:: Buzzwords

3:AM Asia: The Japan That (Said) Yes

By Roland Kelts.

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When animation master Hayao Miyazaki observed that I was not wearing a necktie before our onstage conversation at the University of California, Berkeley late last month, he promptly unknotted his own necktie and stuffed the balled-up garment into the hands of his longtime producer, Toshio Suzuki. Then he smiled and nodded at me. He was ready.

Miyazaki was similarly casual throughout the evening, charming the 2,000-plus audience with a playful Cheshire smile, and deftly sidestepping questions that didn’t appeal. I was prepared for worse; Miyazaki is notorious for terse rebuttals and curmudgeonly grunts. And while he did emit the occasional groan, he was also surprisingly candid.

“Disasters are things to be lived through,” he said of the apocalyptic themes in his work. “They’re not evil. They bring people closer together. In fact, when I go to the top of a skyscraper in Tokyo, I feel the hope that the seas will come a little closer. It would be wonderful if I could see the end of civilization in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. So I have to use my imagination.”

Viewers of Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, which recently had its US release, see the mother of all flood tides engulf the movie’s seaside town. Instead of destroying the town’s buildings and inhabitants, however, Ponyo’s disaster refreshes its characters’ lives, cleansing them of hoary misperceptions and ossified ways.

Across the Pacific, Miyazaki’s homeland was slouching toward a transformation of its own. With the general election set for Sunday, the 54-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party is widely predicted to be nearing its end. “It takes a long time for the need for change to register in Japan,” a colleague at Tokyo University told me. “But once it does, it strikes like lightning.”

On Aug. 15, Seiji Horibuchi, the founder of 23-year-old anime, manga and entertainment importer Viz Media, LLC, opened a three-story, 15 million dollars Japanese pop culture complex called New People in San Francisco’s long-neglected Japantown.

Among the anime artists on hand were Yoshitaka Amano and Yuichi Yokoyama, whose works were on display. A red carpet, photographers and legions of fans welcomed Japanese actress Takako Tokiwa, who helped introduce the evening’s North American premiere of 20th Century Boys, Japan’s box office blockbuster based on Naoki Urasawa’s manga series.

“I expected the crowd might be over 10,000,” Horibuchi told me afterward, “but we had over 30,000. I almost shut down the building because there were so many people lining up before 7 a.m. Those Lolita [Gothic Lolita fashionista] kids wanted to be the first in. Almost half of them came from outside of the Bay Area–the East Coast, L.A. or Seattle. They were hungry for this.”

Bay Area author, translator and Osamu Tezuka authority Frederik L. Schodt, who was awarded the Japanese government’s Order of the Rising Sun commendation in June, is bullish on Horibuchi’s J-pop prospects, despite the risks. “I think it’s exactly what Japantown needs right now, as the community is dying fast. What Seiji is doing is exceedingly noble and exciting. Whether it can succeed in this economy is anyone’s guess, of course. But Seiji has proved me very wrong in the past.”

Among the final questions I asked Miyazaki: What did he think of the Japanese government’s loosely defined “soft power” initiative, a program to promote Japan as a producer of attractive cultural products worldwide?

The master groaned and grunted, then sighed. “The Japanese government will change very, very soon,” he said.

On Monday, we’ll know if he was right. [update: he was.]

(hosted at 3:AM and the Daily Yomiuri)

First posted: Monday, August 31st, 2009.

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