Allison – Millennial Monsters

9780520245655Allison, Anne.  Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  2006.
Publisher’s site

What does it mean that I, an 80s-born American male, enjoy walking around my neighborhood catching Pokemon on my cell phone with Pokemon GO?  What’s the deal with this box of ramen my senpai brought as a present for me, which pits the Evangelion mecha against Godzilla, and garlic flavor ramen against spicy chicken?  Why do I have so many Japanese-produced video games for my PlayStation (PS1 because I’m from the Greatest Generation of gamers)?  These questions, and an endless proliferation of others like them, are two things: rhetorical questions I put in Personal Statements for grant applications, and also the guiding questions behind Anne Allison’s anthropological study of Japanese commodity culture in a globalized age.  Her engagingly-written book, based on multi-site field research, seeks to position the success of Japanese toys (and popular cultural products more generally) within the context of global capitalism, and asks what it is about these products that have made them so popular.  It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself since I was a high school anime nerd applying to college, and she comes to some intriguing conclusions here.  But no spoilers here, let’s make the jump over to the full post.

I guess I need to preface this by saying that, despite the title, this is not a book about Japan or Japanese culture, and as a “Japan person,” I’m not really its target audience.  This led to a few instances for me of feeling like we had come juuuust up to a topic I found really tantalizing, only to have the analysis swing to the left and leave me whimpering, “But… but… wait!  Wait!  Come back!”

So what is this book about?  In short, the Big C: capitalism.  Allison essentially makes the argument that Japanese toys — based in what she identifies as an “animistic tradition” within Japanese culture — are particularly well-suited to the dynamics of global capitalism.  She characterizes these toys as marked by polymorphous perversity in Freud’s sense of the term, constantly transforming and morphing to fit themselves to new and ever-shifting pleasures.  Pokemon, Tamagotchi, and the like, she contends, are symbols (and objects) of flexible accumulation par excellence.  They affix themselves to the child-consumer in a cyborgian assemblage, traveling with the child everywhere and inflecting their experience of the world along the same lines as the Walkman was said to.  She chalks much of these toys’ success to the positive affective response they engender in children, giving  them a sense of accomplishment, control, and appreciation they are apparently unable to find in the postmodern world of fragmented sociality and unmoored movements of bodies.

Allison gets at a lot of issues that I find really exciting and near and dear to my own work.  The cyborgian networks of affect that we travel in, for example, is something that I think needs attention, and even the simple connection of toys and other material technologies to more animated ontologies and epistemes is one of the points behind my research project.  Allison pays careful attention to the affective dimensions of material culture in ways that I think are really productive.  If I may be allowed to wax poetic for a moment, I think this could be a really good way to get beyond realpolitik, quantitative accounts of the US-Japan relationship and the functioning of culture in its relation to the state (and to foreign states) more generally.

But where Allison comes to the dystopian conclusion that the affective bonds we form with our toys lead us to asocial withdrawal from the world — which occasionally erupts as violence against bodies in the social world — I see much more promise, and I think this is due to a few reasons.  The biggest (and one that I’m still struggling to concisely put into words) is that, as I said, this isn’t a Japan book.  It’s a US-Japan book, meaning she reads everything through that relationship, a relationship she sees occurring only on the level of global capitalistic exchange.  And if we proceed from the starting assumption that capitalism is bad (and I’d generally agree with that assumption), then everything about the US-Japan relationship becomes bad, or at least threatening to be such.  Children growing very attached to their Tamagotchi pets isn’t evidence that they’re developing a sense of responsibility that finds its reward in nurturing a healthy and happy pet, only evidence of how deeply capitalism has sunk its claws into their everyday lives.  All roads lead to capitalist damnation for Japanese toys in the US because they’ve already committed the cardinal sin of being commodities that are circulating in foreign markets, and the only hope for our children, it would seem, is complete rejection of the affective bonds they might form with their toys.

If all of this sounds fatalistic, it might be because everything is seen as having originated in defeat and occupation.  If Allison only reads her object through the US-Japan relationship, she starts that relationship in the traumatic embrace of war adversaries, which emerges into the unequal relationship of occupier and occupied.  The tin jeeps Japanese toymakers created out of discarded food tins left by American GIs symbolize this perfectly for her.  It’s a relationship of longing, in which the ultimate marker of success for Japanese toymakers is success in the US market, at least at first.  As Allison moves into the near-past (specifically the end of the 20th century), there is a lingering sense that the US is losing ground as the purveyor of hegemonic culture, and that this is a bad thing.  There is the sense that the US is the rightful hegemon, and Japanese toys are threatening this dominance.

The stakes of that contest seem to be the purity and unity of culture itself.  This is the other weird thing about Allison’s approach to her objects: toys only seem to work for her as neutral reflections of abiding cultural values, and culture and values are equally true throughout society and don’t change all that much over time.  The Power Rangers symbolize the “Japanese value” of collaborative, collective labor, for example, and Godzilla symbolizes (what else?) the bomb and the experience of defeat.  None of these texts seem to have any critical power of their own, though, and are unable to speak against the dominant culture of capitalism in which they are enmeshed.  When they are exported, too, they apparently stand for the same things in their new contexts — minus whatever cultural “deodorizing” was done to them in transit — and thus represent how we’re “losing the children” to foreign cultural values (which, let’s not forget, turn them into murderous anti-socials).  Who wouldn’t be pessimistic?

This is the same fatalism I was complaining about in Figal’s article in my last post, and my critique stands here: focusing on how evil the system is, and taking each instance of a text produced under that system as simply reflecting the system’s values, we lose sight of how these texts can undermine that system from within, both via their own inherently enunciative capabilities, and via the ways in which fans re-appropriate them toward a variety of ends.  After all, liking anime didn’t turn me into a sociopath; it turned me toward a career in Japan studies, where I’ve been able to connect and communicate with a slew of other people doing the same.  Is that really so bad?


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