China and the World

Symbolic gesture

Japanese anime returns to CCTV after 14 years


Now showing on Chinese TV

The Japanese anime series Cells at Work is, quite literally, about a battle in the human body. In it, anthropomorphised immune cells – the heroes – do battle with invading bacteria and viruses.

The two central characters are a ditzy red-blood cell that’s new to her job as a delivery girl (all the red blood cells are styled as ‘delivery workers’) and a softly-spoken white-blood cell depicted as a rapid-response law enforcer.

Together with other characters—microphages portrayed as girl guides and platelets shown as construction workers – they help the human body withstand attacks and recuperate from them.

But what is interesting about the show – first aired in Japan in 2018 – is that it is a signal that relations between China and Japan are also on the mend. That’s because for the first time in more than a decade Chinese state television is broadcasting Japanese anime content – namely the just described Cells at Work.

Japanese anime virtually disappeared from Chinese terrestrial television 14 years ago as part of a wider drive to replace foreign content with homegrown animated material. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned all television stations from broadcasting foreign cartoon series during prime time and demanded that at least 70% of the animation aired over the rest of the day was made in China.

Anti-Japanese sentiment – stirred by competing claims over islands known in China as the Diaoyus and as the Senkakus in Japan – hardly increased the prospects of Japanese anime reappearing on screens, while visits by former Japanese leader Abe Shinzo to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japanese war dead (including war criminals), also did little to improve the situation.

Those tensions meant that TV channels were unwilling to use up their small allocations of broadcast time for non-domestic content on Japanese programmes – no matter how popular they were with viewers.

Before the restrictions, over 70% of the animation broadcast in China was Japanese-made.

In the past couple of years Cells at Work has been watched by some Chinese on video-sharing websites. But CCTV’s decision to show it on state television is still significant. In some ways, it seems to be linked to the experience of the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, President Xi Jinping and Abe seemed to enjoy a better rapport, at times bonding over trade tensions with the US. But Sino-Japanese relations have further improved during the coronavirus, with both sides sending supplies to the other, sometimes accompanied by touching messages (see WiC482). Cells at Work – with its biological theme and its overlap with aspects of virus prevention education – also made it a natural candidate for the easing of restrictions on Japanese content.

The show – classified as ‘biological humour’ in Japan – has been dubbed in a way that makes it more appealing to Chinese audiences too, with some of the more comedic characters taking on accents from Dongbei – a northeastern region that produces many of the bawdier Chinese comedy stars, like Zhao Benshan (see WiC6) and Xiao Shenyang (see WiC3).

Yet even as viewers applauded the new series, others bemoaned the fact that changes had still been made to get it past the censors.

Battle scenes deemed too violent were altered and the action switches to black and white whenever blood is shown, which must be a bit of an irritation when red-blood cells are the lead characters.

“I find the sudden colour change to be at odds with the overall look of the cartoon,” complained one viewer, although other netizens have praised the creativity of the series and its ability to make more complex biology accessible and exciting. “Who thought my nine year-old would watch a show about T-cells and macrophages,” enthused one mother.

Chinese anime fans are now hoping to see more animated series from Japan as the bilateral mood improves further.

However, Japan’s Sankei newspaper reported last week that Xi Jinping will not be making a state visit to Tokyo this year. The Chinese leader was scheduled to visit Japan last year but the trip was shelved as both countries needed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

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