Thursday, April 12, 2012

At The Frontiers Of Human Possibility

While much of television programming geared toward entertaining children is disturbing (what is with the NHK morning show where the main characters are a chair whose lips do not move and a tall, dancing, talking saguaro cactus?) there is one segment in one of the morning shows that gives me the shivers. The segment is called "Otetsudai robo" ("The Helper Robot") which encourages children to think of themselves as helpful household robots. The first part is an animated section where the child, as a heroic, flying character, helps out his mother and father, earning their gratitude and affection. The second half is a live segment where the human/robot -- sometimes a child, sometimes a parent, sometimes a grandparent -- responds to a command sent from a box with a series of buttons from the "a, i, u, e, o" order of kana.

I wish I did not have an inkling of what the producers of the show are trying to tell me here. If it is that the relations between humans are bettered when one side is a robot responding mechanically to the orders of another -- they should be reassured that I and probably the children are getting that message.

This is a terrible message to be sending to small children.

Of course, I could, due to my upbringing, be failing to see the cute, acceptable side of defining ideal human relations in such a peculiar fashion. After all, this is the country of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan no Atomu), the extremely humanoid robot boy (powered by atomic energy, in a nice, desensitizing nod to the nuclear power industry) who is not just a boy and a robot but cute and brave and strong. What a role model!

However, the interchangeability of the human with the humanoid, where the humanoid is not manufacturable using current technology, leads to a breakdown somewhat in the ability of children to discriminate what is real and what is not. In the lastest annual survey of Kuraray, a manufacturer of the ubiquitous landoseru -- the anachronistic leather backpacks all elementary school students are required to buy -- the fourth most popular answer to question of "What do you want to be when you when you grow up?" when it is put to 6 year-old boys is "Television/Anime Character."

I can foresee the conversation:

"Son...about your answer to the survey. I am afraid that when you grown up you cannot become an animation character. Sorry."

The really odd thing about the Kuraray survey is that the parents have input into the process, as the survey results are based on postcards filled out and sent in to the company. There is a special section for the parents to write down what their dreams are for their children (and yes, the answers in that section are very interesting). So it is not as if the children are slipping off, confessing to the company their secret wish that they were alive in only two dimensions, not three. (Link - J)

The Kuraray survey is of course a goldmine for marketers, which can gear their advertising to fit the most prominent current life goals of children. Furthermore, it recounts the dreams of 6 year-olds, which cannot be criticized too much for reflecting their consumption of hours and hours of television broadcasts.

Then again, if one could not believe that when you grow up you could be an anime character, then we might not have Wrecking Crew Orchestra taking dance performance to now-world famous and previously unimagined technical limits (You Tube).


Matt said...

All I can think of upon reading this essay is that the author must not have spent much time around actual children. I suspect if you queried American six year olds you'd find a significant number who wanted to be Batman or other fictional heroes.

Durf said...

Otetsudai Robo has nothing to do with Otōsan Suitchi, as far as I know. On the whole I think your post is a crazy overreaction to segments on kids' shows that tell the little ones "hey, be helpful around the house, and here's a way to make a fun remote control and play with dad."

When is the last time you watched a kids' program from the United States?

sleepytako said...

As a father of a 2 year old who enjoys NHK's programs, I would like to offer a different opinion.

Besides Nihongo Asobo, with its exoteric oddness, I don’t find much to criticize about the programs and characters. Think about Sesame Street. There was a giant hairy brown elephant who was the imaginary friend of a giant talking bird and a monster that lived in a trash can. Are these characters any odder than a saguaro cactus or a talking chair? Not all of the Muppet characters had moving lips, or even human shaped ones for that matter. Beaker for example. Who has a mouth like that!

Otetsudai Robo is also not as harmful as you make it out as I watch it. All the show teaches is following directions just like the game Simon Says. Once children enter school they will have to follow their teacher’s directions. We all have to follow directions at times. Looking farther into this and making a broad statement about this program being the start of the brainwashing of children in to master and slave roles in society seems to be giving too much power to it. I find it cute. It’s “Helping Robot” not just “Robot.”

So, are relationships sometimes one-sided? Yes. It’s a hard fact of life that we have to deal with. We all have a boss. But the other have of the program with the Rube Goldberg devices shows that give and take and working together is needed also. Or am I looking too far into it?

Continuing, landoseru are not required by any public school that I’ve encountered. Judging by observation, a majority of elementary school children in my neighborhood do not use them. Private schools typically have their own school branded landoseru that students must buy, along with their uniforms of course. And what is wrong with being anachronistic in the first place? All the steampunks on Boing-Boing might take issue with you on that one.

Lastly, concerning the survey, what child didn’t want to grow up to be a ninja or GI Joe character when we were young? I would go so far to say that choosing singer, pro athlete, or movie star are equally unobtainable, statistically, as growing up to be Kamen Rider.

Does TV rot your brain? We all know that answer to that. Thankfully, the offerings on NHK are educational, much better produced, and at least commercial free when compared to the private broadcasters. Write a post about the evils of Puri Cure and Boken Ranger and I’ll be right on board with it.

Thank you for your post. I enjoyed reading your opinions on the matter even though we do not agree.

TheStrawMan said...

Maybe the kids want to be the actor or voice actor that portrays the TV/Anime character, either on TV or at the theme park...

That's certainly obtainable, although maybe not statistically likely...