Interview: Fred Schodt

by Evan Miller, Oct 27th 2009

Long before the days of dedicated manga shelves in American book stores, Fred Schodt was already writing about the Japanese pop culture pheonomenon, publishing his book Manga Manga! The World of Japanese Comics in 1983. The book, along with subsequent titles like Dreamland Japan, would establish Schodt as the foremost scholar and expert on manga in the west. The Japanese government recognized him for his efforts this Spring, awarding him the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette. I got to chat with Fred, and we discussed some of his other work, the first manga created in the United States, academic scholarship about anime, and the efforts of the Japanese government to use anime and manga as a promotional tool.

ANN: First of all, as someone who's been the foremost scholar of manga in the western world, if you were to go through the history of manga, what do you think are the most essential turning points for the medium? The most essential manga a fan should read to get a good overview of the history of manga?

Fred Schodt: It depends on how far you stretch it, really. I think people who are serious about wanted to understand where the manga phenomenon comes from have to go back through the animal scrolls and choujugiga in Japan and look at those, and then there's the whole woodblock print series - the kibyoushi, the yellow jacket series. There's a great book out now by Adam Kern about that, so it's possible to read some of these stories in English now. And then, if you look at more recent stuff, it depends on how serious you are about pursuing history. And if you're really, really into it, that can take a lifetime. You'd want to look at some of the early cartoons that appeared, the political social satire magazines in Japan like Japan Punch.

ANN: From the Taisho era?

Fred Schodt: No, that was Meiji. 19th century. There's a newspaper from 19th century Japan called the Marumaru Shinbun, one of the very first European influenced policial social satire magazines that ran cartoons. Then when you get into the 20th century, you want to look at stuff like Tokyo Puck and Rakuten Kitazawa, and then before the war you want to look at Norakuro, Suihou Tagawa, and Noboru Ooshiro. After the war, Tezuka, and moving on, some of the early women's stuff - Hasegawa Machiko, and then the modern stuff. If I were to outline some specific forks in history that would be interesting to look at, I'd say those would be the ones. I could go on and on.

ANN: This topic gets back to the point of scholarship on manga; since you first wrote Manga Manga! in the early eighties, scholarly writings about anime and manga has grown by leaps and bounds. What do you think is some of the most promising work from this category in the past 20 years, and what are some of the topics you think could use more exploration?

Fred Schodt: It's hard to identify specific works. There's a lot of good work that has been done and will be done in the future; I'm just amazed that there is any academic scholarship being done on anime and manga in the US. To show you what a relic I am, I remember a time when it would have been impossible to get a Ph.D. writing a thesis about comics at all! (laughs) The world has changed that way, and it's wonderful to see people pursuing manga and anime in that way. I'm always amazed at the number of graduate students (in particular) that are doing theses on Japanese anime. Personally, I hope people just enjoy the material, because it's supposed to be entertainment. I'm not a big fan of hardcore deconstruction...

ANN: Post-modernist theory, stuff like that?

Fred Schodt: Yes. How far are we going to devolve into Foucault and fetishization, gender roles, and so forth? That stuff is fine, but my tolerance for that is limited. It's fine in and of it's own, but ultimately it all comes back to how much people enjoy the material. Personally, I would like to see more people do more studies on the history of manga, and use it as a way to learn more about Japanese history and world history. That would be my own personal inclination. Rather than deconstructing a work, I like to look at it as a vehicle to understanding something larger.

ANN: Which brings us to another one of the titles you've worked on, The Four Immigrants Manga. What brought you to that material?

Fred Schodt: I ran across The Four Immigrants Manga, or what in Japanese is known as the Manga Yonin Shosei, around 1981 when I was writing Manga Manga! I found a copy of it in Berkeley, at the East Asian Library. I remember going through the card catalog and seeing this reference to Manga Yonin Shosei, and what amazed me is that it was published in San Francisco in 1931! That really caught my eye. At the time, I had to page the book, and when I got it, what astounded me is that it was bilingual. It was written in English and Japanese, which means that you really have to understand both English and Japanese to read the whole thing in 1931. That's how I discovered that, but I wasn't able to do anything with it for many many years, until 1998 or so. I'm still in awe of that book and the artist, Henry Kiyama, whose full name was Yoshitaka Kiyama but he went by the name Henry. You can make the case that actually one of the first American graphic novels, or in other words one of the first comic books, was actually created by a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco! Although he published it in 1931, he actually drew the story and displayed it as an exhibitor in 1927. That's a huge shock to a lot of people, since it's a 104-page narrative, long arc story, even though it's done in the style of George McManus and Bringing Up Father. It's a documentary of Japanese-American history, and an autobiography.

ANN: Recently you were awarded the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government. Recently, that same government has been openly discussing using the "soft power" of anime and manga to promote Japan and Japanese culture abroad in a tough economic recession. What are your thoughts on these projects and efforts?

Fred Schodt: There's a very belated move - perhaps even too late - to capitalize on the popularity of anime and manga overseas. On the one side, I think this is a good thing since it's a belated recognition of the fact that anime and manga are one of the best ambassadors of Japanese culture overseas. I think in the government - and the industry as well - they were late to realize this, since (as with other countries) there has been a tendency in all countries to put things like anime and pop culture in general in a special category as something that shouldn't be promoted overseas. There's been more emphasis on promoting "high arts," traditional culture, flower arranging, zen, kabuki - and that's fine. I think what happened is that more and more diplomats and businessmen working overseas realized that actually one of the most popular aspects of Japanese culture overseas is not high arts, but the popular - and even low-brow -culture of Japan, which anime and manga represent. So it's sort of a late recognition of this. On another level, I think there are problems with trying to exploit manga and anime culture. One of which is that both of those cultures have peaked in Japan. You have this phenomenon in the United States where the media (for example) and people are finally becoming aware that manga and anime exist, and that they are interesting. Unfortunately, it's kind of like woodblock prints or ukiyo-e in Japan; by the time western people started discovering this stuff, the art form was dying out in Japan. Manga and anime aren't dying out, but the phenomenon has definitely peaked. So the media in the United States says that it's a huge, popular phenomenon, but they are really late to discover this! So I hope it's not like ukiyo-e and other interesting things in Japanese culture, such as geisha or even business management techniques - Americans latch onto these things right before they disappear. Hopefully that's not the case. There's a history in the west of "discovering" something really interesting where in Japan it's "on it's way out."

ANN: In terms of where the Japanese manga industry is going, what are some of the most promising and distressing areas you can see in the manga industry today in Japan?

Fred Schodt: The big problem in Japan is that the bubble in the industry has definitely burst for both anime and manga. I think it's probably worse than many of the official statistics reveal. I was in Tokyo in May - and I go to Tokyo every year to watch trends - and the thing that drove the point home to me is that on the train, almost no one is reading manga. That's a huge, huge change from ten years ago, huge. On top of that, you have a new era in Japan where there's a declining population of young people, which is still the main readership and market for manga and anime. So publishers and producers of shows are confronting this very stark reality that fewer people are buying their products, and there are fewer people to buy their products. It's not only that they are buying less, but that there are fewer people to buy them! So no one knows what's going to happen yet.


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