Mechademia 5: Fanthropologies

Review by Ed Sizemore

Well, let’s just dive in to the latest issue of this journal of anime and manga studies. I’ll start with the articles I had problems with.

“Dark Energy: What Fansubs Reveal About the Copyright Wars” by Ian Condry shouldn’t have been printed for two reasons. First, the article is out of date. Most of the events referenced in the article took place in 2007 or earlier. This was before Crunchyroll became a legitimate source of streaming anime and licensors Funimation and The Anime Network began their own serious anime streaming initiatives. Such radical changes in the online landscape have changed the dynamics of the discussion about fansubs. Now the article reads like a quaint discussion of bygone days.

Second, Condry’s portrayal of fansubbers as noble, but maligned, pioneers of new value paradigms is extremely one-sided and destroys any claim he wants to make for objectivity. Condry chose to focus on the actions of a few exemplary fansub groups and then portray them as normative. My favorite example of this distorted view is: “The pedagogical orientation of fansubs, explaining words, kana {Japanese writings}, obscure references and jokes, all reflect a desire to teach.” (203) Sorry, I simply can’t take Condry seriously with such sentences as that. This essay is an embarrassment to the reputation Mechademia is trying to build.

“Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism” by Iwabuchi Koichi is another great example of long-winded academia. The entire message of the article is that we should not allow governments to use culture and cultural products for diplomatic and economic purposes. It took Koichi nine pages to say that. This should have been a one-page manifesto.

“Suffering Forces Us to Think Beyond the Right-Left Barrier” by Karin Amamiya is a powerful piece about the realities of being a member of the permanent part-time labor force in Japan. She discusses the psychological effects caused by being part of the “working poor” and how this helped shaped the politics she embraced in her youth. While Amamiya does briefly mention manga as an influence on her politics, it’s hard to see how this article fits into Mechademia. This would be better suited to a sociology or political science journal. An excellent essay, even if misplaced.

I can’t thank Mechademia enough for including “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by Eiji Otsuka. Otsuka is a leading thinker about anime and manga as well as a manga author himself (The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service). Steinberg points out in the translator’s introduction that Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals can be seen as a reaction to Otsuka’s work. You can see that immediately in this essay.

Otsuka argues that what attracts consumers to products is not necessarily the product itself, but rather the narrative behind the product. We buy the toy, DVD, poster, etc. because they are signifiers of the larger story, and by owning them, we can participant in that story ourselves. It’s a marvelous article and a must-read for those any serious fan of Japanese pop culture. It makes me hunger for an entire book of Otsuka’s writings.

Let’s face it, “Speciesism, Part II: Tezuka Osamu and the Multispecies Ideal” by Thomas LaMarre was an easy sell for me. LaMarre begins by looking at the vision of a multicultural empire the Japanese Imperial government preached during World War II. He then explores Tezuka’s own post-WWII stories that wrestle with and ultimately reject this utopian vision. It’s a fascinating study. LaMarre is becoming one of my favorite scholars.

“The Art of Cute Little Things: Nara Yoshitomo’s Parapolitics” by Marilyn Ivy ended up being my favorite piece of the issue because it introduced me to an artist I was unfamiliar with. On the surface, Nana’s paintings sound like the standard hyper-cute figures Japan is (in)famous for. They are children with oversized heads and eyes. However, one look at his paintings will purge you of any warm, sentimental feelings. Nana has subverted, perhaps perverted, the typical notions of cute. Ivy explores the themes in Nana’s work and how his fans connect deeply to the characters he paints. It was like discovering a whole new world existed.

The other essays are also very good, but it would take too much time to talk about each. I will commend Brian Ruh (a friend via Twitter) for his marathon research in documenting every second cut from Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to create Warriors of the Wind and the cuts made to the original Japanese programs to make the first episodes of Voltron and Robotech. My eyes get sore just imagining all that time in front of the TV.

Mechademia 5 is another solid issue. There is even some value to Condry’s article. It highlights the problems fans are going to have making the transition to scholars. The temptation is to use your training to justify old habits. However, such scholarship will only serve as fodder for critics that doubt the legitimacy of manga and anime studies. Fans who can’t be objective and critical of even their own practices may need to pursue another field of study. I look forward to the next issue of Mechademia and the ways it will excite and challenge my own thoughts. Mechademia has never failed to do that. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

Similar Posts: Mechademia 1 § Mechademia 4: War/Time § Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human § Mechademia 2: Networks of Desire § Ed Went to Otakon 2011 — Sunday


One Response to “Mechademia 5: Fanthropologies”

  1. From the Manga Mailbag » Manga Worth Reading Says:

    [...] and Characters in Japan, a book from the University of Minnesota Press, the same folks who put out Mechademia, the scholarly journal on anime and manga. The book explores convergence among anime and [...]

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