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Culture Shock at DisneySea
November 3rd, 2006
Explore: The Business Of Culture
By Ong Sor Fern, The Straits Times/ANN
It was a moment of profound cultural dislocation, and it happened in Tokyo's DisneySea resort, of all places.
A theme park is supposed to be fun. The only thing turning topsy-turvy should be your stomach during roller-coaster rides, not your brain scrambling like eggs from too much cultural disassociation.
But DisneySea's main live attraction, The Legend Of Mythica, completely short-circuited my pop culture-burdened mind. It was a bombastic showstopper set on water.
There were floats boasting a dizzying array of mythic figures, from the Norse god Thor to a world-generic dragon, and even a half-lion, half-fish creation that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Merlion.
There were dancers outfitted like Cirque du Soleil acrobats wielding flags. There were jet-skis rigged like purple dragons with colour-coordinated drivers and pillion riders deftly manipulating dancing kites high in the sky.
And, of course, don't forget Mickey, Donald and assorted Disney characters poised atop each float.
To add to my overwhelming sense of displacement, the setting for this mad mishmash of cultural artefacts was a minutely detailed re-creation of the Italian city of Portofino in an American theme park located in Japan.
By the time the climactic fireworks hit, it seemed entirely normal to my over-stimulated, exhausted brain cells to have a light display in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon.
No post-modern multi-culti theatre production could have pulled off such an insane brew better.
But the real wonder of DisneySea is not only that it succeeds, but that it makes a ton of money from it, too.
Forbes magazine listed it in 2004 as the fourth most attended theme park in the world, with 12.2 million visitors a year.
While DisneySea suffered declining attendance rates in the last three years, figures climbed back past the 12-million-mark in the first quarter of this year.
Culture vultures will probably recoil at the very idea of DisneySea.
At least Anaheim's Disneyland was built by Walt Disney himself. Tokyo Disneyland was modelled on that park.
But DisneySea, with its hair-raising rides, many live shows and liberal borrowings from Japanese anime and manga, is obviously targeted at the well-heeled adult Japanese crowd.
A bastardisation of culture, snobs will sniff. Naysayers will dismiss it as crass and commercial.
Granted, DisneySea is no temple to art. It is more like a shrine to consumerism.
But its casual appropriation of high culture for profit is simply the latest twist in the age-old bargain.
Culture, throughout the ages and in all civilisations, has always been a commodity.
High culture is, as it always has been, a luxury item, priced beyond the reach of most and consumed by the wealthy leisure classes. Pop culture--from a rustic shepherd playing a folk tune in a pasture to a modern-day commuter plugged into his iPod--has always been a means of escaping real-life drudgery.
What has changed significantly is the widespread recognition of the economic value of culture, its worth in pure monetary terms.
Cultural tourism, whether high or low, generates income. Accountants do not differentiate between the ¥5,800 (USD50) ticket to the Kabuki-za and the ¥5,800 passport to DisneySea. They bring in the same amount of money, although in fact, DisneySea will probably generate more ancillary income from sales of souvenirs and food and beverage.
It is this sort of equation that has inspired Singapore's Renaissance City blueprints and plans for integrated resorts, with their promises of attendant theme park attractions and high art lures of museums and world-renowned architectural designs.
While Singapore is great at building the hardware, what I wonder is whether it has the software to programme these attractions.
Sneer one might at DisneySea's incongruous pairing of manga with Mickey, but it actually takes a significant amount of shared cultural capital to make this work: Firstly, to engineer such an amalgam; and secondly, to have a large enough audience base to sustain its consumption.
And this is where Singapore might find it hard to match DisneySea.
The Legend Of Mythica, however bowdlerised, has its roots in Japan's animist traditions and the cultural forms that sprang from that belief. And familiarity with those beliefs have spread enough in this globalised age for DisneySea to cast its nets worldwide.
If Singapore hopes to go fishing in the same waters, then the trick really is not just the wooing of international names of renown.
Like DisneySea, Singapore must cherrypick the best of world cultures and graft them onto something that is, for want of a better term, uniquely Singapore.
-- Sources: Sinchew-i, The Straits Times/ANN