Manga wars

As Japan's economic dominance of south-east Asia wanes, so could its manga-centric cultural pull.

"Once one starts listing the examples of Japanese culture infiltrating the United States, it's pretty hard to stop," wrote Entrepreneur.com's Laura Tiffany in 2008. "The import market for Japanese pop culture is still in its infancy," she continued, citing the growing market for manga comics, which had become readily available at mainstream outlets such as Walmart and Borders. Of the ten bestselling graphic novels in US bookstores in November that year, six were Japanese: the likes of Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto and Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket jostled among domestic fare by established western figures such as Alan Moore, whose 1986 hit Watchmen occupied the top spot (buoyed, perhaps, by the pre-release excitement surrounding its 2009 film adaptation).

Two decades earlier, Japan's image in the eyes of the English-speaking world was largely restricted to that of an economic juggernaut; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) captures the wariness reserved by the west for the country's seemingly unstoppable growth. That film presents a dystopian vision of an America usurped by the east, with kimono-clad women smiling from towering billboard screens and the streets filled with non-specifically Asian food vendors. But Scott's predictions proved only partly prophetic. The Japanese economic bubble burst spectacularly in the years that followed, suffering the hangover of over-investment in the 1980s and then caught in the domino effect of Thailand's bankruptcy in 1997. Though Japan is still the world's second-largest economy, China is expected to overtake it this year. John McTiernan's 1988 film Die Hard was set in the Nakatomi Plaza -- a Japanese-owned skyscraper in Los Angeles. If it were made today, perhaps Hans Gruber would have been relieving a Chinese corporation of its bonds and money.

This tide-change from Japan to China is palpable and seems to be accelerating on all fronts. In June, the Asahi newspaper reported the results of a Gallup poll, which revealed that -- for the first time in 25 years -- more US opinion leaders considered China their most important partner in Asia than those who chose Japan.

In the arts, even Japan's dominance of manga and animated films is being challenged. The Japan Expo in Paris, held between 1-4 July, is a fixture for manga fans across Europe; it attracts 150,000 punters a year. For the first time in its 11-year history, it invited Korean manhwa comic stalls to exhibit work, a development that, according to Asahi, was due to the efforts of the government-sponsored Korea Creative Content Agency (KCCA). "There may come the day when this event is overwhelmed by manhwa," said the Japanese ministry of economy rep Tetsuya Watanabe. The KCCA receives $152.1 million in government subsidies, and is buoyed by the conviction of its president, Lee Jae-woong, that "the cultural industry" will soon "lead all industries". China, too, is investing heavily in the sector: it hailed "cultural soft power" as a major national policy at the 2007 Communist party convention and has gone on to establish about 20 "industrial bases" for anime and manga production.

Japan's ministry of economy, trade and industry responded by establishing a "Cool Japan" department in June. But without the aggressive state push (nor the same scale of hard funding) to match its south-east Asian counterparts, it remains to be seen whether it can manage to keep western eyes on what is traditionally a culturally insular nation.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times