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Helen McCarthy on anime and the Olympics

So, the 2020 Olympics will be held in Tokyo. Last time Japan played host in 1964, the redevelopment included new roads, the first fabled Shinkansen bullet train lines, and a natty little gymnastics uniform subsequently appropriated by the girl pilots of Gunbuster. When the women’s volleyball team struck Olympic gold, there was a spate of volleyball manga and anime. And so many people bought colour televisions to watch the opening ceremony that black and white TV, including the top-rated Astro Boy, was declared dead, opening the way for colour anime productions.

Japan is the land of mascots – organisations big and small use them to present friendly faces to the public. In May 2012 a Japanese newspaper ran a feature article on how mascots help shrinking towns and industries. The city of Ugo boosted rice sales five-fold with a drawing of a cute girl, while Kannagi fans got together to help Shichigahama, where the anime is set, after the March 2011 tsunami.

Japan welcomes mascots from all over the world, but when it comes to sports, not many of them get their own anime. Britain’s 2012 Olympians Wenlock and Mandeville may struggle to make an impact.

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Only two Olympic mascots have made it big in anime so far. One is Eagle Sam, mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A friendly, perky bird in a stars ‘n’ stripes top hat and bow tie, Sam was designed by Disney artist Robert C. Moore. He was a star in Japan long before the Games began, thanks to Hideo Nishimaki’s anime series, which premiered on TBS early in April 1983.

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Sam was beaten to anime gold by Bear Cub Misha, the 1980 Moscow Olympic mascot designed by illustrator Victor Chizhikov. Misha was big in Japan in 1979 with Koguma no Misha, a TV Asahi series directed by Yoshimichi Nitta, also seen in Europe and the Arab world. He was the first Olympic mascot to star in his own cartoon show, and also the first to have a girlfriend, making him a beacon of hope for young geeks unsure how to talk to girls.

Misha was extremely cute, a useful quality if you want to be an anime star. Yet some of the cutest Olympic mascots missed out on their own anime. Munich’s rainbow dachshund Waldi was certainly sweet enough to qualify, but was overshadowed by the horrific massacre at the 1972 Games. Montreal’s elegant beaver Amik from 1976 was probably too minimalist to attract Japan’s animators. If differentiating between characters with black hair onscreen is difficult, animating a ground-hugging all-black oval would be a nightmare. Seoul was represented by Hodori the Siberian tiger in 1988, and Barcelona in 1992 was fronted by Cobi the Catalan sheepdog – both cute, marketable, loved at home to this day, and ignored by anime studios.

The Beijing Olympic mascots of 2008 proved as controversial as cute. The Fuwa, or ‘good-luck dolls’ were designed by artist Han Meilin, but didn’t bring him much luck. He designed over 1,000 characters and had two heart attacks before choosing Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini.

The five didn’t get their own anime, though they made cameo appearances in Sega’s game Mario & Sonic at the Beijing Olympics. Their Chinese cartoon series, which began airing in August 2007, was widely noted for its ‘anime-like’ style. It garnered good ratings and won a major award.

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Yet Chinese bloggers named them ‘witch dolls’ after a series of coincidences tagged ‘the curse of the Fuwa’. Basing one of them on a Tibetan antelope, an ironclad political statement in a cute plushie wrapper, went too far for some. Their creator has since disowned them.

Will Britain’s mascots make the podium? Probably not. They may be too much like Athena and Phoibos (Athens 2004,) described on the official Beijing 2008 website in very unflattering terms, or Izzy, Atlanta’s 1996 cartoon blob. Only the cutest win anime Olympic gold. But with Tokyo set to host the Olympics in 2020, and mascots and brands more powerful than ever in Japan, you can be sure that a race is already on to find a manga-style sporting idol.

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