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.
February 25, 2008
When I read the first Mechademia volume, I felt that it maintained a tenuous balance between different kinds of scholarly essays on manga and anime. Mechademia Vol. 2: Networks of Desire has about the same amount of works—23 contributions compared to the original's 20—and more of a focus.
The subtitle of this volume accurately describes the book's theme, and essays are divided into four sections (Shojo, Powers of Time, Animalization and Horizons). Each essay spins "desire"—and sometimes its own section title—in different ways.
Five essays in particular are standouts, and worth the price of the book on their own. Deborah Shamoon's "Revolutionary Romance: The Rose of Versailles and the Transformation of Shojo Manga," Toku Masami's "Shojo Manga! Girls' Comics! A Mirror of Girls' Dreams" and Keith Vincent's "A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny" combine to provide a rich, textured history of the origins and progression of shojo manga and their depictions of same-sex relationships. Miyao Daisuke's "Thieves of Baghdad: Transnational Networks of Cinema and Anime in the 1920s" offers a fascinating look at the "Japanification" of Noburo Ofuji's 1926 Bagudajo no kozoku (The Thief of Baguda Castle, incidentally part of the Cinémathèque Québecoise's early-anime retrospective), which was a sort of remake of the American live-action feature The Thief of Bagdad.
For me, the crown jewel of the book is Mizuno Hiromi's "When Pacifist Japan Fights: Historicizing Desires in Anime," an look at how the evolution of postwar Japan's militarism, nationalism and masculinity were expressed in 1977's Space Battleship Yamato and 1995's Silent Service. The piece was so compelling it made me want to rewatch Gasaraki and further appreciate Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, both of which featured conspiracies to remilitarize Japan. It's worth noting that this essay is the longest in the book, but reads so smoothly it feels like it's the shortest.
Otherwise, the book is hit or miss depending on the kind of scholarly essays you prefer. As a fan of Occam's Razor, I'm a bit wary of essays that read a lot of symbolism into anime that the creator makes no claim to. Granted, there are those shows like Haibane-Renmei and Neon Genesis Evangelion where the creators are specifically adding layers of meaning, but I had to roll my eyes when Christopher Bolton read various shades of meaning into 2000's Blood: The Last Vampire's use of CGI for mechanical objects, specifically airplanes. While it's true that this was a pioneering blending of CGI and cel in anime then, the same techniques had been used elsewhere in the world for almost 15 years in pretty much exactly the same way. It's a symptom of my long-standing complaint that at times anime aficionados wall themselves off from animation history at large.
This same issue comes up in William L. Benzon's review of Takashi Murakami's Little Boy: The Arts Japan's Exploding Subculture book and exhibition, but in a good way: After thoroughly examining Murakami's thesis of how Japan's unique national trauma (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their defeat in World War II) explains the frequent use of apocalypse in the country's fiction, he turns around and says he doesn't buy it. Why not? Because "apocalyptic art and fantasy are in no way unique to Japan. For example, apocalypse has been a persistent theme in postwar American culture," despite the fact that the U.S. was never bombed during the war.
It's exactly this kind of intellectual awareness and honesty that anime scholarship (hell, anime fandom) needs more of. There are many things about anime and manga that are unique, and there are many books (including Mechademia) that celebrate that. But if we really want to position these media within the cultures of the world at large, then we need more work that looks at them in relation to what's going on outside of Japan, and there's no better place to do it than within the rigorous structure of academic writing. I'm happy that Mechademia is starting to encourage this kind of thinking, and I hope the next volume takes it further.
January 29, 2008
This weekend, I had the great fortune to attend transculturELLE: How Girls Cross Cultures, a workshop organized by Dr. Thomas Lamarre and sponsored by the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montreal. (fps contributor Kino Kid hosted me, and is such a good hostess that I had to avoid saying "my roommate" when referring to her.)
The two-day workshop revolved around papers that focused on shoujo titles from various eras, including live-action films like Shimotsuma Monogatari (otherwise known as Kamikaze Girls). As a theme, "How girls cross cultures" yielded fruitful results, with papers examining issues of transcultural flow, fashion, intertextuality, national identity, criminality, perversion, and technology in such titles as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Rose of Versailles, NANA, and Denno Coil. The discussion was deep and long-lasting, and the calibre of participants unparallelled.
Although more and more academic conferences like the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and the Popular Culture Association national conference now hold panels on anime and manga, it's rare to find a conference that's as specific as this one, especially outside the US. Frenchy Lunning, a transculturELLE participant and editor of Mechademia, the top journal of anime and manga criticism, hosts a similar workshop called Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but SGMS is geared toward a slightly different audience. For academics interested in theory and interdisciplinary thinking, workshops like transculturELLE afford the opportunity to discuss Eto Jun, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Toshiya Ueno (or even meet the man) all in the context of anime and manga. This is something I've yearned for since encountering anime to begin with, and it's both heartening and humbling to see established professionals turning the discourse to their interests with such vigour. I eagerly anticipate the next workshop, and hope to tell you all about it soon.
January 16, 2008
Friday and Saturday, January 25 and 26 at McGill University in Montreal, Thomas Lamarre will be hosting a workshop on shoujo anime and manga. Academic papers on gender, genre, and culture will be presented by the likes of Frenchy Lunning, Toshiya Ueno, and Ian Condry. I will attend and cover the event for fps. There is no charge to attend. For more information, contact Thomas Lamarre.
Here is a prospective list of papers:
Session 1: 11:30 – 14:00