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

This is the second in a series of interviews with key thinkers whose work addresses questions of world-building as they relate to media mix and transmedia practices. The previous installment featured Mark J. P. Wolf talking about his work on Tolkien’s notion of “subcreation” and the larger concept of “imaginary worlds.”

In a Making Of video included on the dvd release of The Matrix, it is revealed that the Wachowski Siblings first conceived of their transmedia approach to the franchise as they were flying back from the first film’s premiere in Tokyo. I have always assumed that this mid-Pacific brainstorming was inspired by what they saw when they visited the media capital of Japan and no doubt talked to creators there who have long worked in the media mix tradition. Some years back, I made this trip myself, tagging along with my then-MIT colleague Ian Condry as he began to do the interviews with anime and manga producers that would form the foundations for his new book, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. For me, the experience was eye-opening as I developed a sense of the scale, scope, and speed with which a pop culture phenomenon moves through this culture. I still discuss with amazement the cosplayers I saw in Yoyogi Park and the massive manga stores we visited in Akiharbara. Japanese media mix long proceeded the American transmedia tradition and it’s no shock when I discover yet another transmedia producer who started out as an anime/manga geek. I have featured an interview here before with Condry about his earlier work on hip hop in Japan and about a fascinating Anime-inflected performance he helped to stage while I was at MIT.

My own understanding of media mix has been strongly informed by the work of Marc Steinberg — both his own recent book, Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan and his translations of some key works by Japanese critics and practioners about the media mix tradition. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Marc when I visited Concordia University earlier this year, and at the time, I invited a scheme to get Marc and Ian to do a joint interview which might help place the Japanese approach into greater clarity for my readers. What follows is that exchange, conducted this summer, via email.

Henry: Let’s start with a question that Ian raises early in his book, “Why did Japan, of all places, become a global leader in animation”?

 Ian: Japanese animation or “anime” makes up 60% of the world’s broadcast TV cartoons, according to JETRO, a Japanese trade organization. Feature film anime is a global presence as well, with notable directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, and Mamoru Hosoda. Anime has gone global with both mass audiences and a diversity of subcultures. I would break down the sources of Japanese success in these too simple terms:

• Astro Boy beat Bambi by making animation more cheaply and quickly.

• Much anime is based on already popular comics, or “manga,” and manga are more expansive and diverse compared to US comics in part because Americans fell for junk science in the 1950s.

• Anime’s success centers on characters more than stories, opening particular spaces for fan participation and transmedia collectives.

I discuss each of these elements in more detail in my book, but let me touch on some of the highlights. Osamu Tezuka was a pioneer in television animation in Japan, and also a leading comic book artist from the 1950s to his death in 1989. He was deeply influenced by Disney’s classic animated films, including Bambi, which he allegedly watched more than 80 times. (The “big eyes” of anime characters might be traced in part to this influence and that of the Fleischer Brothers’ animation like Betty Boop.)

Marc will discuss the business model Tezuka relied on for his first TV series Astro Boy, begun in 1963, which was based on an already popular manga character of his. Let me point out that his production studio also innovated in the sense of pushing “limited animation” further than other studios. Tezuka Productions was able to meet television deadlines and work with a tiny budget in part by radically reducing the number of frames that had to be drawn (using few mouth movements, re-using flying scenes, and relying on dramatic poses rather than detailed action, etc.).

This produced relatively poor quality animation, at least, poor in comparison to Disney’s full animation, but, as Tom Lamarre argues in his book Anime Machine, certainly even limited animation was and is artful in its own way. Still, the legacy of slight embarrassment continues today: When I interviewed Japanese animators and asked them what made Japanese animation distinctive, I often heard, “Well, it’s not very animated, is it?”

Even so, with Astro Boy, the series was a huge success. This solidified the notion in Japan that even relatively poor animation could be popular, especially if it relied on already-popular manga characters. To this day, about 60% of Japanese animation is based on popular characters.

Japan also has a much larger comic book universe compared to the US, constituting about 40 percent of the units sold, and 20 percent of the value of Japanese publishing overall. Manga is read by children, teens and adults, even as it increasingly moves online and into mobile phones.

Manga is famous for generally having more sex and violence than comics in the US, and there is a historical reason for that. As David Hajdu describes in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, in the 1950s, America was rallied to protect children from salacious and gritty comic books in part by the research of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent found comic books harmful to kids. US publishers at the time responded by setting up the Comics Code Authority, which required comic books to be suitable for children. There were always doubts about Wertham’s research, and recently more evidence has emerged showing a misuse and even falsification of data (see, for example, this coverage )

In Japan, there have been outcries against troubling comic book material, but in general, a wider range of manga is readily available and continues to attract enormous readership. This variety lends itself to a diversity of source material for anime as well.

Arguably, fan participation has played a larger role in the history of anime than is the case with TV cartoons in the US. To take one example, the giant robot TV series Gundam, which began airing in 1979, was initially deemed a failure due to low viewership and poor sales of toys. Over time, however, amateur activity around the series grew, as fans created encyclopedias and timelines extending the fictional world of the series. Importantly, the Gundam producers did not object to these extensions, and eventually the series was revived, and has become one of the longest-running and most successful series of all time.

This kind of fan activity remains part of the bedrock of anime’s success, and can be seen in other media forms as well. Japan’s largest annual convention is Comic Market held each year in August, and it draws almost half a million people over three days to buy and sell fan-made comics (often with unauthorized uses of copyrighted characters). Miku is a virtual singer made popular through crowd-sourced production, where some people make music and others make the music videos, for example.

The concept, “media mix,” seems central to the project of both of your books. What does this term imply about the ways popular culture is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed in Japan?

Marc: The media mix is really central to how media operate in Japan. One of reasons I call my book Anime’s Media Mix is because ever since the beginning of television anime in 1963, the media mix has been central for anime’s very existence.

Betting that TV stations would refuse to pay the actual costs of production of a 30-minute animated TV show, Tezuka Osamu sold Astro Boy at a loss. He figured he’d make back the money on licensing fees for character goods – what we’d now call franchising – and international sales. So anime depends on other media (from toys to comics to video games) for its very survival.

The media mix is anime’s life support system. In turn anime grabs audiences that wouldn’t otherwise read a comic, or a novel, expanding the fan base. So ultimately there’s a kind of virtuous circle between the financial side of things and the fan side of things. As time moved on, and especially into the 1980s and 1990s, these grew closer and closer together. In the end it is rare to have a stand-alone cultural product, at least in the spheres considered “subcultural” in Japan, like comics, animation and light novels.

The media mix practice has even become central to “mainstream” areas like live-action films and TV dramas, especially since the 2000s.

Ian: I like the idea that the “media mix is anime’s life support system.” One of the questions I think about is, who supports the media mix? Whose activities bring this “media mix” to life?

As a cultural anthropologist, I like to draw more attention to the people, both professional producers and amateur creators, who form a nexus of collaborative creativity. The outcome is the “media mix,” but to ask about collaboration brings about a slightly different focus, in my opinion.

Like you, Henry, I too am interested in “spreadable media,” but I guess I see the impetus in the people who do the spreading, rather than being a function of the media object itself. (Editor’s Note: I would have said that the focus of our Spreadable Media book is on the community that is circulating the content and the ways the content functions as social currency in their interactions with each other. So I don’t think we are actually disagreeing here.) Granted, there is something amazing about Susan Boyle’s rise to stardom, and a lot of that has to do with her superior singing talent. It’s interesting as well, however, that her fans found something worth sharing and reached out to friends and colleagues to push interest in her even farther than the TV show alone could.

 

What relationship exists between “media mix” and the western concept of “transmedia storytelling”? How has the emergence of “media mix” changed the nature of storytelling in Japan?

Marc: This question about the relationship between media mix and transmedia storytelling is an important one. On the one hand I see Japan’s media ecology as really central to the conceptualization of transmedia storytelling. I think back to what I think is a key chapter of your book, Convergence Culture, where you analyze The Matrix as a key example of transmedia. As you point out, the Wachowskis develop the conception of The Matrix expanded universe on the way back from Japan, and you point out how influential the Japanese model of dispersing content across media was to them.

The conception of an expanded world which consumers access part by part was developed in Japan around Kadokawa Books by Kadokawa Tsuguhiko, Otsuka Eiji, Mizuno Ryo, Sato Tatsuo, Inoue Shin’ichiro and others in the late 80s and early 90s. These magazine editors and media creators associated with Kadokawa effectively shifted from being authors to being media mix producers. Otsuka, Mizuno and others create manga, or write novels – MPD Psycho and Record of the Lodoss War being two of their most renown works, respectively – but most importantly they oversee the production of various media incarnations or fragments of a whole. They were also keen to include fans as part of this, leaving holes in the narratives for fans to fill in.

Gainax’s Evangelion – funded and then published in part by Kadokawa – is an excellent example of this kind of media mix. Storytelling became focused not on development in a single medium, but around the development of a world or series of narratives across media. So I see the more recent emphasis on transmedia in North America especially as at least partly influenced by media mix practice from Japan.

Of course the twist to this narrative is that Kadokawa Tsuguhiko and others were deeply influenced by the table top role playing game (TRPG) model – where a preexisting world could be developed across multiple works. They give Dungeons and Dragons and the Dragonlance series of books that used D&D as a basis as an example.And in an early theorization of Kadokawa media mix practice, Otsuka analogizes the producer position to the TRPG “game master.” So there’s definitely a kind of mutual influence going on.

On the other hand, and this brings us back to some of what Ian said a moment ago about the importance of the popularity of characters, there are debates as to just how central narrative is to the media mix. Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals makes the case that from the late 90s through the early 2000s there is a decline in “grand narratives” and an increasing centrality of non-narrative characters in the media mix. Basically he revives the postmodern thesis about the decline in grand narratives to apply it to developments in anime, manga, and games.

And it’s true, there are a lot of character-based works that don’t have much emphasis on narrative at all. Lucky Star comes to mind, and so does Ian’s discussion of Hatsune Miku. But we can think a little more historically about this too. Hello Kitty is one of the most successful characters of all time, but narrative was only an afterthought, and generally unimportant to what is for all intents and purposes a hugely successful media mix.

Ian and I both make the case that characters and worlds come first, and narratives are often built subsequently to the characters and worlds. Again, I think Japan is an important precursor to the recent trend towards world-building in Hollywood that you’ve highlighted, Henry. So there is an important connection between transmedia storytelling and the media mix.

But the media mix is not always about storytelling. That said I personally find the development of narratives across media a particularly interesting way of using the affordances of Japan’s rich media ecology to create fascinating story worlds. And I’m personally intrigued by the high tolerance for inconsistencies or divergences in media mix worlds that I find in Japan, much more than in North American models of transmedia. /blockquote>

Ian: I agree completely. I experienced this ambiguity around storytelling in an unusual way during fieldwork in Tokyo when a colleague invited me to meet with some producers from Bandai Visual to hear about their then-forthcoming series Code Geass. They spent an hour describing the characters and world of the series, but never talked about the story. I left the meeting thinking, “I still have no idea what happens in the series.” My Japanese friend was surprised at my confusion. “They probably haven’t written the story yet,” he noted.

For them, the key part of the planning was the characters and the worlds, which ideally would be spun off into a range of stories. The design is much more about characters and the rules of the world.

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.