“Media Mix Is Anime’s Life Support System”: A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Four)

As both of you mention, Walt Disney’s work as an animator and as an industry leader exerted a strong influence on the development of the Anime system. What did the Japanese learn from Disney and how were his practices localized for the specific Japanese context?

Ian: Tezuka watched Bambi, 80 or 100 times, depending on which story you believe. He made fanzines of Disney characters. In his manga, “Metropolis,” one of the characters escapes from an evil-doer’s prison by sewing himself inside a giant irradiated rat that looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse. Anime fans often note that remarkable similarities between Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” and the much later “Lion King” by Disney.

Then again, as Otsuka Eiji noted at conference that Marc organized at Concordia University: “It’s true that Disney’s Lion King stole from ‘Kimba.’ But that’s OK because Tezuka stole from Bambi.” That got a laugh.

In his 2004 book, “The Complete History of Anime” (in Japanese, Nihon no anime zenshi), the anime historian Yasuo Yamaguchi identified a range of influences that reach from aesthetics to labor and business practices:

• The use of exaggerated expressions—for example, the “squash and stretch system” of deforming characters to emphasize their personalities.

• The storyboard system, which allowed Disney to use a variety of sequential pictures to convey the story and the feeling of the scenes to the animators.

• A curriculum for training new talent, which was necessary because with each hit production, animators would be hired away from Disney at higher salaries. Disney responded by developing a system to train new workers.

• The division-of-labor system, which allowed the Disney studio to work on animated shorts and feature-length films at the same time.

• Establishment of the Disney brand—for example, by describing all works as “Walt Disney presents” and polishing the brand image by having Disney himself personally introduce the works.

• The development of merchandising, whereby the licensor of animated characters would receive 3–7 percent of the sales price of goods related to those characters, which was necessary to offset the deficits incurred by animation production (Yamaguchi, Nihon no Anime Zenshi, 2004: 36–38).

The big adaptation of Disney’s ideas comes from relying increasingly on limited animation to make anime more cheaply, and by relying on already-popular manga characters to ensure a wide viewership.

Henry: One of the things many of us think we know about Anime and Manga is that its readership extends well beyond children, that it is much more diverse than would true of similar productions in the west. How is this diversity managed? Some forms of cultural production seem structured around generational or subcultural niches, while others get discussed in terms of their ability to enable transgenerational communication. What can you tell us about the relationship between niche and mainstream as they operate in this context?

Ian: Perhaps the key to the diversity around manga is that it is not well managed, at least not from above. What is managed is incorporating reader responses.

As I discuss in my book’s chapter 5, some writers have pointed out, correctly I think, that manga represents a kind of “democratic capitalism,” in the sense that the most popular works are also the best. They contrast this with music and film, where heavy-handed marketing can make somewhat mediocre productions become big hits. Not so, they argue, with manga. People who love manga read a lot of it. You can read it for free standing in a convenience story, and even manga that is purchased generally gets passed around to at least a few friends.

I’ll never forget when I met one of the founders of Comic Market (the enormous manga fanzine convention), and I asked him what manga I should be reading. He said, “All of it.”

I think that’s the attitude of the serious fans. They go through a tremendous amount of material. Each weekly-serialized magazine comes out with about 20 stories, and the readers are asked to send in postcards evaluating the best and worst three. The major publishers receive about 3000-4000 postcards a week. Popular series keep going, and less popular ones are removed to make way for a few of the legions of amateur artists hoping for their big chance.

Indeed, the diversity makes it difficult to characterize the links between niche and mainstream. Put simply, however, that niche series become mainstream often do so the old fashioned way, by building an audience.

Marc, you draw a useful distinction between toys which replicate the characters and toys which help the consumer to become the character. How central are forms of role-play to the cultural and economic processes you are both describing?

Marc: It’s a complex issue. In my book I note how there’s a shift from characters that you can be or play to characters toys that you can play with. In the late 50s costumes for the various characters were the rage, and children imitated their favorite characters, they became them. For a number of reasons including growing urbanization, the decline of play space and time, and the general rise in income that gave children greater spending power, the 1960s saw the rise of toys that can be played with. Children no longer bought the mask, the gun and the gloves, they bought the Astro Boy replica toy. In that moment they were cut out of a certain kind of play that allowed them to be the character – they could only play with the character.

This was followed closely after by the kaiju monster toy explosion that extended this. What I don’t talk about in my book is that the 70s sees a different shift: the rise of video games, where the character appears on screen. In some ways this was an extension of the character you play with, but it was also an opening towards that earlier form of play: you could feel like you are the character onscreen.

Another space we can see the return to being the character is in cosplay, where you build and inhabit the character for particular periods of time. I think it’s in these moments that you find the collaborative energy that Ian discusses. The character becomes the nexus for a kind of creative, or community-forming activity on the part of the cosplaying fans, and a kind of excitement for the surrounding people too.

 The concept of “moe” has been central to the study of Japanese anime, but it may not be familiar to many western readers. What is “moe”? What role does it play in shaping production and reception?

Ian: “Moe” (pronounced “moh-ay”) is a very unusual term. It generally refers to an affectionate yearning, often for young, female characters, and there’s a lot of debate about whether there is a sexual element to this longing or whether it is more about an innocent desire to nurture and protect.

“Moe” also has the same sound, though different kanji character, as “burning.” So, there can also an implication of raging flames of desire.

More precisely, however, “moe” refers to a kind emotional response to visuals, with or without a storyline or world around it. People publish photo books on “factory moe,” for example, aimed at those who respond to the elaborate architecture of refineries or manufacturing plants.

The point of using the term, I think, is to acknowledge the enormous diversity of fascination and desire that can arise from visual elements. Hiroki Azuma, who Marc mentions above, offers an extended discussion of moe in his book Otaku. He makes the point that moe is another departure from the emphasis on story, and even character, focusing instead on elements of characters, like cat ears, a tail, or glasses.

Indeed, the science fiction writer Mari Kotani organizes a regular club event in Tokyo for women who are fascinated by eyeglasses (megane moe). Their response is to the eyeglasses, not the personality of the person behind those eyeglasses. Talk about post-gender!

 Many of us have turned to Japan in search of alternative models for consumer-producer relations. What insights did you gain from your research about the ways that fans have sought to insert themselves in the production process around Anime? To what degree do Japanese media producers solicit the active participation of their audiences?

Ian: This is a really interesting question. My experience is that there is a sharp generational difference among Japanese media producers. The higher-ups at major manga publishers and anime studios begrudgingly admit that fan appropriation is something that they have to accept. The manga publishers I spoke to, for example, hate the idea of Comic Market amateur producers using their characters without permission or recompense. But they don’t really fight it either.

Some say that’s because the Japanese legal system would be harder to navigate successfully. I like to think it’s because deep down, they recognize their need to let fans have their spaces of participation.

As I mentioned already, manga publishers very much do solicit the feedback of fans and work these responses into their selections for future issues of their magazines. Anime producers don’t have this luxury because they have to start work six months in advance of broadcast, so they have a much more difficult time incorporating fan ideas.

But when I interview younger media producers, they seem to be aiming to create a very different kind of media object. They want to produce something that can be a “platform” rather than a narrative or some kind of “content.”

They are learning from the success of Miku, Japan’s crowd-sourced virtual singing idol. Miku started as voice synthesizer software that Crypton Future Media released, along with a free-to-use image of her as a blue-haired, 16-year-old pixie. Fans made the music, elaborated on the illustrations, and created their own videos, such that Miku has become one of the leading singing stars today, even though, technically, she doesn’t exist. Or rather, she exists as the social energy of fans that bring her to life.

In this, younger media producers see that openness, not control, can be the key to success. (Isn’t it interesting how copyright control no longer seems the key to making money?) When I spoke to a recent college grad with his own media startup, he similarly spoke of his desire to follow the path to success of the Toho Project, a vast transmedia phenomena that started as an amateur video game.

In both cases (and we could identify others), the success arises from creating something—a character, a world, a certain kind of premise, or a participatory space around something completely different—that others can build upon. To me, this represents a further shift from thinking about media in terms things internal to a world (story, character, premise) and more about creating figurative platforms that others can build upon.

This perspective has the potential to completely transform what we think of as media, and I think it offers some fascinating possibilities for thinking of the politics and pleasures of media. I guess it simply remains to be seen how spreadable these practices can be.

 

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo’s studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on “globalization from below,” that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.