Purity, culture and cross-culture fandom in Japanese jazz and reggae

I know, I know, right after I said that I would start posting again… Well, I have a good reason, at least. This past weekend I was at the annual Association of Asian Studies meeting. It was hectic, and tiring, and I had a blast. There are some things I will do better next time (assuming I get to go again), but overall I’m pleased with who I met, who I heard and how I spent my time.

On Saturday, I was able to go to the “Individual Papers: Gender, Sex, and Self” panel. It was largely about sociolinguistics, which I know next to nothing about, so I wasn’t sure how useful it would be to me. However, I’ve had an interest in (and written a paper on) cross-dressing characters’ use of gendered pronouns in anime, so I thought I’d see what the current thinking of experts in the field was. I got a lot out of that panel, but I wanted to write about one specific paper from it: “Dreadlocks and Dajare: Localization and Globalization in Japanese Reggae/Dancehall” by Princeton’s Noriko Manabe. Certain parts of her paper reminded me of a chapter in Japan Pop called “Can Japanese Sing the Blues?: ‘Japanese Jazz’ and the Problem of Authenticity” by E. Taylor Atkins. I’m going to simplify like mad, and only use certain parts of the two works, so if you’re at all interested I would suggest looking more closely at Manabe’s and Atkins’ work. (I also didn’t take notes at the conference and haven’t read Atkins in over a year. You get what you pay for, folks.)

Both Atkins and Manabe look at Japanese fans of genres of music which are closely associated with a specific race or ethnicity – reggae with Jamaicans and jazz with African-Americans. When I first read Atkins’ chapter I thought it was interesting, if not really up my alley. After listening to Manabe, though, I’m seeing an intriguing pattern. According to them, both reggae and jazz fans in Japan go to great lengths to maintain the purity of the music they listen to. They manage how they listen to music to make the atmosphere more like the atmosphere they believe the originating community to be. They regard Japanese performers of reggae/jazz with skepticism – to the extent that some fans deny that Japanese performers can make “real” jazz or sing deep reggae notes like Jamaican deejays – and the performers in turn go to some lengths to create pure jazz/reggae. For example, Manabe details Japanese performers taking extended trips to Jamaica, learning and using Jamaican patois and buying background rhythms from Jamaican performers. These attempts to become like the original producers have some nasty side effects, including drug addictions among jazz musicians and homophobia among reggae deejays.

Neither Manabe nor Atkins (at least that I remember) tie Japanese assertions of being one nation, one race into their discussions. Using just two papers, both of which are about musical genres, is a bit of a stretch, but I wonder whether the attitudes are not two sides of the same coin. If you grow up believing that your nation and your people are a homogeneous group that outsiders cannot completely enter or understand, then it makes sense that other peoples might similarly be unknowable to you. If that’s true, then the attitude is unhappily close to orientalism, if in reverse (also very arrogant, in an odd way).

One negative impact of this attitude was clearly displayed by Manabe. Apparently, some Japanese fans and performers of reggae have taken up the homophobia that reggae has begun to move beyond, with those performers either excusing homophobic reggae artists or actively spreading homophobia through their own actions. The implication of many of these jazz and reggae fans’ actions seems to be that a member of one racial/ethnic group can only mimic another group’s culture, not actually join it, no matter how hard he tries. But if that belief underlies their actions, these fans are just trying on Jamaican or African-American culture like a coat that can be taken off at will. I wonder if the lack of willingness to play with the culture/music reflects a lack of confidence in themselves and their own culture. After all, if you are confident in yourself then you feel that you have something to bring to the table. If you truly believed that you, as a Japanese person, could not sing deep reggae notes, but you had confidence in yourself, you might play with the effects that higher notes create. (For the record, Manabe quoted a Japanese artist who explained that the high voice effect actually came from differences in how Japanese sound companies process background tracks, or something along those lines.) Instead, a lot of these fans create very tight strictures surrounding the music and try to fit themselves into those boxes.

So, I’ve been thinking about all of this for the past few days. I’m not sure what the fact that we’re only talking about music genres implies. Would it be different if we talked about sports? Do Japanese housewives watch Korean dramas subbed or dubbed? Then, too, I’m taking the few inches these papers provide and stepping out a couple yards here. You could as easily relate these practices to a sort of decentralized iemoto system with members of the originating culture acting as heads of the line. This raises the question of how Japanese fans view producers of these genres who come from other (non-Jamaican/non-African-American) cultures as well. Hopefully someone will do some work on all of these questions…

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A Few Thoughts on Otakon, Part II

Last time I discussed trends in the industry, this time I want to talk about trendy things. In other words, the last post was all state of the anime and manga companies-ish, while this time I want to talk about what was popular/in style at Otakon this year. There were really only a few things with super-popularity this year, and at least two of them are tied together.

1. Alice in Wonderland

Anything and everything Alice-y. For full disclosure :), I myself bought a black hoodie with an Alice-style print down the side. It looks very cool. It being the middle of summer, my new hoodie shall now hide in my closet for several months.

Anyway, the Alice influence was visible everywhere. Some things weren’t obviously Alice-inspired in and of themselves, but when seen with the vast array of lace-pinafore dresses, outfits splashed with images of the card suits (hearts, spades, et cetera), hoodies with rabbit ears attached and so on, their influence became very clear. And I adore it. Everything looked so cute, and I am so unemployed… Seriously though, a lot of the Alice-inspired clothing could be worn in public (i.e. at places where non-otaku reside) and still seem stylish. Aside from clothing, I was able to find Sakura Kinoshita’s manga version of Alice in Wonderland, and various and sundry similar Alice paraphenalia. This is in part related to

2. Kuroshitsuji

Kuroshitsuji is crazy popular right now. The manga begins its English serialization in August in Yen Plus, but many (myself included) have already seen the anime. A second series was already greenlit, which is interesting in light of the first series’ ending.

Kuroshitsuji follows Ciel Phantomhive, a very young English nobleman who trades his soul to a demon named Sebastian Michaelis for revenge. The clothing designs are very frilly – similar to how Alice is conceived by artists now. (Incidentally, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are making a new Alice movie. Yet more of the trend, and by two gentlemen that I very much respect.) Additionally, some of the characters in Kuroshitsuji seem similar to those in Alice, though not precisely the same. There is a Madame Red to the Red Queen; a character who dresses all in white like the White Rabbit (or, if you prefer, like the White Queen and King – this character cross-dresses); a young girl and the main character (who cross-dresses on occasion) who compare to Alice and her sister; there is also a character who trades information (worded confusingly) for funny jokes. The similarity is slim, but the emphasis on mysteriously-worded information and an eerie smile sounds like the Cheshire Cat.


Those two were the big ones, but I noticed that Code Geass‘ popularity is holding up well. Also a series called K-On seems mildly popular. Anyone else noticed anything in particular?

Edit: Incidentally, Pandora Hearts is another anime with a similar style.

A few thoughts on Otakon, Part I

Otakon, the anime convention based in Baltimore, was this past weekend. I went, as I have for the past ten years or so, and had some of the same thoughts that I’ve been having for the past few years. To save my friends from having to hear them all again, I’ll collect them here.

Otakon has lost some of its glamour for me. There are tons of people, lines are long and movement in the hallways is slow. These are not new developments. The con has been getting larger fairly steadily over the past decade. That I can deal with – more fans is, in general, a good thing for anime in America. But as it gets larger, it’s also getting more… corporate, for lack of a better word. For example, where most of the anime shown used to be fansubs, I think everything was licensed this year. The various companies have gotten better about turn-around times for getting anime from Japan to America, but there are a number of series that aren’t licensed that I would have liked to see – but haven’t.

That perhaps irritates me the most; Otakon has traditionally been how I got introduced to new, interesting series. Over time, as I got more and more immersed in anime, I have found fewer new series through Otakon. However, this year there was only one new series that a)was interesting and b) was watchable. By “watchable”, I mean subbed.

I was irked to find that the program only noted whether an anime was subbed or dubbed occasionally – and most of the time it wasn’t noted, the anime in question was dubbed. Subbed versus dubbed is a longstanding debate, but most of the fans dedicated enough to go to cons either (violently) prefer subbed or are willing to go either way. Those that choose dubs and dubs only are few and far between. And regardless of the fans’ preference, there is also the issue of viewing rooms. Otakon’s are large, and people enter and exit throughout showings. I figured out years ago that I simply couldn’t guarantee that I would hear enough of an episode clearly enough to make trying to watch it dubbed worthwhile. (As far as moving closer to the speakers is concerned, if I get close enough to be able to regularly hear the dialogue my ears hurt. A lot.) That is to say nothing of the fact that the a fair amount of editing goes into translating Japanese for dubs.

So why did Otakon show series dubbed so often this year? Because of the anime companies. Here I am particularly thinking of Funimation, on account of Baccano. Before I rip into them, let me first point out their new online viewing system and the speedy uploading of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Funimation normally rocks, but they’ve given me a perfect example of what I did not like about Otakon this year, so I’ll run with it.

Funimation has been letting people watch Baccano on their website dubbed (only – other series are available subbed or both subbed and dubbed). I don’t watch anime dubbed, so I haven’t watched Baccano. But it looks interesting, and I really wanted to see it. For the record, I do not buy DVD’s unless I have seen enough of a series to be sure that I want to buy it. In other words, when I see the first four episodes of a series at Otakon or any other convention, I am basically auditioning it – if it passes the audition and I can find it at a non-absurd price, then I buy it. And if I like a series, I recommend it to quite a few other people.

So there I am at Otakon, and Baccano is on the program. It didn’t say subbed or dubbed, and this being Otakon I assumed subbed. I managed to finish shopping in the dealers’ room, get food, et cetera, and be in the viewing room at the appropriate time on Friday… only to hear English. From the very back of a crowded room. That was full of busy chattering.

I was gone in under a minute.

Now, what companies like Funimation are trying to do is get a series popular amongst a large population of Americans. Anime licensing fees are high, particularly for popular series, so they are pressed to expand audiences.* And to get the largest audiences they have to show series on television. Dubbed. I get that. But at the same time, they want to use anime fans – who have large, influential networks, are willing to pay large sums for DVD’s and are used to agitating to get the newest release into stores – to advertise for them.

Here’s where I see a problem. I feel like the companies – companies, moreover, who have historically worked with fans, rather than against them – are beginning to ignore their core consumers’ wishes a bit. At the same time that Funimation is rolling out its own online viewing option, I’m hearing about anime companies contacting potential downloaders based on specious evidence, just like the RIAA did in the bad old days. It seems as though the companies feel that offering anime online in more venues constitutes some sort of lenience on their part, for which they believe they are due something from fans. Never mind that they are making money off of online viewing (or should be – if they aren’t, then there is a problem in their advertising fee structure).

So what is the result of all of this? It doesn’t look like the anime and manga boom will spread much further than it already has (see the slowed growth of both anime and manga sales prior to the economic collapse). But a number of the companies are still trying for just that. Tokyopop’s recent troubles are solely due to their single-minded pursuit of all things vaguely Japanese-ish and all fans of that style.

I don’t know if they ever switched back, but a year or two ago they changed their website entirely. The old version had its problems, certainly, but the new version was a total mess. Focused on online time-wasting of a half-deviantArt, half-MySpace variety, it took me something like twenty minutes to figure out how to get to a simple list of their new releases – every time I tried. Eventually I think they dropped the new releases list off the site entirely. When a company so loses track of what it’s selling that they don’t even advertise it on their website, you know that they’re headed for rough waters.

However, what really sunk Tokyopop was their determination to go after so-called American manga. I doubt they realized it, but they were marketing their American manga to the manga fans that started a boom in Japanese language studies, a group unlikely to be enthralled by a fake-Japanese art style. And they didn’t seem to market their works to American comics fans, who might have been intrigued by the new-to-them art style, or online comics fans, who already followed some of the American manga artists. In the end, there just wasn’t a large enough audience to suddenly begin sustaining a hybrid form like American manga to the extent that Tokyopop, which banked on the idea to continue explosively expanding their business, wanted.

Well, that’s my view of the industry today, a few days after my tenth? eleventh? Otakon. Clearly I’m a crusty old soul, but I like to think of it as tough love. I like the dubs of Gundam Wing and Slayers as much as anyone, or the speedy turnover of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or any of a number of other things that the industry has done, but I spent most of this year’s Otakon, like last year’s Otakon, wandering around the dealers’ room and Artists’ Alley, looking at Japanese-language artbooks, Alice in Wonderland-style clothing and anime-inspired artwork – not buying DVD boxsets. I’m not the only one, guys. Y’all need to get on top of this.

The follow-up to this will focus on trends in anime, and will, in theory, appear soon.

*High licensing fees are a continuing problem for anime companies (and probably manga companies too). However, that’s part of capitalism: The push and pull between what Japanese companies want in licensing fees and what American consumers will pay eventually evens out. Obviously that’s an untenable idea for the American companies, but the solution seems to be more explanation to the Japanese side (including hard numbers), rather than irritating the available consumers in vain attempts to find that one series that will be the next Pokemon, or selling single volumes of a series for $40 apiece, only to release a boxset for $39.95 within a year of releasing the last single DVD. (That’s definitely why I cut back on buying anime.) Personally, I wouldn’t mind if they just quit dubbing anime and passed the savings from voice actors’ and audio engineers’ salaries on to fans.