by modernity, materialism, and McDonald's has been strong.
But in this era of late-stage capitalism and post–cold war geopolitics, global power has become more decentered, and American cultural hegemony has begun to disperse. In what Iwabuchi Koichi (2002) refers to as the "recentering" of globalization, there is a rise today in new sources of cultural influence in global trendsetting (such as Japan) and also an expansion of new consumer marketplaces (such as China). As he and other scholars have pointed out, it is important to study such recentered globalization outside the scope of a Western anchor: looking, as he does, for example, at how Japan operates as a cultural broker and power in the "inter-Asia" region (of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand). Equally important, however, is to test what is happening in the old center of global culture itself, the United States, examining what kind of influence Japanese goods are actually exerting in the market and on the imaginations of American kids in this moment of changing globalization.
Throughout Millennial Monsters, I tack between Japan and the United States and move dialectically between the level of fantasy and play and that of context and the politico-economic marketplace. The book is organized around three main issues: (1) fantasy—the composition and grammar given to the imaginary characters and fanciful world(view)s at work in specific entertainment products from Japan that have been globally successful in recent years; (2) capitalism—the ways in which these products are marketed for both domestic and global sales, and are inflected and shaped by the conditions in which children actually live in specific places (namely, the United States and Japan); and (3) globalization—how the flow of Japanese character goods into the globalized market of the United States actually takes place and is invested with certain (and competing) meanings, interests, and identities (such as Japanese, American, and transcultural).
A case in point is Miyazaki Hayao's evocative anime movie Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). Released in 2001 by Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away was the highest-earning movie to date in Japan and won an Academy Award in the United States for best animated film (in 2002). In Japan, sentiments congealed around what the movie expressed about lost (cultural) values. A tale about displacement and loss (a young girl, moving to a new town, is temporarily stuck in an abandoned theme park and is separated from her parents, who are turned into pigs for their slothful eating habits), the movie is also redemptive (the girl learns how to work in a bathhouse for spirits and, trusting in herself and her new loyalties to spirited allies, earns the return of her family to the "real" world). The movie is arguably an allegory about millennial capitalism, as all the characters save Sen (the young girl, whose name is changed to Chihiro) are grossly self-interested and materialistic (her parents pig out on food, and her fellow workers in the bathhouse gorge on everything from leftover food to the gold dispensed by "No-face," the mysterious spirit who also consumes a few workers in return). Notably, the heroine becomes a paragon not only of hard work and loyalty to friends but also of sobriety; she refuses to consume anything (figure 3) except two old-fashioned rice balls (onigiri), which, given to her by Haku, her new friend, she forces down along with tears. These rice balls—a sign of traditional food, traditional values—were reproduced as a plastic toy and accompanied the release of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi in Japan; embodying the pathos evoked by the film, they circulated as a mini-fad for months.
Excerpted from Millennial Monsters by Anne Allison. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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