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Takashi Murakami and “there is no Cool Japan”

I want to take a minute from the convention talk while this interview with Takashi Murakami is still recent.

English news
"Letters from the New York Otaku"

By David Cabrera

#8 - Takashi Murakami and “there is no Cool Japan”

I want to take a minute from the convention talk while this interview with Takashi Murakami is still recent. I'll copy the relevant portion.

Q: Japanese animation and manga are being praised abroad now under the theme of "Cool Japan." How do you feel about your role as standard-bearer for that trend?

A: No one overseas talks about "Cool Japan." That is a lie and rumor.

It was intentionally created to satisfy the pride of the Japanese and is nothing more than ad copy to allow public funds to go to advertising companies.

While Japan's manga and animation are slowly being understood abroad, even if the cultural background and context may be difficult to comprehend, it is only being accepted by a small group of fanatics. It is nowhere near a level of becoming a business, so there is nothing to be especially excited about.

I have gained attention abroad as an individual artist named Takashi Murakami, and I have no connection whatsoever with "Cool Japan."

So I feel that, given my role, I should respond to Murakami's statement.

Murakami is essentially right. I have never once heard the phrase “Cool Japan” seriously uttered by anybody who didn't have money to make on it. Murakami is well-known in the art world: I have seen ads for his exhibitions while riding the New York City subway. I have never seen an ad for a Japanese anime or manga on the subway. Murakami's statement about himself is not egoism. It's a fact.

Ghibli movies are critically acclaimed every time they come out, but they hardly make any money here. Aside from single series that become phenomena unto themselves-- think Pokemon and to a lesser extent Dragon Ball-- and single, somewhat well-known films like Akira and Spirited Away, Japanese anime and manga as a whole have not received any kind of mainstream popularity in America. We don't have the audience for that.

Though I talk about 20,000 people in a convention hall, I'd say that “a small group of fanatics” describes the American anime/manga fandom to a tee. The American mainstream won't touch a comic book, and does not want animation that isn't either explicitly for children or adult comedy. Those of us here who love anime are very geeky and probably rather open-minded.

On the other hand, I don't know about “nowhere near the level of becoming a business.” Murakami implies that the core fanbase is too small to be worth serving, and that's not at all the case.

Some Japanese companies have moved into the market expecting massive hits ala Pokemon and Dragon Ball. That level of success is extremely unlikely, no matter how famous the source material is in Japan. The original Mobile Suit Gundam flopped on TV here. So did Lupin the Third. So did One Piece. Nobody saying “I have the next Pokemon!” is being realistic. Pokemon and Dragon Ball were big risks that people weren't sure about, and which took off beyond anybody's expectations. The average anime/manga property has no chance of getting that close.

But if you know your audience-- a small group of fanatics-- what they want, and how they want it, there is a passionate market that's begging to be served.

The Crunchyroll website is doing it for people who want to watch anime online. Funimation is doing it for the people who want cheap box sets on video, American TV style. Aniplex USA is doing it for the perhaps 500 people in America (and to be quite frank, do not expect this number to grow) who are willing to pay $400 for 13 episodes of anime on Blu-Ray.

But it's not a huge amount of people to serve. We are a very niche subculture, and we have to be treated as such. Don't get too excited when you hear the stories about the packed convention halls and see the pictures of Americans dressed up like Hatsune Miku. The situation is much more complicated than that.

If you asked the average American fan “Is Japan cool?” they'd probably say yes: or more specifically, they think Naruto is cool, or Full Metal Alchemist. I think Japan is cool. I think Go Nagai is cool. I think the Sega Saturn is cool. As for Cool Japan, on the other hand... I don't believe in it.