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Henry Jenkins Interviews Researchers of Otaku

27 April, 2012

Henry Jenkins, under whom I had the good fortune to study at USC, today published the final piece in his three-part series of interviews with the editors of the recently-published book, Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World (Feb. 2012, Yale University Press).

The series is well worth checking out by anyone interested in the field:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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There’s a lot to pick apart here.  Much of the information will already be known to those conversant with the history of otaku culture, yet the editors interviewed by Jenkins each contribute noteworthy bits of information that haven’t yet made it into English-language publications.  These point to some notable gaps in the existing English-language scholarship, entire avenues of study that have been referenced, at best, only in passing.  There are two points in particular on which I’d like to comment.

First is the argument put forth by Izumi Tsuji and Mizuko Ito (in part two) that otaku culture has a particular relationship to structures of power, authority, and establishment — a relationship very different from that of Western fan cultures.  The latter group can be seen as practicing an oppositional, resistant form of politics, particularly in relation to those portions of mass culture that don’t fall within the domain of fan interests.  By contrast, Tsuji sees otaku as being more comfortable existing alongside societal and cultural institutions of power.  Indeed, otaku can be seen as offshoots of such institutions: “the origins of otaku culture can be found in elite culture, rather than cultures of resistance. Further, when the student protests, the focus of intergenerational warfare at the time, were defeated, there was the perception that cultures of resistance were impossible in this society.”

Sociologically, there’s a lot to unpack here.  The purported failure of the 1960s student protest movement is a subject which I have rarely seen discussed in English-language accounts of anime industrial history, yet it regularly resurfaces in various works.  Carl Gustav Horn, in the commentary he wrote for the liner notes to Bandai Entertainment’s 2002 DVD release of Jin-Roh, makes mention of the impact of the protests and the shadow it casts over Mamoru Oshii’s tale of totalitarian policing.  Horn’s essay, however, focuses more closely on issues surrounding post-9/11 terrorism and the complicated international-security relationship between the U.S. and Japan.  While those issues are arguably more immediately relevant to a broad swath of Western viewers — particularly given the timing of Bandai’s release — the connection with the student-protest movements is arguably worthy of further exploration.

Similarly, Brian Ruh cites the movements as inspiration for certain episodes of the Mobile Police Patlabor OVA series, which Oshii directed.  Here, again, we encounter a notable lack of detail.  (Ruh briefly introduces the protest movements in the biographical first chapter of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).  He concludes with a note that more detail will be forthcoming in chapter 5, which concerns Patlabor.  Rather aggravatingly, he then notes in chapter 5 that readers interested in learning more about the protests should refer back to chapter 1.

In the discussion surrounding other works, we see a similar pattern.  For all the critical commentary surrounding the vaguely thermonuclear visions of apocalypse in Akira, relatively little mention has been made of the film’s preoccupation with societal unrest, and of the brutal images of military crackdown that punctuate some of the film’s most arresting scenes.  The biographical first chapter of Helen McCarthy’s Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (Stone Bridge Press, 1999) makes no mention of the director’s involvement in the student protests (mentioned in passing by Horn in his Jin-Roh essay) beyond noting that Miyazaki served as a union organizer while working at Toei Doga.  (Tze-Yue G. Hu, in her Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building (Hong Kong University Press, 2010), does try to connect Miyazaki’s political leanings with the narrative structure of Prince of the Sun: The Great Adventures of Hols, but this discussion receives a scant two paragraphs.)  And in all the current discussion surrounding Kids on the Slope, much is made of the series’ 1960s setting — but mostly within the context of a vaguely-defined nostalgia.  When Carl Kimlinger, writing for ANN, draws a passing connection between the series and mid-century politics, he does so through U.S.-centric references to the Vietnam War and the Apollo space program.  This, keep in mind, is a series set in 1960s Japan that is all about students rebelling against authority and conventions of appropriate behavior.  (Though, to be fair, the protests evidently concerned much broader, weightier issues.)

Suffice it to say that this is an area of criticism and scholarship which has been under-explored, at least in the English language.  Conventional histories of otaku culture generally begin from a time just before the 1988 Tsutomu Miyazaki murders; Tsuji implies that we need to look back at least another twenty years to find the true origins.

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The other point from Jenkins’ interviews which I would like to bring up concerns the history of fujoshi culture.  Citing Azusa Nakajima (and, again, in part two of the interview series), Tsuji notes that “there were small numbers of women in the eighties and nineties who were readers of boy love genres in magazines like JUNE. … [T]oday fujoshi culture is in many ways more active then male otaku culture. One indicator of this is the fact that at Comiket (the largest fan comic convention in Japan), the first two days are centered on female content, and the last and final day on mens’ content.”

The mention of Comiket here is interesting, as it reflects some conflicting information that I’ve come across.  Writing about mangaka Hideo Azuma’s autobiographical Disappearance Diary for his “House of 1000 Manga” column at ANN, Jason Thompson includes a passing reference: “in one panel set in 1979, he [Azuma] and a bunch of other male artists band together to make loli dojinshi [sic] vowing ‘We’ll drive yaoi out of Comiket!'”, the implication being that even as early as the late 70s, fujoshi were so sufficiently prominent at Comiket that publishing and promoting male-targeted doujinshi could be seen, even in jest, as a subversive act.

In his essay, “Comic Market: How the World’s Biggest Amateur Comic Fair Shaped Dōjinshi Culture” (Mechademia 5: Fantropologies, University of Minnesota Press, 2010), Fan-Yi Lam devotes relatively little attention to the gender dynamics of Comiket’s early years.  While he does affirm that “[t]he eleventh Comic Market in spring 1979 was the popularity of the cute and pure bishoujo … skyrocket among men’s dōjinshi [sic] circles” (236), and while he notes the 1986 fujoshi renaissance inspired by Captain Tsubasa, the 1975-1979 years remain a bit of a mystery.  Lam cites Comiket’s origins in a fan-protest against the purportedly authoritarian practices of the Nihon Manga Taikai convention (instigated, Lam adds, by a female Manga Taikai attendee), precise demographics are not in the offering.

However, Kumiko Saito, in her article “Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan” (Mechademia 6: User Enhanced, University of Minnesota Press, 2011), notes that “almost 90 percent of the attendees at the first Comiket in 1975 were reported to be female” (174), adding elsewhere that, for 2001, “the gender ratio of attendees is estimated as 43 percent male, 57 percent female” (188).  This, for me, is a particularly exciting area of research, as it challenges some of the conventional assumptions about Comiket that linger within U.S. anime fandom.  More work, of course, remains to be done, though Saito’s footnotes suggest that a good deal of it may already have been done — in Japanese.

I’ll close by echoing two of the editors’ concerns.  Tsuji cites a “fragmentation” of Japanese research on otaku culture that has arisen since the 1990s.  This, I would argue, is also true of contemporary English-language scholarship.  Unlike fan studies in a more general sense, the field of otaku studies has yet to see a definitive history, theory, or sociological analysis.  Instead, we have a disparate collection of highly focused analyses.  Valuable as these are, I would argue that there is a need for a broader view that ties everything together and makes meaningful connections.  Similarly, there is a profound disconnect between Western and Japanese scholarship — both on otaku culture, and on Japanese media more generally.  Jenkins notes this in the introduction to the first part of his interview series, and I think it’s worth restating.  We need not only more English-language analyses which engage with the Japanese scholarship, but also more translations of prominent texts.  Toshio Okada’s (admittedly non-academic) Otakugaku Nyuumon is only one such example of a work in need of broader international exposure.

In the meantime, at least we have another good book.  I’ll post a takedown after I’ve had a chance to thoroughly digest my copy.

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In other news, I should be updating more frequently within the next few weeks.  I have a couple of academic publishing projects which first need to get pushed through the pipe, and then I’ll have more time to devote to the blog.  I’ll also be looking to get serious about writing shorter pieces of commentary — essays are nice, but require a significant amount of pre-production research.  That should allow for more regular updates.

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