Phile #2 Anime and it’s Culture

31 Oct

This the first of three related Phile entries that treat of my interests in anime, ‘otaku’ culture, and fan responses

One of my major non-research interests is Anime and the surrounding otaku (anime fan) culture that it generates. both for itself, and for the gateway to Japanese culture that it has provided me. I like the canvas that anime offers for telling large, save-the-world and galactic spanning adventures, and for it’s ability to peer with great detail and occasional insight into even the smallest social unit and make even the most mundane of experiences seem magical, quite apart from the “glimpses of  unfamiliar Japan” to quote the title of  Lafcadio Hearn’s late 19th century book that it opens before me, inviting me to explore a real “undiscovered country”.

It Is What It Is

‘Anime’, simply put is a French loan word into Japanese that describes Japanese animation or ‘cartoons’.   But it’s so much more: Unlike its American and European counterparts, which historically and culturally  equate animation with cartoons and perceives it as an art form geared toward children and the childish -though in the 90’s with the advent of The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, South Park, Futurama, King of the Hill, and Family Guy, shown on such networks as MTV, USA Network, Fox, and  Nickelodeon this perception has begun to change- in Japan, animation, or anime, is simply perceived as another narrative art form and medium for artistic (commercial) expression, alongside theatre (plays), classical (and pop music),  television and motion pictures, and performing arts generally, and shows are produced that cater across age groups from children’s shows through young adult to adult programming (in both the ‘grown-up’ and “adult” sense). You can have action, comedy, drama, soap-opera, historical dramas, mystery, political, romance, suspense, thrillers and educational programs such as public service announcements or religious-themed shows, as well as ‘standard fare’ science fiction, fantasy, super-hero, horror and monster shows. As well, categories fall into shojo (for young girls) shonen (for young boys), josei (for older teens and young women), seinen (for older teen and young men), and of course, general use manga, including a genre that treats of the daily life of the Japanese  business man: the so-called “salary man” or Sararīman,

More than Meets the Eyes….Nihongo Style

Anime is also shorthand for an entire culture that includes ‘manga’ (comic books and graphic novels) early always published in a monochrome format (black and white, or black and insert-publisher’s- pastel-color-of-choice-here), and of course it’s read in the Japanese manner: top to bottom writing, right-to-left page formatting,  ‘doujin’ or fan-created works (of manga) that parody existing works or utilize fan-fiction to use those same characters in alternative or extended situations -often involving original characters created by the fan-artist or doujin-ka but still based in the same universe.  Doujin-ka often organize themselves into Circles (in the US and abroad the term is Studio) where they will churn out  their 20-30 page parodies and/or original stories. The Tokyo Comic Market, or   Comiket, is one of the largest gatherings of such groups, where amateur and professional Circles come to display their wares, do the meet-and-greet (if there’s time), dress up and show off, but there are smaller groups that meet all over the country and abroad. Indeed, a number of animes have been developed around this concept.

From Concept to Reality

Inspiration for individual shows comes from any of a number of sources: original ideas, light novels (roughly the equivalent of YA fiction), an existing manga series, existing game (visual novel, ‘dating-sim’  or  (frequently) ‘eroge game’).

Anime is produced as either multi-episode (usually in runs of 13 episodes per series (what we count as multiple “seasons” Japanese usually see as sequential “series”), shorter collection of OAV -original animation video (think of this as “straight-to-video” model), and of course full fledged motion pictures, though usually, this is done for already established series.

In the good old days a short OAV series could be produced by independent studios, but economics being what they are, nowadays, an anime series is put together by a production committees or partnership consisting of combination of the animation studio, a distribution company -who may also license the intellectual property overseas- for merchandising rights, the broadcast network that will air the show,  the original publisher if the anime is not  an original idea (i.e. manga or book publisher, game studio), occasionally a music label involved in production (especially if the theme song is sung by a popular band) such as Columbia or Lantis, and other such sponsors as may be involved in the production.

Your Stigma Is My Approbation

‘Otaku’ in Japanese is a word with social stigma, denoting an individual so obsessed with an interest -for our consideration anime, but also pachinko and gambling, other forms of collecting (such as insects, supernatural or occult memorabilia that he -or she- has disengaged from normal and expected patterns of social involvement: be that family responsibilities, employment, education, or often personal appearance and hygiene. So, it is quite ironic, or humorous, that a denigrating term in Japan is latched onto by American and other non-Japanese fans as the moniker to describe their fandom. (Then again, the propensity of groups to take upon themselves terms originally used to denigrate them as an identifying mark of honor, such as “Christian”, “Protestant”, or “Puritan” should tell us something about the need for group identification, no?)

Many anime series are set in real-life locales in Japan. This has its own effect: the development of  a niche market in anime-tourism to visit spots associated with particular animes,  from shopping districts to shrines and temples, to famous historical imperial buildings. And speaking of shopping districts and anime….

Akihabara or “Electric Town” is a shopping district in Tokyo that at one time was The Place to buy all things electronic, but with changing economic patters, was forced to reinvent itself to survive, and so re-emerged in the 90’s as the Mecca for anime otaku (‘fans’) selling everything from videos and manga, to models, figurines, clothing, costume accessories (known as ‘cosplay’) and other one of a kind collector’s items from individual shows.

So, what’s in it for me?

I enjoy anime because it takes animation seriously, because it does an incredible job of taking me to exotic new worlds, be that strange new planets, or merely the neighborhood shopping district in Japan  (which, being in the Far East, is exotic enough for Americans). It opens a whole world of possibilities for reading, watching, and even creating works in a similar vein.  Anime Conventions provide venues for disparate people: men, women, children and adults, black, white, yellow, whatever, to come together to celebrate and share a common interest. It helps that the Japanese are a very visually oriented culture: one look at their architecture, horticulture, and traditional arts is enough to bring this home

It’s just a jump to the East…

Anime, for me was my ‘real’ introduction to the deeper culture of Japan. It has led to my current collection of some 28 volumes of grammar, kanji recognition, kanji etymology,  history, and cultural studies (anthropology and sociology), ranging from the classic “Electric Geisha”  by Atsushi Ueda and Miriam Eguchi to Okakura Kakuzō’s  The Book of Tea, to Minamoto’s The Five Rings not to mention a look and a promise glance toward the 5 classics of Chinese literature. And then, of course there’s the 1000 (or so) volumes of manga (mostly in Japanese -yep you guessed it, my original inspiration for learning Japanese was so I could read the manga that’ll never get translated), but now as mentioned above, I have books on Japanese history (political and social history), architecture, art and art history, gardens, religion, wedding customs (and sexual mores), literature, and of course anime, along with language.

Where it all started!

My first conscious introduction* to anime came in the 1990’s in college -of course, where else would I have the freedom to explore and be exposed to different subjects like that- oddly enough, thanks to a local  Blockbuster Video, which had (all VHS at the time) such shows as Project A-ko (English dub), Gall Force, Gall Force EternityAppleseed, New Dominion Tank Police, Akira, and I think, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Unknown to me at the time I first watched it on TBS (but long since ingrained into my head) as a child,  the Sandy Frank production of “Battle of the Planets” a/k/a “G-For,ce”  was really called Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman -“Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” and was one of the earliest anime to arrive on American shores from Japan. Gatchaman itself was also a first – the first series  to use teams of young people/teenagers with special advanced powers flying in special vehicles that combine to save the world. Another unconscious introduction to anime was a movie that had aired on HBO in the 80’s “Warriors of the Wind” which was the Americanization of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli film  “Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind” but I digress, or do I?) . Nor did I realize at the time that G.I.Joe, Transformers, even a show on Nickelodeon – “Mysterious Cities of Gold” about searching for “El Dorado” in the 1600’s, was really a Japanese production.

*Now that I think of it, Akira was probably the first movie that I knew of as Japanese, and as anime.

 

Sources:

1. my own experience

2. years of reading the following news sites :

3.  Several now-discontinued anime magazines:

  • Newtype USA,
  • Animerica,
  • Otaku USA (which may still enjoy print publication, just not in my area)

4. Several now defunct anthologies of manga (a nearly extinct commodity)

  • Animerica Extra
  • Shojo Beat
  • Shonen Jump
  • Rajin Comics
  • Yen+ (which changed  to a web-only subscription publication in 2010, which can be found here http://www.yenpress.com/yenplus/)

Part II (Phile #3 “For the Love of the Convention”) will discuss my enjoyment and participation in anime conventions, those fun-filled weekends that celebrate all things anime (including the food)!
Edited on Nov 2, 2012, for grammar, clarity, and consistency

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