What is currently popular in pop culture

Pop culture as a power factor : How Pikachu and Co. led to the Japanese hype - and what's behind it

Button eyes, no mouth, but a pink bow in your hair: When children start school again these days, Hello Kitty will wave back from the satchel and sugar bags. Hardly any other motif has been so popular with the little ones for years. And in adults. The shoe brand Converse has a Hello Kitty line. The online fashion retailer Asos too. Hello Kitty is everywhere. Hello Kitty is cute. Creepy. Because Hello Kitty is kawaii, part of an ice-cold power-political plan.

Just as hygge gives Danish cosiness a name, Japanese kawaii describes a special form of cuteness. At the turn of the millennium, the aesthetic established itself in the West and thus stands for a general trend towards Japanese pop culture. Anime series and Japanese computer games also celebrated their global breakthrough at this time and shaped an entire generation.

Now the cult seems to be experiencing a revival. It was only in June that Netflix added the anime classic "Neon Genesis Evangelion" to its international program. A sign that anime arouses nostalgia. But after what?

Pikachu as the mascot of hype

The search for the origin of the Japanese hype begins with the Tamagotchi. For many, you were the first contact with Kawaii. Anime series such as “Maya the Bee” or “Heidi” had already existed in previous decades, and yet the triumphant advance of virtual pets, which conquered German schoolyards from Japan in 1997, changed everything. Parents were irritated, but often took care of the fantasy creatures during class, who wanted to be fed and washed and were not even house-trained.

The descendants of the sensitive egg inhabitants, the Pokémon, seemed less helpless. They fought against each other on gray Gameboys, spat fire or shot lightning, just like the most famous representative of the species: Pikachu. In 1999, the ball of volts helped the console of the Japanese video game manufacturer Nintendo, which had already been written off, to break through on the European market. And became the mascot of the anime boom.

That also had to do with the serial adaptation of the "pocket monsters". It became a hit on RTL2's afternoon program. Since 1993, the special interest broadcaster has been luring schoolchildren in front of the TV after class and taking them into colorful cartoon worlds. "Dragon Ball", "Sailor Moon", "Super Kickers" - the broadcaster showed almost 70 different series until 2006. The episodes usually lasted no longer than 20 minutes, and the game industry tore over the commercials.

The 90s as a nostalgia zone

However, productions such as “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” found a loyal fan base even among young adults. In the trailer of its new release, Netflix announced "one of the most popular, influential and critically acclaimed anime of all time". The decision of the US streaming service to include “NGE” in its portfolio is not only based on the trend-setting imagery that shaped the series at the time: giant fighting robots and metropolises turning to rubble.

The rediscovery is a symbol of an ongoing nostalgia trend. Now that the millennial generation is growing up, many look longingly back to their seemingly carefree youth. “The 90s! Do you remember… ..? ”Is the name of a Facebook page. 1.1 million people have subscribed to it.

This is also reflected in tourism. Japan is a popular travel destination for people in their mid- and late twenties. Social media influencers are looking for motifs that are as “instagramable” as possible in Tokyo, in front of Fuji or Lake Biwa. Retro is hip, in both fashion and pop culture. And Japan is omnipresent. Anime and video consoles are an integral part of the cultural socialization of many millennials. Ariana Grande promoted her new album "7 Rings" with Kanji symbols and a kawaii aesthetic. Pop culture in the west was conspicuously fond of Japan as early as the turn of the millennium. For example in Hollywood, where “Ghost Dog” by Jim Jarmusch, “Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise and Quentin Tarantino's “Kill Bill” took up the motif of the samurai.

The horror films "Ring" and "Der Fluch" were also extremely successful as remakes of Japanese models. In 1999 Madonna disguised herself as a geisha in the video for “Nothing Really Matters”, a year later Maria Carey's music video for “Boy (I Need You)” showed a potpourri of Japanese clichés: Yakuza, Godzilla, Arcade. At the same time, Tokio Hotel was successful in Germany and made the Japanese rock genre visual kei a trend among teenagers almost unnoticed. Even if the stylistic markers - hair combed into the face and dark makeup - were often confused with emo fashion.

But where did the anime boom, which particularly affected children and young people at the end of the 1990s, come from? If you ask the Japanese-German Center Berlin, you get a possible explanation: "Anime offered different narrative structures, different worlds, different narratives," reports Sascha Lück. Especially in the Americanized West. “That offered space for new identifications”. The hierarchical form of society in Japan is often reflected in anime, with strongly sexualized female characters and bizarre, muscular protagonists - but gender roles in particular are often satirized.

The genre of Gender Bender Anime is dedicated to characters who change their gender temporarily or permanently. For many, anime was the beginning of a fascination with Japan that went beyond sushi and karaoke. Mangas are now also treated in the West from a literary perspective, the Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs have their own areas for lovers of Japanese graphic novels and for cosplay. RPG culture is firmly linked to the anime breakthrough in Europe and the United States.

It's not the first time that Japan has become particularly popular in the West. After the Paris World's Fair in 1867, so-called Japomania occurred among European artists. Japanese elements were found in fashion and in Art Nouveau, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt were inspired by the motifs and compositions of Japanese painters. Similarly, in the twentieth year of the pop-cultural thunderclap Pikachus, Kawaii has left its mark. Many emojis delight with their graphic diminution and have a lasting impact on our digital writing.

However, and you learn that at the Japanese-German Center, Kawaii is by no means as innocent as it seems at first glance. In fact, it is an important part of the “Cool Japan” initiative, a state doctrine through which Japan, after its rapid economic boom in the middle of the last century, wanted to position itself better culturally in the world.

Since the 80s, attempts have been made to increase the image and export power by influencing western pop culture. With success. This is called "soft power" in technical jargon and means that anime and computer game characters can also be found on airplanes and on the business cards of embassy employees. During the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, the Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe transformed into Super Mario in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Maybe there will be a new edition of the anime boom soon

The major sporting event is particularly convenient for Japan. The country was particularly in the spotlight due to the Fukushima disaster. In addition, the historically deeply rooted conflict with South Korea, which was under Japanese rule between 1905 and the end of World War II, is more present, especially among traditionalists, than it has been for a long time. South Korea threatens to overtake its big neighbor, is economically more successful, as in the duel between Samsung and Sony, and suddenly has a stronger influence on pop culture.

So maybe that's why we will see the big new edition of the anime boom next summer. With the start of the mobile game “Pokémon Go” in 2016 and the film “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”, which was only released this year, the yellow kawaii megastar has already positioned itself for this.

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