The 2-D Culture Influencing China’s 3-D World
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2016-04-19 04:51:24

She pins a big red silk flower to her bob. She wears a black vest over her ruffled halter dress. He is sporting a white tuxedo with a turquoise necktie and wide black pants. Eyeliner and fake lashes deepen his eyes and are offset by an electric blue wig. It’s their wedding day. Surrounding them are close friends wearing similar homemade costumes. It’s a stunning sight.

This young couple have what is called a “2-D complex,” or nijikon in Japanese. It is characterized by fans who develop a strong attachment to the 2-D characters of Japanese manga and anime, often to the point of infatuation, and become so enamored with their fictional love interests that they become dissociated from reality. People who participate in this culture often engage in cosplay, which entails dressing up like fictional characters who generally embody innocence and childishness. The frequency of weddings catering to this complex is only increasing, as Chinese media conglomerates have begun bankrolling these subcultures, seeing in them a large market potential. This will perhaps leave foreign agencies with no other choice than to “infantilize” their businesses in order to connect with the lucrative Chinese market.

According to a 2015 report by the market research company iResearch, the fan population in China of Animation, Comics, and Games (ACG) — the artifacts of 2-D culture — has reached 219 million. Considering that this number is greater than two-thirds of the current population of the U.S., the market potential for ACG in China is huge. Even more appealing is the fact that more than 90 percent of ACG consumers are under the age of 25 — a demographic that any intelligent advertiser will want to get a handle on.

Seeing the increasing popularity of this market, Chinese businesses are becoming excited. Last November, China’s media giant Tencent announced an investment of 300 million yuan (around $46 million) in local 2-D artists and studios, since Japan currently produces the majority of ACG-related products. Tencent’s ambition lies not only in manga and animation that is designed and created in China, but also in bringing the subculture to the mainstream by producing movies, games, and franchised products to attract more consumers. Speaking about ACG at a meeting in 2015, the vice president of Tencent, Cheng Wu, said that Tencent wants to launch a 2-D economy.

Foreign companies, and especially those from the West, will have to infantilize themselves in order to reach Chinese consumers.

Tencent is not the only business pursuing this market. In early 2016, AcFun, a Chinese ACG video sharing website, received an investment of $60 million from SoftBank China Capital(SBCVC). AcFun also got an investment of $50 million from Heyi Group, a company later acquired by the Alibaba Group. Speaking about the investment hype to Yicai.com, the CEO of AcFun, Mo Ran, said, “Everyone wants to get ahold of young users and capital has a keen nose for profits.”

In the wake of all the hype over 2-D culture, even the government is chiming in. China Central Television (CCTV) aired a 14-minute news segment earlier this year about the 2-D economy in China. The news anchors called on “3-D people” — those who live in the real instead of virtual world — to try and understand ACG enthusiasts and support the 2-D economy. This weighing in by CCTV shows that 2-D culture has received not only vast financial resources, but also acknowledgement and support from the government.

Businesses in China as well as the government have already begun co-opting manga and animation as marketing tools. In the lead-up to the Chinese New Year in 2016, Alibaba’s e-commerce website Tmall was heavily decorated with manga-style artwork to help boost sales, while several government entities, including the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have been using cartoon figures to add flavor to their public WeChat accounts — Chinas most downloaded messaging app.

Foreign companies, and especially those from the West, will have to infantilize themselves in order to reach Chinese consumers. But this process may be easier than one might assume, for as the English actor Simon Pegg said in an interview with Radio Times in 2015: “[People in the West] are essentially [already] consuming very childish things: comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff and taking it seriously.” The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott echoed this sentiment in his essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Still, this is not to say an immature pop culture should be condemned. As Scott put it: “It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too.” Nonetheless, Western investors must still refocus the scope of their current infantilization to reach the Asian market. In a recent example of this, Louis Vuitton included Final Fantasy characters in promotions advertising the brand’s 2016 spring collection.

As the popularity of the 2-D complex continues to grow in China, those who want to capitalize on the market will surely follow a similar route to connect with the Chinese, even if that means looking ridiculous.

To the uninitiated, 2-D culture may seem childish, but those who participate in cosplay are taking their wedding ceremonies very seriously. The Chinese groom is not putting on a colored wig for the entertainment of his guests; rather, it is an identity. These young adults will carry their 2-D affection into other aspects of their adult life, and the popularity of the industry indicates that both Chinese and foreigners should take them seriously. As relationships among countries continue to become more deeply interwoven and dynamic, a Chinese groom wearing a blue wig is surely something that an outsider to Chinese culture should be aware of — whether for the sake of profit or for the influence it may end up having on cultures worldwide.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a numerical error. The fan population of ACG in China is 219 million, not 290 million.

(Header image: A student wearing a Pikachu costume rides a custom-designed electronic bike through a university campus in Shanghai, Sept. 17, 2014.  Kou Cong/Sixth Tone)