Storywriter Sato Dai is frustrated with Japanese anime

Sato proved extremely skeptical in his views on anime. He stated that “we can’t do our own anime” and depend on subcontractors for in-between frames. These subcontractors are often not even aware of the product they are working on, and it loses its consistency. In Sato’s mind, this became obvious beginning with “Macross,” when the “continuity between images was awful” but “we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.”

Because of the major dependence on Asian subcontractors, Sato outright denounced the idea of “Cool Japan.” Anime is not cool (he thinks of it as more resistive), and it is not really a product of Japan. He was critical of politicians and promoters using the concept of Cool Japan for their own purposes.

“Japanese pride is part of the national project,” he said, but it is only at the surface level. “Most people have no idea who makes it,” be they Japanese or Asians in general.

This reminded me a lot of what Arjun Appadurai calls “production fetishism.” He describes this as “an illusion created by contemporary transnational production loci, which masks translocal capital, transnational earning-flows, global management and often faraway workers (engaged in various kinds of high-tech putting-out operations) in the idiom and spectacle of local (sometimes even worker) control, national productivity and territorial sovereignty. … The locality (both in the sense of the local factory or site of production and in the extended sense of the nation-state) becomes a fetish which disguises the globally dispersed forces that actually drive the production process.” Seems like a pretty darn good description of “Japanese” anime.

He even accused people in the anime industry of refusing to teach Asian subcontractors special skills or how to craft stories because that would undermine the position of Japan in the production of anime. Non-Japanese are reduced to cheap mechanical labor, and aren’t invested in the work at all. Sato identified this as a major underlying problem with anime today. This aspect of the Japanese anime industry seemed to Sato to be fundamentally different from Hollywood, which made room for directors and skilled labors from all around the world.

In a very interesting assertion, Sato said that one of the reasons why China was a prime place to outsource anime is because educated, radical Chinese were denied access to good jobs and basically corralled into certain areas. These areas became something of an industrial core for Japanese anime because of this labor force that could draw the idiographic Chinese language (and ostensibly copy anime drawings), needed work and was concentrated together. Whether true or not, Sato told this story to demonstrate the exploitative practices and hierarchical nature of anime production.

Sato was upset with the lack of respect for stories in Japan. He pointed out that “Ergo Proxy,” for which he wrote the story, had DVD box sets around the world, but not in Japan. He also said that many anime fans dismissed “Eureka Seven” as a “Neon Genesis Evangelion” clone without even watching it. The story, setting and characters are totally different, but snap judgments were made based on images of a mysterious blue-haired girl with red eyes piloting a giant robot (both Ayanami Rei and Eureka fit the description). He wondered how much anime fans really are interested in close readings to generate information (the classic definition of otaku viewing practices since Okada Toshio). After all, few if any cared to think what the titles of episodes meant, why a certain mecha was called “Devil Fish” or even what the Summer of Love referenced. Sato clarified that this was homage to rave culture in Japan.
Sadly, he believes that fans are losing their media literacy – the ability to read narratives and stories and the meanings in the background.

As a storywriter, Sato had a big axe to grind about the place of the story in Japanese anime. He complained that his works are labeled “difficult-type” (muzukashii-kei), something like the opposite of “atmosphere type” (kuuki-kei) anime. The latter is the type where nothing happens, or there is no significant plot, narrative or development. They tend to focus on cute characters and be very popular with moe fans. Sato said guys like him get no work, even as “Hollywood rips off our ideas.”

He did not say that he disliked “atmosphere-type” works like “K-On!” – rather he likes the incredible designs. He also did not criticize fan service, because, just as many Japanese film directors came from the “pink movie” industry, many animators are coming from a background in erotic material (doujinshi, eroge or ero-anime/manga). Sexual desire is part of the creative drive. But he sees them as moving towards characters and wasting time seeing just how nice they can make the images and movements look. This undermines the special anime-like movements, the visual vocabulary, that came out limited TV anime in the 1970s. There is also the issue of dumbing anime down.

“No one wants to hear about NEET [the unemployed],” Sato said. “They’d rather watch a group of high school girls in a band asking, ‘How do I play this note?’” By this point, he was livid and practically spitting in disgust at these fans who “luv anime” (anime daichuki). “If we are always escaping from reality and real problems, when will we face them?”

The backgrounds based on real places are another similar problem. “It a drug for us” in the anime industry, Sato said. It boosts tourism and pleases fans. “When I see anime today, I realize that we have no pride left.”

Anime has become a “super establishment system,” where nothing can be changed. And the system is moving towards the model of Akihabara – the importance of characters, images, merchandise – which Sato saw as a perversion of its original idealism. It’s selling out. “Miyazaki Hayao was a communist,” Sato said, working himself into a rage. “He was fighting the system!”

Sato praised rap and hip hop because, to him, it looks like they are still underground and people don’t sell out. He equated manga with rap, because it takes less people to produce and authors/artists tend not to sell out. (To Sato, otaku and rappers are not that different. They focus their attention, and communicate through creation and in order to facilitate creation. The image that otaku are different than other youth groups, or are somehow better or worse than them, is just media hype.) Even if the commercial industry denies someone, there is doujinshi, or the “super indies.” Manga is where anime has traditionally drawn its stories and creativity, but the industry is becoming more reliant on it. As Sato sees it: “Manga is the last hold out. If that is lost, there will be no more anime.”

Listening to him describe it, Sato seems to be consciously fighting against trends in anime and trying to make strong, original stories. He seems to be making a sustained attack on kuuki-kei and sekai-kei stories, or stories where personal problems are equated with problems of the entire world, without the intervention of society or the state. He described “Ergo Proxy” and “Eden of the East” as anti-sekai-kei. Certainly social issues are at the heart of “Eden of the East.” Sato said he was in part inspired to write about the plight (apathy, poverty) of young Japanese because he was in Koenji when Amateur Rebellion (shiroto no ran) was using Matsumoto Hajime’s candidacy in the ward elections to “campaign” in front of the train station. This entailed live outdoor DJ and hip hop events, and chanting, “We will not work” (hatarakanee zo). The unemployed youth gathering in the abandoned mall in “Eden of the East” was a riff on “the living dead.” Going to the suburbs and seeing housing projects, Sato saw emptied out cities without energy, without young people, without a future.

Does anime have a future? Sato’s gloomy prediction is that anime will die out in Japan in a few decades. But he wants to keep on making it, because he does not want that to happen. “I am just working so that there will be a next project.”