Cool Japan (Tropenmuseum- Amsterdam)

Pillow: polyester, cotton, ink
RevolGraphStore (2018)

Cool Japan is ambitious and aesthetically breathtaking, but it’s scope is too broad for one exhibition, and its point of view is muddled in generalizations. The exhibition title refers to a catchphrase coined by the Japanese government to monetize the nation’s cultural output. But the problem is, Japanese media is more complex than a branding strategy, as it spans many genres that stem from earlier artistic practices. The Tropenmuseum attempts to weave all these threads into a single show, and as a result, Cool Japan often feels stretched thin.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have a wonderful time– I did. The exhibition design is immersive and flashy and I enjoyed being exposed to a culture I know little about. I also commend the curators for attempting to paint a transhistorical picture of Japanese visual culture, as too many exhibitions isolate manga from its precedents, but they have sacrificed depth for breadth. Cool Japan lacks the socio-political context it needs to properly introduce viewers to Japanese visual media.

The most problematic gallery is dedicated to hentai and hyper-sexualized female characters in manga and anime. It has a few redeeming qualities, such as an explanation of Japan’s censorship laws that elucidates the popularity of phallic tentacle porn. There are also several erotic woodcuts from the eighteenth century that provide a clear precedent for contemporary pornography; narration, dialogue, and sound effects are included within each scene, as they are in hentai. But the gallery’s homage to Bulma, a famous character from the ‘Dragon Ball’ series that premiered in 1984, is discomfortingly vague.  

Color woodcut, design after Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806),
c. mid-19th-century
Left: Bikini Bulma, by Toriyama Akira (2001), paper and ink
Right: Bunny Bulma figurine by Banpresto (2001), synthetic

Introductory wall text acknowledges Bulma’s ample cleavage and her fetishization, but maintains that fans adore her for her intellect. Beside this wall panel Bulma is depicted as a three-dimensional figure, on a body pillow purchased by otaku (manga/anime super fans), and in original manga from the 1980s. On one page, she flashes her naked body in exchange for a prized Dragon Ball. In another, she is chased by a lecherous older man. These scenes and their accompanying captions reveal nothing about Bulma’s personality or intelligence, instead focusing on her fetishization.

A series of Instagram pictures show fans cosplaying as Bulma, and their adoration is clear but unexplained. I’d have liked there to be another issue of ‘Dragon Ball’ shown in which Bulma’s personality shines more brightly. Without that, there is no evidence to support the text’s claims about her intelligence.  

Furthermore, it’s hard to look at the busty Bulma without my personal biases seeping in. How can I not think Bulma is a problematic role model for young women, with her tiny waist, enormous bust, and penchant for flashing strangers?

Dragon Ball Manga, by Toriyama Akira (1989)

It’s a natural thought for a western visitor in a western museum, given that representation of body positivity are hot-button issues in our media. But we learn nothing about the way Bulma is perceived by different demographics in Japan, and we have no sense of whether or not the depiction of bodies in manga is debated. Without that context, our biases color our view of Bulma and other females in manga. 

The curators have attempted to address the question of gender politics with a painting by the contemporary artist Yamaguchi Ai, hung on the opposite wall from the Bulma paraphernalia. Michisugara (‘Underway’) depicts a circle of young girls on the brink of puberty, surrounded by flowers that signal their imminent fertility.

Michisugara, by Yamaguchi Ai (2010), acrylic on cotton

They are nude save for their white ankle socks—a highly-charged symbol thanks to Lolita, and one that is imbued with connotations of eroticized innocence. According to the accompanying text, the painting is a commentary on the objectification of women. “Here girls are portrayed without genitalia,” it is written, “they are in the final phase before puberty after which men will increasingly view them as objects of lust.” Because Michisugara is included in the same room as Bulma, I infer that Ai is commenting on the objectification of young women in in manga, anime, and hentai, but that is still conjecture.

Michisugara provided an opportunity to address how characters like Bulma are perceived by Japanese women, and whether she has prompted discussion about the depiction of women’s bodies in manga and anime. Unfortunately, no such context is given, and the viewer leaves the gallery confused. Is Bulma overly-sexualized, and do any Japanese viewers object to her likeness? Should visitors to the Tropenmuseum be applying western notions of gender, sexuality, and spectatorship to Japanese media at all? It’s important to note that ideas about gender and sex differ widely from nation to nation, and what is objectifying to one community is not necessarily objectifying to another. Cool Japan provides no context to elucidate the atmosphere within which Bulma, and figures like her, are consumed. 

The Moé Manifesto, by Patrick W. Galbraith (2014)

Strangely enough, I did find the beginnings of an answer to this question in a book from the Tropenmuseum gift shop. The Moé Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming, by Patrick W. Galbraith, features a series of interviews with artists, writers, fans, producers, and scholars of Japanese media. The discussions focus on moé, a term defined as a feeling of love for a fictional character. Galbraith describes a subculture of male otaku who start relationships with female characters who make them feel moé, and his interviewees humanize what many westerners—and Japanese people, too—view as a perverse practice.

Some of the people Galbraith interviews explain that 2D relationships with anime girls comfort men who are ostracized by the national economic crisis and its sexual ramifications. Many emphasize that these relationships are not at all about sexual gratification, but about emotional connection. In some cases, men dress up as their favorite characters, suggesting that they are seeking to embody, rather than sexually consume, the 2D women they worship.

One interviewee compares moé to the obsession with a pop idol; because manga and anime are as prevalent in Japanese society as, say, Britney Spears was in American culture in the early 2000s, love for a character is natural. Neither relationship is traditionally consummated, and both are, in many ways, an escapist fantasy. These opinions, by the way, are shared by many female creators and fans. And many are unconcerned about the youthfulness of anime women, stating that the characters must be in high school to be relatable, and must be vulnerable to make men feel needed.  

The Moé Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming provides a window into sexual and gender norms in Japan, affecting the way one views images of women. I don’t know if Bulma, specifically, evokes moé, but Galbraith’s text does depict a view of sexualized adolescents that is less lecherous than I first imagined, because it is so rooted in fantasy. His book helped me suppress some of my personal biases as I consider the significance of anime and manga, though I am still very curious about whether there is any pushback in Japan against unrealistic female body standards. 

The Earth Spider plagues the general’s vassals
Color woodcut designed by Utagawa Kunyoshi (1797-1861), 1850s

While I found a lot of inconsistencies in this particular room, I do want to say that I enjoyed the exhibit, and I admire its ambition. I believe that the curators hoped to provide western viewers an introductory survey of Japanese visual culture, without overwhelming them with information. However, they simplified the survey a bit too much, withholding much-needed context from highly-charged motifs. 

Silk painting by Kawanabe Kyòsai (1831-1898), 1883

Critiques notwithstanding, Cool Japan has some great moments. One room that really impressed me was the gallery dedicated to yōkai (monsters). It traces the depiction of yōkai from the eighteenth and nineteenth-century to contemporary Japanese horror cinema, and it’s the strongest through-line in the entire exhibition. In one corner, a clip from The Ring (2002) plays on loop on an old-fashioned television. If you are unfamiliar with the film, it revolves around a spirit named Samara with stringy black hair and milky white eyes who emerges from television sets to kill people. Beside the film clip the curators have hung a silk painting by Kawanabe Kyòsai from 1893. In this work, the pallid spirit who inspired Samara is shown emerging from a painting within the painting, a clear precedent for Samara’s movement between reality and screen.  

Other yōkai populate the darkly-lit gallery, and I took great joy in each, from the rokurokubi—a man whose neck stretches as he sleeps—to the Earth Spider who spreads nightmares to the general’s vassals. There are clear visual relationships between these older works and Japanese horror cinema, and enough contextual information is provided to understand how Japanese viewers consume this media. It’s a successful example of the curator’s transhistorical approach to Japanese visual culture.

On a nitpicky note, the wall text states that several Pokémon were inspired by yōkai, but no examples are provided. This was a missed opportunity to link a globally-popular anime to traditional Japanese media. It was also a disappointing blow for my Pokémon-loving museum companion. 

To conclude, Cool Japan is ambitious and has admirable intentions, but it lacks consistency and evidence for its generalized claims. When it works, it really works, showing a through-line between traditional forms of Japanese media to contemporary manga, anime, and horror cinema. But when it fails, it does so detrimentally. It’s not enough to pair pornographic images from different time periods within a pink room, and a statement made by curators means nothing if it’s not backed up by visual evidence. In an anthropology museum, a viewer must be given the tools to evaluate a work that is unfamiliar to them, free from their western biases. Otherwise, we risk misinterpretation, and cause more harm than good.  

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Cool Japan is on at the Tropenmuseum through September 1st. Spring hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10-5. Starting July 7, the museum will also be open on Mondays.


  1. Camila Guadalupe Cortea says:

    Nice review!!!

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