Mechademia Volume 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga

picture: Mechademia Volume 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga
23 April 2007


If book like Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy's The Anime Encyclopedia present us with all the dots. Now all we need is someone to join them up. In this respect the historical timeline on the inside cover of Mechademia: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga pinpointing key dates in the evolution of manga and anime (even though it only begins in 1945) is pretty useful. Unfortunately a disappointingly large proportion of the 13 essays and the various items in the 'Review and Commentary' section making up the 192 pages between these covers is rather less so. Adopting an opposite tack to Clements and McCarthy, taken as a whole Mechademia gives us a lot of words, but not a lot of information.

Most people out in the wider world, unless they've had their heads buried in the sand these past few years, should know by now roughly what is meant by the term 'anime'. But even those who have been familiar with the subject for some time might want some clarification of what anime really is. Is it just simply the Japanese term for animation, and thus can be applied to animation from other countries too? Is it perhaps a broad label for the entire domestic industry's output, and if so did the label derive from within the industry or from outside? Or does it refer to one or more particular trends or styles that emerged within the wider scope of Japanese animation? If so, how, why and when did the familiar characteristic style emerge, and what is its relationship with the broader artistic traditions of the country? Does 'anime' indeed refer to the same thing in Japan as it does overseas? Is anime as homogeneous an entity as most Westerners assume? When and by what process did Japanese animation mushroom from the collection of small cottage industries it once was to the monster it is today? What is the discourse surrounding anime in Japan, among the critics, fans and animators themselves? Do Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Koji Yamamura and the makers of, say Pokemon, or, to put forward a more extreme example, the hundreds of cheap erotic animes you see on the shelves of Tsutaya, all see themselves as working in the same field doing something similar? Do they sense any shared philosophies or approaches within their work, and if so what are they? Are these animators consciously trying to put forward notions of 'Japanese-ness' or are foreigners reading their own ideas of 'Japanese-ness' into their work? How different is Japanese animation from American anyway? How different is it from Russian, Chinese or Korean animation historically? Are there or have there even been any links between Japan and these other countries' animation industries? And so on...

It is clear that there are still plenty of questions to be answered and points to be clarified. But about half the essays in Mechademia reveal less about the world of Japanese animation than about what goes on in American university lecture halls. For the writers and editors of Mechademia, anime seems to be not so much a visual medium endemic to Japan, but an American construct of Japanese pop culture as consumed by Americans - and I should mention now before I go much further that the compendium also includes the related fields of manga and computer games within its brief, although in volume one it is anime that predominates, with only one brief piece on computer games that reminded me of the opening lecture of the User Interface Design course I took at Liverpool University in 1993 (studying under a professor going under the unlikely name of Dan Diaper).

Anime and manga may now be global phenomena, but from the evidence presented here, their scholarship has adopted a resolutely US-centric perspective. Much of the discussion in Mechademia is weighted toward American anime fan subculture or American reactions and interpretations of the source material, and is framed within a US-Japan dichotomy that seems heavily weighted to the former and which excludes the rest of the world. In fact it seems that the discipline of 'Anime Studies', if it is indeed a discipline, represents one of the last corners in Japan-related academic research where it is unnecessary to know anything really about Japanese language or culture - check the references for most of these essays, and you won't see many non-English sources listed.

The back-cover hyperbole immediately sets off warning bells. "After decades in which American popular culture dominated global media and markets, Japanese popular culture - primarily manga and anime but also toys, card and video games, and fashion - has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon." Surely this idea of 'dominant culture' is something worth exploring a little further? What does it mean? 'Dominate', a term with quite aggressive implications, doesn't seem to adequately describe the relationship between cultural products and their consumers in the same way we might use it in a military or economic context. 'All-pervasive' might be a better term to describe American culture, but even then, only in certain sectors of the world. In cinema, one only has to look at industries like India's Bollywood and Nigeria's Nollywood, an industry with a pan-African reach that is only now beginning to garner interest from certain critical and academic sectors. Both have a far higher output in terms of number of films produced than their American model, and their global reach is also significant, not only amongst diasporic communities. And even if the revenues of these industries don't quite reach Hollywood levels, then one should remember that much of their target audience earns less in a month than the price of a cinema ticket in London's West End. In other words, lots of people see them, they're just not young, white and middle class. Taking a broader view of culture, if we spread our net to literature and especially music, we can see that the picture is far more complicated than is being presented. America certainly doesn't dominate the music industry in countries like Japan or China. I think it is really important not to accept claims of 'cultural dominance' and 'globalisation' uncritically at a time such as now, when communications and media technologies seems to be increasingly fragmenting the world rather than bringing it together.

And has anime really 'exploded into a world-wide phenomenon'? The works of Studio Ghibli are a bit of a special case in that they have permeated the mainstream, but generally my impression (confirmed by several reliable sources) is that the demand for animated OAV series in the UK is shrinking, or at the very least it is certainly not expanding out of its original niche market, mirroring a wider trend for foreign-language material in general - maybe precisely because it is being marketed as something exotic and 'different'.

Moreover, historically Japanese pop culture had as much, if not more, a presence twenty or thirty years ago in my country as it does now, even if it wasn't being explicitly pushed as something different. Allow me to elaborate. As a kid growing up in Britain in the 1970s and early-80s, I would say I was fully aware that the dubbed versions of Monkey (Saiyuki) and the animation Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman) came from a markedly different source than much of what else was being screened on TV. I didn't really have a concept at the age of seven or eight of where or what Japan was, but I knew these were not British in the same way that Doctor Who or Keith Chegwin were, and I knew they were not American (popular American TV for me at that time would have been represented by likes of The Dukes of Hazard and The Incredible Hulk and the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera). Did it bother me? Not really. Did I realise at the time that the popular cartoons playing on BBC1's children's hour just before Blue Peter, like Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (Wan Wan Sanjushi, 1981) or The Mysterious Cities of Gold (Taiyo no Ko Esteban, 1982) were Japanese? Or the bizarre sci-fi puppet show Star Fleet which kept me hooked on a Saturday morning (aka X-Bomber, 1980; I later rekindled my fond childhood memories through the Eddie van Halen/Brian May soundtrack - "Send a message out across the sky. Alien raiders just passed Gemin-i!")? Not at all. And as Mike Arnold points out, the pattern wasn't so different in America either. And probably France, Italy and Germany too.

Come to think of it, wasn't this period a far more cosmopolitan time to be growing up in Britain than it is now? Long before I'd even heard of Shakespeare, I remember Ian McKellen treating the nation's youths to obscure Eastern European animation in his education Picture Box program that aired during school hours on weekday mornings in the late-1970s. I also remember a particularly long-running and badly-dubbed German TV series of Heidi being trotted out every morning of the school holiday period along with another perennial favourite The Red Hand Gang to represent the 'dominant' culture. And can we ever recapture those early promising days of cross-European synergy represented by the Richard Murdoch-narrated British version of the Polish stop-motion adaptation of the Finnish children's stories The Moomins from way back in the early 80s? Sadly, probably not. Anyway, I digress...

Back cover marketing blurb is one thing, but this rather notional view of global culture stretches into a lot of the writing in Mechademia. If discussions of Japanese cultural clout vis-à-vis American were restricted to the opening essay, Anne Allison's 'The Japan Fad in Global Youth Culture and Millennial Capitalism', then this would be all well and dandy. In it, Allison uses the US and Japanese versions of Power Rangers to introduce the influential concept of 'soft power', first coined in Douglas McGray's 2002 article 'Japan's Gross National Cool' and oft-referred to throughout the book. American reception is no doubt a facet of anime that is of interest, and it is a useful way of framing discussions about anime for an American readership. But we also get Susan Napier's 'The World of Anime Fandom in America' and Theresa Winge's 'Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay', which again are about American otaku culture, not Japanese. None of this is really about anime. Nor, to my mind, is it very interesting.

There is worse to come with a few pieces of the type that look at certain motifs in popular anime in order to draw trite comparisons or talk about differences between Japanese and 'Western' culture. There are so many interesting things to say about anime, and I hate to say it, this kind of pseudo-academic scholarship merely uses its precise, scholarly prose as a cover-up to state the trivial or the bleeding obvious. One waits for that one flash of insight, but the end impression is that most of the supposed experts in the field in North America are still very much outsiders looking in, trying to make sense of another country strictly in their own terms and through their own language. Moreover, the tone used by many of these writers also seems to consciously place themselves outside of the otaku circles within their own country. It seems bizarre that in the vast interconnected global information network available to researchers today, so many come across as being so far out of the picture.

It is certainly not all bad though. Far more interesting is 'Globalizing Manga: From Japan to Hong Kong and Beyond', Wendy Siuyi Wong's look at how manga culture has spread from Japan into Hong Kong, and then across into the rest of Southeast Asia. This type of essay really pushes the discussion into a more international domain, explaining not only how Hong Kong has its own tradition of serial comics, known as 'manhua', but how the directly Japanese-inspired manga culture has spread through pirated copies of the Chinese versions of the originals. Wong is the author of 'Hong Kong Comics: A History of the Manhua' (2002), which sounds like it should be on the reading list of a few more anime scholars trying to get to grips with Japan's status in the region as "another center of globalization".

And Wong's essay is not the only flash of promise of what Mechademia could have been, and indeed might well become in future volumes. Given that anime and manga were Japanese phenomena long before they were global ones, it is heartening to note the presence of a few Japanese names among the authors. I hope this is a trend that continues, indeed expands. Although a little concise, I really welcomed the inclusion of Takayuki Tatsumi's article on the 'phantom' manga artist, Minoru Mori. Around the same time Osamu Tezuka had just emerged in the early 1950s, several highly influential manga stories came out attributed to this figure, the best-known being Subterrocean (Daichiteikai, 1950-52). Then, after a very brief period, Mori's manga stopped, and a series of novels started coming out under the writer's real name, Sakyo Komatsu; many will be aware of most of these due to their film versions, like The Sinking of Japan and Kinji Fukasaku's Virus. In the meantime, while Komatsu's novels became famed throughout Japan and beyond, all the original manga stories he'd written as Mori seemed to have disappeared from trace, until but a few years ago, when one was discovered on the shelves of the cult otaku shop Mandarake, and was just recently republished. This is a good, interesting piece, precisely because it tells us something we don't know.

Also worth mentioning is the contribution from professor Toshiya Ueno of Wako University (definitely not to be confused with the pink director of the same name who made Ambiguous). I first came across Ueno's writing about five or six years ago through a brilliant piece entitled Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism, which put forward a number of pertinent questions about the true nature of foreign interest in Japanese pop culture. Ueno's essay here on the close relationship between Mamoru Oshii's live action and his anime work, 'Kurenai no metalsuits, "Anime to wa nani ka / What is animation"' isn't quite as provocative, but it's still a welcome and all-too-rare example of Ueno's interesting takes on Japanese animation available in the English language.

Mamoro Oshii's films in particular highlight that the technical, aesthetic and philosophical concerns of the medium cannot be easily separated. What anime essentially does is create its own reality onscreen from scratch, without direct real-world referents. It is therefore somewhat surprising that so little writing on animation ever addresses the issue of which technologies are used in its creation and how this influences or informs the aesthetics of particular works. And this is what makes two pieces included in this book particularly worth seeking out. 'Superflat' seems to be a buzzword used a lot in scholarly circles nowadays. In 'Superflat and the Layers of Image and History in 1990s Japan' Thomas Looser defines precisely what it means, looking at the origins and aims of this artistic movement created by Takashi Murakami in the late-80s, and how its attempts at creating a new ahistorical aesthetic pertinent to the Heisei Era (1989-) ties together a number of political and artistic strands from both pre-modern and post-modern Japan. Superflat artists draw directly from Hokusai and Hiroshige to pop cultural sources like Pikachu, an aesthetic widely familiar from other low-cost TV animation, to create works explicitly relevant to Japan today. The movement as a whole provides a very useful and interesting framework through which to analyse much recent anime in terms of its intrinsic 'Japanese-ness'.

Thomas LaMarre's 'The Multiplanar Image' builds upon this, while also looking more deeply into the aesthetic revolution in Japanese animation that grew out of the use of the Multiplane camera. Walt Disney's development of this technology in the 1930s allowed him to create the illusion of movement in depth, resulting in the groundbreaking realism of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). From this moment on, the viewer was no longer just watching the animated action as if through a window or from the position of a spectator sitting in the audience looking at the action onstage, but could now enter and retreat from the picture, and be made to feel part of the created world. Hayao Miyaki's use of this device to create the illusion of movement in the third dimension to or from the camera in films like Castle in the Sky, is considered here in both an aesthetic and an ideological light, as something to distinguish it from the more commonplace strain of TV animation whose cheap budgets and fast production schedules prohibit the creation of depth within the image, and have hence pioneered their own 'superflat' aesthetic to create an alternate method of dynamic simulation without linear perspective depth effects. This explores something I touched upon a little earlier: which is the more typical face of Japan presented by anime, Pikachu or Princess Mononoke? LaMarre frames the discussion with recourse to the writing of Paul Virilio to think how the sensation of bodily immersion within the animated image can be evoked under different production circumstances.

In summary then, around half of the essays contained within the first volume of Mechademia provide more than enough food for thought to salvage it from the banality of the rest, and indeed make this new compendium well worth getting hold of, despite certain reservations. At the moment, while there's a whole host of publications that deal with explaining the alien aspects of Japanese culture to a Western audience, it seems amazing that there is STILL not a decent complete history of Japanese animation in the English language. One hopes that the editors will bear this in mind in future volumes and opt for an approach that takes a broader look at what anime actually is, where it has come from and where it is going, rather than this dominant focus here on reception studies in America.

It's early days yet, and it is not too late to hope that with future editions, Mechademia will reorient itself - or perhaps we should say "de-Orientalise" itself - and perhaps start to tell us something we don't already know. And let's hope the same goes more generally for writing about Japanese animation as a whole.


Mechademia volume 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga

picture: cover of 'Mechademia volume 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga'

University of Minnesota (2006)