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3:AM Asia: Mecha auteur and mega girl group hit NYC

akb

By Roland Kelts.

This evening in New York, I will have the privilege of introducing and conversing with Yoshiyuki Tomino, veteran anime creator, director, screenwriter and novelist. Tomino is most famous for his now 30-year-old seminal mecha anime masterpiece, Mobile Suit Gundam. He has been making the rounds of late, granting public appearances and interviews both in Japan and overseas, and speaking out on topics as diverse as video games and world peace. Gundam, too, has resurfaced — most literally as a life-size, 18-meter-tall statue in Odaiba, Tokyo.

Organizers anticipated 1.5 million visitors to their gigantic giant robot. An estimated 4.15 million turned up over the statue’s 40-day life span, which ended with its ceremonial dismantling earlier this month. At least one couple even got married between its massive feet.

Tomino is in New York this weekend to participate in the third annual New York Anime Festival (NYAF), among the United States’ largest and most media-friendly celebrations of Japanese popular culture. But while he and his giant robot are both consecrated classics at home, they may be yesterday’s news–or not even newsworthy — for many of today’s American otaku.

“Tomino is on the same level as Hayao Miyazaki,” says Peter Tatara, NYAF’s 26-year-old director of programming. We are at a folksy Japanese luncheon in Manhattan, where my shrimp-fry set is as much a sign of hybrid Japan’s cultural presence in New York as the tower of nori seaweed perched atop his mushroom spaghetti. “As soon as we knew he would come, we booked him,” Tatara says. “But although he is legendary, the U.S. fan base is so young right now. They’re 13 to 15, and skew slightly female. Tomino’s name won’t register at all with our younger fans.”

To bridge the gap, Tatara has booked AKB48, the uber-popular group of young female J-pop performers from Japan. I will host their panel tomorrow — but what will they have to say? AKB48 (pictured) are girls who are celebrated in part for being attractively amateurish, idealized icons of moe or schoolgirl fetish fantasy and consumption.

“What’s interesting is that AKB48 are not attached to any specific anime,” Tatara continues. “They’re mainly a leading-edge Japanese music idol group. So their U.S. fans had to seek out AKB48′s music the way U.S. anime fans had to seek out anime years ago — in the niches. That means their fans are very, very diehard.”

Will that passion translate into CD purchases and ticket sales? Tatara hopes so. But recent figures suggest that younger American fans’ interest in Japanese pop culture is mostly about community and play. Fans attend conventions in greater numbers each year, but they are less likely to know of Japanese auteurs like Tomino, and they’ve already seen on the Internet the latest anime titles that have not yet been released in the United States. Why would they buy them? In short: Many young attendees seek only the most superficial kinds of fun: “Give me AKB48, some cosplay and a hot dog on the side.”

Two months ago to this day, I introduced and interviewed Hayao Miyazaki in California. He was charming and engaging throughout, but I detected a faint distraction in his performance. He seemed there primarily to entertain, not necessarily to argue or enlighten. Less than a year ago, I played the same role for Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in California. Japanese artists of an older generation seem to be realizing that it’s worth showing up at U.S. events — and that just showing up, as Woody Allen once wrote, can be 80 percent of success. “I am determined to bring in more Japanese guests in the future,” says Tatatara as we exit the luncheon. “Japanese guests are our highest crown jewels.”

That they may be. But it will probably take a greater effort on behalf of both sides — Japan and the United States — to connect the younger fans of AKB48 swarming New York this weekend to an artist of Tomino’s stature and skill, and to engender an appreciation of just how rare and precious he and his gigantic giant robot have become.

(also at Daily Yomiuri)

First posted: Friday, September 25th, 2009.

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