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.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses