Giant Robots and Shifting Trends in Soft Power

As summer mega blockbuster movies along with their staggering international box office receipts have become an expected part of the movie going experience, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim stands alone as an original intellectual property among dozens of reboots, sequels, and the seemingly never ending Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even more surprising is that the film’s central conceit of giant robots fighting giant monsters is a distinctly modern creation of Japanese popular culture, one that has finally been brought to mainstream western audiences.

With Pacific Rim the West has created its first great real robot intellectual property. While any kid who grew up trying to catch the late night uncensored episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim could probably tell you about half a dozen or more real robot or mecha IPs, every one of them would be another obscure Japanese anime series that was relatively popular enough to justify the cost of an English audio dub. Rather, Del Toro’s greatest accomplishment is that he has created a successful mainstream film out of what has traditionally been a niche imported genre from Japan. Now, this is not to say that this is the first successful Hollywood movie to have clearly been influenced by Asian popular culture, The Matrix comes quickly to mind. But it is the first to so proudly display and embrace its heritage as the newest entry in a beloved genre while maintaining its status as an original intellectual property.

Pacific Rimis the great exclamation point on Japan’s long growing status as a ‘cool’ nation. It is a statement of their soft power, their ability to influence others around the world through non-coercive means. While decades of video games, anime, cinema, consumer electronics and Hello Kitty have attracted individuals to Japanese culture, Guillermo del Toro and Legendary Pictures have, by their own volition, brought Japanese culture to the rest of the world. Through no effort on their part, Japan has flexed its soft power by co-opting an American film studio, a Mexican director and 200 million dollars into creating a movie with a distinctly Japanese conceit. In contrast to Japan’s lack of effort in attracting people around the world to their culture, other de facto superpowers still struggle immensely in the same arena. China for all their efforts still only possesses a fraction of the cultural influence held by their Japanese rivals. International headlines about Russia still tend to revolve around whispers of totalitarianism and oppression. Ironically like the mystical Tao, soft power can only seem to be grasped by those who are not grasping for it.

But what does all this mean for us as Americans? The existence of the sprawling American entertainment industry continues to separate the United States as a leader in soft power. But when the proverbial snake swallows the crocodile, which has really been eaten? If Hollywood executives begin developing more popular ideas and franchises from Japan, which nation would be the one exerting their influence? In an era where massive budget Hollywood flops like The Lone RangerBattleship, and John Carter are commonplace, studios may become more incentivized to look across the Pacific for inspiration as del Toro has done. Rather than betting the farm on a Gunsmoke reboot, the most successful studios may be the ones that are willing to take risks on obscure though beloved genres like the real robot anime. That being said, simply sticking white actors into classic Japanese franchises has been proven to fail. Look no further than the disastrous Dragonball movie to see the nadir of cultural appropriation.

As more states seek to gain superpower status and expand their global influence, diminishing returns in the expansion of military and economic might could end up fostering a new kind of arms race. Alongside traditional races to create the newest missiles and defense technologies, states could soon also be actively racing to create and sell the newest cultural phenomenon, be it giant robots or Johnny Depp wearing a bird on his head.

(Pacific Rim images property of Warner Brothers).