Hobby or Profession: Translating Less-Popular Manga

Digital Manga Publishing has announced a new publishing scheme called Digital Manga Guild. The idea is that none of the people involved in producing DMG products – translators, letterers, editors, Digital Manga Publishing or the original license holders – will take any upfront payments. Everyone will take a percentage cut of sales (what percentage has yet to be stated; I’m assuming “pretty small”). DMG works will be sold as electronic files (i.e. no hardcopies, at least according to the plan as announced so far).

On the one hand, plans like DMG could lead to manga translators (and anime subbers?) having a similar problem as college professors (more on that below). On the other hand, I wonder if this signifies a realignment of the industry. The manga and anime audiences have not been expanding for awhile now, meaning that economies of scale aren’t going to kick in and knock DVD/book prices down any more to open up a bigger, more frugal audience. At the same time, the recession has made many people reconsider how willing they are to regularly spend $10 or more on a book that they might finish reading in twenty minutes. On top of that, five or ten years ago the market was more unified in its interests than it is today. A lot of the consumers who bought Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura when they first came out are now interested in josei or seinen works like Butterflies, Flowers or Emma, but the newer, younger audience that became interested in Naruto and Fruits Basket isn’t necessarily ready for works that mature. (This is not to say that no one will read all of the above; I have. It’s just that there aren’t enough of us to sustain an industry.) The industry is at a crossroads. It could try to grow its audience more, although how is not clear and there haven’t been any big titles out of Japan to spark interest like Sailor Moon or Naruto. Alternatively, it could focus on retaining its current audience, but the pitfalls of that approach are apparent from looking at the American comics industry, whose struggles are legion and whose most recent successes lie in the movies, not comics. Given the major problems with both of these options, companies like DMP are getting creative.

That brings us back to the Digital Manga Guild, which is an attempt to monetize something that already exists. Whether it succeeds is, as I see it, entirely dependent on whether it can get people to pay for scanlations. Personally, I wouldn’t, but I’m a bit of a Luddite in that respect – I don’t use Itunes, and I’ve been known to pay extra to have a hardcopy of a software program mailed to me after I downloaded it just in case. (Actually, I’m a bit surprised they’re trying to get people to buy the files instead of having them ad-supported. If they were ad-supported, they could snap up OneManga’s and MangaFox’ users like that. Of course, there is no proof that anyone behind either of those sites ever made any profit.)

But I digress. The manga-reading audience seems to be divided into two groups: casual readers, who will follow one or two series on their own, might pick up more volumes at their local libraries and occasionally go to a convention or dress up as a character for Halloween; and the more hardcore fans, who will follow many series over the course of years or even decades, go to multiple conventions regularly or one (preferred) convention religiously, join clubs, make art, learn Japanese – and translate or edit manga for scanlations. These fans often spend a lot of money on manga and anime, and rarely see any money come in for all of their efforts. Fans also have more particular interests. Every so often they are chastised because their consumption habits are supposedly destroying the anime and manga they love. They’ve seen dozens of high school romance comedies with pretty art and cute leads who initially clash but eventually blah blah blah, so they need more intricate plotting in order to get behind a series.

The Digital Manga Guild says two things to these fans. First, it values their work. Some commentators and some members of the industry have openly derided scanlators for low-quality translations and argued that scanlations hurt legitimate sales (with little and contradictory proof). By embracing scanlators, DMG is also getting seriously good press as far as a portion of its audience is concerned. Second, it sounds like DMG titles will be precisely the sort of little-known, smaller audience works that the current publishing scheme simply cannot adapt to America. Publishing them would require too much outlay with too small an audience to make a profit. By going digital-only AND paying everyone based on sales, DMG simultaneously widens the pool of potentially-adaptable works and lowers the price-threshold for publication. This is an interesting and canny move, even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.

What caught my interest about DMG, though, is that this move keeps reminding me of the rise of adjunct professors at colleges in the U.S. For decades we’ve been over-producing Ph.D.’s, so colleges moved to paying incredibly low rates to “part-timers” to teach classes and thereby combat steadily decreasing state and federal subsidies. This had the effect of making the higher education industry appear healthy on the surface despite deep and long-standing problems. In the manga translation industry, I think it might have the opposite effect.

To be clear, in both cases these developments are negatives for the people being adjuncted. The difference is that I am not persuaded that adjunctification of some kinds of manga translation would necessarily be a net negative. When you adjunct-out your professoriate, you lose a lot of the less-tangible benefits of full-time professors that only become obvious when a student wants to meet with a professor who is only on her campus for the hour before class every week, or when a student who graduated a year ago needs recommendations from professors who are no longer working at that campus and didn’t leave forwarding addresses, or when new curricula need to be designed but only one, overburdened full-time professor knows what the new transfer requirements for English 101 are. Professors also need to be extremely timely on a regular basis. Given forty homework assignments, they must grade and comment on them all quickly. Someone fitting a class around their own job, or trying to fit five classes in at once, will have trouble with all of that.

In contrast, part-time translators, given the large number of capable translators we already see doing it on a regular basis, merely bring the problem of continuity.* That is, if we translate oshare ningen as “Stylish” in episode/chapter one of Princess Jellyfish, we need to make sure that it’s that way in the next chapter/episode as well. However, in the past, the assorted hardcopy publishers haven’t exactly set a pristine example here either, so I don’t see this being more of a problem in the DMG model.

Absent the problems I’ve pointed out with higher education, a supplemental, online manga translation industry driven by part-timers could open up new manga possibilities for older readers who want more mature works as well as other niche groups (like those interested in BL, horror, pornography and yuri) who would not likely see many manga in print that fit their interests. This would entice those groups to continue or even deepen their involvement with manga, in turn opening up new revenue possibilities for manga translation companies like DMP.

It all turns on the fact that this variety of manga consumption is a hobby. Some hobbyists are incredibly keen on it, it’s true, but it is a hobby, in the same vein as model trains or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is very, very rare for people in this sort of hobby to make a living on their related activities, and those that do (such as costume designers who sell at Renaissance Fairs) rarely make princely sums. Those who have managed to create or work in companies like Viz and Tokyopop can attest to how difficult it is to get such a career – but they also make decisions about what manga to translate based on print audience considerations. The sort of translation that we’re talking about here involves little-known works that only dedicated fans would search out – and that is very definitely “hobby” territory. Since it seems that the initiative is aimed at those works which would not otherwise be published, I’m inclined to view this new initiative as an innovative way of returning some money to those hobbyists whose work contributes to the hobby. The trick is how it develops from here. If we start seeing the further adjunctification of those translators working on bestsellers like Alice in the Country of Hearts then I’ll start to worry.

*Before anyone argues, my opinion about the quality of scanlation versus hardcopy translations is that there are good and atrocious examples of both, but that the best scanlation translations are usually at least as good as the published versions, if not better.


RED and a Reverse Bechdel

I was all set to post about Mechademia, but then I saw RED today and somehow my plans changed. (I also saw a soccer game at which they gave away red scarves, but I didn’t get one, so who cares?) Anyway, on with the show.

Slight spoilers, though not too bad.

RED is the story of Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA assassin who is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, but also beginning to find love – until he is suddenly attacked by assassins. Bada bing, bada boom, he is back in the game. In short order he collects his lady love Sara Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) – to keep her safe, of course – and a handful of old comrades (or at least pleasant enemies) and sets about finding out who wants him dead/stopping them. It’s a fun movie that I would encourage you to see. For all the violence of the premise there’s not a ton of gore. There are plenty of explosions, which always pleases me, but your mileage may vary on that one. No, what I want to talk about here is the Bechdel test. For those of you who don’t know it, the Bechdel test came out of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. It’s gained notoriety because it showcases cleanly and clearly how badly women are represented in films. The test has three parts, as follows.

A movie must have:
1. two female characters
2. who talk to each other
3. about anything except men.

It sounds so simple. Women constitute about half the population. We talk to each other often at work, at home, on the phone, in locker rooms and restrooms… Topics of conversation include our jobs, our bosses, our kids, our hobbies, our yoga classes, new recipes, plays… You would think films would capture this as a matter of course. But they don’t. If you want to see how your favorite films stack up, head over to The Bechdel Test and search for them. You might be surprised. Then again, you might not. The Social Network failed, for anyone who’s been following the hubbub about that.

Now, you’re probably thinking “So, does RED pass?” and really, I’m not sure. There are four named female characters with speaking parts that I recall*, and of them I think two do speak together about something other than a man. That being an exchange along the following lines:

Boss: “What are you doing?”
Employee: “Nothing. Just… nothing.”

Not much, but enough to pass. Remember, this test is a basic measure; it’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all of realistic portrayals of women. There might have been more such exchanges, too. As I said, I didn’t pay that close attention. (I was too busy having fun.) What I did notice was how multiple characters pulled aside Frank Moses and spoke to him… about a woman.

There isn’t a reverse Bechdel test – two men who speak to each other about anything except a woman – because we don’t need one: practically every movie would pass it with flying colours. RED is a little different. It works Moses’ progress in falling in love to his progress in settling into retirement. In other words, it realistically suggests that, for a male character, a girlfriend isn’t merely a person the bad guys can kidnap at the appropriate moment or a fun roll in the hay while waiting for an assassin to come. She’s someone to talk to, someone you have to work with – and occasionally someone you really, really want to like you even though you effectively kidnapped her. In short, she is a part of your life. So we have Moses mentioning the woman he collected so that she wouldn’t be killed to his old friend, and then his other friends ask him about her, repeatedly, and then when the bad guys kidnap her (as you knew they would) naturally they have to mention her on the phone to him and again to each other. She’s central to the movie, as she’s central to Moses.

I didn’t keep track at the beginning of the movie because it’s so rare, but I wonder if this movie could pass a reverse Bechdel test? It might not. If Sara Ross is involved in all of the scenes where they’re planning how to find the bad guy, I don’t think it would.

This left me thinking, if a movie failed a reverse Bechdel test, would I care so much if it passed the actual Bechdel test? After all, if a movie solely included mixed-sex group scenes it would be incapable of passing the test, but at the same time it would be putting female characters front and center throughout the entire film, which is what the test was made in hopes of. I could go for that.

Final note, for those who are skeptical that the short dialogue above should give any proof of a movie’s seriousness about depicting women: I’ve noticed, over the years, that some TV and film pieces manage to work in small hints that yes, there are these creatures called women out there. A short scene in NCIS where the head of NCIS, an agent and a forensic pathologist – all female – discuss the most appropriate courtroom attire to ensure that one is taken seriously. Use of a sanitary pad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound in Salt. There is such a moment in RED. I’d be happy to tell you about it, but it alone of all the scenes in the movie (and there were many funny moments) got the entire audience laughing as one. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I assure you that it’s there. In addition, please note that I have written this whole post without mentioning Helen Mirren’s Victoria. This is because she is so fantastic I didn’t feel I could do her justice in the context of a Bechdel test-related post. And someone chose to make the most noticeable assassin female. Good choice. Offhand, for major characters I’m counting seven male and four female. For an action movie, that’s rather astonishing. Go take a look and see if you don’t like it.

*I should note that some people only count named characters for the test. For the purposes of this movie, I only recall the named characters + one unnamed woman who only spoke to men, and there wasn’t a huge speaking cast besides, so it shouldn’t have an impact.

Nationalism, Optimism and NCIS: Los Angeles

My favorite new show of fall 2009 is starting up again next week, so naturally I’ve been thinking about it. Then, yesterday, I read Alessandra Stanley’s review of this fall’s new series in the New York Times, which basically counters what I’ve been thinking about NCIS: LA.

Stanley argues, in the course of reviewing the new series lineup, that “decline and the erosion of the American dream infuse public discourse, so it’s inevitable that a streak of pessimism courses through the best new fall shows.” I don’t necessarily disagree with her observations about the new series, but I do think that my beloved NCIS: Los Angeles offers a good counterexample which suggests that she may be confusing correlation with causality here. It’s entirely possible that the general suckiness of now is resulting in pessimistic art. However, that same malaise has been hanging around this country for awhile – up to a decade, if you’re the stereotypical Hollywood liberal or were struck in a certain way by the September eleventh attacks. Why would that distress only show up now? Certainly you can argue for it showing up in other formats previously – such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – but there are as many examples against (United 93) as for. NCIS: LA is a particularly good counterexample because it is also a TV show; it premiered barely a year ago; and it is the third in a series of TV series, which allows us to look at how the JAG/NCIS/NCIS: LA formula has been tweaked over time.

JAG and NCIS have been steady law-and-order procedurals, one focusing on the court side of things, the other the investigative. NCIS: LA follows NCIS much more closely than NCIS followed JAG, but also sexes up the basic formula with more explosions, mysteries, spies and violence. At the same time, NCIS: LA uses its characters to display a heightened nationalism compared to the original NCIS – which, itself, has been suggesting nationalistic feelings through a recent story arc revolving around an Israeli Mossad agent’s pursuit of American citizenship. Continue reading

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…

Alices’ Wonderlands

I wrote awhile back about the Alice in Wonderland trend. Well, I kept thinking about it, and I’ve decided to do a series of posts on various adaptations of Alice. Most of the posts will be about Japanese variations, but since I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland yesterday, I thought I’d start with that. Fair warning, sailors, spoilers be ahead!

Okay, so what is Burton’s Alice? It is neither Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, though it features characters and situations from both. However, the plot is largely new. Burton’s Alice is a 19-year-old lady facing an uninteresting marriage proposal at the beginning of the movie. The new plot involves the Red Queen as a murderous despot, whose fearsome beast Alice is foreordained to slay. Alice, however, is uninterested in slaying anything, and only gets backed into it through her deep friendship with the Mad Hatter.

(I feel the need to insert here that Johnny Depp portrays the Hatter with both charming and convincing insanity; Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is endearingly independent in a rather timid manner [at least at first]; Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is self-centered in a greatly amusing way; and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is just great – kind, but not all there, if you know what I mean, in a way that strikes me as perfect. And it wasn’t just them. There was a lot of good acting going on.)

*Ahem* Anyway, Alice is made older and the plot involves more action. This is where I got very excited: this film is crazy female character-centric. While TtL-GawAFT had the two kings show up for various portions of the book, the only time either shows up in this film is when we see the Red King’s head (sans Red King) floating in the Red Queen’s moat. Moreover, Alice’s story comes a lot closer to traditional male coming of age tales in this movie than it does in the original. In fact, the original is really more about a daydream (well, a pair of dreams) than about growth as a person.

The new movie is, instead, a bildungsroman. The unwanted marriage proposal creates social pressure which forces Alice to run away for a time to Underland (as it is called in this film). In Underland, she is informed that she has lost her “muchness”, to the extent that she is not even considered to be Alice. The White Queen eventually spells it out for both Alice and the audience: she will stand alone against the Jabberwocky, so she must choose – alone, without the pressure of others – whether to fight.

Once she has regained her muchness, or become self-actualized, Alice can then make choices for herself. She decides to leave Underland, and turns down the proposal in favor of going into business. In our final view of her, she is standing on the bow of a ship headed to China for trade. The implication is that she kickstarts trade between Great Britain and China.

Burton’s Alice is a young woman who begins by being swept hither and thither by whomever is around, but ends by changes the currents of global trade herself. From one who is acted on, to one who acts. And Alice acts kindly. She tries to help an old, delusional aunt, she helps preserve her sister’s peaceful marriage and her business acumen supports herself so that her mother won’t worry. She backs up that kindness with steel: she kills the Jabberwocky that terrified Underland’s citizens into behaving. In other words, Alice becomes the ideal classical warrior. I wonder what Lewis Carroll would say?

Avatar Racefail: Now with spoilers

I finally saw Avatar, so I thought I ought to write about that, in addition to the commercial. A lot has been said about the film as an allegory of colonialism, particularly the Europeans-in-Africa variety. Perhaps because I already had that in the back of my mind, I saw another story unfold as I watched.

Avatar is about a disabled veteran, Jake Sully, who takes over his brother’s job after his unexpected death. That job? To inhabit an alien avatar on the planet of Pandora in order to learn about – and try to exploit – the Na’vi, the principal form of alien life on the planet. Over the course of the movie, Sully comes to feel that life in his human body is like a dream – with the unspoken corollary that life in his avatar body is real. Sully also falls in love with one of the Na’vi, and undergoes what is explicitly called out as a permanent mating with her. The movie ends with Sully risking his life in order to permanently inhabit his avatar, and the final shot is of avatar-Sully’s eyes opening and looking directly at the viewer.

You’re probably getting a feel for the story I saw: Jake Sully’s awakening to a new form of life. What really drove it home for me was that final shot. Sully’s eyes open, metaphorically, and what he sees is us. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that he’s looking at us. But the eyes opening? That’s not exactly subtle. There’s also the fact that the movie’s title flashes on the screen not at the beginning of the movie, as is standard, but at the end, after we see Sully’s eyes. So Sully sees life through new eyes, and then we see AVATAR. It’s very suggestive. What is real life? What is living through an avatar? Which is real? And, how can you tell? Sully does not change simply because he inhabits a new body. Instead, he changes because his new body allows him to learn new ways of life, grow and change as a person. At the end of the film, Sully has grasped a greater way of being.

The whole movie is about what constitutes a “self”. Aside from Sully’s journeys between bodies, there are also the soul trees. Throughout the film, the Na’vi connect to various other lifeforms via fibrous extensions that are normally hidden in their hair. When these fibers connect a Na’vi to another animal, the Na’vi is able to feel the animal’s body and order it as though it were part of the Na’vi herself. Eventually we find out that the Na’vi can also connect to special trees, called soul trees. However, where the Na’vi are able to order the animals around through their connections, they can only hear the voices of deceased Na’vi and ask for assistance – which may not be granted – when connected to the trees.

Here I need to get a bit technical. It is developed in the human-only scenes that these trees are connected to each other through fibers much like those the Na’vi and other alien animals have. Basically, the human scientists posit that the trees are a sort of biochemical computer/life form. So we’ve got some Gaia theory going on. It’s mentioned at one point that the humans who want to strip mine Pandora have already destroyed their own planet, so we have some symmetry there as well.

Ooookay then, we’ve got Sully learning about a new way of living as a Na’vi, and we’ve got an entire other life form – the planet Pandora – that is so far beyond the human characters’ reckoning most of them can’t believe it exists as anything more than native superstitions. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the story. What is life? What constitutes one’s self? Can one’s self continue after one’s life ends, as those Na’vi whose voices and memories are recorded in the soul trees’ databases continue to speak to the Na’vi and act to preserve their world? There are some other questions you could ask (When we look for other intelligent life in the universe, will we even be able to recognize it?), but those more post-structuralist questions are what popped out at me. Those final two shots – Sully’s eyes opening and the word Avatar flashing on the screen – seem designed to make you think not about colonialism, but about what constitutes you.

Academics and fans: never the twain shall meet?

One of my perpetual irritations as a scholar of anime and manga is the disdain that some academics hold for fans. I’m not talking about those scholars who just think all popular culture is trash. No, I’m talking about a subtler form of disrespect. I’ve been reading some old issues of the Journal of Asian Studies – going through the book reviews for things I ought to have read – and came across a review of Japan Pop! that brought it to mind. I should note that the author of the review isn’t blatantly disdainful, it’s just that the introduction to the review brought it to mind. She tries to briefly summarize the reason why Japan Pop! was put together (to bring together fans and academics) by casting fans as pleasure-seeking consumers and academics as critical analysts. This is a false dichotomy.

This particular dichotomy pops up a lot, so I’ll unpack it a bit. The review’s author does note that some academics are fans, but says that even so they want to analyze. The problem is that “analysis” is a very vague term that suggests intelligent/thoughtful action. If you sit down and think for a second, you can probably remember sitting down with someone at some point and going over a character’s motivations; that’s analysis! People do it every day. Pop culture fans in particular are known for incessantly going over what character did what in what series, why, what things in the real world might have nudged an artist toward making this, that or the other creative decision… Given the zounds of hard-core fans (to say nothing of casual movie-goers) out there and the relative paucity of culture-focused academics, fans analyze popular culture far more than academics.

Well, hey, now, how many fans reference Foucault, you might be thinking. I will grant not a ton, but more than you might think. How many students try to write papers on their favorite movie or TV show for their Intro Whatever course? In my experience, rather a lot. (And that’s not even counting all the other aspects of pop culture.) However, let’s leave aside how often – and critically – fans think about series. What about the academics?

This is where the disdain issue bugs me. Okay, irritates the heck out of me. One of the earliest academic books about anime is often favorably mentioned to me by academics who don’t really know their popular culture. (I won’t mention it, but if you know anime you most likely know the one I’m talking about.) Now, this book has gotten rather good reviews from various academics, and is looked down on by fans. Some of these academics know that fans look down on the book and take that to mean that the fans are silly widgins who just don’t care about critical thinking.

The book in question is full of factual inaccuracies. I’m talking everything from getting references wrong to getting plot/character details wrong. Admittedly, messing up a reference happens to everyone at some point, but this book is a particularly egregious example. The plot issue, however, undermines the whole book for me. A lot of the author’s arguments are based on the plots and characters of a handful of main anime – and s/he gets them wrong! Throughout the book!

I’ve heard academics who purport to study anime and manga argue that getting those plot details wrong doesn’t really matter. Really? Getting the facts that you’re basing your argument on wrong doesn’t undermine your argument? Seriously?

Let’s be honest: if I wrote a book about women in the Tale of Genji and I confused all of Genji’s paramours I would get jumped on faster than lightning. I would probably never get a job in academia again.

I’m not writing this to say that ye random anime of the week is of equal quality and academic interest to the first novel ever written. The thing is, anyone who is seriously trying to study popular culture needs to treat it with the same respect that other academics treat whatever they focus on.

Back to the fans=fun-loving lack of thought, academics=Serious Inquiry dichotomy, when a fan reads an academic book on their topic, they may not know the obscure scholar whose works are briefly mentioned on page 13 (and yes, most of the scholars referenced in academic work are obscure). They will know the series under discussion, and possibly have extensive knowledge of production details, including things like whether the studio pushed for sex scenes that the director never wanted, whether the series had to be ended early because the magazine it was published in was folding, assertions of plagiarism and so on. All of this affects the final product, and fans know it. Academics writing on popular culture are talking to a well informed audience – that happens not to know as much about critical theory as we do. Sloppy research will be caught quickly, and why would fans respect an academic who proves, on every page, that s/he does not know what s/he is talking about?

I’ll give another, similar example. Japan Pop! is a bit different than the unnamed book above. It’s meant to bring together academics and fans, and it came from a conference aimed at the same. It ends up being a bit uneven as some of the authors focus more on fans or more on academics, but that’s to be expected. Still, I remember wondering why a Canadian girl’s Sailor Moon doujinshi was included. Fans already know about doujinshi, and if the idea was to show academics who didn’t know anything about Japanese popular culture about the vibrancy of the doujinshi industry, why not include a Japanese one? Another article in the book argued that a shoujo manga showed great gender equality in Japanese culture – but looked at that one manga alone, without comparing to a sea of cookie-cutter manga that all show female characters being almost – but not quite – as smart as the boys. Taken as a group, the issues become clear, but the author missed the larger themes.

When I write, I try to assume what I’ll call a high level of uninformed intelligence. My imaginary reader may not have seen the movie or book in question and may not have learned the theories I’m using, but she has the ability to understand all of the above. That approach has, generally, worked for me. Even if an author assumes that I know five series and seventeen theories that I’ve never heard of, though, it’s fine with me so long as it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about. When you are blatantly uninformed about the topic that you chose to write about, however, I will have little interest in your work.

Race fail

First I must apologize; I thought I had posted waaaaay more recently than I had. I’ve actually been planning this post for days, so I could have cut the wait awhile very easily. Anyway.

Panasonic has a new TV out called the Viera, which they are advertising in concert with the new movie Avatar. You can see one of the commercials (I think there’s more than one) here. I imagine Panasonic’s advertising group has no resident geeks with awareness of common social issues. If they did, someone would have pointed out that they were associating their TV with two media properties – Avatar and Final Fantasy XII – that have races/species that clearly stand in for Africans. Oppressed, stereotypical Africans.

Avatar sounds wonderful, and I don’t mean to suggest racism within the property itself. But you clearly have the blue-skinned natives of the world Pandora standing in for Africans during the colonial period. The humans come with their superior technology to raid Pandora (and no, I’m not even going to touch the world’s name) of her natural resources, and the natives fight back with spears and such. You could even argue that using a native woman as the romantic interest of the invader-hero replicates the sexualization of black women that goes into movies today. I don’t particularly want to, given that I haven’t yet seen the movie and many romantic interests are treated equally (if not worse – Cameron’s female characters generally rock).

Then we have Final Fantasy XII‘s Viera. Let’s see, brown skin, buxom, scantily-clad rabbit-girls… Yeah, that doesn’t replicate stereotypes of African women as sexually rapacious at all. There are, by the way, no male Viera. Presumably the females replicate asexually. If, of course, you presume the designers put any thought into it.

I don’t think Panasonic did it on purpose, but they did, in one fell swoop, tie their new product to the least-attractive aspects of two different, but wildly popular, products. It comes across badly.

The craziest part, for me at least, is that I had/have a perfectly fine view of Avatar. That is, I think you can do a story that references the complicated history between the West and Africa without being racist, I think science fiction is a good way to do that, and I think James Cameron is a skilled director who takes the time and makes the effort to present more realistic, less stereotypical characters in general. It was only when the commercial linked Avatar to the Viera of Final Fantasy XII – which I find problematic on many levels – that I even thought of race as a potential stumbling point for the film. Weird.

Multi-platform movie releases – good or bad?

I’ve been hearing more and more recently about simultaneous releases into theatres and on cable/the internet.  It sounds like that strategy is doing good things for independent movies, which otherwise would have a limited opening audience because they are carried on few screens.  I wonder, though, about the effect that that would have on movies.

I’m specifically thinking of What Dreams May Come, which I re-watched last night on my television.  For those who don’t recall, What Dreams May Come is a Robin Williams/Cuba Gooding, Jr. flick about a dead man who goes to great lengths to save his wife from hell after she commits suicide.  One of the best parts of the movie is the stellar special effects.  This movie’s version of heaven has everyone creating their own small world; for example, Robin Williams’ character’s heaven is a painting his wife made – literally a painting, if you run your hand along it you can smear it.  This painting-heaven is full of flowers of all sorts of shades, which is where I think multi-platform releases might run into trouble.  Seen on a big screen, this painting-heaven is immersive, the flowers large enough to be distinct from one another.  Yet on a television screen the small flowers run together like Pointilist dots to form a smear of purplish colour with some yellow highlights.  The glorious world of the movie theatre is at once reduced.

Other movies do similar things; the new Speed Racer came closer than any other 2-D movie I’ve seen to looking three-dimensional, yet it too would be reduced on a television or computer screen in a way that I can’t quite figure out how to articulate.  On the other hand, both of these examples rely on special effects, which tend to be a hallmark of the big studio movies more than the indies.  Still, the effect should be seen.  If a movie seen in a theatre shows a still figure in one corner of a long, empty set the effect of loneliness would be greater than the same shot from the same movie seen on a tiny television with an aspect ratio that cuts off part of the empty set.  When you open movies on multiple platforms at the same time, when you start to value the television viewers as much as the theatre-goers, you must, as a creator, tailor your work to please both audiences.  That, in some ways, leads to avoiding some of the best benefits of a theatre show.  Consequently I’m a bit worried about multi-platform openings even as I am happy about the benefits they are offering independent filmmakers.

On Genre

Today in class we discussed the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and one that was new to me: science fantasy.  We spent a fair portion of the class on it, but I felt like I could have kept going for ages.  I have some issues with the idea of genre as it’s commonly used today. I feel like genre is helpful as a tool when it is used to pull together works that hold similar elements, or to lead someone to new works that they might find interesting.  On the other hand, I heard a lot today about people who say that they won’t like something because it is fantasy, or science fiction.  I don’t think  that it’s just SF and fantasy, I think that that is true for autobiography and what have you. In this sense it limits the works available to a person instead of bringing them new possibilities.  And I don’t mean to say that I don’t do it too – I totally beeline for the SF/fantasy/graphic novel sections of bookstores.

In another class this morning we discussed a Japanese “genre” called joryuu bungaku, or “female-stream literature” that is more extreme than sci-fi or fantasy Joryuu bungaku. It consists of literature written by women. That’s just about its only requirement: written by women. And it has its own small section of bookstores. The problem is, if a woman writes science fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes an I novel it goes in joryuu bungaku, if she writes historical fiction it goes in joryuu bungaku – and these aren’t big sections compared to the (men’s) SF, I novel and historical fiction sections, so fewer women’s books are offered for sale. I heard this morning that some bookstores are changing this style of presentation, but critics still review books in these terms.

Joryuu bungaku is different from SF and fantasy in that it isn’t a division by content so much as by author, but that’s really my point: it doesn’t matter how you limit what you’re looking at, it matters whether you’re limiting it.

To insert a bit of theory here, I feel like genre is used by many to impose structures (yes, of the structuralist/post-structuralist variety) onto post-modernist works.  In other words, many works – most of the best, in my opinion – are not simply fantasy or romance or whatever.  They can be classified into many and varied genres.  For example, the Lord of the Rings books came up in class today as an early classic of fantasy.  But they also form a story of friendship (or fellowship, in the books’ terms), a war story, an epic, a story of good triumphing over evil… they even throw in something for linguists!  I could use these books for a number of purposes, even teaching diversity.

Another classic fantasy series that came up was the Chronicles of Narnia.  But the Chronicles are as much a Christian story as a fantasy.  Offhand I can’t think of a single book that I have enjoyed that couldn’t be categorized into more than one genre – and that’s not even counting things like when it was published, where it was written and who wrote it.  I wonder if, in the future, we might see a more cloud-like organization of books.  “Cloud” in the sense of tag clouds on websites, as in the Fellowship of the Ring gets tagged with fantasy, yes, but also war story, epic, good versus evil, conlang, elves, dwarves, horses, absolute monarchy, fiction, serious, twentieth century, American, et cetera.  The web could help with this: imagine walking into a store looking for a new book and stopping at a terminal instead of making straight for a genre section.  You could type in or click on a few tags – “funny”, “American”, “romance”, “young adult” – and be given a list of books available in the store along with their locations.  Then you take a look at them, and choose whatever suits your fancy that day.  More options, less restriction.  Perhaps then we wouldn’t have such strong stereotypes about just who watches Battlestar Galactica.