A merican popular culture: We hear that phrase and immediately think of a juggernaut, a one-way tide rolling round the globe bearing its fatally attractive, tradition-squelching icons. It used to be John Wayne and jazz and Audrey Hepburn and Mickey Mouse. Then came McDonald’s and Snoopy. More recently we’ve seen CNN, Michael Jordan, “Titanic,” Starbucks, Britney Spears and Wal-Mart. The Americanization of the world proceeds apace.
That’s the perception, anyway. The truth is, the tide reverses more often than the protesting placard-bearers care to admit. Americans eat spaghetti and Peking duck and spanakopita as happily as they eat fries and hamburgers. Some of their hottest movie stars are Australian. And in the past few years, the United States has taken almost as much popular culture from Britain as it has sent over there: reality-based television shows such as “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”; “Harry Potter”; and the ubiquitous, Oscar-winning Dame Judi Dench.
The deepest inroads, though, have been made by Japan. Americans may not have heard of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (at least until he showed up for the New England Patriots’ season opener in Boston on Monday night), but they drive Japanese cars in the tens of millions, they adore sushi and their kids went crazy over Pokemon in all its manifestations — the TV show, cards, movie, toys — a few years back.
The Pokemon phenomenon and a slew of video games proved that there is a niche in the U.S. pop-culture market for Japanese “anime,” or “Japanimation.” Recent years have shown the extent of it. In 1999, “Princess Mononoke,” by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, was hailed in the U.S. as one of the best films of the year. Disney animators have acknowledged Mr. Miyazaki as “a source of inspiration,” and his highly anticipated new film, “Spirited Away,” is set for nationwide release following its opening this week in Los Angeles and New York.
At the same time, U.S. cartoon programming has been quietly taken over by Japanese (or Japanese-style) anime: “Sailor Moon,” “Powerpuff Girls,” “Dragonball Z,” “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Yuyu Hakusho,” to name a few. The last three have pushed their networks to the top of their lucrative time slots.
Now some people are betting that the niche is big enough to accommodate manga, the precursors of many of these successful shows. November will therefore see the U.S. launch of Shonen Jump, Japan’s biggest-selling manga magazine, with the already popular “Dragonball Z” and “Yu-Gi-Oh” as regular features. A lot of money is at stake for publishing partners Shueisha of Japan and America’s Viz Communications. Shueisha editorial director Mr. Kazuhiko Torishima indicated just how much when he pointed out recently that by the end of 2001, the four “Harry Potter” volumes had sold roughly 55 million copies worldwide, whereas from June 2001 to May 2002, 900 million volumes of graphic novels based on weekly Shonen Jump titles had been sold.
If Shonen Jump proves a hit with its target U.S. audience — boys under 16 — the sky could be the limit. That’s a big if, of course. To start with, the magazine will be printed Japanese-style, reading right to left and back to front, to preserve the original artists’ layout. That could be a hindrance with this picky age group. Second, American boys may be hooked on TV and video games, but they don’t have much history of magazine reading. And American comics passed their golden age decades ago. In a sense, Shonen Jump will have to break new ground if it is to succeed in the U.S.
But supposing manga mania does make it into the American pop-culture mainstream, what will that mean, other than fat profits for two prescient companies? Is it a product this country can be proud to export, like Hondas or Mr. Issey Miyake’s clothes? Do pre-adolescent boys need to be distracted (more than they already are) by hefty comic books filled with trashy, sexist, violence-laced plots and cardboard-cutout characters? We won’t even mention their fathers. For all the talk of manga as an art form, it is still unsettling to see grown men in business suits “reading” such fare on Japan’s subways.
There are several conflicting truths here. One is that if there’s an audience for manga-based shows on U.S. television, then, yes, there could well be an audience for the manga themselves. Stranger things have happened. But a second is that “Yu-Gi-Oh” is not “Spirited Away”: The two are at opposite ends of the intertwined manga-anime spectrum and shouldn’t be conflated. The irony is that Japan is honored abroad for the latter, but the former, if it succeeds, could bring out American protesters with placards. Now all we have to do is decide whether that’s a potential embarrassment . . . or justice.
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