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 LOOKING EAST / Italian boyhood fascination with Go Nagai robot anime

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PostSubject: LOOKING EAST / Italian boyhood fascination with Go Nagai robot anime   4/27/2014, 10:32 pm

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I have just returned from a cultural diplomacy activity in Rome. My destination this time was ROMICS, the largest event in Italy to introduce pop culture from Japan as well as other countries. The event is held twice a year, attracting about 100,000 visitors each time.

This visit was particularly fruitful for the interview I was able to conduct with an anime fan in his 40s. My interviewee’s name is Massimiliano (I didn’t ask his family name) and his first influential encounter with Japanese anime—at around 9 years old—was “Kotetsu Jigu” (Steel Jeeg), originally created by popular manga artist Go Nagai.

Nagai, known for manga and anime such as “UFO Robot Grendizer,” “Mazinger Z” and “Devilman,” continues to enjoy fame in Italy even now.

Go Nagai’s creations enjoy great popularity at ROMICS.
At ROMICS, Nagai’s popularity is considerable. Italian editions of titles such as “Mazinger Z” and “Devilman,” which appeared to have been published recently, were on sale in prominent, eye-catching locations together with ongoing popular manga such as “ONE PIECE.”

A veritable torrent of Japanese anime began to flow onto TV screens worldwide around the 1970s. At that time many new TV stations were being established overseas. Japanese anime, with its absence of immediate national identity, was quite convenient for schedulers looking to fill broadcast slots. Another significant motivation was the low prices at which rights to broadcast Japanese anime could be purchased.

As a consequence, these early exports became pioneers as viewers around the world became happily absorbed in Japanese anime programs, their style fundamentally distinct from the animations of Walt Disney and others. Their enduring popularity is self-evident even today.

“When I first saw ‘Steel Jeeg,’ I was very impressed,” Massimiliano said. “As the animation had quite a new and different style from those I had seen previously, I was frozen in front of the TV, thinking, ‘What the world is this?’”

Massimiliano continued: “Children of the same generation soon became absorbed in Japanese robot animation programs. First of all, it was a great story concept to feature a normal boy teaming up with a robot to become a great hero. Children in Italy at that time each had their own favorite robot anime—divided into factions that followed ‘Steel Jeeg,’ ‘Grendizer’ or ‘Mazinger Z,’ for instance, which are all Nagai’s creations.”

As anime opening and ending theme songs, as well as end-title rolls, were broadcast in Japanese, without being replaced with Italian adaptations, Italian kids at that time understood the shows were Japanese.

Meanwhile, in countries like France, opening and ending theme songs as well as even the titles of anime shows were replaced as though they had been made in those countries.

“In Italy, I think many boys and girls came to know the existence of a country named Japan for the first time through Japanese anime. For people like me, the image of Japan at that time was a country with advanced technology,” Massimiliano told me.

Whether decades ago or in the present day, children in other countries start to learn about Japanese society through Japanese anime. That Japanese anime is so comprehensive, including everything from cuisine to the social fabric of the country, is one contributing factor. Heroes and heroines who fight evil enemies have everyday lives just like those watching the programs. They go to school. They fall in love.

“Girls of my generation were absorbed in girls anime such as ‘Candy Candy’ and ‘Majokko Megu-chan’ (Little Meg the witch girl),” said Massimiliano, who often visits Japan.

“Half of the purpose of my Japan visits is to collect anime-related goods in Tokyo’s Akihabara district and Nakano Ward. The other half is to go around temples and shrines.”

He said watching Japanese anime revives sweet childhood memories for him.

“For me, collecting cels from my favorite anime is something like collecting my childhood memories. I feel a sense of loss that it has recently become difficult to get them,” he said.

Nowadays, years on from the days of celluloid anime, most anime programs do not use cel images.

“I’m very proud of being an otaku, and very happy to be called the ‘first generation.’ Furthermore, I’ll be even happier when I’m told by Japanese people when I visit Japan, ‘It’s like you’re Japanese,’” Massimiliano said.

The sharp rise of Japanese anime’s popularity is not a recent phenomenon. Today’s young anime enthusiasts are second- and third-generation fans of the Japanese format.

“When Mr. Nagai came to an event in Naples, I got his autograph. I couldn’t stop my whole body from trembling with the excitement when I finally got to meet him,” Massimiliano said.

In Japan, some people say that Japanese anime’s prestige throughout the world rose sharply in the recent decade. However, its popularity has in fact been gradually building upon the original levels of excitement and shock experienced by boys and girls in the 1970s like Massimiliano.

(The next installment will appear May 10.)

Sakurai is a content producer using events and seminars to engage in “pop culture diplomacy.” Follow Takamasa Sakurai at
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