Ever since Economist Douglas McGray wrote the article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” in 2002 in the US Bi-Monthly current affairs magazine Foreign Policy, the fanciful notion of ‘cool Japan’ fostered an idea that all otaku knew from the 1980s: the ‘cool’ of Japan’s pop subcultures is a unique you-get-it-or-you-don’t thing. Indeed, otaku culture of the 1980s in Japan was dismissed within Japan as hobbyist attractions and nerd obsessions. It largely operated under the radar throughout the bubble era. It took the Japanese government’s embrace of McCray’s thesis on Japan’s undercapitalization of their ‘soft power’ goods like games, anime and manga to legitimize Japan’s subcultural entertainment arts. Previously, many Japanese producers thought that (a) anime and manga could not relate to Western audiences, and (b) Japan’s subcultural arts were already entrenched in Japan through surging waves of popularity since the original late-1950s manga explosion. Manga and anime’s peculiarity and ubiquity made them difficult to perceive from within the Japan. It took a foreigner’s perspective to change things. McCray opened up Japanese businesses (and government departments) to realise Japan’s cultural capital right within its grasp.
When Tokyo Station was restored, renovated and redesigned for an up-market relaunch in 2009, it typically incorporated a sprawling subway of shops, boutiques and franchise outlets in its grid of subway corridors. Amidst this gleaming statement of commerce sits Chara-dori: a ‘street’ lined with merchandise outlets of all the major game/anime/manga producers, distributors and broadcasters. Studio Ghibli has a store stocked full of goodies like the gift shop at the Ghibli Museum; Jump Magazine, NHK and TV Asahi do too. Dedicated stores include Pokémon, Princess Precure and of course Hello Kitty. There’s even a Shotaro Ishinomori store brimming with hard-drinking salary man merch. The only thing missing there are Kamen Rider pachinko machines. Chara-dori could never have happened in the 1990s. It’s clear proof of how Japan now handles its own ‘gross national cool’.
Following the establishment of Chara-dori, major subway strips connecting JR and Tokyo Metro train stations have increasingly incorporated digital signage and large-scale mural displays to launch high-profile products. Mostly these are RPG games for various platforms. Sometimes they are in 40 metre long mural prints which look amazing in some of the Shinjuku passageways heading towards Kabukicho. I’ve witnessed these installations many times over the past 5 years, mostly not even recognizing the games they are promoting. Other times there are eye-catching video walls (in Shinjuku JR station near the Narita Express corridor) or synchronised video pillars (in Shibuya and Ginza JR stations) utilised to promote either first-run TV broadcasts or DVD/BD box releases. These indoor spaces become miniature dioramas of the multi-screen panoramas of Shibuya crossing, as anime characters buzz around with phosphorescent energy on the flashing screens. Notably, the huge exhibition Manga, Anime & Games From 1989 Onwards at the Tokyo National Art Centre in 2014 featured a character room which mimicked the video pillars of Shibuya and Ginza.
Maybe because of this saturation of character-oriented televisual presence in public commercial spaces, Production I.G.’s launch of its store in late 2016 makes perfect sense. Interestingly, it’s nestled on the 7th floor of the Marui department store in Shibuya. For quite a few years now, Japanese department stores have suffered drops in sales. Numerous factors have contributed to this - mostly centred on the now-aging population who had previously been loyal customers - but it’s interesting how yet again manga/anime culture has been seen as a saviour of sorts to rejuvenate business. Of course Production I.G. - like all such production companies - know that their character merchandise is a vital revenue stream which consolidates audience identification and product consumption, so their presence at Marui is strategically straightforward. However for those interested in their art, the shop is a great place to see what they present for sale. The store doesn’t allow photographs in most areas, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in buying mass and limited edition paraphernalia.
Production I.G.’s more recent projects are heavily promoted; when I was there in January this year, xxxHolic, Kuroko’s Basketball, Persona 5 and Miss Hokusai occupied most shelf space. But a sizeable section devoted to the Ghost In The Shell franchise will always be there. Original cells and pencil sheets of colour guides for cel-frames are available for sale. Many are on display, and it’s a good chance to study their fine artistry up close. A range of publications are also for sale, from various mooks and production manuals to the catalogue for the 2016 Production I.G. Gallery touring exhibition. Trinkets and T-shirts abound too, but my favourite is the range of wine and sake bottles and commemorative glasses.
But if there’s one reason to check out the Marui store, it’s the interactive life-size Tachikoma mobile robot from Ghost In The Shell – Stand Alone Complex. It’s docked in an open 30m square corner, roped off so you can stand at one edge. After making a few embarrassing shouts to set off its audio-activated movement, the Tachikoma comes to life and moves towards you like a wobbly blue crab. A large cable rises from its body into the ceiling, freeing it to liberally traverse the open space and bark out a selection of automated responses in its inimitable high-pitched voice. Strangely cute and cool, one almost overlooks the amazing design feat of bringing an anime robot to life in a department store in Tokyo.Text © Philip Brophy 2016. Images © Production I.G.