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Japanamerica: Manga is a Feminist Issue


By Roland Kelts.

I landed in Tokyo to another round of interviews about Japanamerica. One was for a spread in a sleek Japanese glossy aimed at high-spending hobbyists (Japanese men with money). The other was for Warner Home Entertainment, producers of the forthcoming Appleseed: Ex Machina DVD, which will be released in the United States in 2008.

The editor of the glossy had read my book very carefully, and his questions were spot-on inquiries into the differing perceptions and often divergent audiences for anime and manga in the United States versus Japan. He wanted to know why Americans think being an otaku is cool and what kind of Americans are actually into this stuff.

A few days later, I was invited to attend an advance screening of Appleseed: Ex Machina at the Toei Co. headquarters in Ginza. I had written about its precursor, 2004’s Appleseed, in the closing pages of my book.

The new film, which opens theatrically in Japan on Oct. 20, is no letdown. Visually stunning, ripe with action and hyperkinetic acrobatics, it manages to combine the characteristic aesthetics of anime with the narrative pacing and stunt-riddled energy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

This should surprise precisely no one. Shinji Aramaki, the veteran anime director and designer, knows how to fill a screen without overburdening the audience. And on Ex Machina, he is joined by Hollywood and Hong Kong superstar John Woo, who seems to have streamlined the screenplay and sharpened the characters, rendering the saga’s philosophical flavors more palatable to the uninitiated. Add Miuccia Prada to the mix (she designed two of the heroine’s costumes), plus a soundtrack by the regrouped Yellow Magic Orchestra and globally renowned deejay and musician Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, and you have an anime aimed at audiences everywhere.

Still, what I found most striking amid the blazing computer graphics were the women.

There is the spunky, sharp-shooting heroine, of course, caught in this edition of the story between one lover who has become a cyborg and another who looks and behaves exactly like the other guy did–before he was mechanized. (Try that on for a threesome!) But even more compelling in this postapocalyptic anime world: Every position of true leadership and political power is held by a woman.

Overseeing the governing body, a kind of futuristic United Nations, in Ex Machina‘s new world of 2135 is the red-haired Athena. And she’s no Sailor Moon pixie. Though she appears to have gone under the knife since her debut in ’04–where she often looked haggard and sleepless, with notable bags beneath her eyes–she is clearly a middle-aged woman, mature and serious about her responsibilities.

Anthena’s brow furrows as she wrestles with the dilemmas of her day–political uprisings, infighting and corruption, not to mention a mind-controlling virus. And she is no longer under the thumb of a council of geriatric men, as she was in the first Appleseed. She is alone at the podium, maintaining order over an international congress of crabby, infantile men who can’t seem to get it together or even get along without her discipline.

When the spreading mind-control virus forces her to enter into negotiations with the leader of a massive corporate entity, yet another mature and powerful woman appears, the dark-haired Yoshino.

Watching the two women face off for their summit on the giant screen, both looking intensely focused and thoughtful, I had a sudden brain wave: There they were, Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton, negotiating the fate of global security amid the outbreak of terrorism in some city of the future.

As reported in the Yomiuri just recently, anime and manga audiences in the United States are now predominantly female. Manga publishers, producers and importers such as TokyoPop and Viz Media all reported growth surges in their female consumer base at the start of this century, and the female market continues to expand.

In other words, as I told the hobby mag editor, the kind of people into this stuff are often the kind with two X chromosomes.

This was borne out during my U.S. and British book tour appearances, where I was frequently startled by the number of young women in the audiences, some bearing their books earmarked to the specific pages about which they had questions. And the female readers have proven far likelier than their male counterparts to follow up on their inquiries, contacting me either through the book’s Web site or the publisher or via postal mail.

Indeed, a foreign fan of manga and anime might be forgiven for assuming that Japan, creative nerve center for the artwork itself, is a global leader in gender equity.

Yet just last month, The New York Times ran a damning indictment of Japan’s actual treatment of women in the workplace, noting that in 2005, women held a mere 10.1 percent of all management jobs in Japanese companies and government. (The U.S. figure is 42.5 percent.) In the United Nations index of gender empowerment, a survey of 75 countries, Japan ranks 42nd, far below Asian neighbors such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. The article predicts dire consequences for a nation with an anemic birthrate and looming labor shortages.

Perhaps the young female fans lapping up anime titles such as Appleseed know exactly what they’re getting into: a portrait of a future that not only looks new, but may also be necessary.

Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out in paperback this November.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 28th, 2007.