Millenial Monsters: An Interview with Anne Allison (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of an interview with Duke professor Anne Allison talking about her recent book, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Today, I continue that interview. I mentioned last time that I spoke on a panel with Allison at Duke and thought I'd share a few more aspects of my interest in this area.

For one thing, the New Media Literacies project is currently working on a documentary about the cosplay community: our team went to Ohayocon this January to do interviews with anime fans and the costuming community. I wasn't able to share that footage at Duke but I was able to share some footage that a recent CMS alum, Vanessa Bertozzi, had produced of a young woman named Chloe who described the ways that cosplay and her fascination with JPop and anime motivated her to learn more about the Japanese culture and language:

"I have been really interested in Japanese culture since I was in sixth grade. When I was in the seventh grade, I started studying Japanese on my own. When I got into high school, I started taking Japanese courses at Smith College. I got into costuming through anime which is actually how I got interested in Japanese. And I taught myself how to sew. ...I'm a stage hog. I like to get attention and recognition. I love acting and theater. The biggest payoff of cosplay is to go to the conventions where there are other people who know who you are dressed as and can appreciate your effort. At the first convention I ever went to, I must have had fifty people take my picture and at least ten of them came up and hugged me. It's almost like whoever you dress up as, you become that person for a day....People put the pictures up on their websites after the con. So after a con, you can search for pictures of yourself and if you are lucky, you will find five or ten. "

Chloe is representative of what I have called "pop cosmopolitanism." I have mentioned this concept in the blog before and wrote about it extensively in an essay that is found in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers. She has attached herself to Japanese popular culture as a way to escape the paroachialism of contemporary American culture -- to find a world outside or beyond the American borders. And in doing so, she has moved from a fantasy version of Japanese culture towards closer engagement with Japanese fans via the internet and with Japanese language and culture through her courses at Smith College.

I also shared with the group some sense of the ways that the American comics industry has started to absorb influences from manga in the hopes of combatting a trend which finds Japanese comics outselling American comics by as much as four to one in the U.S. market, perhaps the only internationally produced media content that outsells its domestic counterpart in this country. I showed how companies like Marvel and DC had sought to absorb elements of the themes and style of Manga while attaching them to their flagship superhero characters with the greatest emphasis occuring in works that target female consumers. See for example the romance comic, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, for a comic that deals with classic Marvel superhero themes in a manga style. Indeed, this turn towards manga style in both mainstream and indie comics is starting to open up a space for female writers and artists as well. A curiosity in this case is the link between manga and female readers/writers given that the Japanese comics being imitated here are not always or even primarily those aimed at female readers in Japan. Lots more here to reflect upon in the future, that's for sure.

I also suggested that this was an international phenomenon, citing as an example The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga , a British anthology that I picked up in Singapore. The editors struggled in their introduction to justify the use of "manga" to characterize a collection of works by a global set of contributors, including some very interesting work Asia Alfasi (Libyan by birth, Scottish by residence), who uses a manga style to tell the story of a hijab-wearing Arab Muslim girl living in the United Kingdom. The book represents one of a number of recent efforts to strip the term, "manga," of its specific reference to Japan and argue that "manga" refers to a specific set of styles and genres in comics that travel freely across national borders in an increasingly global marketplace of ideas and influences. On the one hand, this book suggests the world-wide influence of Japanese media and at the same time, it suggest ways that media producers in other countries are learning to attach themselves to this phenomenon to open up the western market to their own cultural products. A core question at the present time is whether "Cool Japan" is an unique phenomenon or whether we will see more and more national cultures attract their own passionate groups of young fans in the west.

Now, back to the interview...

In the book, you draw on the concept of de-odorization to talk about the ways cultural materials are stripped of their local specificity as they enter the local markets. Yet at this point, Japanese culture carries enough cache that it's styles and themes are actively being imitated by American companies. Do you see this as a shift in the strategies by which Japanese cultural goods are being marketed?

Yes, and it represents a change coming from both Japan and the US. Until about the early 1990s, cultural products from Japan that bore the trace of their cultural roots too strongly simply didn't sell very well abroad. Given this, companies like Sony purposely tried to make "global" versus "Japanese" products (Sony itself was a name chosen for its global-cachet and its electronics were colored gray with an aesthetic style meant to be modern and international rather than Japanese per se). For the past decade or even a bit longer, however, there has been a global fad for Japanese products that has now come to value, even fetishize, their "Japaneseness." A Saban executive told me that when Power Rangers came out in 1993, the show had to be Americanized and its Japanese roots heavily censored. However, by 2002 (when I was talking with him), showing Japanese script, riceballs, or temples in a Japanese cartoon was an added attraction and not only was it not airbrushed out, such signs of Asianness were now being actively solicited.

In your book, you write, "the quest is not so much for the authentic Japan but for what 'made-in-Japan' authenticates -- a leading brand name of coolness these days." Explain. What qualities do you think American young people associate with Japan? What fantasies are served by their quest of Japanese cultural goods?

What I think Japan authenticates in the minds, fantasies, and tastes of US fans of J-cool is not so much Japan as a real place as mush as a particular aesthetic. I characterize this aesthetic in my book by the qualities of polymorphous perversity ( a continual moving of borders,constant transformation, repetitive change and accretion of powers, body-parts, and mecha) and techno-animism ( a world that gets animated by technology and human bodies that, in this animation, also become cyborgs). Godzilla embodied these two qualities and arose in Japan at a moment of historical disrupture and postwar reconstruction. My argument is that--in part because of Japan's wartime and postwar history--it bred a fantasy culture more dependent on polymorphous perversity and techno-animism than was American pop culture at the time. Now, the US is less stable, complacent, and economically secure than it was in the 1950s and itself is experiencing some of the social and political tensions Japan was in the 1950s. Also this is a moment of heightened flux, migration, change, and mobility around the world; these social conditions breed and embrace the cultural tropes so rampant in J-cool and this is what the "Japan" of J-cool represents for American fans, I argue.

What developments in Japanese media content have occurred since you finished writing the book that you wish you had been able to touch upon?

Technology has developed ever further on cell-phones and in the kinds of story-telling and digital communication being conducted on various e-waves. There is also new trends in youth culture and in the kind of virtual companionship I dealt with in my chapter on tamagotchi. What is happening to the way "human" is getting constructed and "sociality" getting negotiated are questions I'd like to expand upon further in the future.

How important are the digital dimensions of the franchises you discuss? Chris Kohler has argued in an interview in my blog a while back that it was games which opened western markets for Japanese cultural goods. Do you agree or disagree with this claim?

I think games were a big factor in opening up western markets to Japanese goods but I think cartoons, manga, action toys (like transformers), morphing fantasies like Power Rangers, and media-mix complexes like Pokemon were as important.

Thinking of Power Rangers, for example; this was a live action show that incorporated morphing at the heart of the fantasy. This was hardly a brand-new idea in American popular culture, of course, but what made it so popular was, in part, the lines of action figures that accompanied it (and helped spread the fantasy) and also the fact that it was targeted to young kids who grew up socialized into what we could call a Japanese aesthetic. Consumers and fans of genre like anime and manga often point to how young they were when they became interested in this fare and how what drew them in was the very distinct aesthetic, explicitly different from what they understood to be an American aesthetic. In the wake of the popularity of Power Rangers (broadcast on Fox Network started in 1993 and is still going on today, 14 years later), a host of Japanese cartoons, live action shows and other youth-targeted cultural products flooded the US market (not all acquiring success, however--Masked Rider, another live-action morphing show, was a bust, for example). While some of these programs/products were not overtly identified as Japanese, consumer kids picked up on and acquired a taste for their aesthetics and, by now, at a later age, are more than happy to accept anime, manga, and video games that come from Japan (and are explicitly packaged as such).

I do agree with Chris Kohler, however, that what constitutes what he calls a "nationally specific" element versus a "transnational" element in a product like a video game or manga is constantly changing. Today, there are many "manga" produced outside of Japan and by non-Japanese. So is the aesthetic at work here "Japanese" or not? Difficult questions and tricky operations of national/transnational.