The New Japan


by David Matsumoto

David Matsuomoto is a professor and active Judo participant, and in this book he attempts to summarize and popularize the social science research documenting the cultural upheaval underway in Japan.

At the risk of sidetracking the review, what his book does is make concrete in the social science realm the truths that have been evident in Japanese popular media. A prime example is Gainax's 1995 series Shinseki Evangelion ("Neon Genesis Evangelion"). Shinji, the protagonist, is a will-less source of non-action. He seems listless and troubled throughout the series. Disaster confronts him, his friends, and his country continually, and he has the power to change it. But he does not -- until events leave him no choice. Then (through a complex plot device and a corresponding complex biomechanical device) he lashes out, resolving the immediate crisis but leaving the longer-term crisis unresolved.

Shinji's unwillingness to act earlier -- when his actions could have more and more beneficial effect -- continues throughout the series. When seen from the perspective of America, this painful "hero" makes the series narratively difficult, although other aspects of the series remain strong (see Appendix below). But the true significance of the series didn't hit me until my trip to Japan in 2000 (I first saw the series here in America in 1998). The Tokyo subway was full of Shinji and his female counterparts. These kids were dead to the world -- they sat on the subway, listening to their miniDisc players repeating over and over as Shinji's does in the series. When you sat down next to them, there was no reaction. This was different than the classic Japanese reaction (which would be to pretend they had no reaction). This was truly no reaction, as though they were dead; no eye track, no subtle shifting away.

The peak of this behavior were the Japanese youth who would get in the subway car, go to the end, and sit on the floor. Even in America, sitting on the floor in a train wouldn't be common behavior; in Japan's traditional cleanliness culture, it's an act of ultimate rebellion. It was then I realized that the postwar Japan -- the country of the economic miracle, the salaryman, and the corporate song -- was ending.

The youth of Japan, as Matsuomoto documents in unending surveys and charts in this book, and as Shinseiki Evangelion foreshadows, have rejected the choices their parents made to rescue Japan from economic disaster following World War II (to understand those parent's choices and the nature of postwar Japan, read John Dower's magnificent book, "Embracing Defeat"). The youth look at both their absentee, work-focused, hard-drinking fathers and their homebound, education-obsessed mothers, and reject both as a role model for either gender. Throw in a popped bubble economy leading to a ten-year economic decline, the end of lifetime employment, and a negative population growth rate in a country with a xenophobic abhorrence for immigration, and the makings of a cultural revolution are in place.

Japan may, as Matsuomoto argues and clearly hopes, evolve to a new kind of "collective individualism" that merges aspects of the traditional culture with a new focus of personal choice. It may -- my personal fear -- linger in a twilight because of refusal to embrace institutional change. But the culture certainly is now and will continue to change rapidly, and Matsomoto's book is primarily a research-backed documentation of that.

In the Shinseiki Evangelion series, the story dissolves into a chaotic series of fragmentary images. Anyone with an interest in Japan can only hope that the ending of the series was a result of incredible time crunches overwhleming the creators' ability to produce the shows on a weekly schedule -- rather than their prediction for the coming endgame.


Letter from Hideaki Anno

In the course of researching this review, I found the following, which claims to be a translation of a letter that Hideaki Anno, the overall director of Shinseiki Evangelion, wrote three months before the show originally premiered in Japan and later published in Anime FX Issue 10. I have not yet been able to verify the publication, but present it here as a creator's point of view on the issues mentioned above.

The worldview [of SHINSEIKI EVANGELION is] colored with a pessimistic vision. Actually, I started the story with a setting from which I had purged all feelings of optimism. A fourteen-year-old boy (Ikari Shinji) is afraid of getting close to other people. He tries to live in a closed world, making attempts to get to know him useless, and ruining efforts made to try and understand him. Convinced that, since he feels abandoned by his father, he is an unwanted person, he is yet a coward, unable even to commit suicide.

A 29 year-old woman (Katsuragi Misato) also keeps her contacts with others as light as possible. She protects herself by running away into relationships that are strictly on the surface. They are both afraid of being hurt. They might both be thought of as being unsuited to be heroes, lacking the strength of self that marks such a person. And yet I made them the heroes.

It is said that, "To live is to change." I started this production with the desire that they and the world change by the time the story reaches its conclusion. That is my genuine sense of things. I am able to put all of myself into SHINSEIKI EVANGELION - a self who for four years was a wreck, unable to do anything. I began this thinking just one thing: "I mustn't run away"- after having done just that, run away, for four years - where all I was doing was simply not dying.

I thought of this production with the feeling that "I want to see if I can put these feelings on film." I know that this is a senseless, arrogant, and difficult course of action - but it is my objective. I don't know what the result will be... because the story has not yet ended in my mind. I don't know what will become of Shinji or Misato, or where they will go. This is because I don't know what the staff will be thinking as we go on.

I feel that this is irresponsible... But it is also natural, given that we are striving for a synchronization of ourselves and the world of the story. At present this is the only theory I can use to create, despite the risk of being "derivative". That is the only place where our "original" exists, after all...

Hideaki Anno