March 5, 2009
Last night I had the privilege of attending a seminar called "Anime and Contemporary Japanese Society," presented by the Japan Foundation's Toronto branch and the Digital Value Lab at Ryerson University, and supported by the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. Presenters included Professor Jaqueline Berndt of Yokohama National University, and Professor Kaichiro Morikawa of Meiji University, with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Eric Cazdyn of the University of Toronto.
After several rounds of applause for all the parties involved, Professor Berndt began a presentation called "Post-Critical Anime: Observations on its 'Identities' within Contemporary Japan." It compared and contrasted The Seven Samurai against Samurai 7, examining not historical accuracy (or the lack thereof) but rather the position each title holds in relationship to an imagined national culture. For Berndt, titles like Samurai 7 and Samurai Champloo are a-historical, existing in a fantasy of the past rather than an historically specific one. This slippery sense of historicity is key to a phenomenon in anime criticism that Professor Berndt wants to question, namely the preoccupation with reading Japanese identity into anime and presuming that anime stands for Japan rather than being a product of Japan. In short, Berndt wishes to undermine the myth of "Japaneseness," and instead focus on taste cultures within the nation.
Similarly, Professor Morikawa delivered a "tour" of otaku Japan, focusing on the geography of Tokyo's taste districts: Ikebukero (yaoi and BL titles, including doujinshi), and Akihabara (moe and hentai titles, including dating sims). Morikawa's presentation was extremely enlightening, exposing the gender and taste boundaries within Tokyo's borders, as well as proposing the idea of these fannish districts as an extension of the "otaku" (a loaded term that is at once a second person pronoun, a word for the household, an insult, and a label appropriated by English-speaking anime and manga fans) space -- a thirdspace where fans are safe to gather and form communities. Morikawa linked the phenomenon of taste districts in Tokyo to the ethnic villages of New York, then contrasted the architecture of these "private" or "closed" fan districts like Akihabara and Ikebukero to the "public" or "transparent" areas of Shibuya where consumption is conspicuous enough to warrant massive glass towers.
Dr. Cazdyn attempted to marry these two presentations through their shared problematization of time. He argued for a relationship between the non-existent past of Samurai 7 and the non-existent future of the Akihabara otaku, a group whose visions of the future, Professor Morikawa suggested, had darkened considerably since 1995 -- the year of both the disastrous Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (some of whom purported to be fans of Evangelion and other titles). Cazdyn defined anime as created by and through crisis, an idea that reminded me of Susan J. Napier's article When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. After his remarks, the panel opened itself up to questions from the audience, a conversation which quickly turned lively. Afterward, Professor Berndt remarked that she had never given this talk to so much laughter, and she was surprised at how informed her audience already was on the subjects at play. (Congratulations, Toronto; you know your anime!)
If you have the opportunity to see either of these presenters in action, I heartily recommend them. Their insights as anime fans living in Japan who still maintain critical distance from the subject matter is invaluable. I was struck by Professor Berndt's answer to a question about culture: as a German speaker who had lived in Japan for twenty years, she said, "I don't really know what I am, anymore. I don't know how to categorize myself." It was plain that she viewed this indefinable subject position as a strength, not a weakness. I'm inclined to agree.