Anime manga: Border Crossings panel discussion

July 18, 2009

Border Crossings: intersections between Japanese popular culture and fandom. Anime panel discussion. Friday 17 July 2009, University of Sydney.

Roland Kelts (USA); Susan Napier (USA); Dean Prenc (AUS); Amanda Setiadi (AUS); Dr Rebecca Suter Univ Syd, moderator.


Nobuhito Hobo, Consul-General of Japan in Sydney, gave a great overview of post-WW 2 popular culture, mentioning the birth of boys’ and girls’ comics in 1959 against the backdrop of a sudden rise in economic affluence. “Border crossings” were happening even then with Tezuka’s Leo and Disney’s Kimba the White Lion, later ‘crossing’ back to Disney’s Lion King in 1994; the Australian connection with Felix the Cat also got a guernsey. I’m glad Edo Period popular culture forms, cho-min bunkakabuki, joruri, ukiyoe, kibyoshi and rakugo – were introduced by way of tradition and innovation within Japan, not only because they were popular forms of culture at the time, as opposed to much traditional culture which falls out of the ruling elites, but because modern culture needs to be grounded in historic predecessors. Hobo-san also discussed the ‘pro-sumer’, apparently predicted as early as 1980, where the ‘consumer’ becomes or can become ‘producer’.

Roland Kelts drew from his latest book, Japanamerica: how Japanese pop culture has invaded the US, to give us very valuable insights into the border crossings between Japan and that country. He reminded us of the length of time involved in US occupation of Japan post-war, 1945 right through to 1952, as well as Tezuka’s love for Disney’s Bambi and a need to make kinetic ukiyo-e. The Japanese interest in the darker and wilder compared to the US was touched on, exemplified in part by Tezuka’s interest in very serious subjects (Crime and Punishment). Kelts many times mentioned the cultural specificity of Japan: the permeability involved in private and public life, anime manga as essentially underground and far from mainstream. He reminded us of the importance of minimalism (Murakami’s ‘super-flat’) compared to the US depictions which, being representational and naturalistic, limit the imagination a great deal more than in Japan. I really appreciated talk about depth of field, perspective and contour (especially in relation to Pokemon) as someone who likes drawing parallels between cartoon art and traditional cropping/breaking the frame/pattern/figuration in Japanese art, craft and textiles. Later, in response to questions from the audience, he provided valuable feedback on issues relating to censorship and sexual depiction; hybridisation (the Afro-samurai); American anime manga based on the Japanese but having to be recast by the Japanese for the Japanese market (!); the current financial crisis, the ageing of the otaku audience and the artist/audience loop involved (compared to a diminished younger audience, thanks to the birthrate) .

The innate interactivity within Japanese culture (the lack of an artist/audience divide in tea ceremony, ikebana, karaoke) is the foundation for modern fandom phenomena – “experiencing the dream world” was an important phrase,  full of resonance. Napier discussed the various manifestations of power at work in anime manga: soft cultural power (for example, which resonates well with Australian culture where I’m reminded of the observation that Australian soldiers could be very easily led by their superior officers if the superiour showed vision and used charisma, but that the troops were highly resistant to being led by offices who simply bullied or coerced them); otakudom and fandom’s manifestations – the importance of transformation and metamorphosis (and by inference catharsis perhaps). As well as discussing the films of Miyazaki, the common denominator of a lot of the night’s discussion, she mentioned Wall-e (Pixar) as a Japanified American creation.

 At various intervals during the evening, the global financial crisis in Japan was raised (Depression, by any other name, surely): anime manga as so strongly linked to affluence, the low incomes of workers in the industry, the Mom-and-Pop owner-creators, outsourcing to Chinese studios, developments elsewhere in Korea, Taiwan, China, etc.

Prenc and Setiadi provided the necessary detail for Australian perspectives, relating to local distribution and manifestations of fandom respectively. The description of Madman’s expansion and its close relationship to its customer base, particularly in catering to the ‘amateur’ interests of its fan and consumer base was very valuable. The social or ‘mass public’ elements (via conventions, cosplay performance, theatrical distribution and ‘cinema events’ – a Japanified form of the midnight performances of Rocky Horror Show, etc.) compare interestingly with the private and solitary, e.g. fan fiction, borrowing/glossing from original literary (manga) texts, artwork, etc.).

As a result of this event, I personally look forward to more academic discourse, as well as observing fandom in action, at local events in the coming months.

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