Chicks On Anime
International Fan Culture

by B. Dong, S. Pocock, Mar 3rd 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Our guest this week is writer and lecturer Roland Kelts, author of the acclaimed book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US. Kelts also lectures around the country; to stay up to date, you can check out his blog, which also posts columns he writes for The Daily Yomiuri, and a variety of other fascinating tidbits. Recently, he also contributed to NPR's Studio 360, as they visited Japan.

For anime and media fans who are interested in a more academic approach to the artform and its history, they can also check out some of the Anime Masterpieces programs around the country, of which Kelts is also part of. Their contributors feature an impressive lineup of noted academics, writers, and industry veterans like Susan Napier, John Dower, Frederik Schodt, Charles Solomon, and others.

Mr. Kelts sat down with us to talk a bit about the differences between Japanese and American fan culture, and the realm in between. We'd like to thank him again for the wonderful discussion, and we hope you, the readers, will enjoy it too!


Bamboo: Your book, Japanamerica, mentions how Japanese pop culture has really rooted itself in the US. Can I ask—exactly what is "Japanamerica?" It seems like you refer to it as a place.
Roland: Yes, I've begun to refer to it as a place recently, or at least a frame of mind. When I started the book, the title stood for what I describe as a "mobius strip" of trans-cultural exchange, going back to Osamu Tezuka's love of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, and running all the way up to today, when everyone at Pixar/Disney treats Hayao Miyazaki as a god.

But more recently it has become reified, so to speak. When I visit anime conventions in the US, or see American otaku trekking around Akihabara in Tokyo, I realize that the zone they inhabit is neither purely 'Japan” nor conclusively “America.” For example: cosplayers gathering at Katsucon a couple weekends ago were all meticulously outfitted as their favorite anime/manga characters. But their behavior—outgoing, noisy, joyous—was hardly "Japanese." Japanese cosplayers have no such event or atmospheres. It's Japanamerica, more than it is Japan or America. I celebrate that limbo zone.

Bamboo: It's interesting you mention that their behavior was "hardly 'Japanese'". I believe you said in your book, and in subsequent interviews, that because Japan, as a society, is so group-minded, and the social etiquette is so restrictive, that people turned to the Internet or pop culture as a release valve. Did I interpret your message right?
Roland: You mean Japanese people, correct? Yes, that's one reading I was trying to explore, that the release is that much more intense because of the restrictions and rules of etiquette.
Sara: If American cosplayers are noisy and joyous, what are their Japanese counterparts like? Is there a mirror of "Japanamericanism" in Japanese culture?
Roland: Japanese cosplayers tend to be semi-professionals with exquisite costumes—who spend most of their time quietly posting for otaku with huge cameras. It's much less a communal celebration, as it is in the US, and more of a carefully calibrated theatrical display.
Bamboo: Let me ask you, then—does anime serve a different purpose in the US, other than as an escape valve? It seems to me that the fan subculture here is a place where nonconformity is celebrated. I mean, as I recall, anime conventions as they exist in the US don't really exist in Japan.
Roland: Absolutely. The biggest anime fair in the world, Tokyo Anime Fair, which takes place next month, expressly prohibits cosplaying. This is because the Tokyo Anime Fair is a professional event staged for the benefit of producers, who hire their own models for cosplaying in the form of characters from their latest releases.

I think anime in Japan remains a very private pursuit. And a subcultural one, however vibrant. Remember, the actual definition of "otaku," is "hello, sir," and was used by fans of anime who recognized one another in the same shops in Akihabara, and at the Tokyo Comic Market, but were too shy or self-absorbed to learn one another's names.

In America, by contrast, it's less of an “escape valve” (we seem to have plenty of those), and more of a channel toward a centrally shared celebration. Anime cons are parties, here, loud, friendly, embracing. In Japan, the silence of the otaku-type is, as they say, deafening.

Sara: I'm not sure if I can word this clearly. How does anime act as an escape valve in Japan if the fan subculture still echos the society around it? It seems to me that if it was used more to escape from the rigidity of etiquette that fans would let themselves go all out a little more.
Roland: I try to address this question in Japanamerica. To sum up, in Japan, one's sense of a daily role within society is quite rigid—hence all of the fuss over handing over your business card, which is a notoriously etiquette-addled ordeal. Your business card stands for you. If you work for the 16th division of Toyota in Toyota city, on the 24th floor, it will say so explicitly on your business card, and when you hand it over to another person, you will do so with a bow and two hands firmly gripping the edges of the card, with the script readable to the other person. It's very ceremonial. This means that during the daytime working hours, you are that person, a member of the Toyota corporation, the 16th division, 24th floor—and, essentially, no one else. That's the real you.

But when you leave the 24th floor and head to the arcade, or to Akihabara, you can be someone else entirely—liberated in your own corner of the night to watch, play, perform as whatever you like, at least for those few hours before you take the train home to your suburban one room apartment. So anime becomes an escape valve, an intense one, but also an intensely private, personal one. You don't necessarily want anyone in your office on the 24th floor to know or care.

By contrast, we Americans are keen to convey that our business cards, and by association, our day jobs, are not really who we are. We scrawl cell phone numbers over the cards' texts as we brusquely hand them over at the bar. We are ourselves all the time, is the implication, and this flimsy card is just a symbol of the humiliating need to draw a paycheck as we pursue our real passions.

So I do think Japanese fans "let themselves go," in fact, maniacally so, collecting every figurine available at outrageous cost, and purchasing DVDs for $50 a pop, even when they could get the material for free on the Internet. They're rabid collectors—they need to have the DVD and packaging—but they do so privately, displaying the items in their own apartments, and then maybe, in fiberglass display lockers in Akihabara to impress other equally narrow-focused fans.

Bamboo: So in that case, for these otaku, why not be "noisy" and "joyous" like their American counterparts in their off-time? Or, in a different vein of thought—how does that explain the existence of hikikomori? It seems to me that these consuming of pop culture would enhance your joie de vivre when you're not your business card.
Roland: I guess that has more to do with the Japanese character, and the character of otaku types, in particular. For one thing, there's not that much space in urban Japan, so you don't have many opportunities to celebrate noisily and joyously without impinging upon others. In fact, as I watched American fans arrive at Katsucon in the hotel in DC two weeks ago, I was stunned that they could scream and shout and generally disrupt the genial flow of businessmen in and out of the foyer without a reprimand from the hotel staff. I can guarantee you that no hotel in Japan would allow kids to shriek their way to the front desk.

To be fair, hikikomori are another phenomenon altogether, though no unrelated. My good friend Fred Schodt often says that the Japanese are simply more 'autistic' by nature than Americans, more prone to inward looking pursuits, and sometimes, pathologically, isolation. Sometimes it's wonderful to see how carefully Japanese people make space for one another, and how artfully they preserve privacy in crowded spaces. On the other hand, it can be unnerving to Americans, who are accustomed to large gestures, big spaces, and loud, expressive assertions of the self. I don't mean to suggest that Japanese otaku aren't filled with joy on occasion, just that they don't celebrate their happiness in communal spaces or structures. I have friends who are hardcore otaku in Japan. They are far more likely to send me a quick text message inviting me to a cosplay event or anime screening than they are to make any kind of note of it in a public forum, like mixi (Japan's facebook/myspace).

Sara: Earlier you stated that the Japanese "release" in anime and subculture is much more intense than their Western counterparts—are we speaking financially, then, as opposed to emotionally? As you stated, American fans tend to be much more outgoing and congenial.
Roland: No, I'm sorry I'm not being clear. I mean that the Japanese sense of "release" is, in fact, far more intense precisely because it is so private. So personal. Instead of streaming your favorite anime as you chat with five friends online, you trek to Akihabara after work, purchase and covet the latest DVD release, and watch it in the privacy of your little room or tiny spot on the train. The absence of a shared communal experience can often intensify the solitary experience, and I think this is what I'm getting at.
Sara: OK, thanks for the clarification.
Bamboo: I think there are many people in our society who would consider the noisy and joyous celebration of youngsters to be "obnoxious." *laugh* Though I suppose there is more room in American society to be obnoxious, without getting too much social flak for it. As a kid growing up in a strict Asian household, it was frowned upon to be excessively wild. Much of the "Kids will be kids!" sentiment simply doesn't exist in some Asian households.

Going back to the $50 DVDs and all the merchandising. Do you think the difference between US and Japanese fans comes into play when it comes to the two anime industries? On one side of the ocean, you have an industry whose market is largely made up of these "silent otaku," while in the US, anime fans are largely not of the otaku-subtype. I'd imagine the business models would be different to reflect this.

Roland: Unfortunately, as I'm sure you know, the business model is not nearly as trans-cultural as the appeal. American fans won't pay $50 for a DVD, period. And they also see no need to wait 8 to 12 months for a $29.99 DVD of an episode they can get for free hours after its release in Japan, with suitable if not preferable “fansubs.” Quite frankly, many distributors here are in the process of going bankrupt, largely because the producers in Japan can't or don't want to understand the critical differences in their business models. The silent, consumption-oriented otaku of Japan don't exist here, and they never will. The majority of North American fans are young, cash-poor, Internet savvy, socially networked ... and intensely passionate. And it's this last point that Japanese producers seem unable to factor into their decisions.
Sara: How would you advise Japanese producers to adjust their business model? By changing the work itself or the way it is marketed and distributed in the U.S. and other countries?
Roland: I would do what the folks at Crunchyroll have tried to do. I'm not at all sure how successful they've been. But they went to Japan at the start of last year trying to encourage Japanese producers to embrace a digital strategy for sales and distribution. The Japanese producers had heard of no such thing, so Crunchyroll prepared a strategy for them, and their site went legit last month, partnering with Japanese producers to try to turn revenue from their five million users into profit for the creators in Japan.

So, first you have to convince Japanese producers that DVD is dead in North America and Europe. Second, you have to convince them that Internet distribution is the only possible profit model. And third, you need to find a way to actually accrue profits from streaming or downloadable formats. I admit: that's a formidable three-step program, since no one seems to know how to accomplish step 3 (profiting from Internet distribution). Fortunately, it's not my job, at least not directly.

Bamboo: So how would you describe the state of the Japanese anime industry? Are DVD sales suffering at all, or are they still doing well?
Roland: Within Japan, they've been doing well—but that is a dangerous comment now, with the Japanese economy in a tailspin, part-time workers being axed (especially next month, the end of the fiscal year in Japan), and a severely declining birthrate cutting into the next generation of anime fans. I wish I could be more positive or sanguine about the Japanese anime industry, but I know too much, and have too many industry friends who are intelligently gloomy. I don't see any way DVD sales within Japan can survive the current downturn. And I also don't see the industry reacting quickly enough to this new environment.

That said—Japan is historically famous for adapting on the fly, as they've done for centuries. And anime won't stop being made in Japan. I do think the quality will suffer, as it has already. I have plenty of Japanese otaku pals who say that very little quality material has come out of the industry since the late 90s. And a lot of the stuff American otaku/fans love is already quite dated in Japan.

Sara: Sticking to the positive vein, lately there has been more and more collaboration between Japanese animation studios and creative minds from other countries. Afro Samurai is one example. A friend of mine in France is working at a studio that will collaborate with Shoji Kawamori on his next work. Could this help the industry on both sides of the ocean?
Roland: I have this great fantasy that global fans of anime will start learning Japanese, learn the art form, and swoop into Tokyo and Osaka to take low-paying jobs with bento box lunches and save the industry.

I definitely think international creative collaborations comprise one of the most promising solutions. Stan Lee is working with Japanese animators right now. Marvel is hooking up with Japanese studios. Disney, for the first time, invested money in overseas production houses—all of them in Japan. Afro Samurai, Tekkonkinkreet and others are just the leading edge, I think, and I'm glad to hear about your friend in France collaborating with Kawamori-san.

When I talk to Americans at Anime conventions, I encourage them to visit to Japan, to meet their favorite artists in person and share the love. Japanese artists, by and large, work for low pay in tiny studios. They need to know they're valued ecstatically by fans thousands of miles away.

Sara: I think these kinds of collaborations are great, as well. Sometimes, as an American animator, I kind of resent the generalization of American animation as loud, silly and inferior in comparison to anime. Way too often I feel that anime fans put the medium on a pedestal, simply because of its country of origin. Animation from Eastern Europe and Canada and the American independent scene is all too often ignored in the comparisons, as well. As we see more and more collaboration I hope that bias goes away and we just see a lot of strong, innovative work. I'd love to work with STUDIO4℃myself, someday. Their work is definitely cutting-edge.
Roland: I totally agree. I've seen excellent work from Americans, French, Canadian and English animators over the past few years, and there's no justification for a kind of 21st century Japanophilia clouding perceptions. Indeed, I think a lot of Japanese artists appreciate the work of global artists, but the recent wave of fandom here is very Japan-focused. I think that will change. It just takes time.
Bamboo: Out of curiosity, are these Japanese artists angry about fansubbing? Or do they not really consider the American anime industry as impacting their livelihoods that much?
Roland: Honestly, I don't think the artists themselves have time to care about fansubbing, or any other acts of piracy. They're so overworked and underpaid. Most of them seem happy to know that foreigners care about their work, but don't see any immediate impact from it. The producers, who should be angry, or at least concerned, are also harried and preoccupied. And many of them are quite old (Japanese companies are rigidly hierarchical), so they don't really understand what fansubbing is. Many of them don't even use email! Ack. I sound like a curmudgeon, don't I?
Bamboo: You don't sound like a curmudgeon. But that's because we're all curmudgeons here, so maybe we just can't tell.
Sara: I'm a curmudgeon on the inside.
Bamboo: Say, I wanted to make an abrupt transition and ask you about Anime Masterpieces. Do you think programs like this will open up anime further to American fans? Beyond just "cartoons" to something, perhaps, more... well, something to be taken more seriously?
Roland: Indeed. It's happening already with Anime Masterpieces. We've screened major anime films to full houses at UC Berkeley in California, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston among other venues. The audiences we get are largely middle-aged and arts-oriented: professors, critics, journalists and fellow artists. And they respond with enormous enthusiasm. We now have Pulitzer-Prize winning historian John Dower, Susan J. Napier, Frederik L. Schodt, Ian Condry, Anne Allison and others on the roster of presenters. And we're about to do a week-long anime festival at Hobart and Willam Smith Colleges in upstate New York, starting March 2. The combination of beautiful Study Guides with essays by major intellectuals, screenings and post-screening discussions and Q&As has proved an enormous hit. Even the Japanese government is getting involved, as are media in Japan.

Honestly, Anime Masterpieces, my novel, and the follow-up book to Japanamerica (due in 2010) are among my most hopeful project, keeping me from sinking into sheer despair. Also, I continue to tour for Japanamerica, with great and very educated audiences on both coasts.

Bamboo: I'm really excited about this, actually. I read through the guide you all put together on Grave of the Fireflies and I think it's great. One of the most entertaining classes I took in undergrad was a film analysis class on anime, and it's such a rich medium. So much to think about, and I hope these types of events will open that door up to more fans.
Sara: I feel the same way. My undergrad school MCAD puts on academic workshops every year in the same vein and I always found them immensely informative and entertaining.
Bamboo: And John Dower is amazing. I've had to use so many of his texts for classes! I just had to throw that in. I think you all have an amazing lineup.
Roland: It seems to be happening. After our Boston event with John Dower on Feb. 11, I received several emails from Harvard and MIT professors—in fields like history, sociology and anthropology—asking me how I could help them use anime in the classroom. They all told me they were blown away by the event.
Bamboo: My Pacific War professor actually used anime in the classroom, and it really opened up my eyes. Even as someone who claims to be a big anime fan, I hadn't had exposure to productions like Momotaro.
Roland: Ah, great stuff. Fascinating propoganda, especially when viewed next to the Americans' use of Popeye and Superman during the same era.
Sara: And Winsor McCay's Sinking of the Lusitania,which was a bit earlier, but was used for a similar purpose.
Bamboo: Do you think this is accessible to the "average" anime fan?
Roland: I think it's all quite accessible, actually, and I don't think there's anything wrong with the growth model. After all, I went from Hardy Boys mystery stories, and a few Nancy Drew books, to studying Joyce's Ulysses in college. What's wrong with going from Pokémon, to Sailor Moon, to Naruto, to Bleach, to Death Note, to ... Grave of the Fireflies? No problem, in my little book.
Bamboo: I don't think that's quite what I was saying. I didn't say that the anime itself was inaccessible. I was saying that, as much as I wished more people would be interested in this type of film analysis, that it, sadly, may not necessarily appeal to everyone. Which is a shame, because I think all anime fans would have a lot of fun with it.
Sara: There's a difference between Grave of the Fireflies, though, and something like... Tezuka's Legend of the Forest, for instance, which is full of references to animation history. You kind of have to be "in the know," so to speak, to fully appreciate a title like that. It's much more interesting in an academic setting.
Roland: Bamboo, I perfectly understand what you mean. But I guess what I'm saying is: give it time. I'm astonished by how many teens and twenty-somethings wait in line to have Japanamerica signed by me. When they greet me, they're smart, thoughtful and passionate. Maybe what we're doing with Anime Masterpieces will reach them when they hit their thirties and forties, and actually have the time and desire to analyze these works. I might be half-dead by then, of course, but someone else will take my place, and the model will be firmly established.
Sara: I think all anime is accessible when it's sold to its audience in the right way. That's where I think programs like Anime Masterpieces come in handy. You not only get the film, but extra insight.

OK, I have one final question about your upcoming novel: Great book, or greatest book?

Roland: The novel? Greatest, of course. No one would write one if they didn't believe so.

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