Anime and manga can infuse vitality into the Arabic language

Rym Ghazal tells how Japanese and Korean culture can revive the glory of the Arabic language

From a cartoonish maid’s outfit to a tiny rubber doll known as Fuchiko who plays and dangles from any cup to kitschy cosmetics with colorful pandas and kittens as brand ambassadors, you will always find something unique and cute you at Japanese and Korean festivals. Rym Ghazal / The National
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From a cartoonish maid’s outfit to a tiny rubber doll known as Fuchiko who plays and dangles from cups to kitschy cosmetics and colourful pandas and kittens, you will always find something unique and cute at Japanese and Korean festivals.

“Look, whatever way you move it, it won’t fall down, which means you’re fortunate and luck will always remain up,” said Kimura, who was showing me an adorable “lucky cat” statue. Its round shape and a special balance keep the kitty from falling. As a cat lover, I was sold.

These statues come in all colours, shapes and sizes, and Kimura had a whole set of these kitties, known as maneki-neko. The most common among them waves its right paw, as if beckoning the good fortune. I bought six of these for family and friends and got a hand-sized wooden Samurai doll that the tradesman promised (jokingly) will “protect the house from enemies”. These would have to be very small-sized enemies.

The fact the capital’s first anime, manga and Japanese culture festival attracted between 10,000 and 12,000 fans over just three days – it was really packed when I was there – shows how popular they are here. The Korean festival will continue until November 6. Besides cute products, it also includes authentic food, games, martial arts and theatre.

Partly because Japanese and Korean products are not as mainstream as, say American or European ones, we appreciate them more, and there is also a quaintness and an innocence to some of their creations that appeals to our traditional values. I saw visitors trying to sing Japanese songs, while there were visitors to the Korean festival who competed in a Korean speech contest.

Our fascination with these cultures, particularly Japanese, started in the 1980s. Any Arab child during that time, as well as in the 1990s, grew up and fell in love with the same Japanese animation – dubbed in Arabic – as everyone else. Broadcast on local channels across the Arab world, the different anime series were the product of the GCC Joint Production Program Institution, set up in 1976 to make television programmes for the region. One of the main reasons for its success was the pan-Arab push behind it, and how the right people worked on it.

It hired Kuwaiti, Iraqi and Syrian actors to dub more than 50 Japanese animations into Arabic. The dubbing gave several Arab voice talents their first break. For example, Syrian singer Asala sang the theme songs for the Hikayat Alameya (Universal Stories) series when she was a teenager.

It also hired famous singers such as the legendary Lebanese crooner, Sammy Clark, who despite being a successful singer in his own right will forever be remembered as the musical voice behind these animations, like the widely popular sci-fi Grendizer (the story of a prince from another planet defending Earth against aliens) and Jazerat Al Kanz (based on the classic Treasure Island).

“I never imagined I would be remembered because of a cartoon about UFOs and robots,” he told me as he posed with me and Jihad Al Atrash, the Arabic voice for the dreamy Daisuke (or Duke Fleed), the main hero in Grendizer. I had a big crush on Daisuke.

As we know, there are many different types of anime, some quite violent with provocative scenes, so the institution back then picked the anime series that would appeal to general values such as love, honour and family. At the same time they helped the children improve their Arabic.

Manga books and drawings are very popular in this country, so those could also be translated into Arabic and help the language survive.

Given the current struggle to keep Arabic alive, I put forth the suggestion to revive this successful venture from the past, and dub today’s anime, both Japanese and Korean, into Arabic; not just any Arabic, but professional yet conversational type. Some of today’s dubbing is too rigid, unappealing or too dialect specific ( for example Egyptian) which doesn’t work for everyone. The same way we improved our Arabic back then through these cartoons, kids today can do it too – but only if it is done well.