sbcltr explores the obsession of Japan in Nagaland with filmmaker Hemant Gaba

Last year, 35-year-old filmmaker Hemant Gaba, who made the well-received indie film Shuttlecock Boys (2011) spent twelve days in Kohima, Nagaland, to observe Otakus and film the documentary Japan in Nagaland. Otaku is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, commonly in manga and anime fandom. Why Nagaland? Because Nagaland is home to a distinct alternative culture which is uniquely its own. Not only Japanese, but also Korean pop culture influences have been heavy here since the last two decades. As a filmmaker, Gaba says that he wanted to examine the question of identity through these very pop culture influences. “Why is it that the youth in Nagaland gets attracted to other East Asian cultures over Western Culture, I wanted to explore if it has anything to do with identity crisis?”

To unravel these questions he attended the third Cosfest hosted by the Nagaland Anime Junkies (NAJ). This Cosfest, unlike any other fest in the country, had no big cultural sponsors and was just the result of the hard-work put in by the NAJ. “Nagaland has a subculture that can be called anime. The people associated with this have been involved in anime life for more than a decade and they live, eat and breathe this culture,” says Gaba.

The anime culture has been present in India for a while now, there is even an Anime Con and manga comics have been officially available in the country since 2014. But local fan groups are rare and the mainstream reaction to these Japanese cartoons has remained basic and underexposed. Limited only to children in the form of shows such as Doraemon, Shinchan, Hattori, and Pokemon. While their comic book versions are relegated to groups of hard-core nerds only. Moreover, after Animax went off air, there has been no television channel that broadcasts anime and it is still considered a very niche market.  Everywhere except Nagaland, where it has found widespread acceptability in the last decade.

Reasons for this can be in their history itself. Fraught with insurgency till the early 2000s, the city seldom had a life beyond sunset. There were no cultural activities for its young generation—no cinema halls, no cafes and to top it, Bollywood was banned till the 1990s. An entire generation grew up devoid of entertainment. When entertainment did set in, it came in the form of discovering Korean cinema, pop music and even television. This later progressed into an interest in Japanese culture and anime for the younger lot. “It is more relatable to us. The movies and the culture. We identify with them because the people look and behave like us, unlike Bollywood whose issues are not our own and seem unrealistic,” says 21-year-old Kylie, a student of Delhi University.

While questions of identity and parallel narratives of origin of Nagas remain, Gaba re-iterates the fact that the question of nationality is a non-issue and not conflicted. “The youth is aware that they are citizens of India. Most of them work and study in different parts of the country, but they continue to follow anime with passion.” He also says that the issue is slightly more complex, “Most Nagas got converted to Christianity after the missionary movement. And slowly, generation after generation, especially in the cities, the youth stopped identifying with their roots. Maybe because there is no written or recorded Naga history.” It was then that popular Korean culture made a place for itself, “Right now, everything from Bollywood, to Hollywood, to Korean exists in tandem with the Japanese. It’s just that, different people pick up different cultural forms, according to what appeals to them. But I think, most of the youth don’t relate to their indigenous roots anymore.” Their popularity according to him is justified because “stories and characters (in my little exposure) in Japanese Anime are very creative and surreal. As an art form, I found it much superior than other visual art forms around.”

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Internet is also the biggest binding source for this anime subculture in Nagaland.  The NAJ started with a Facebook page and has grown to a community that has over 11,000 users today. Started by Biebe Natso in 2011, the Facebook group now has twelve administrators from different parts of the state. With the Cosfest they aim to promote Naga culture with anime as a medium, since Nagaland still has no places and networks where their youth can interact in the real world.

The organisers spend sleepless nights planning this cultural fair and order merchandise from Japan, build props inspired by famous anime characters. Imtizulu Jamir, one of the organisers of the fest has said that their aim is to create a Utopia, an environment for people with similar interests. These are people like Artist Thej Yhome, who is working on a comic in the Japanese style known as manga, or the sisters from Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh, who travelled all the way to dress as Sasha Braus and Hange Zoe from the cartoon series Attack on Titan.

What separates the anime culture in Nagaland than the rest of the country according to Gaba, is the fact that it is not a class thing like the rest of India, where only the posh enjoy alternative international cultures. “The subcultures of music and anime constitute a diverse set of people from multiple facets of society. The only thing they have in common is a passion for their interest. Only in Nagaland will you find a chai-wallah listening to hard rock or metal,” he says.  Gaba is also of the view that the Anime culture has been an evolution of sorts for the new generation that grew up to their parents watching Korean movies. It is obviously a possibility that the coming generation might find something else of interest, but right now, anime is here to stay. Simply because at the heart of this obsession, lies their bittersweet fernweh for a culture that they long to make their own. Of stories of acceptance, and tolerance, and better representation.


Hemant Gaba is currently working on a documentary on Indian Triathletes

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