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Brain Diving Schodt Through The Heart
by Brian Ruh, Sep 21st 2010
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of being on a discussion panel at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema for Grave of the Fireflies. Even though I'm old by anime fan standards (in my early 30s!), I was the most junior member of that panel, which consisted of writer / translator Frederik L. Schodt, John O'Donnell of Central Park Media, and me. I don't really remember what all we said about the film, but I have a vague recollection that it went well. One of the great things about being there was that both before and after the screening I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Frederik and John. I could have picked their brains for stories about the anime and manga industries on both sides of the Pacific, but I didn't want to be that annoying guy who is constantly pestering the guests with questions (although I was a guest myself).
I realize now that I probably should have made better use of the chance to talk with them. In particular, manga scholarship in English would not be where it is today if it weren't for Frederik Schodt's contributions. I mean, here is a guy who knew Tezuka personally, got a chance to meet Masamune Shirow face to face (an opportunity few are afforded), and wrote what are probably the two most important books on manga to have been published in English. In 2009, the Japanese government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to society, which I have to say is pretty darned impressive.
If I gave much weight to things like “forethought” and “planning,” I probably would have started Brain Diving with a column on Schodt's books Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983) and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga (1996). These two books are really the foundations of manga studies in English. And by “studies,” I don't mean dry and academic analyses, but simply serious thought about how manga are put together, their common themes, and how they relate to Japanese life. If you have any interest at all in manga beyond reading them a simple throwaway entertainment, you need to check out these two books. To a certain degree, I probably shouldn't have to be doing this – Schodt's books were both published before I began my “career” studying Japanese popular culture, and I'm sure one or both books were published before most of you were even born. Back in the day, if you didn't speak Japanese, these books provided a key entry point to the world of manga, showing you the vast, expansive vistas of beguiling comics that awaited you overseas. Of course, now we can get so much more information on manga titles and artists from the internet. And that's a wonderful development! However, being able to get at more information is no substitute for a knowledgeable guide through that information. And this is what Schodt provides.
Before I go into more detail on Schodt's books, let's continue our apparent theme of looking back into the archives of anime and manga studies. Therefore, I strongly implore you to Read This!
This time around, I want to introduce you to an article not because of how great it is, but as more of a cautionary tale. When Annalee Newitz wrote “Anime Otaku: Japanese Animation Fans Outside Japan” in 1994, anime was still below the radar of your everyday man on the street. Things weren't much better on the academic front – there had been relatively few articles in English taking anime or manga as seriously as literature or film. And although anime has been around and on US televisions since the early 1960s (anime has actually been on TV in the United States for nearly as long as it has been in Japan), the version that was coming to the fore in the ‘90s seemed to carry an additional element of “Japaneseness” with it. This was different from shows that had come before, like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Robotech, and the like. Although we recognize them as being clearly anime now, back then there wasn't anything that seemed specifically Japanese about them. Newitz's writings were a response to the realization that fans in the US were watching this thing called anime that was both a part of and reflective of Japanese culture. (She had another article in the journal Film Quarterly a little later that was provocatively titled “Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America.”)
Unfortunately, Newitz's articles did not paint anime in a very flattering light, and they displayed the often-criticized characteristic of academics in the humanities of assuming your conclusion and then arranging your supporting arguments around that. In the article, she tries to figure out why anime holds an attraction for people outside of Japan, particularly in America. In order to get at this, she conducted surveys of anime fans, and in the article concentrates on the responses she received from the Cal Animage Alpha club at UC Berkeley. However, one of the problems with using surveys like this is that you can find people with such diverging views that regardless of what you want to prove, you can probably find someone who says something that supports your position. That is one of the big problems I have with the conclusions reached in this article – we don't get a good sense of how much agreement there was among the anime fans Newitz was talking to and how representative they were.
So what is the problematic conclusion Newitz reaches in this article? I think it can be summed up in her concluding sentence: “Anime help accustom Americans to a subordinate position in relation to Japan.” In other words, watching anime is setting us in the US on a path for a cultural and economic takeover by Japan. (This idea may seem farfetched now, given the current economic climate, but may have been genuinely worrisome in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) That's quite a claim! Surely she must have an array of solid evidence and detailed analysis to support this.
Unfortunately not. She discusses that there are many different races represented in anime (specifically mentions Riding Bean and Bubblegum Crisis as examples), yet all of these characters speak and (sometimes) act Japanese. Therefore Newitz draws the conclusion that this “American-looking multiculture is in fact Japanese,” intended for a target audience outside Japan, and presents an ominous view of the future in which Japanese culture and language have taken over the world. And it's a benign takeover for anime fans since, according to Newitz, “When Americans are anime otaku, they are in a sense admitting that they want to be colonized by Japanese culture.” This of course overlooks the more straightforward idea that anime is in Japanese because it's intended for a Japanese audience. (I mean, if such anime was primarily intended for a non-Japanese audience, wouldn't they have wanted to make it more accessible?)
Newitz also argues that anime is popular among American fans because it provides a type of entertainment that is hard to find in the United States due to political correctness or the changing of acceptable gender norms. I can see her point on this count – it is hard for me to imagine anyone in the US sitting down to produce for popular consumption something like Wounded Man, Legend of the Overfiend, or Charger Girl Ju-den Chan. However, Newitz takes the grain of truth present in her analysis and inflates it beyond reasonable proportions. For example, she claims that Ranma ½ (which all but the greenest of anime fans should know is about a young martial artist who has been cursed to switch between male and female based when his is splashed with water) is about otakus’ fears that their love of popular culture is somehow making them more feminine. And she takes a swipe at the magical girl genre as a whole when she writes that it is “based upon the idea that women should conceal their power, [and] could hardly exist in the United States at this point in history, particularly since the advent of feminism and the women's rights movement.” So rather than providing an empowering model for young women, Newitz says magical girl shows do the exact opposite. However many of these statements are not proven so much as they are asserted. Newitz provides little evidence for her interpretations, which in a way makes her article more difficult to argue against. (In some ways this reminds me of contemporary political discourse; if your argument doesn't need pesky “facts” and “evidence,” then you don't need to worry about anyone proving you wrong.)
I'm not trying to be harsh on Newitz personally, since I've never met her and don't know what she thinks of this article she wrote over fifteen years ago. She is currently the editor-in-chief of the science fiction / fantasy website io9.com, so it doesn't seem that she harbors a grudge against genre entertainment. And she doesn't list either of her articles on anime on her personal website, so it's possible that she's disowned them. (And that's one of the problems of writing on the net – no matter how you've changed or grown as an author, the stuff you wrote in the past is always there for someone to easily dig up. "One does not care to acknowledge the mistakes of one's youth," indeed.) Regardless, I do still see her articles on anime referenced in papers and as assigned reading in college classes, so I felt that this was something I had to address.
Now that that's been cleared up, for a more balanced look at pop culture I want to turn back to Schodt's two books on manga.
Manga! Manga! and Dreamland Japan
Even though it's over 25 years old, there still hasn't been another introductory book on manga as good as Schodt's Manga! Manga! It set the standard for books on manga in English not only because it was the first, but because Schodt was so comprehensive and had a deep knowledge of his subject. He is well-versed in manga not only as a reader and fluent speaker of Japanese, but as someone who has experience translating manga and knew luminaries like Osamu Tezuka (who wrote the foreward to the book).
Schodt begins Manga! Manga! with an introduction on what manga are and why they are so popular among all walks of life in Japan. This may seem pretty basic to us now, but keep in mind that this book would probably have been the first exposure many English-speakers would have had to manga. Even now it can be hard to understand manga's depth & complexities just by looking at the titles that have been translated into English. The book's second chapter gives a history of manga from the 12th century up through today, appropriately titled “A Thousand Years of Manga.” This is probably the only point on which I'd want to take issue with Schodt, since I don't really think what we call manga can be traced back that far. Sure, there were certainly artistic precursors of manga in earlier centuries, but what we think of as manga these days has been heavily influenced by the angles and shots of photography and cinema. While a bit of a history lesson makes sense here, manga is really a contemporary artform that came about in the twentieth century. As a point of comparison, if I were going to write a book about European comics, I certainly wouldn't start as far back as the millennia-old Lascaux cave paintings in France. I think that such histories invite the reader to draw parallels where none necessarily exist. In spite of my reservations, if we do have to have such a history I must admit that Schodt is a admirable historian.
The rest of Manga! Manga! mostly addresses the different types of comics that the average reader can find. For example, “The Spirit of Japan” addresses masculine comics that deal with samurai, secret agents, and sports, while “Flowers and Dreams” discusses shojo manga. Schodt also devotes a chapter to the industry of making manga, describing the relationships between artists, their staffs, and publishers. The last chapter, on the future of manga, spends quite a bit of time addressing how manga was becoming more internationalized. Schodt can be forgiven, though, for not foreseeing how big manga could possibly get overseas when he wrote, “Most Japanese comics are unlikely to cross the cultural barriers between East and West in their original format. Those that do will probably be select classics with universal themes or works specifically created with Western audiences in mind.” Looking at the manga shelves of the past decade has shown that this thankfully was not the case, although there are still plenty of manga that don't make it over here. (I'm really itching for a good mahjong manga.)
In addition to the well-informed writing, another reason I recommend Manga! Manga! is its many illustarions. There are countless examples of manga panels throughout the book from a diverse variety of artists. This was undoubtedly necessary since most readers would not have been familiar with the works and themes Schodt discusses; as Manga! Manga! was published by Kodansha, I can't help but think that this gave Schodt a leg up in securing image permissions. The book also contains translated excerpts of manga. Two of them, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen and Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix, were later published in English in their full versions. However, this is the only place to read Reiji Matsumoto's Ghost Warrior in English. The book also contains a translation of part of Riyoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles; although there are a couple of hard-to-find volumes of the manga that were translated into English in the 1980s, Manga! Manga! is still the easiest way to at least get a taste of this historically important manga. (It really is a shame that all of The Rose of Versailles has not been officially brought out in English.)
Dreamland Japan came out thirteen years after Manga! Manga! and approaches manga from a different angle. Although it too has an introductory chapter that introduces manga to a general audience (since it still was relatively unknown in the mid-1990s), for the most part Schodt focuses on magazines and individual creators rather than demonstrating how general themes are carried across multiple works. I think this first part may be one of the book's strongest contributions since precious little has been authoritatively written about manga magazines. When people discuss manga both in popular and academic articles, the tendency is to focus on how well the manga tells its story, the themes the author may have intended, and so on. Often nothing is mentioned about the publication the manga originally appeared in. However, if you've read anything on how manga is actually created (say, Schodt's earlier book, perhaps) you know how important the magazine editor is to the creative process. For those of us not in Japan, I think we have the tendency to take manga out of context as a stand-alone piece of work, when we should really consider any manga alongside its publisher and magazine brethren. Schodt does an excellent job of discussing a wide range of magazines, from those geared toward elementary schoolers to the adult and avant garde. I'd really like to see more people who write about manga to discuss the magazines and publishers in this way.
Schodt's coverage of individual artists is as similarly expansive as the magazines he discusses. In particular there are quite a few “alternative” or “underground” artists and stories in the mix this time around. He discusses Doraemon but he also covers a number of artists from the pages of famous alternative magazine Garo as well as the manga produced by the infamous religious cult Aum Shirikyo (they're the ones responsible for the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system in 1995). And since Tezuka passed away after Manga! Manga! was published, Schodt devotes an entire chapter to the man and his works. Overall, Dreamland Japan is a fascinating sampling on mid-1990s manga culture, but it is not nearly as unified as Schodt's first book on manga. In the beginning of Dreamland Japan, Schodt acknowledges that some parts of the book have been previously published in newspaper columns and the like. Since there's not an overall case that Schodt is trying to lay out, this means that you don't have to read it from cover to cover but can pick and choose selected passages as they interest you. In some ways this also makes the book seem less significant than Manga! Manga! Still, Schodt is one of the foremost experts on manga, which makes anything he has to say about the subject worth checking out.
If your shelves do not contain either of these two books, I would strongly encourage you to pick them up. They're written for a general audience, but I see them cited all the time in academic books and papers. This is because they are simply two of the best books we have on manga in English. They may be slightly dated, but you need to read them if you have any interest in learning more about manga.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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