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'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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State