Anime on Campus: Japanese Animation and the Academic World

by Mikhail Koulikov, Jan 18th 2003

Saying that over the last decade, anime in North America has given rise to a multi-million-dollar industry is not likely to surprise many people. Nor is mentioning that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people of all ages consider themselves fans. For the unbelieving or the incredulous, there are concrete numbers: convention attendance statistics, DVD sales figures, Nielsen ratings. However, very few people, both fans and those who barely know what anime is, realize that another place where anime has been embraced, in a relatively unexpected way, is in the world of the university classroom and the academic conference.

Nearly for as long as cinema has existed, film studies have as well. Movies and TV shows are studied as art, as historical documents, as windows into particular cultures and ways of viewing and experiencing the world. And first are foremost, anime is a form of film. In Japan, it has been studied extensively, the same was as film and television has been in the rest of the world, and for the same reasons. But over the last several years, more and more American colleges and universities have began to turn their attention to anime.

The most obvious example of this can be seen in the number of classes at various universities all across north America that focus, straight and simple, on anime. The syllabus of a class on anime at Bowdoin College states "In many ways, this is a Japanese Culture and History course in disguise. We view anime and manga as narrative forms that can be analyzed in terms of their thematic tropes." Another, at the University of Michigan, describes itself as "[an examination of] the history of Japanese animation and its relationship to the social, political, and economic transformations of the nation." A third, at the University of Texas, Austin, "introduces you to the rich and varied world of Japanese animation (anime), one of the most important cultural products to appear in Japan in the post war period." The common thread is that courses like these view anime as a self-contained phenomenon, uniquely Japanese. It is, therefore, a valuable tool for the study of a particular culture that otherwise would remain relatively unknown to the Western observer. At the same time, a second group of classes (and scholars) treat anime as an alternative mode of approach to the same universal problems that Western media - and society - are struggling with. The emphasis is not on anime's uniqueness, but rather on the universality of the themes discussed. For example, a graduate course at the State University of New York - Buffalo discusses themes and concepts like "difference feminism" and post/trans-humanity using anime as a case study and practical application or example of academic theories. A Brown University course on cyberspace, virtual reality and critical theory used anime like Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis and compares the approaches taken to the topics in question with those of Blade Runner and other Western science-fiction.

A third current that has developed over the last several years has been the increased presence of anime at academic conferences and in scholarly journals. To a degree, this has paralleled its general level of penetration into the popular consciousness. As more and more people become aware of anime, some of those people just happen to be in a position to interpret and write about it. Thus, papers and articles with titles like "Man, Nation & Machine: The Otaku Answer to Pressing Problems of the Media Society," "Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira" and "Animation in Asia: appropriation, reinterpretation, and adoption or adaptation" have been appearing in scholarly journals or been presented in academic conferences all over North America.

Ultimately, the effect of all of this is that, combined with the success and greater exposure anime has been enjoying over the last few years, it is becoming harder and harder, almost impossible, to simply dismiss it as mindless children's entertainment. It may be easy to do that off five minutes of watching a Saturday morning cartoon that just happens to be animated in Japan, but impossible when faced with classes, dissertations, and even full-length books that present Japanese animation as so much more, as a complex and multifaceted audiovisual medium that can more than hold its own against movies, literature, and popular culture of the West.

Additional information on the academic presence of anime is available at the Anime/Manga Web Essay Archive and the Anime Research Homepage

- Mikhail Koulikov
[www.corneredangel.com]

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