Japanamerica: Otaku Meet Manga Man in Tokyo
By Roland Kelts.
The otaku everywhere have begun their grumbling: They’re saying that the success of Japan’s popular culture–anime, manga, food, booze, design and fashion–has turned Akihabara, anime’s former nerve center in Tokyo, into another Disneyland. Tourists dominate the former home of the native otaku–the uber-geeks who gleefully fetishize pop culture merchandise at the expense of virtually everything else in their lives.
A dear friend of mine, a hardened Japanese otaku, says that the pressures of success have become oppressive. “Japan used to be a place where cool culture flew under the radar, but no more,” he tells me. “The government is taking us seriously, which means they don’t want anything unsightly or obscene happening. And that’s the death of creativity.”
This is all too much for foreign writers to ignore. Patrick Macias, an American otaku and blogger extraordinaire, now bemoans the success of Japanese pop–even as he celebrates its expansion in the United States.
Macias writes: “Akihabara was the side effect of collective fantasy and private desire desperate to find expression through technology, through commerce, molded plastic, pixel, and drawing paper.”
For American otaku-types like Macias, Japan’s pop culture success has meant too much attention from outsiders. “Now,” he continues, “those [otaku] dreams are threatened by a dull and dreary reality.”
Those of you not so provincial in taste will recognize a similar complaint: This is the story of the band who “sold out.” The art was great, and we fans helped you to sell it. But now that you’re famous, we no longer like you.
When you trek between cities like New York, Tokyo and London as often and frequently as I do, you start to see patterns. Muji just opened its latest outlet blocks away from my apartment in New York. In Tokyo, recently established outlets of Krispy Kreme and the Doughnut Plant, both New York standbys, regularly draw massive lines. And in London, sushi remains the rage, and Shakespeare is now deemed a manga-ka (creator of comics).
My point is: We want our special corners of the world to be unique. We also want to tell others about them and share the wealth. Both impulses are well-intentioned–but if you succeed, you can’t complain.
And you’ve also got to keep your eyes open. Subcultures are organic and fluid, always moving. If you can no longer see them, you’ve simply stopped looking.
Consider the Manga Man. Two years ago, while working for the BBC, I heard the giddy, soaring voice of a skinny man with long hair. We were in a basement in nondescript western Tokyo. He was on his knees, reading a manga story to a small gathering of the wide-eyed.
He lunged at his listeners, drew back, squeezed tears from his eyes and pounded his chest. He was that paragon of artists: He had no shame.
Stroll on a chilly winter afternoon into Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa or Inokashira Park neighborhoods, and you are likely to find Manga Man performing in the open air. His name is Rikimaru Toho, and his avocation is to read manga aloud, dramatically, theatrically, richly and scarily, to anyone who will watch and listen.
“My job is to bring manga to the streets,” Toho told me recently. We were standing under the railroad tracks near Shimokitazawa Station on a cold November night. “I’m an actor. And I love these stories. I want people to feel them more deeply. When I succeed, they come up to me and bow and bow, thanking me profusely. And they’re sweating. I’m the one who performed, but they’re the ones sweating!”
Manga Man Toho is performing around Tokyo this winter, entertaining audiences well below the radar. You can choose to visit Akihabara for its posed colors, or Harajuku for posing pixies. But Toho’s the real thing. If you can get to Japan, see him and sweat.
Pictures: Matthias Ley
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S., now updated and out in paperback.
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: Monday, November 26th, 2007.