Brain Diving
Cartoon Culture Shock

by Brian Ruh, Oct 26th 2010


One of the goals I had for this column was to show that it's possible to take anime and manga seriously without being stuffy. Many of the authors whose books I've previously written about – Helen McCarthy and Frederik Schodt, for example – aren't academics but do a great job of writing rigorously and thoughtfully. There are also a lot of books out there on anime and manga that were written by academics. I know that after a busy day of work and/or school, the last thing a lot of people would want to do would be to sit down and relax with an academic treatise. However, the academic viewpoint is an important one because there is an increasing amount of scholarly books and articles being written on anime and manga. Because of this, there needs to be a dialogue between academics and fans.

I was hoping that this week's book – Cartoon Cultures: The Globalization of Japanese Popular Media by Anne M. Cooper-Chen – would be a great way to jump into the discussion of academic anime. It just came out this year, and seemed like it would be pretty accessible for an academic work. According to the foreword by John Lent, a respected comics scholar himself, Cooper-Chen's ideas are presented in “a clear and concise manner devoid of pesky academese.” And to an extent this is true. However, to my disappointment there are many reasons why I just cannot recommend this book for fans or academics.

I think almost every new piece of writing can have its good points, though. In this case, Cooper-Chen's book drew my attention to a few articles that I wasn't aware of. One of the most significant (and easily accessible to all) is this week's Read This! - Takeshi Matsui's “The Diffusion of Foreign Cultural Products: The Case Analysis of Japanese Comics (Manga) Market in the US.” Matsui's work is probably the largest study of manga published in the US that I've seen to date – he examines every manga published in the US for over 25 years, from 1980 to 2006. This is over a thousand titles!

In particular, Matsui takes a look at how the manga industry grew and the reasons why the market encountered such strong growth. In the beginning there were many factors that were working against manga taking hold in the US – they were in black and white, the artwork was often stylistically very different, they were originally published in a right-to-left format, and they were in a completely different language and from a different culture. Matsui's history discusses the fact that early companies like Viz began by producing manga that was like American comics – the manga first came out in “floppy” versions instead of the serialized magazine / tankoubon format as in Japan. This approached was changed in the 2000s by Tokyopop, which began their “authentic” manga campaign. However, Matsui argues that Tokyopop's approach would not have been possible without the efforts of market pioneers like Viz. He also explains how the US manga companies selectively chose, edited, and sometimes censored the manga they produced in order to better market the products to US audiences in order to reduce the common stigmas often attached to US comics by the general public.

If you're interested in solid data on manga that has come out in the US, you should definitely check out this article. Although Matsui himself did not collect all of the data (he draws his stats from Jason Thompson's Manga: The Complete Guide as well as from ICv2) he does a great job of putting it all together and analyzing what it all means. Not only is Matsui interested in the numbers and years of titles published, he also charts the genres of manga that have been published in the US. (For his genre categories, he again draws from Thompson.) Matsui takes all of this information and graphs it in different ways, presenting summaries of the past decades of manga in the US that are clear and easy to read. As fans, I know we like to argue a lot about where the industry is going and what company X should or should not do. If you're one of these people, then you should definitely read Matsui's article to get a solid grounding in how the manga industry in the US has grown and developed over the last quarter century.

Cartoon Cultures: The Globalization of Japanese Popular Media by Anne M. Cooper-Chen

Cooper-Chen's book is an admirable attempt to discuss how anime and manga have spread from Japan to many other countries and culture throughout the world. This is indeed important, and is something we should probably consider more often. Too often when we think of the spread of Japanese popular culture we just think of North America and East Asia. It's easy to forget that there are anime and manga fans in Europe, South America, and the Middle East, and they all have their own takes on the culture. Upon picking up Cartoon Cultures, I was eager to learn about how Japanese popular culture has spread around the world in ways I haven't previously read about.

The first thing that gave me pause was right in the book's introduction. Cooper-Chen begins with an anecdote of how the son of one of her former pupils in North Africa was into Japanese popular culture and was easily able to buy manga and watch anime even in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. She continues on to summarize what some previous writers have said about the global spread of Japanese popular culture and why this might be. She begins to talk my academic language, too, bringing up the notion of cultural proximity and the media theory of uses and gratifications. (I won't go into detail here, but in general these are concepts for discussing the closeness of one culture to another and the ways people interact with and respond to the media they watch.) However, she begins to lose me when she lists her “10 characteristics of Japanese society that affect its mass media,” in which she seems to advocate outdated ways of thinking about Japanese culture, saying things like it is unique in the world (dismissing centuries of influence from China and Korea) and that it is essentially homogeneous (ignoring the influence and presence of Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans, and buraku people, just to name a few more obvious examples).

One of the things that is supposed to distinguish an academic book from other types of books out there is that it is intellectually rigorous and specific. An academic book really should not assume anything but rather cite sources and give specific evidence. At varying times there is both too little and too much of this going on in Cartoon Cultures. The “too little” is pretty easy to explain – quite often Cooper-Chen mentions facts and statistics but does not say where they are from or is vague about the source (“a TV Asahi special,” for example). Since there are a number of factual inaccuracies in the book, this doesn't make me inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to uncited statistics. (One example of such inaccuracies is that she says that the manga “Dokuben: Super Stars Edition” is “the world's longest-running serial manga, started in 1973.” However, the name of the manga is Dokaben and it began in 1972. There have been a number of sequels, and Dokaben Superstars is only the most recent, having started in 2004. These sequels have been intermittent, though, and even if you put them all together they don't measure up to a long-running title like Golgo 13 or Kochikame.)

More often than not, though, Cooper-Chen relies too heavily on the previously published words of others. As I was reading through the book, I saw a number of instances where she was paraphrasing something someone else had written, but did not explicitly say what the source was. For example, in discussing the early years of Viz's manga publishing business,

Cooper-Chen writes:

The true manga story begins in 1987; VIZ enterprise's first three full-length manga and their categories in the Thompson typology were: Area 88 (drama, military), The Legend of Kamui Perfect Collection (action, drama, historical and seinen) and Mai the Psychic Girl—minus a nude bathing scene deemed inappropriate for the U.S. audience (action, psychic, and shounen). Heavy Metal Warrior and Xenon (action, shounen, and science fiction) came out later in 1987. The diversity of categories “resonates with Horibuchi's intention to introduce American audiences to a variety of manga” (Horibuchi & Iiboshi, 2006, p. 64). Finally in 1987, along with the small U.S. comics publisher Eclipse, VIZ published Samurai, Son of Death (drama, samurai), the first collaboration between a U.S. author and Japanese artists. (p. 108-109)

However, in the Takeshi Matsui article I discuss above (which came out before Cartoon Cultures), he writes the following about the Viz's first forays into manga:

The first three full-length mangas were published in 1987. Area 88 (Drama, Military), The Legend of Kamui Perfect Collection (Action, Drama, Historical, and Seinen), and Mai the Psychic Girl (Action, Psychic, and Shonen) are [sic] selected after the screening by both publishers. Heavy Metal Warrior Xenon (Action, Shonen, and Science Fiction) was also published later in the same year. The diversity of the genres among these titles assigned by MTCG shown in parentheses resonates with Horibuchi's intention to introduce American audiences to the variety of manga (Horibuchi and Iiboshi 2006: 64). In the same year, Eclipse published Samurai, Son of Death (Drama, Samurai), the first collaboration between an American writer and Japanese artists (Thompson 2007b: 316). (p. 12-13)

Although Cooper-Chen mentions Matsui's article within the vicinity of this paragraph, she basically takes what Matsui had written and rephrases a couple of things. Note that she drops a reference to Thompson, a paraphrased reference by Matsui becomes a direct quote, and Heavy Metal Warrior Xenon somehow becomes two different titles (perhaps not coincidentally, the PDF of Matsui's paper has a page break between the words Warrior and Xenon). This is just one example of the kind of uncredited paraphrasing that happens throughout Cooper-Chen's book – I found a number of other places where the words and ideas presented by Cooper-Chen actually came from Matsui's article, and there may be more.

Additionally, Cooper-Chen frequently uses direct quotes from quite a number of sources, sometimes so much that it gets distracting to the reader. For example, between pages 56 and 62, Cooper-Chen heavily quotes from “Fans Lift J-culture Over Language Barrier,” an article by Patrick Macias that originally appeared in The Japan Times in 2006. I noticed that Cooper-Chen was referring to the article so much that I decided to actually calculate how much of the article she used in her book. It turns out that Cooper-Chen directly incorporated 27% of Macias's original piece into her chapter on “Cross-cultural Transformations.” To me this seems like a staggeringly high percentage of the original article to reproduce.

Also, throughout the book Cooper-Chen will often turn to “guest writers” that will explain a topic in anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages. She will usually introduce the author and say that the following piece was written “exclusively for this book” or something else to that effect. I have to say that including the direct words of others like this is highly unusual for an academic book. Certainly, in the process of doing research on anime and manga you are going to have to talk with and write to other people and take what they have to say into account. However, it's the job of the author to take what the person says, think about what it means, and provide some sort of context or interpretation. For the most part, though, these chunks of text are simply dropped into the book and Cooper-Chen lets them just stand on their own.

What really did it for me, though, is on page 70, where Cooper-Chen quotes the definition of otaku from Wikipedia. Now, I have nothing against Wikipedia – I think it's a great resource and a fine place to start from when you're looking up an unfamiliar topic. However, it should never be used as a source itself, especially in something like an academic paper or book. When I was teaching university classes, quoting Wikipedia was one of my cardinal sins for any kind of written work. I was completely taken aback to see Cooper-Chen quote from Wikipedia at length in order to tell her readers what otaku meant, especially considering there are plenty of other sources out there in English that discuss otaku.

I wish I could say that through incorporating and welding together other people's previous work, Cooper-Chen had come up with a useful synthesis that summarized the spread of anime and manga throughout the world. Sadly, this is not the case. Geographically, Cartoon Cultures covers the areas of the United States, East and Southeast Asia (China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia), Europe (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Switzerland), and the rest of the world (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Tunisia, and Brazil). Although this seems like quite a list, many countries are discussed in only a paragraph or two, which doesn't allow for much detail. Additionally, the coverage of many countries is limited by a small number of sources. For example, for the coverage of anime and manga in Hungary, the book just reproduces what a communications student in the country had to say about it. Coverage about other countries is often provided by summarizing either an article written by someone else or a handful of personal conversations. This approach can lead to some highly skewed pictures being painted. For example, if you read the four skimpy paragraphs given to anime in the UK, you'd be led to believe there is no anime in the country save titles like Pokémon and Naruto, and no manga except for Barefoot Gen. (Which, if you didn't already know, is far from the case.) Such a blatant misrepresentation again makes me question how accurate her portraits of anime and manga in the other countries around the world really are.

As I said in the beginning, I was really hoping Anne Cooper-Chen's Cartoon Cultures would be a new academic book on anime that would be able to cross over into general fandom. It promised an introduction to how anime and manga culture have spread throughout the world, and in all fairness it does discuss these issues. However, the book gets quite a few facts wrong and the execution is so severely lacking that I don't think I could recommend this book to anyone.


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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