anime = serious business

Today I decided I would start work on my first doujin. It is going to feature the cast of Full House in wacky antics like you’ve never seen before! I’m going to use photocopied magazine clippings of all my favorite actors arranged in a becoming collage to tell the droll story of a day in the life of the Tanner family, and it will end with the Olsen twins having lesbian sex with their younger clones! A recipe for sure fire Comiket success if I’ve ever seen one! That Bob Saget is such a card, I’m sure he’ll take the hearts of Japanese otaku by storm. The only thing I can’t figure out is why no one has hit on this smashing formula before!

So why the hell aren’t scores of Americans organizing Sitcomcon 68 for this coming August, where they can come together and sell their fanzines of alternate homoerotic takes on Full House, the Cosby Show, and Life Goes On (come on guys, Corky is the next Fate/Stay Night and you know it). Issues of defamation and copyright infringement aside, why aren’t there hundreds of thousands of fans that organize huge events devoted to the sale of parodies of narrow segments of popular American visual culture? Maybe this analogy is a bit uncharitable; let’s try American animation instead. Family Guy? The Simpsons? South Park? Where, oh where are your doujin conventions, my native people? Or how about comics. Why do we see no events dedicated to the tender relationship between Superman and Mickey Mouse, between Archie and the Fantastic Four, the Swamp Thing and John Constantine? There may have been one of those, come to think of it. But why aren’t there more?

Here’s another question: why do Americans download raw episodes of Rozen Maiden, fit them with English subtitles, and redistribute them to thousands of eager fans around the globe, when Japanese don’t do the same with, say, Desperate Housewives? Why do Americans make montage films of Japanese animation set to popular music but neglect to do the same with their own televised visual culture? Why do people from Italy to France to China to Australia to South Africa to Chile draw pale imitations of Toriyama art but do not play with paper doll cutouts of Tony Danza? Well, most of us don’t. And by us I mean them.

Before I confuse the issue any futher, what it boils down to is this: why is anime popular in the way that it is? The answer as I see it is partly grounded in culture, and partly in the medium itself.

Culturally we can find analogues to the popularity of anime indigenous to most first world societies whose entertainment industries have reached a critical mass. These are cultural elements with cult followings, most commonly manifest in the science fiction, fantasy, horror, military, erotica and other esoteric genres. American indigenous “cosplay” could include battlefield reinactments, Renaissance fairs, and Star Trek uniforms; fan art and fan fiction have well established traditions as well. I’m not an anthropologist and to the small extent that I am I haven’t studied the American fandom scene much at all so I’m not really qualified to say much about it except to note that it arose temporally around the same time that the Japanese scene did, and clustered around similar fringe cultural and media elements. The nature of the media that American obsessive, geeky fandom has clustered around is also important to note in that it is often either rich in minute detail (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example) or easily lends itself to the creation and perpetuation of a mythos around it (i.e. the Rocky Horror Picture Show). Anime is similar in this respect, and it is easy to see why the early adopters of American anime fandom were sci fi and military enthusiasts.

Culture and the products of culture can’t easily be separated, as we see – especially in the case of these geeky fringe obsessive subcultures where culture and its media progeny exist in such an incestuous, symbiotic relationship. Thus, to claim on the side of the medium that anime would have attained its cult status without a social cult surrounding it in its nacent period is incoherent. The pertinent question, though, is why animation? Why not science fiction, as in America? Or perhaps the better question would be: why not animation in America? Why science fiction? Why two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional, or vice versa? The answer to this is complex and grounded in the history of the two cultures, especially post-WWII, but boils down to this: the masters of popular speculative fiction in post-war Japan gravitated primarily toward two dimensional media, while those in America gravitated toward television and novels. This is perhaps an overly simplistic generalization but it works well enough for our purposes. If the original Star Trek had been concieved of as an animated series in an environment receptive to speculative fiction being presented in an animated medium, if Lord of the Rings were immediately adapted into a successful long-running anime, who knows what the current state of American fandom would be.

This basic analysis goes a long way toward explaining what is currently happening in the world of anime: it is flooding international fandom market gaps where comparable two-dimensional media didn’t exist before. But I’m straying from the original point, which was to try to come to an understanding of why anime in particular has spawned such devoted followings both here and abroad, to the point of eclipsing even the traditional bastions of American geek fandom. At this point I think we need to deviate from the cultural explanation and look closely at the elements we can isolate as unique to the animated medium and Japanese animation in particular.

Much of what I said about “moe” in an earlier post holds true for anime and manga in general, in that their unique appeal is their very two-dimensionality, and the degree of abstraction it provides both characters and narrative space. Suspension of disbelief is easier in two dimensional space. Look at the mise-en-scene in a live action film. Then look at the same on a page of manga. With a few strokes of a pen a manga artist can craft a believable environment in one frame, and then abandon it entirely for the rest of the page to focus on character interaction. This effect is much harder to reproduce filmically. My argument rests less on the environment than on the characters themselves, however. Two dimensional characters are deliberately stylized, they are caricatures, closer to ideal forms than real subjects cast from their molds. Two-dimensionality presents an alternate reality more convincing because it lacks depth and therefore lacks the necessity of depth. Buying into this concept is initially a further leap of suspension than conventional three-dimensional media demands, but the reward for the enthusiast is correspondingly greater.

Another key element of two-dimensionality is its reproduceability. An anime property that has run its course of episodes and official merchandising can come alive again in the hands of a skilled doujin artist or sculptor. Because two dimensional forms are stylized some leeway is allowed in their reproduction, allowing the artist to instil his own vision and love into the parody work. This also allows for a profusion of cosplay in which the human form is subsumed to a two dimensional ideal, and this is considered fitting and proper, allowed because the two dimensional model is a form and not a reality cast from the form. Thus cosplay in which the human bears little resemblance to the character in terms of features is not incongruent. Needless to say the sentiment is different even within the various realms of indigenous American fandom, because the cult figures are flesh and blood humans and short of cloning cannot be reproduced. Two-dimensionality, for those able to suspend their disbelief to its level, provides far more immersive and interactive fandom opportunities. These unique properties of the medium, when layered over the symbiotic fan/creator culture not unique to Japan but certainly present here, create what we know as the world of the Japanese two-dimensional otaku and serve as the launching pad for similar fandom worldwide.

In summary: the reason Sitcomcon 68 won’t be happening this summer is that sitcoms don’t strive to incorporate their fans within their narrative structure in the way that other indigenous American fandom elements do through their minutiae and cult mythos. They don’t make us dream. Anime is one of Japan’s indigenous fandom elements, similar to the American science fiction scene but with the important addition of a stylized two-dimensionality, uniquely permitted to flourish here into an industry where the fans and artists are practically synonimous and thus exist as a powerful perpetual motion machine of fandom unlike any other in the world, enabled and reinforced by the special properties of the two-dimensional medium.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.