Pointless Debate #38: Oreimo as a Symbol of Cultural Decline

This was an attempt at a serious post. So I may as well get it started with this.
This was an attempt at a serious post. So I may as well get it started with this.

Back when I was really intensely studying such things, the ideas of “soft power” and in particular “Cool Japan” were popular in the international political scene. The idea for those who don’t know is that by spreading one’s culture around to other countries and gaining a foothold there, it can have longer term positives as the perceptions of one’s country becomes positive as a result. You can see this in the present day in American movies being rushed into Chinese cinemas with added footage specially for that audience and to ease it past the censors there. Then, of course, there’s the repeated attempts to try to sell anime and manga to Western audiences over the years with mixed success in the case of Japan.

I personally have always had two specific criticisms of the idea of culture as a way to spread influence, and they can both be summed up nicely by Oreimo. The first is that the culture being exported has to maintain a level of popularity while being associated with the nation or origin. Pokemon, is probably the best example of that from an ongoing standpoint. The second criticism is that the worst aspects of that culture get ignored in the beginning but only emerge over time.

I believe this would have been one of the few copies of this version sold...if it actually existed.
I believe this would have been one of the few copies of this version sold…if it actually existed.

With the first point and how it ties to Oreimo, we have to start by attempting to follow the money. I think it’s fair to say that the early days of anime being shipped to the west was in the form of finding something that could be marketed to kids with all of the Japanese stuff taken out of it. A couple of waves followed where a base of bowdlerized children’s shows would spread slowly as more niche works failed to find an audience outside of Japan. With the advancement of technology making it possible to pretty much watch any anime series that has aired legally or illegally, that seems like an entirely different age.

Oreimo’s role in this story is that it represents that latest attempt to bring a niche title to international audiences with a public backer in Aniplex pushing it. The question that I’ve never seen answered on this series is the question of how popular Oreimo is with that audience to the extent that they will spend money on it. The discs are priced in such a way as to insure profit from their domestic audience is not affected. First of all, does the international audience create a profit for this series? Second, will a series with themes like Oreimo have the opposite effect and actually reflect poorly on Japan?

The turn toward harem was possibly the most mainstream targeted thing it did.
The turn toward harem was possibly the most mainstream targeted thing it did.

That second question hits more at what Oreimo is about. I think it can be interpreted as a series about a high school boy and his otaku sister that portrays darker aspects of otaku culture without any sort of controversy. This is after all a series that begins with Kirino pulling out a bunch of eroge from her closet to show to someone close to her for the first time. Needless to say, the export of eroge to the West is limited at best and mostly via piracy for the reason that it would not be above board in most countries. Add in heavy incest and lolicon tones throughout the later episodes of the series and the series becomes something that makes people very uncomfortable about the contents.

I think that it says a lot that something that goes out of its way to reduce its appeal to a wide audience is seen as the best way to make money from pushing Japanese culture to the outside. Is the implication that international audiences aren’t interested enough in titles like a Shin Sekai Yori or any other series that isn’t high concept a feature of the people who will pay money for it or of the culture itself?

10 thoughts on “Pointless Debate #38: Oreimo as a Symbol of Cultural Decline”

  1. At first I thought this was going to be the umpteenth Internet article bashing OreImo (seriously, what is it with anibloggers and hating on OreImo?), but you made me stop and think about the show in an interesting way. Personal feelings on the anime aside, this was a nuanced argument.

    The anime market has really changed a lot in the last couple of years, and the fact that Aniplex would even try to push for a commercial market for OreImo here in the West says a lot in itself. You’re right in saying that the worst aspects of a foreign culture only get revealed gradually in a distributive process, which probably explains why the English usage of the word ‘otaku’ at first started off as a label of geek pride but is now slowly taking on the negative Japanese connotations.

    I’m trying to make sense of what’s happened here. Basically, anime in the West first started out as niche, then it became more mainstream through localising kids’ anime and shonen, and then as that fanbase became more hardcore and attracted towards the uniquely Japanese elements, the market again becomes increasingly niche as the subsequent releases cater to that taste. But it’s also caused a backlash from fans like us because we can’t embrace that culture like the Japanese otaku can. We’re caught between wanting something exotic and wanting something we can understand. Which is why we seemingly want shows like OreImo over things like Shinsekai Yori but then they don’t actually tend to sell well over here. Am I following this right?

    What this suggests to me is that the market’s dug itself into a hole and that the industry can’t really grow from here. And that as fans, this kind of “hating on otaku anime” mentality is something that was inevitable from the beginning. We just weren’t exposed to these aspects of anime and it’s probably impossible for the potential market to accept them now. It kind of makes me wonder what kind of “anime culture” would we perceive to be acceptable for us to consume, since evidently actual Japanese anime culture is not good enough.

    I don’t think any of this was OreImo’s fault, though. It never was.

    1. I don’t think I went into this post thinking that I was just going to trash Oreimo just for the sake of it. I think the pool of high culture only runs so deep and is really a subculture within the larger culture anyway. As far as your logic on the overall trend toward shows like this I tend to view it like this. The profitability of series in Japan has transferred over to the West. It shouldn’t be a surprise that shows that are becoming ever more niche over there are becoming more niche over here. In a way I would say your mostly correct, but I wouldn’t put it entirely down to an innate desire to be like a Japanese otaku. It may simply be market forces at work. Theoretically, I think if more works were targeted at a larger audience, you would see a growing industry, but it has to start in Japan first. That requires risk that isn’t present at the moment.

  2. This was a different angle than I was expecting, not necessarily from you, but the aniblogosphere as a whole. My problem’s with the show aside, you raise some interesting questions about the future for anime as a whole. Anime is a pretty common and well known thing here in the states, but that doesn’t absolve it from misconceptions. It’s quite the opposite really.

    My friends/coworkers see that I love anime and they just assume I love hentai (I HATE it), make jokes about me liking little girls (I know it’s all in good fun, we razz each other constantly) and just don’t get the appeal of the medium. It’s like when I tell someone about Pacific Rim, and just say it’s a bunch of giant robots fighting monsters. I look at them and go, “how f*cking old of a man are you that you can’t enjoy wanton destruction and violence? It’s the American way!” And they have these thoughts because they equate the the movie to something childish and beneath them, just like they do with anime. They see if as something weird, quirky and foreign. And they fail to see the common aspects that might appeal to them.

    Now when it comes to a series like OreImo (I did watch the first season, at least), while the show has many honest aspects to it, it also may reinforce those narrow stereotypes that I just spoke of when viewed shallowly. So while I personally hate the show (or certain characters and its priorities), I do thing OreImo’s success would be a good thing. It would be great sign that a show that addresses a more whole and honest view of “otaku” could be embraced by a foreign audience.

    I hope my rant didn’t miss your point too much. Great post.

    1. To be honest, I can’t really tell coworkers that I’m into anime just for the fact that it is so niche and it has to do with how it is perceived. Nothing kills conversations faster than mentioning the word “anime” at all. Those few who do know about my hobby also gave no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes in a sense (no talking about waifus in public). I wish there was more openness about all aspects of cultures both native and non-native, but there are always taboo topics that get in the way.

      1. That sucks that you can’t share your hobby with your coworkers. Then again, I don’t even know if you like them. Though whether you do or not, I can’t blame you for not sharing the whole waifu thing. That phenomenon will raise eyebrows anywhere.

      2. It doesn’t help that I sort of live one of those typically impossible otaku workplace dream scenarios where I’m the only man in my department. Unfortunately everyone else is on the other side of 40, which sort of kills most topics of conversation.

  3. Great post LMT.
    I honestly don’t think that the makers of such material like Oreimo care too much about the international audience either way, as long as they get their profit from their core clientele, they’re probably pleased. As too Aniplex’s efforts to show it worldwide, I guess maybe their strategy is to try to recreate the same kind of hardcore audience and consumer group overseas. Small, yet willing to fork out the big bucks for special edition sets at a premium. I don’t think that such a show with such a controversial story can ever be a success with a wider audience. So i guess it could be seen as sign of decline of the industry at least. Now having said that, you have the opposite side of the coin which could be a show like Attack on Titan which can easily reproduce it’s japanese success overseas IMO.

    1. Thanks.
      First and foremost I agree that the distribution of Oreimo is with a profit in mind more than who they are marketing it for. Aniplex’s making available streaming rights globally is admirable and likely the way forward on that front. I just wish more effort was put forward on other shows. As far as Attack on Titan, it’s going to be important which way this series goes as far as distribution. It’s exponentially more popular than even Sword Art Online is, but by the same token it isn’t very easy to tie it to a nation of origin once it is dubbed. It will make someone a bunch of money, even if it was made on the back of tons of poorly paid animators.

  4. I never watched the anime or read the light novels, but judging from the information I read randomly over the internet and anime charts of recent seasons, I think that while there is a cultural decline of anime, it will not go widespread as much as what people claim to be. But one particularly trend that I notice is the lack of anime for older children. For most seasons, there will be at most 2-3 shows like that. Then again, anime bloggers couldn’t care less about them. As an anime watcher who likes them for the vast diversity, I hope that that trend would be put to a stop, but with the aging population in Japan, it is very unlikely.

    Also, it’s very hard to discern whether “the implication that international audiences aren’t interested enough in titles like a Shin Sekai Yori or any other series that isn’t high concept” a feature of “the people who will pay money for it or of the culture itself”, as otaku itself is a stereotype and the culture could be referring to different aspects (e.g. watching, business and reception) of the overall cultures themselves. My best guess is that the Japanese licensors and foreign licensees assumes that anime watchers all over the world are the same and thus ignoring that the opposite is true.

    Ultimately, while Oreimo is certainly not just a symbol of cultural decline, but also a symbol of the bad aspects of otakudom, we should look at the bigger picture. Most of the anime that gets produced/exported out isn’t shows of this sort, isn’t it?

    1. I think there’s been a good deal of success at least from the standpoint of Aniplex and the likes marketing. They’ve developed a niche marketplace that guarantees them profit on the physical media just as they do in the domestic market. That’s come at the expense of the Western licensors who have to work with the scraps of series that can’t be sold for large sums in the Western markets and getting scraps that didn’t work in Japan as a result. If anything, I’d say it’s helped the merchandise market since cheaper figures, posters, wall scrolls, etc. can be appreciations of a series without the cost. The end result is that you have a market that is similar in most ways to the Japanese market; a niche subculture with few prospects for widespread growth churning out the occasional mass market title. Oreimo is symbolic of this trend, but can’t be held solely responsible for the reflection it has on anime fans as a whole because the market makes it possible to exist.

      As far as you first point about shows for older children, I think that’s a matter of how one defines older children. There’s a clear path from children’s shows to shounen to magical girl/older shounen to high school to high school with “edge” to adult works. There isn’t much difference between shows in really anything up to the adult works and to be honest I think most children do stick to 2 or 3 shows when they are young before growing out of it. I think Western anime bloggers don’t talk about those younger shows because few people who would read them do.

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