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I dream of Japan! A documentary explores the craze for Japanese anime in Nagaland

Hemant Gaba’s ‘Japan in Nagaland’ is centred on a cosfest in Kohima.

It is exactly like the title suggests. Hemant Gaba’s Japan in Nagaland is about a slice of Japanese culture that is being relished in the North Eastern Indian state.

Gaba follows a group of devotees of Japanese animation, or anime, who are members of the Facebook group Nagaland Anime Junkies. In July last year, they held the second edition of an anime-themed cosfest, or costume playing festival, in the state capital of Kohima. Hundreds of adolescents and young adults congregated in Kohima dressed as their favourite anime characters. They came from far and wide: among the characters featured in the documentary is a pair of sisters who have travelled from Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh, dressed as Sasha Braus and Hange Zoe from the cartoon series Attack on Titan.

Cosplayers take their role playing very seriously, as is evident from the efforts of the sisters Jenny and Juno. Jenny has designed her own costume, while Juno has fashioned her armour out of cartons and Cellotape. Japan in Nagaland is among the films produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust that will be screemed at the Open Frame festival in Delhi from September 15-22.

Gaba captures the preparations and asks participants about the reasons for their love for anime, which extends to a love for all things Japanese (some of them wistfully speak to being able to visit the Far Eastern nation some day). “I have always been fascinated by the North East,” said Gaba, who lives in Delhi. “My friend Smita Varma, who works with the Telegraph newspaper had done an article on the Facebook group, and this article and her research became the basis of my pitch to PSBT.”

The 35-year-old filmmaker, who made the indie Shuttlecock Boys in 2011, spent 12 days in Kohima in July, where strange scenes of identity politics and a typically self-contained youth culture unfold. He records the tremendous efforts of the anime organisers who work days and nights, order merchandise from Japan, and build props inspired by famous anime characters. Gaba also interviews local artist Thej Yhome, who is working on a comic in the Japanese style known as manga.

The filmmakers asks the questions that arise from the prospect of Naga youth yearning for an imported art form: Do they feel closer to the Far East than to the Indian mainland? There are several explanations rather than one. A local entrepreneur and cultural promoter says that there are very few leisure opportunities for young people – there are no parks, lounges, bars or discotheques – and thus a virtual group becomes a way for them to meet in the real world.

Himato Zhimomi, the state government’s commissioner and secretary of tourism, art and culture, explained that dances and cultural festivals have historically provided avenues for self expression for the young, adding that “the colonial encounter and missionary practices made them seem inferior”. Zhimomi, perhaps mindful of the repercussions of admitting that Naga youth aren't exactly enamored of modes of Indian mainstream entertainment, especially Hindi cinema, rejects the idea of reading too much into the anime craze and the popularity of Korean television series and movies in the region.

Gaba too doesn’t delve into this fondness for Eastern popular cultural forms in a state that has always had a tense and distrustful relationship with the Indian mainland. One wonders what older people with memories of the failed Japanese offensive into Kohima in 1944 during the Second World War will make of their young ones yearning to build connections with their would-be conquerors.

It is left to viewers to make what they will of the thoughts and feelings of the young Naga men and women interviewed for the documentary. One of them admits that a similarity in appearance with people from East Asia might play a role in establishing the popularity of Korean and Japanese imports. Another praises the themes explored by anime, declaring, “Artistically it is awesome and Bollywood can never reach that level in terms of creativity. Not even Hollywood has.”

Zhimomi predicts that Chinese films will be the next new craze in Nagaland. Meanwhile, the Nagaland Anime Junkies held the third edition of the cosfest this July. The rest of India might sway to the beats of Bollywood, but in this corner of the nation, a faraway style of animation works just fine.

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