Choosing a particular period from 1800 to the present, in what ways has art or design responded to the changing social and cultural forces of that period? (2 specific examples)
Much like the havoc-wreaking monsters that pervade their favourite storylines, Japanese otaku culture today has grown, mutated, and extended its reach far beyond its humble archipelagic origins. Otaku are best represented by their expertise in – and to a further extent their obsession with – science fiction, especially in the realms of anime (animation) and manga (comics). Although they are generally regarded as shy, reclusive sorts, in the past thirty years the sub-culture has attracted international attention; taking over Japan and invading Western customers’ homes, leaving the contemporary perception of otaku distorted to the point of abstraction. The comprehension of this somewhat elusive title lies in its conception, for the otaku carry with them a weighty history of national devastation, restoration, and ultimately, repression. This essay will examine the work produced by the forerunners of the otaku sub-culture of 1980s Japan as reactionary; a reflection of the generational shift in ideals brought on by the rapidity of development in post-war Japan.
The American nuclear assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought a close to the Pacific War in 1945 enveloped the Japanese cities in scenes of terror and destruction never before witnessed by mankind. The blinding white light of the initial blasts of ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ was soon followed by a sickening ‘torrent of pitch-black rubble and mangled body parts [that] actually rained on the people on the ground’ [Murakami, T. 2005,], an image that would be indelibly burned onto the Japanese subconscious, resurfacing again and again in post-war anime and manga. With two of its island-capital cities laid waste and prickling with radiation, a human loss of more than three hundred and seventy thousand, and the looming threat of further onslaught from the Allied Forces, Japan surrendered. American forces immediately began their occupation, and in 1947, the new Japanese Constitution was put into effect, Article 9 of which pledged “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a mean of settling international disputes… land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”[Harvard University Hanover Historical Texts Project] America’s post-war policy aimed for a kind of cultural reengineering [Gibson, W. 2001], “To ensure that Japan will not again become a menace to the United States or to the peace and security of the world.” [U.S. Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan] American-style capitalism, ideals of democracy and individual liberties were introduced, and the plans for complete demilitarization of Japan went underway: politically, economically and psychologically.
Then came the Cold War. America increased its military bases throughout Japan, and actively encouraged the Japanese government to establish their own self-defence forces – blatantly rejecting the still-fresh Japanese Constitution. Soon Japan was in possession of Asia’s most powerful self-defence artillery [Gordon, A. 1993]. This political and technological U-turn acted as something of an omen, foretelling the enduring political ambiguity that would characterise post-war Japan.
After six years of Allied Forces occupation, Japan regained its independence. The economy, already nursed to comfortable stability, was beginning to flourish; cities were expanding further into rural land; the nation experienced an immense surge in optimism for growth and profit. This optimism came to a head with the 1964 Olympic Games [Sawaragi, N. 2005] in Tokyo. An unfulfilled dream from the pre-war years, this event signalled Japan’s successful resurrection from the ashes of war, and called the entire nation to share in the celebrations, by watching it on television. Masses rushed out to buy a set for their home in the lead-up to the Games – no one wanted to miss out – thus, the television, the newest, fastest, and most absorbing tool for the distribution of mass-media, made its way deep into the heart of modern Japanese society. These were the years the ‘first-generation’ [Morikawa, K. 2005] otaku were born into. By this stage, the transition to urban life had already dramatically changed the average Japanese family: the father figure now found himself working long hours in the office to pay off inner-city living costs, mothers were left to the housework all day long, while their few children went off to school. [Sawaragi, N. 2005] Television proved to be the wedge that would widen the growing generation gap in the Japanese home: while their parents enjoyed American sitcoms, Japanese children of the 1960s were captivated by science fiction anime serials, such as ‘Eight Man’ (Eitoman), ‘Tetsujin 28-go’ (Tetsujin Nijūachi-gō), and the autonomous ‘Astro Boy’ (Tetsuwan Atomu).
With the nation pacified and distracted by the giddy highs and empty lows of American consumerism, the newly inaugurated Japanese lifestyle was not openly refuted. Instead, the children of 1960s Japan were allowed to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds: worlds full of monsters, transforming robots and cute, bug-eyed characters. They were not to understand the gravity behind the themes of the Disney-inspired cartoons they watched and comics they read. The nuclear attacks of 1945 haunted creators such as Osamu Tezuka (a.k.a. ‘the Godfather of Anime’/’God of Manga’), who witnessed the crippling power of the bombs first-hand [McCarthy, H. 2009]. His magnum opus, ‘Astro Boy’ (translating literally from the Japanese as ‘Iron-armed Atom’), is a perfect example of the strange relationship that had been established between the Japanese people and nuclear power. Undeniably cute, the series works as something of a portent for the paradoxical use of children’s fantasy to depict more mature issues of responsibility in the face of new and terrifyingly unstable technology that would be an enduring theme throughout post-war anime and manga [Murakami, T. 2005].
The generation gap grew. Now that they had their own rooms (a custom which was unheard of in the common household of pre-war Japan), the children of this era could paper their walls with posters and drawings of their favourite characters, litter their desks with figurines, and spend their schooldays engaged in incensed conversation with their classmates about the latest instalment of their favourite serials [Matsui, M. 2005]. Their parents often found this obsessive behaviour strange, the fantasies disturbing [Murakami, T. 2005]. As the children of post-war Japan grew into young adults, the anxieties harboured by some parents intensified, as their offspring did not cast aside their childhood love for anime and manga; but instead expanded their collections, while spending an increasing amount of time absorbed in their cartoons, and even dressing up in home-made costumes with other similarly disposed peers. In an interview with Takashi Murakami, Kaichiro Morikawa recalled the ill-feelings society held against these young otaku: “There was a clear cultural hierarchy, and manga were at the bottom. The spiteful label of otaku was attached to grown-ups who had unacceptable taste in kids’ stuff.” This is what makes the otaku culture particularly interesting. It appears that in this generation, a widespread pandemic of reticence was able to take hold – a gradual emergence of the shared inability to let go of the fantasies of childhood.
Some of the members of this new social demographic did not just spend their time consuming anime and manga, but actually went on to become creators themselves. One of the most well-known labours of love created by otaku, for otaku, is the DAICON IV opening animation. DAICON IV was the 21st annual Japanese Science Fiction Convention, held in Osaka in 1982. The previous year’s opening animation for the convention had already caused something of a sensation. A small group of Visual Concept Planning students (including the now-legendary animators Hideaki Anno and Hiroyuki Yamaga) at the Osaka University of Arts were called upon to create the animation for the opening ceremonies, and had managed to create a piece of animation that hit upon the two key characteristics that appeal to the otaku-zoku (‘otaku tribe’) [Nakamori, A. 1983], the first: abundant references to popular anime and manga, the second – and often overlooked – aspect is that of a certain eye for quality [Murakami, T. 2005]. William Gibson describes the otaku as “the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur” [Gibson, W. 2001], and this is clearly evident in the success of the DAICON opening animations. Although this sequence was the first attempt at cel animation made by the students, the technical and creative skills displayed by them was highly developed When the next convention came around, the same team were on hand, this time joined by other soon-to-be heroes of the anime world, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda [Eng, Lawrence, 2003]. The new animation sequence was even more extravagant than the first. In his essay, Takashi Murakami notes the importance of the animation in relation to understanding the mindset of the otaku; for as obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, guns, robots, spaceships and scantily-clad females as the otaku bashfully show themselves to be, in this ultimate representation of the original otaku dream, what they are fundamentally striving for is “a happy party, a peaceful festival.”[Murakami, T. 2005]
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Matthew ALT April 2, 2008, ‘What kind of otaku are you?’ At: http://neojaponisme.com/2008/04/02/what-kind-of-otaku-are-you/
Frederick L. Schodt, ‘Dreamland Japan: writings on modern manga’, 1996
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Anon, ‘Japanese history: Postwar (since 1945)’ 2002. At http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2124.html:
Gibson, William, ‘Modern Boys and Mobile Girls’, 2001. At: http://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/books/2001/apr/01/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.features
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