Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hi From LA; Giant Robot 50

I’m in LA—and reading the 50th issue of Giant Robot magazine here, I made a realization—

Which is this: When I was growing up in LA, Japan, and Asia, weren’t that cool. The Walkman was cool, Bruce Lee was cool, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were cool…but the rest of it, not so much, and you grew up wanting to hide your Asian-ness.

Now, a few decades later, it’s a different world—Japan/Asia is cool, and it’s everywhere. One of the biggest surprises I had in recent years was when I went with Swinging Popsicle to the Fanime convention in San Jose and saw hundreds of kids, including whites, dressed up as their favorite Japanese anime characters. How did that happen?

Giant Robot helped explain, in a great article looking at all the Asian-American pop culture trends since the 1950’s, how we went from Asia as uncool to, well, non-Asian kids cosplaying as anime heroes and heroines.

Reading their history line, you see that the Asian pop conquest of the U.S. was a multi-pronged, multi-national effort. Japan contributes with anime, games, horror movies, China/Hong Kong with kung fu flicks and other movies, India with Bollywood, etc. At a certain point, there was a critical mass of good Asian pop culture in the U.S. so that the scale tipped, and Asia was cool. Food is an important ingredient too—in these last few decades Americans really discovered Asian food, and that process went hand in hand with the elevation of America’s view of Asia. One of the commenters in the article, Jonathan Gold, makes this observation about sushi:

When the sushi boom started in Los Angeles, it was extremely important. This was the first time Americans had ever taken to any Asian food, tried to understand the ritual and the context of the food, and engaged the chef in his own language even if the only Japanese they knew were the names of six kinds of sushi. The fact that they would try to learn those six kinds of fish was really important. Once people mastered sushi and mastered the ritual, they mastered the fact that you had to have a relationship with the chef and have personal communication in order to eat in the way you wanted to eat. This opened them up to other experiences from other Asian cuisines and, frankly, also non-Asian cuisines.

So, Akira, Kikaider, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Kyu Sakamoto, Pizzicato Five, Street Fighter II, Hideo Nomo, Aishwarya Rai, Akihabara, sushi, top ramen, pho, and all the rest of it combined to make Asia so cool in the U.S. that, ironically, Americans no longer thought things were radical just because they were Asian:

Articles touting Asian culture being the hot new thing are obsolete because the culture has been absorbed into the mainstream.

Living in Tokyo, or anywhere else in Asia, there’s always the risk of becoming snobbish about local things that make a splash in the U.S., saying this or that is already old news, or the Americans are interpreting it all wrong, and so on, but in being a snob that way, you lose sight of a key point, which reading the Giant Robot article brought out for me: becoming big in the U.S. is a cool thing in itself. The U.S. has an unparalleled ability to suck foreign things into the mainstream, and it’s a huge, influential market. Whereas, in Japan for example, there are fans of Bollywood, Korean cinema, pho, etc., and sometimes one of those shoots into the nation’s awareness, but it’s usually just a fad and is therefore fleeting. The local culture stays the way it is, changing at its own pace—and I think that’s the situation in most countries. The U.S. is different; probably it’s the young-nation, multi-ethnic, immigrant-based, entrepreneurial thing. And Giant Robot is one great gauge for what from Asia is hot or not in the U.S.


The GR folks are also holding a 50th Issue exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA, right next door to the packed Takashi Murakami exhibit at the MOCA (as I was saying on Asian cool…). One happy discovery at the Giant Robot exhibit was the brilliant cartoons of Adrian Tomine, which were on display. His stories are funny and really ring true—I’m ordering his books on Amazon as soon as I get home…

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