Gender and Fan Culture (Round Nineteen, Part Two): Lori Hitchcock Morimoto and David Surman

Mastery and Expertise

DS: There are so many overlaps between film and game fandom Lori, which I sense both domains are subject to some of the same conceptualizations. In my own experience, it was the depth of the fandom that brought new knowledge to bear in the pre-internet days. I remember, in particular in games culture, how anecdote and fuzzily understood Japanese names would circulate among our group, as a form of ill defined knowledge, which nonetheless enabled us to evidence our commitment to the medium. At a time when US and European game adaptations would feature designers and developers in the end credits using arcade-style acronyms, such as ‘Maki1000′, I remember the particular case of Yuzo Koshiro, the musician behind the Streets of Rage Series (Burning Knuckle in Japan), and other Sega games throughout the early-to-mid nineties. Koshiro was distinct in that his name was featured on the attract screen of the arcade machines for the Streets of Rage games. Knowing the name of a particular person within a Japanese games production, and being able to associate it explicitly with good practice (the music was particularly good!) meant that, certainly within my own limited childhood experience, there was a palpable sense of connoisseurship and expertise that emerged from what today I objectify as fandom. The ‘scars’ of Americanization were no longer naturalized into the mediascape we had become accustomed to. Our commitment to complexity, with its associated passion for knowledge concerning origins, authenticities, modes of production, was profound, and manifested in ways exactly reminiscent of what you describe in the language play in women’s HK film fandom.

There was a discernable sense of a ‘private contract’, much like what Anderson calls ‘communities of the imaginary’, at the point these unknown authors acquired names and faces. I felt a powerful sense of authority that came from the absolute ignorance of my parents, whose views of Japan and Asia still chimed with wartime anecdote and tragedy. We felt like a collective of codebreakers, learning languages, both Japanese and those of semiotic media literacies, in the course of resolving the burning questions that arose from games as subculture. I think that the contemporary relationship to authorship in videogames is still inflected by the revelations of the nineties.

As a teenager, the gender and transnational dimension emerged in the ambiguity surrounding Japanese names to provincial British kids like us. Is it a boy’s name or a girl’s? From that ambiguity rolled out other questions (certainly compounded by my own questions surrounding sexuality), as a young aspiring artist; for instance, do girls make/like these violent beat-’em-up games? And likewise, are there boys out there designing characters with the sexual charge and ambiguity like Prince Ali in the Sega roleplay game Beyond Oasis, imagining new paradigms of male beauty and power which stepped outside the hyper-masculine fantasies of the British and American teen culture I had been exposed to until that time?

LHM: What you write reminds me of what my partner says about his own mid/late ’80s anime fandom. He’s Japanese-American, and says that he had a particular (and peculiar!) credibility among American anime fans at the time because he ‘looked’ the part of a Japanese person AND had some cultural knowledge to impart as well. This emphasis on cultural specificity (in contrast to, say, authenticity) seems to be a contrary impulse to what Iwabuchi describes as “odorless” transnational popular culture; fans’ knowledge of the originating culture may be incomplete and even wholly ‘inauthentic’, but – particularly within the fandom itself – it still holds considerable cultural capital.

This seems especially the case with Anglo-American interest in yaoi fan fiction; slash writers have moved into yaoi fiction and make a distinction between the two (one that I don’t wholly understand, but which seems to be based at least in part on yaoi’s emphasis on ‘beautiful boys’), but this is as far as their appropriation of the Japanese practice goes. For many such writers, the term ‘yaoi’ seems to have taken on a life of its own, independent of its Japanese origins. We might ask if the same is true within other Asian (eg: Korean) yaoi-style works, given the very different role played by Japan, as a nation, within those contexts.

Indeed, this is one problem with the monolithic characterization of transnational media fandom that you describe above: if our conversations are confined to comparisons of “Western” and, in this case, “Japanese” media and fans (with each being described in terms of the other), we are left not only with a limited understanding of how media circulates and is used by such fans, but also with narrowly defined points of origin and destination.

Soft Power and Shallow Consumption

DS: I want to return to the specifics of the transnational relation in my fandom in academic terms, but first describe an anecdote from my teaching that certainly supports my ideas. At Newport we run Japanese lessons as part of our community-learning program, and every year a large cohort of undergraduate games design and animation students sign up, passionate about anime, games and Japanese popular culture in general. As an evening class, it doesn’t compete with their core study, and the class is almost always three quarters constituted by my students, with the remainder members of the general public interested in learning a new language. After a number of sessions, the numbers start to drop off radically, most after the first. We are left with a committed core that will go on to finish the complimentary program (it is interesting to note that those who generally remain are young women). While there are numerous explanations, including their study workload, and the first year undergraduate experience in particular, I have often thought about the particular relationship between fan knowledge and fandom generally, which in many cases brought them to undergraduate studies in these areas, and the acquisition of orthodox knowledge (such as learning the language) in these areas.

It reminds me of suggestions Koichi Iwabuchi was making in the mid nineties about transnational multiculturalism, in the particular case of relations between ‘Japan’ – and its constructed ‘Japaneseness’ – and the ‘West’. He frames the discussion in terms of Self and Other, and discusses the construction of Japaneseness both by the orientalizing rhetorics of the West, and Japan’s self-orientalizing position in relation to its perceived ‘others’, in particular America and its Asian neighbours. He writes that the West from Japan’s view had been ‘…discursively created in a quite systematic way…’ and that most importantly, ‘…what had mattered was the ideas of the West that the Japanese had created for the purposes of self-definition. The real West was irrelevant.’ Much of what I see in the contemporary fandom for Japanese games, film and anime chimes with Iwabuchi’s suggestion, albeit from the inverse position. The pattern of their consumption and the scope of their connoisseurship have much more to do with their own identity politics than with any substantive enquiry into another culture. The new mobility and accessibility of Japanese popular culture provides new imaginary negotiations with archetypes of gender, class and power which are highly attractive to contemporary young people, insofar as they act as a means to configure selfhood, and as a source of information from which cultural capital can be drawn and parlayed between sympathetic peers. I think that sometimes this solipsism is written out of the account of transnational media fandom, the idea that something so global can have such domestic drivers.

LHM: I have to say, I’m very intrigued by the fact that the majority of remaining students in your language curriculum are women. When I was a Japanese language teacher back in the late 80s, the bulk of our students were men, drawn to Japanese language study by tall tales of all the money to be made in Japan’s then-booming economy. The parallels between this shift from Japanese business to cultural attractiveness, and from male to female students, seems worthy of study in its own right!

I both agree and disagree with last point above; or, rather, I think it’s something that’s less an “either/or” than “both/and” situation. I agree with you that while we’ve moved away from early work on Western anime fans, in which they are characterized as almost wholly divorced from any awareness of, or interest in, Japan, we have yet to fully integrate our understandings of what the specific “domestic drivers” of transnational media fandom might be in the conversation. Are there aspects of specific transnational media that resonate with specific fandom practices in the target country (slash and yaoi again come to mind here)? Particularly in the case of such apparently different countries as, for example, Japan and the United States, the question of what exactly it is about anime texts (and its modes of production and distribution) that is so attractive to transnational fans is one that had yet to be fully interrogated.

Yet the word “substantive” is a sticking point for me, insofar as it seems to ask fans to justify their interest in non-native popular culture – something that we simply don’t ask of fans of domestic media. Failing this, critics such as Iwabuchi tend to dismiss what transformative work the fandom might perform, and yet my own experience and that of the women I’ve interviewed suggests that, for at least some fans, this work does in fact occur. This would probably be your “committed core” of language students; they may not represent the mainstream of anime fans (and not all of them may even be fans), but that even a few take a very personal interest and parlay it into something that exceeds their fandom suggests that, at the very least, the question of what constitutes “substantive” interest in the cultures of other nations needs to be revisited.

DS: I think you are right in the sense those who go the distance are transformed by their engagement with the subject, though the degree to which this relates to their capacity as fans or as learners is a conversation in itself. To come back to your point about the play of language, in the Q&A session at a conference a few years ago I heard Western anime and game fandom being described as an ‘infinitely shallow pool’, in which fans circulated information about the latest series of gameworld which incredible rapidity and energy, but that any single encounter with that media was not defined with particular depth. The anecdote of kids torrenting hours and hours of Naruto, Inuyasha and the like, but never getting round to watch it, constructed this contemporary archetype of the cable-internet-fuelled frenzied collector. While I don’t find this sort of illustration particularly illuminating, writers like Thomas Lamarre have observed that contemporary otaku spectatorship can be understood as a process of ‘scanning’ a series, or vinyl figure, or manga, for affirmative traces of textual tropes, which chime with established genre and representation conceits, understood by the fan community. Extending from this, fans knowledge of the Japanese language follow its yoked association with signification important to the currency of fandom. And so, to return to that first Japanese lesson filled with my students, they will certainly know the word for cat, neko, since feline-eared characters are a mainstay in the manga/anime/cosplay world. The language of anime is the currency, not Japanese per se. Language and world are intimately bound in this fandom; is the labour intensive investment in learning conversational Japanese measured against its use within the fan community, when the rhetoric of fandom legitimates and even celebrates what to orthodox eyes is ‘partial knowledge’, but which, in the case of fan subculture, constitutes a world of signs all of its own.

So, in contrast to the picture you posed of conversations across borders, I think transnational fandom in animation and games is not so much the cosmopolitan conversation it might have been portrayed as previously. I think that the majority of young people in this country who actively hunt out Japanese manga/anime/games/film do so with a view to pursuing a passion (albeit an increasingly mainstream one) that provides them with a means to re-imagine themselves outside of the relative confines of their domestic experience. I am trying to speak from the perhaps mythic position of a ‘general fan’, and I think such a thing exists, since commercial culture is now configured so absolutely to provide consumers with a means to invest in an experience of fandom as much as a text in itself. The organization of comic book, music and media stores are optimized to create the sensibility of the collector, and with manga imports, invariably the pricing and sale pitching compound this effect. Rarefied media are no longer the golden chalice they once were, where transnational media relations were evidenced in import/export flows. Transnational dimensions to contemporary media are found in its production of meaning through narrative and representational cues, which assume unforeseen levels of literacy in a wide variety of territories, along with the serialization and multimedia distribution of franchised intellectual properties. In this space, fan endeavour is characterized by a systemic filtering of proliferating media around a core text. Finding the good stuff assumes that you know the bad when you see it, and implicit to this assumption, is that almost any franchise will not exist as a single series, film or manga, but will spawn unforeseen ancillary media texts claiming to extend its scope.

The face of popular culture is merging into one, with transnational flows moving with a frightening intensity. When I was a teen Japanese popular culture was monolithic and exotic, now kids have Korean Chinese and their own homegrown media, which has followed the Japanese mould. But still, most interesting to me are the generic realities of Japanese culture that are coded as gendered. Shojo and Shonen, girls and boys genres, and beyond that Seinen, Bishonen, Yaoi. The specification of genres featuring action stories for boys, or stories of beautiful boys for girls in Japan, or for British queer teenagers who revel in the Bowie-like anti-heroes, I think the enduring influence on fandom that has come from transnationalism has been the complication of archetypal gender roles. While the people I speak to consider themselves fans, they choose to operate in shallower waters than the first generation of fans that aimed for the stars, and they nonetheless return to the enduring influence, through games/manga/anime of these new subjectivities, and for instance the subversive power of explicitly queered male heroism. Its amazing to me how the image of young men nowadays, through bands like Fallout Boy/AFI/Lost Prophets, draw on the image culture of imported anime from the eighties and nineties. Not quite dandyism, since a certain sobriety is key, the hair and the attention to detail is suffused with anime influences, and the gender play most explicitly betrays this heritage. Through Japanese performers like Gackt whose influence can be traced in the contemporary ‘scenester’ and ‘emo’ aesthetics, the softening of male aesthetics is perhaps the most enduring evidence of how fandom went mainstream here in the UK.

Wrapping Up

LHM: Given the really nascent state of writing on gendered (and gendering in) media fandom in the transnational context, I feel like we’ve only been able to begin to think through some of the issues at work here. We seem to be performing a dance around issues of in/authenticity, transcultural and transsexual masquerade, and carnivalesque language play that I’d love to see picked up and discussed more in the comments. Thanks for a rigorous and thought-provoking discussion, David.

DS: Yeah, writing late in the gender and fandom series has meant so much ground has been covered, I have found myself drawing a lot on my own experiences. I think that the potential for a further discussion on issues of authenticity in fandom is huge, since it plays such a decisive role in the structure and hierarchy of communities. As you say, it would be good to take it further in the comments. It’s been great fun Lori.