Science Fiction Studies

#80 = Volume 27, Part 1 = March 2000

Ray Mescallado

Otaku Nation

Trish Ledoux, ed. Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of ANIMERICA, ANIME AND MANGA MONTHLY (1992-97).Viz Communications (415-546-7073), 1997. 175 pp. $19.95 paper. Originally published by Cadence.

Antonia Levi. Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation. Open Court (312-939-1500), 1996. x + 169 pp. $18.95 paper.

Frederick Schodt. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Stone Bridge (800-947-7271), 1997. 260 pp. $22.00 paper. Originally published by Kodansha in 1983.

____.  Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Stone Bridge (800-947-7271), 1996. 356 pp. $16.95 paper.

Masamune Shirow. Ghost in the Shell. Dark Horse (503-652-8815), 1995. 367pp. $24.95 paper.

_____. Intron Depot 1: A Collection of Masamune Shirow’s Full Color Works. Dark Horse (503-652-8815), 1992. 148 pp. $39.95 paper.

_____. Intron Depot 2: A Collection of Masamune Shirow’s Full Color Works 1992-1998. Dark Horse (503-652-8815), 1998. 111 pp. $39.95 paper.

Junk culture from a different shore: for the most part, that is exactly what the ever-burgeoning flow of translated Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) to America has been. Don’t get me wrong: I count myself an otaku—that is, a dedicated fan of anime and manga (though the term has broader usage in Japan, encompassing any fanatical hobbyist)—and I love junk culture. I’ve devoted a good deal of time and energy to studying American comics both as an academic and a journalist, and I agree with Jules Feiffer’s contention, in The Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial, 1965), that one of comics’ greatest assets is its "junk" stigma and the freedom this allows the medium. But without that sense of junk-culture perspective, without the understanding that this is ephemera that only occassionally aspires to art, the desire to elevate the accomplishments of certain creators—or to exoticize manga and anime simply because they’re Japanese (and as any visit to an anime convention will amply prove, there are many American otaku who are aggressively Japanophilic) —would be too tempting. I have often heard otaku claim that Japanese comics are superior to American comics with such vigor that one suspects they see manga as an artform that American funnybooks simply can’t aspire to, and creators such as Rumiko Takahashi and Masamune Shirow as auteur geniuses with no peers in America.

Well, they’re wrong. Or to be more precise, they’re oversimplifying the situation in the protective manner that many dedicated fans tend to adopt. As a critic of the American comics industry and its ongoing decline due to a bottlenecked distribution system, I find myself fascinated by the booming success of the Japanese comics industry. The wide-open secret of Japanese comics’ superiority to American comics—and for that matter, European comics’ superiority to American comics—is that there’s a higher standard and a wider range of mediocrity than one finds in America. American comics are defined in the public and among their fan base by a handful of genres—and one in particular, superheroes—that appeal primarily to a very specific demographic: white male post-adolescents. In contrast, manga is as prevalent in Japan as any other print medium; there are comics and animation for just about every demographic group conceivable, and a hot Japanese manga series has a level of media saturation that the American comics industry sees only once in a blue moon (last time: Batmania; next time: X-Mania). Numbers with multiple zeroes are often trotted out to impress the statistically minded, but the point is that Japanese comics have succeeded as a mass medium in a way that they haven’t in any other culture. Moreover, the connection between the comics and animation industries is taken for granted in Japan, so that a runaway manga hit is practically guaranteed an anime follow-up of some sort—either as a movie adaptation or a TV series. Stateside, this is not nearly as frequent: the lack of full legitimacy for American animation and the lack of any consistent legitimacy for American comics doesn’t permit the multimedia synergy that makes the manga-anime connection seem so natural.

One last factor should also be considered: manga is made and read in a significantly different manner from most American comics. Manga works through sheer volume: thousands of new pages of story are published weekly, and installments of a series are often thirty to forty pages per week (though there are also biweekly and monthly series). For those not raised on the sensibility of Bang! and Pow! (or the more idiosyncratic conventions of alternative comics), manga storytelling is more accessible than many American comics because it’s considerably faster and more cinematic in its narrative style. Comic books aren’t even the best comparison: if anything, manga is in some ways closer to American Sunday comic strips. A typical manga series installment can be read in the same amount of time and by as wide a range of audience. Even when you consider the specific audience that a typical manga series caters to—whether girls under twelve or teenage boys or businessmen in their thirties—its circulation numbers are often considerably higher and more likely to cross over to other demographics than is the case with American comic books. For all these reasons, I would argue that Americans who cannot identify with most American comics are theoretically more likely (and even more willing) to find something that appeals to them in translated manga or anime.

Frederick Schodt is considered the grand master of American otaku, and rightfully so. His groundbreaking book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, remains the bible of the dedicated fan: first published in 1983 and re-released with minor revisions in 1997, the book provides a comprehensive overview of manga as an expression of Japanese culture. Schodt begins with a basic introduction to manga and its pervasiveness in Japan, looks at the history of visual storytelling in that country, then considers the manga boom after World War II. He explores how manga built upon the ethic of bushido ("The Way of the Warrior") and surveys the development of girls’ comics (shojo manga), the diversity of genres available, and the modes of creation/production in the manga industry. In his discussion of erotic comics in particular, Schodt points out that what many Americans consider the excessive sex and violence in manga and anime simply doesn’t register for Japanese readers, because they intuitively recognize the difference between reality and fantasy and have no problem keeping the former contained while the latter runs rampant. The violent sexual fantasies on display in some erotic manga are balanced, as Schodt shows, by more benign examples—such as the June phenomenon, in which teenage girls dote upon stories of "beautiful boys" in homosexual romances.

Perhaps the most vital contribution Schodt made with his book was to introduce American readers to specific examples of manga at a time when such translations were almost nonexistent. Readers were treated to selections from Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, Reiji (also Leiji) Matsumoto’s Ghost Warrior, Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (which had already been partially translated into English well before the release of Manga! Manga!). The diversity of these offerings—an existential epic, a World War II short story, a romantic drama set during the French Revolution, and a semi-autobiographical account of the bombing of Hiroshima—was surely intentional: this is what manga can offer us, Schodt seems to be saying; this is the potential of the comics medium that has been tapped by another culture. But for some reason, this wide range of translated manga has yet to be a common feature in the American market—a point I will discuss more fully below.

Instead of drastically revising Manga! Manga!, Schodt wrote a second book, 1996’s Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Having done his comprehensive overview in the first book, Schodt treats the sequel as a chance to explore the more idiosyncratic aspects of the medium. As he writes in his preface:

My focus ... is on manga and recent trends in manga that most people outside of Japan (and many inside Japan) have never heard of and probably never will. Since, for me, manga are also a window on another world, the works that I read tend not to be what is popular, but what I personally find interesting and unusual. This is, therefore, a personal book, and I only hope that readers find the material as interesting as I do. (15)

As a result, the joys of reading Dreamland Japan come in the details. After initial chapters that define the medium and consider "Modern Manga at the End of the Millennium," Schodt devotes chapters to manga magazine publishers, to specific artists and their work, and to the "God of Comics" Osamu Tezuka. He considers manga in relation to other Japanese media, and finally considers "Manga in the English-Speaking World." There is a great deal to be learned here, and Schodt is generous in both his opinions and his insights. I was personally charmed by the Do-It-Yourself ethic that manifests in certain subgenres and among specific audiences of manga, such as the Yan Mama Comic magazine geared for Japanese biker moms who have formed their own rebellious social circles in response to more conventional communities of mothers. Another small-press manga that Schodt profiles is Garo, first previewed for the American comics audience in Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine and a continuing bastion of artistic freedom in the overwhelmingly commercialized manga industry. As an example of cultural differences, I noted ironically that the hentai (pornographic) comics of Milk Morizono are intended for a female audience in Japan but are more likely to be translated for a male audience here in America. For those interested in the recent success of Hayao Miyazake’s Princess Mononoke, there is a section devoted to Miyazake’s other eco-warrior princess, Nausicaä of the Valley Wind, tracing exactly how it developed from a successful manga to a successful anime.

Adopting a "personal" perspective, Schodt interpolates himself into his material to good effect. Considering his role as a cultural ambassador for Japanese comics, Schodt is certainly entitled—and his writing is strong enough that these interpolations are actually quite productive and entertaining. Schodt describes his various meetings with publishers, editors, and artists, and even creates dramatic tension when writing of his encounter with the AUM Shinrikyo cult, who were creating comics well before their terrorist actions horrified the world. And while he maintains the proper journalistic distance in most cases, a collapse of this distance serves him beautifully in the chapter "Osamu Tezuka: A Tribute to the God of Comics," which shows what has made this man and his work so compelling not only for countless Japanese readers but also for this particular American one. Calling Tezuka his "mentor," someone who "encourag[ed] me and help[ed] me considerably in my career as a writer" (238), Schodt also observes that he is "probably one of the few people, other than Tezuka’s wife and closest employees, to see him without a beret" (238). Schodt also weighs in on the recent controversy surrounding The Lion King (1994), where Disney foolishly tried to convince critics that their film was in no way derivative of Tezuka’s 1960s creation, Kimba the White Lion.

Schodt’s books are focused primarily on manga, with only occasional references to anime. For those interested in the latter form, Antonia Levi’s Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation is generally a good introduction, but the book can prove alternately enlightening and frustrating. Levi’s writing is at times too coy to be taken seriously, even as she presents useful information on her chosen topics. After advancing the notion that the work of anime creators is often intended for a strictly Japanese audience and thus "offers a unique perspective, a peeping Tom glimpse into the Japanese psyche," Levi continues with the following oohs and ahhs:

And what a marvelous place that turns out to be! Who would have guessed all that was going on behind those dull business suits and tightly wrapped kimonos? It’s so easy to dismiss the Japanese as workaholics, economic animals, and uncreative imitators. It’s easy to forget that they are the inheritors of an ancient culture drawn from East Asia, but nurtured in isolation to produce something that surprises (and sometimes appalls) even its immediate neighbors. It’s easy, until you watch your first anime or read your first manga. (16)

On the one hand, one expects this burbling enthusiasm to be shared by the readers Levi doubtless imagines for herself: otaku who can’t get enough information on the anime scene. On the other hand, the tone of this passage is that of a cheerleader tourist, with Levi positioning herself as head of the otaku nation’s own "Up With Anime" squad. More problematic is the manner in which Levi often ties her general observations on anime to too-specific examples from actual shows. The chapter on "Outrageous Women," for instance, hinges on plot summaries of episodes of Ranma 1/2, Venus Wars, Roujin Z, All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku-Nuku, and others. While it’s definitely necessary to ground discussions of pop-cultural phenomena in this manner—and, moreover, being able to cite a variety of manga and anime is the best way to prove one’s otaku bona fides—Levi is guilty of trying to impress too much; as a result, she risks losing the more casual reader. I consider myself an otaku and even I was at times overwhelmed by the rush of names and plot points and anime specifics as I tried to keep track of how Levi’s more general observations were developed in the course of a chapter. Her subtitle "Understanding Japanese Animation" implies an in-depth look at the patterns and conventions of the medium, but while Levi certainly makes stabs at providing this, she also apparently thinks that having handy Cliff Notes is also an important means of "understanding" anime. The audience for this book is thus generally limited to otaku—novice and otherwise—who want to read more about things they already know to some degree; it is difficult to imagine such a volume appealing to the browser who has a casual interest in "that Japanimation craze."

Still, what Levi delivers can often be compelling. Of particular interest is her explanation of the seeming nihilism that’s evident in Japanese animation, which is described in the poorly-titled chapter, "Death and Other Bad Stuff." Eschewing examples from anime for a couple of paragraphs, Levi reviews in concise (if still fairly simplistic) terms the philosophical differences between the West and Japan, and how these differences allow for popular narratives where heroes die and evil triumphs. Tracking the cultural influence of Shinto and Confucianism, Levi concludes that:

To the Japanese, morality is a purely human concept, a social concept. It’s not tied to any transcendental view of the universe. People and the universe are two different things and play by different rules. Heroism and self-sacrifice define an anime character as a hero, but they will not save him or her. The universe simply doesn’t care. (99)

Levi builds on this idea productively, if in a typically over-erudite manner. About ten pages and over a dozen distinct anime examples later, she makes the compelling point that the nihilism of anime may be part of its appeal to Generation X: in contrast to "the Judeo-Christian model of Heaven and Hell," the "amoral, indifferent universe of anime with its assumptions that death means oblivion is positively encouraging" to contemporary American youth (108). And while it may not be news that alienation sells, to point out this ideological aspect of anime is certainly productive.

Another guide to the world of manga and anime is Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of ANIMERICA, ANIME AND MANGA MONTHLY (1992-97), edited by Trish LeDoux. While there are numerous anime-related magazines now on the newsstands—for example, Tokyopop, Protoculture Addicts, and Manga MaxAnimerica remains the standard by which others are judged. Which doesn’t mean that the standards are very high: Animerica is clearly a magazine of fannish appreciation and not a forum for more penetrating critical assessments of the medium. The longer articles are often filled with details and veiled opinions that can prove instructive to the novice, but that’s as deep as it goes; beyond that, one is treated to all the manga news and reviews that fit, and there’s more than enough eye-candy on display to keep one turning the pages. Anime Interviews is more meat-and-potatoes than a typical issue of Animerica as it collects the best interviews from the magazine, mixing rather evenly interviews with manga creators and anime creators (as well as those, like Hayao Miyazaki, who are both). Even more than Levi’s book, Anime Interviews is meant for the otaku who craves information on favorite shows and creators. While Schodt’s and Levi’s books come with resource pages for those who want to pursue specific topics, Anime Interviews ends each interview with a Select Filmography and/or Bibliography of the interviewee’s work. Much of what’s listed isn’t in translation, but it certainly serves to whet the appetite of the dedicated fan.

The actual interviews are puff pieces for the most part: no tough questions are broached, and there is not enough space to explore issues surrounding the manga and anime industry with any rigor. This is no surprise, given the source—and no shame, given the intended audience. But more instructive are the introductions that begin each interview, which are close in tone and intention—if not as engagingly written—as the individual artist profiles to which Schodt devotes a whole chapter in Dreamland Japan. The personalities on display in the actual interviews vary widely. Nanase Okawa of the group Clamp—best known among American otaku for Magic Knight Rayearth, X/1999, and Card Captor Sakura—provides wonderful insight and charming enthusiasm in relating how that famous all-female manga collective works. Battle Angel Alita creator Yukito Kishiro and Ghost in the Shell creator Masamune Shirow both wax cyber-philosophical for at least a question or two, while Galaxy Express 999’s Leiji Matsumoto provides the most satisfying interview in the book, discussing articulately the Western influences on his work and his philosophy of what anime, manga, and science fiction can accomplish.

As overviews of this aspect of Japanese culture, the four books should prove more than sufficient, adopting different perspectives on—and assuming varying levels of familiarity with—the primary material. But of course, overviews serve a limited function: none of these books is meant to be critical; these are introductions to the manga/anime experience serving the fan base that wants an inside track and not those who seek to assess the experience from a critical distance.

After all, fandoms often justify their existence by becoming a central focus of their members’ identities, by placing a high value on the kind of information and acquistiveness that is only truly meaningful within that narrow community. Speaking for myself, I can give you detailed information about the characters and plot twists in Marmalade Boy, a high school romance anime that’s my personal favorite series; I have Japanese books devoted to the series (the manga collections and art books), which I can’t read but which delight me and are the envy of the fellow Marmalade Boy fans that I know. In the right mood I will try to sing along and pantomime to the opening theme of the series. So certainly, I understand the allure and see nothing wrong with such intense enjoyments within the proper context. On the one hand, such a specialized mastery is perfectly natural for any kind of community, be it a church or a school or a paramilitary militia; on the other hand, it can also encourage a cultish insularity that can make a person socially maladjusted. This risk is particularly pronounced among fan communities that are precisely built upon fantasies that reinforce alienation from the mainstream culture, which is certainly true of the world of both fanboys and otaku. This is not a uniquely American dilemma, by any means. For proof of a similar concern in Japan, Studio Gainax’s Otaku No Video pointedly alternates between a real-life documentary on the experiences of otaku of various kinds (manga, anime, hentai, military fetishists) and an anime narrative in which a young man decides to make himself "the king of otaku." The creators at Gainax are obviously aware of just how pathetic the lives of some otaku must be—at one point in the documentary, they ask a man obsessed with hentai if he ever tries to meet real girls and he answers blithely in the negative—but are also sympathetic to the challenges of intellectual and social mastery that exist within a fan community, insular though it may be.

The cross-cultural nature of anime and manga only makes such insularity more problematic. Levi points out that a mastery of the Japanese language—and, implicitly, a "mastery" of Japanese culture—is highly valued by American otaku because it means they can watch anime without need of English dubbing or subtitles, and can even make such translations themselves, thus exercising a palpable influence on the otaku nation and its tastes (whether locally, among friends, or more generally, in online postings and discussions). Levi and Schodt both strike a careful balance between wanting to make anime and manga metonymic for Japanese culture and pointing out that this is only a specific aspect that doesn’t engulf and define all of Japanese life. But is that the way American otaku understand their hobby? Consider the last two paragraphs in Dreamland Japan. A few pages earlier, Schodt acknowledges that "some of the less healthy minds on the fringe of English manga/anime fandom" may have their pedophilic urges encouraged by certain material, but he concludes:

There is an element of risk in promoting manga, as there is no guarantee foreigners will get a better impression of Japan from reading them. The material foreigners prefer, moreover, may not be what is preferred in Japan, and it may be interpreted differently. In a worst-case scenario, the "Lolita complex virus" might even be inadvertently exported.

More likely, however, manga will give a far truer picture of Japan, warts and all, than "highbrow" tea ceremony or Zen ever could. As a form of popular culture, comics of all nations tend to be tightly woven with local culture and thought. In translation, manga—especially—can be both a medium of entertainment and a Rosetta stone for mutual understanding. (340)

The optimism of Schodt’s ending, and his valorization of the popular, is admirable. But in trying so hard to make manga and anime, as definitively Japanese experiences, both comprehensible and palatable to a wide American audience, do Schodt and Levi give short shrift to the psychological and cultural complexities of the otaku experience on these shores? What do American otaku see in anime and manga—and, in turn, in Japan as a cultural force, as a nation with a historically tempestuous relationship with the United States—that makes these media so appealing? The dream of many otaku, sometimes announced outright but usually expressed implicitly, that "I wish I lived in Japan"—or even "I wish I was Japanese"—is often (though I should stress, not always) as unrealistically romanticizing and lamentably uninformed as Jack Kerouac’s infamous wish, in On the Road (1957), that he could be a Negro. More generally, where do otaku place themselves within the popular culture matrix? After all, they often look down on American comics and their readers for not being discriminating or mature enough—but otaku often display an almost knee-jerk worship of the anime subculture that indicates merely a surface variation in fanboy attitudes and mindcandy dependence.

To give an anecdotal example, I recently heard of an American student studying Japanese, who initially learned bits and pieces of the language from watching anime and who thus started taking classes armed with phrases and intonations that were more appropriate for a cartoon character. Her instructors were apparently horrified. After all, this would be the equivalent of learning how to speak English by watching episodes of the G.I. Joe cartoon and Steven Seagal movies. The line Schodt observes Japanese manga readers drawing between reality and fantasy is still maintained among most otaku, but perhaps it’s more likely to blur when the lure of an exoticized Japanese identity is mapped onto the otaku experience. The popularity of hentai comics is an example of this: do comics such as Bondage Fairies or Silky Whip celebrate Japanese culture’s "naughty" side, or simply provide another outlet for frustrated white males with a fetish for "Orientals"? The complexity of the colonized imagination is particularly ripe among otaku: is Japan’s cultural influence the determining force that structures the American otaku’s imagination, or do these otaku on some level appropriate and misapprehend the intent of anime within Japan in order to reinforce their sense of alienation from their own culture? I would argue that it works both ways, that this is part of the process by which a globalized popular culture is claimed, contested, defined, and perpetually redefined thereafter. In any case, these various subtleties are inaccessible to Schodt and Levi, whose mutual tone of fannish celebration and eager promotion does not lend itself to asking the harder questions.

On a slightly different note, I appreciate that Levi and Schodt both point out (at least in passing) the influence of other fandoms on the rise of the otaku nation: comic book fandom, certainly, but also science fiction and fantasy and gaming—that is, the whole panoply of post-adolescent male-geek subculture. Schodt and Levi both point out proudly—and rightfully so—that the otaku nation is much more heterogenous than, say, the fan base for American comics. I would argue, however, that the American comics market has had a very pronounced impact on translated Japanese comics—and a nasty one, at that. As I noted earlier, the demographic audience for comics in America is much narrower than for comics in Japan, especially when one factors in the direct distribution system in the US (which is the basis for comics specialty shops) and its influence on what sells and what doesn’t. What happens, then, when a true mass medium (manga) tries to make its presence felt in a "specialty hobby" medium (American comics)? Of course, the material most accessible to that new target audience (American comics readers) tends to become the easiest—and relatively safest—choice. Once again, the complexities of a globally cross-pollenized popular culture become evident in an unexpected manner—and, I would hazard, in a manner that many otaku would be unwilling to recognize.

The diversity of manga had to be experimented with outside comics fandom before it could even be considered within the confines of the fanboy community—and, in turn, the otaku contingent of that community. In this light, the diversity of translated work was limited by the preexistent channels American comics provided: the manga chosen was aimed at the very limited and very established demographic of white post-adolescent males. Luckily, though, more than this was available if and when other audiences demanded it. After all, it was only after the breakout success of Sailor Moon as a translated cartoon—something outside of the influence of American comics publishers and retailers—that the market for shojo manga was perceived as truly viable. At the same time, because of America’s video-based culture, the boom of interest in anime definitively outstripped the interest in manga—but this, in turn, created an interest in more diverse offerings, first in translated animation, then eventually in translated comics. Sports comics are only beginning to make headway now, because the type of people who read comics in America are of course less likely to care about athletics. Never mind that Slam Dunk (still untranslated) has a breakout potential in a culture that has raised Michael Jordan to the status of a demigod. And of course, artistically ambitious manga by the likes of Suehiro Maruo and Yoshiharu Tsuge are even more rare in translation.

A more likely crossover success, given America’s abiding enthusiasm for capitalism, might be the finance- and business-related manga that was a staple of the magazine Mangajin before its unfortunate demise; indeed, a book of translated economics manga, Shotaro Ishinomori’s Japan, Inc., was released by Lancaster Press in 1996. The chances of such comics being translated with any enthusiasm in the current American comics market, however, are just about zero. After all, businessmen in America supposedly don’t read comics, never mind gain their information on business through that medium. For their part, the otaku nation wants their power fantasies dished up with hot Asian babes and gleaming giant robots and deadly samurai swords; treatises on the mundanity of the real world aren’t considered exotic enough, aren’t as relevant to the imaginative space they’ve molded for themselves. Clearly, a wide cultural gap still exists between the Japanese perspective on comics and the American perspective, and while the current otaku are intent on proselytizing for what they like, what they like is still a limited slice of a very large pie.

By contrast, science fiction manga and anime haven’t suffered in America. While sf isn’t the main focus of any of these overview books, there are specific sections in Samurai from Outer Space and Anime Interviews that would be of interest to scholars and fans of the genre. As I noted, the Ledoux collection features interviews with leading science fiction manga/anime creators; besides the ones named earlier, there are several creators included who specialize in mecha—which, as Levi tells us in her book’s glossary, "can refer to any kind of machine, but usually is applied to robots and other large, high-tech items" (161). Mecha artists get plenty of attention in Anime Interviews—e.g., Yoshiki Takaya of Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, Macross creator Shoji Kawamori, and Armored Trooper Votoms’ Ryosuke Takahashi. Despite the occasional aside on the appeal of mecha to anime fans, for the most part the interviews detail more industry-specific concerns of design and the process of animation. Levi’s book has a chapter on "Androids, Cyborgs and Other Mecha" that is typically filled with breathless examples culled from a dozen or so anime, but does manage to explore attitudes and anxieties about technology—specifically regarding the interface between the human and the technological that defines almost all mecha, whether it be explicitly cyborg in form or involving pilots inhabiting incredibly huge robot-ships—and how these attitudes and anxieties differ for Japanese and American audiences. If anything, the abundance of examples and the lack of a truly coherent overarching argument in this chapter makes Levi’s analyses of the Japanese concerns for organ transplants and artificial prosthetics less relevant than they could be. In this case, the development of a specific genre—mecha and the whole cyborg/big-robot nexus that surrounds it—does indeed point to some deep-seated questions about the nature of the human-tech interface. But Levi could have spent more time trying to figure out the larger picture, and might have come up with a conclusion more compelling than the following: "Because of different assumptions and cultural mores, the Japanese sometimes have somewhat different fears about the future [than Americans]" (95). The number of qualifiers in this passage gestures towards a more complex situation than Levi’s extensive plot-summaries and pseudo-erudition is capable of accessing.

Science fiction-derived manga and anime is one of the main genres translated in America. Sf material made up the entirety of Viz Communication’s first line of manga translations, Eclipse, in the late 1980s: namely, Mai the Psychic Girl, Xenon, and Area 88. Marvel’s Epic line translated the Katsuhiro Otomo epic Akira, though they’ve foolishly let it go out of print since then. The range of translated manga and anime that uses sf themes and ideas is incredibly wide, more than anything found in American comics. As a result, the most striking aspect of sf manga and anime is just how much intent and narrative tone can vary from series to series.

Indeed, science fiction can be mapped onto almost every other non-historical/non-factual genre available in the medium. For example, some shojo manga artists use sf modes to excellent effect: there are dramatic mysteries such as Moto Hagio’s They Were 11, where alien races interact in a military training session gone wrong; in Keiko Nishi’s work, a simple romantic tale can take on a slightly askew feel when it’s revealed that the setting isn’t Earth. Outside of shojo, Hayao Miyakazi’s Nausicaä of the Valley Wind is both an unusual manga stylistically and an excellent science fiction tale that exemplifies Miyazaki’s skills at adult narrative (he and his Studio Ghibli are also well-known for such popular children’s anime as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro). Set in a post-apocalyptic eco-feudal world filled with bizarre mutated monsters, the story focuses on a princess who uses both technology and nature to become her world’s hope-bringing messiah. The story is much denser and more demanding than the typical manga, delivering on a variety of levels and showing why Miyazaki is held in such high regard by otaku in Japan as well as abroad.

In contrast to this rather solemn approach is the considerably more liberal usage of sf in the slapstick romantic comedy that was manga legend Rumiko Takahashi’s first major hit, Urusei Yatsura. The principal characters are Lum, a beautiful, flying, electricity-shooting space princess who wears a tiger-skin bikini, and the Earthman she loves, a clumsy and lecherous Japanese high school student named Ataru, who wants to get rid of Lum so he can continue chasing anything and everything in a skirt. In this series, science fiction, the supernatural, and high school experience are all drawn upon as fodder for very broad—and very effective—comedy. At one point, Lum uses a computer dating machine to confirm that Ataru is right for her; in another story, the priestess Sakura tries to exorcise Ataru to rid him of his horniness. Other series that fill this curious vein of "horny loser boy falls in love with unbelievably bizarre but beautiful girl who ends up being a lot of trouble" are Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess!, in which a college student calls upon a goddess and the goddess service computer determines that the couple should stay together forever, and Masakazu Katsura’s Video Girl Ai, in which the girl in a video that a high school boy rents from a myserious shop somehow becomes electronic flesh and blood linked to the well-being of his VCR. These other series tend to feature less slapstick and more romantic tension, but also combine mystic and science fiction elements seamlessly. If Urusei Yatsura is good-natured burlesque (the dozens of characters who become regulars or semi-regulars have their own individual shticks, a technique of characterization Takahashi has carried over into her other series), Oh My Goddess! plucks more delicately at the heartstrings while Video Girl Ai is sexier, sleeker, and more soap operatic in the interactions among the characters. Anyone who thinks that the high level of output that’s expected of manga creators must produce a very bland, homogenous medium would do well to read and compare these three series.

Then there are manga and anime that don’t rely on science fiction per se but take an almost fetishistic interest in modern technology as exemplified by guns, cars, and surveillance equipment. Kosuke Fujishima and Kenichi Sonada exemplify this trend: Fujishima’s love of motor vehicles is evident in certain stories of Oh My Goddess!, but is much more on display in the traffic police comedy You’re Under Arrest, where quirky cops and bizarre traffic offenders clash in souped-up cars and cycles of all sorts. Sonada’s Gunsmith Cats—which is about two young, female bounty hunters in Chicago—also deploys customized cars, but also all manner of firearms and explosives. In these series, technical specifications are often given in great detail for the benefit of the interested reader. A different kind of fetish is involved in Hideo Yamamoto’s Voyeur, where cutting-edge surveillance technology is used to expose the dirty little secrets of everyday people. In the first story in the series, the hero, Ko Higaonna, tests just how much he trusts his girlfriend Satomi when a mysterious stranger encourages him to investigate what she does on her own time. The technology becomes an extension of human curiosity and distrust, a tool to expose as well as manipulate. In that metaphoric sense, this work is perhaps more in keeping with science fiction than something like Urusei Yatsura.

If there’s any manga/anime subgenre that is rigorous in its use of science fiction elements, it would definitely be mecha. The focus on technology as both a metaphor and a mediator of human experience demands a discipline that’s in keeping with traditional hard sf. At the moment, the best known mecha creator in America is Masamune Shirow. His Ghost in the Shell is one of the most popular manga translations in the States, while the 1995 film adaptation by anime auteur Mamoru Oshii ranks with Akira (1989) and Ninja Scroll (1993) as one of the essential anime for a budding otaku. Perhaps more importantly, Shirow has defined the sensibility of Japanese mecha in works such as Ghost, Dominion, and Appleseed. Like the famous pinup artist Hajime Sorayama (who is cited as an influence), Shirow uses the female body as a means to fetishize technology; yet where Sorayama relied on slick metallic surfaces curved over the female figure, Shirow opts for a more aggressively cyborg effect. His women are Victoria’s Secret cybersoldiers, posed langurously on tanks and other mecha in a manner reminiscent of cheesecake calendars. Shirow does more than titillate, however; he also plays with issues of identity and technology in a way that makes his work truly cyberpunk in nature. Ghost in the Shell is the most instructive text in this regard. In Ghost, the heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg covert operative for the government of a near-future "corporate conglomerate state called ‘Japan’." Kusanagi and her fellow operatives in Section Nine encounter the gamut of abuses possible in such a world: sweatshops where children are sacrificed for cheaper tech, wiped memories and false memory implants, humanoid constructs used for a variety of pleasures and economic expediencies, and the inevitable inter- and intra-government deceits for the sake of mixed agendas.

Perhaps the most striking example of tech life in Ghost are the artificial intelligence robot Fuchikomas: acting as individuals but also possessing a hive mind, the Fuchikomas have the potential for revolt but are nevertheless kept in check by the "human" opposition of cyborgs. As a cyborg working for humans, Kusanagi is highly cynical about the idea of a human essence, of the "ghost" that may or may not inhabit her "shell." When she encounters an artificial intelligence truly capable of growth, her sense of identity and her role in society lose what measure of stability she had assumed they had. The work is complex, well-written, erudite, and philosophical. The anime by Mamoru Oshii is equally challenging, although Oshii focuses much less on the comedy and action that Shirow uses to add depth to his characters. Instead, Oshii evokes a dreamlike state as a means of depicting the complexities of the tech-human interface, applying his distinctive narrative sensibility to Shirow’s compellingly detailed universe. What unites the two creators is a fascination for the philosophical heart of mecha, for the tensions and harmonies implicit in a cyber-identity.

Carl Silvio’s recent article on the anime version of Ghost in the Shell (in SFS #79, 26:1 [March 1999]: 54-72) is a highly instructive look at the tensions, contradictions, and ultimate containments in the cyborg discourse of Oshii’s movie. It should be pointed out, however, that Shirow offers a more progressive vision in his manga than does Oshii in the anime. For example, Silvio makes a compelling case for the fact that Kusanagi possesses the body of a child at the end of the film, thus recuperating her radical cyborg possibilities into a fairly conventional vision of reproductive normalcy. In the comic, on the other hand, Batou has acquired a body for Kusanagi that he thought was female but which turns out to be male in origin, a confusion (and diffusion) of gender assumptions better suited to Donna Haraway’s notion of a cyborg identity transcending the strictures of essentialism.

Before turning Shirow into an existential cyberguru, though, it’s necessary to direct one’s attention to Intron Depot and Intron Depot 2, two collections of color artwork recently made available through Dark Horse Press. These collections presume to hold up Shirow as an artistic genius, but the main pleasure is the mecha cheesecake displayed on almost every page. The first collection is an enjoyable enough compendium that covers many of the manga that have been translated stateside, including Ghost in the Shell. The true revelation, however, comes in the sequel. If there is a gaze that combines a fascination with technological gadgetry and the sexualized display of the female body, then Shirow has refined it to its very essence in this volume. On first glance, the complications and contained resistances that Silvio traces in the film version of Ghost in the Shell would seem absent here: the images that make up Intron Depot appear to be pure male adolescent power fantasies, "exotically Japanese" to American consumers, but more familiar in their ideological project as a result. Looking through these books, one immediately notices that Shirow uses the same serene face and statuesque body structure on most of his female figures. There is a Shirow type, one we see develop in the first volume of Intron Depot and which is completely codified in the second. This definitive Shirow Woman is rendered in various hairstyles and skin tones and settings and artistic tools in a celebration of surfaces that conflates the gleam of skin and machine, the allure of flesh and artifice.

Much of the text Shirow writes as accompaniment to these magnificent illustrations focuses on art techniques (computerized and otherwise), his choice of backgrounds and motifs and textures, and the way he creates variations on the same set of images; there is also some charmingly disarming self-criticism. But Shirow does not apologize for his choice of subjects, for their state of dress or undress, for their interchangeability. Like the authors already considered in this review, Shirow knows his audience and caters to their needs. And perhaps that is as instructive an illustration of the functions of junk culture as we might ask for—that its familiarity and popularity allow an imaginative space for resistance for those who might desire it (it’s entirely possible to see his technologically augmented females as radically empowered), but that these very same features may also serve to reinforce conservative ideological perspectives. It’s a double-bind that has been noted by Janice Radway in romance novels and Ernest Mandel in detective fiction. Perhaps it’s time to consider the same contradiction in the otaku mindset as well.

Even more than Ghost in the Shell, Intron Depot 2 proves that Shirow is a postmodern artist—not only in the content of his comics, but in the attitude he brings to his work, in the way he plays upon surfaces and forces his audience to explore that terrain with no recourse to a faux depth. Following Kusanagi’s lack of concern for the human essence, the reader of Intron Depot 2 can best enjoy this compendium by taking its pleasures as they appear on the page, and not searching for a meaning held between the lines, drawn or otherwise. But while this can be a mindless pleasure for those who wish only to amuse themselves to death, there is also, as with Kusanagi’s eventual revelations, a potential impetus for inquiry directed inwards and outwards. Schodt and Levi are right that manga and anime are a reflection of the Japanese mind, but they both know that’s only part of the story. In choosing to consume it, we Americans have the chance to see what parts of our psyches are drawn to these media as well. Shirow’s gaze becomes our own, he draws what we wish to see and experience. And ultimately that gaze doesn’t originate from either of us, maybe not even from the cultures we each inhabit—rather, that nebulous commonality derives from the power of art, as well as from the power of the popular.

While junk culture may not be a universal language, the attempts to sell one culture’s junk to another culture’s audience suggest complex interactions that would benefit from closer scrutiny. While I haven’t yet had the chance to read Satori Fujii’s recent collection Japan Edge: The Insider’s Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture (Cadence, 1999), which examines various aspects of Japanese sub-pop through autobiographical essays, it would seem to be a step down the road towards an interrogation of cross-cultural perspectives. An online excerpt from an essay on anime by respected journalist Carl Gustav Horn, for example, examines the Reagan-era obsessions and anxieties in the author’s psyche that permitted anime to enter and colonize his willing imagination. Ultimately, the otaku nation is as uniquely American as the sport of baseball is uniquely Japanese—each has claimed another culture’s offerings as their own, and in that claiming has both conserved and transformed the cultural import of the original material. If there’s a reason to pay closer attention to Japanese anime and manga, if there’s a reason to demand that closer scrutiny should accompany the inevitable fannish fawnings, it’s because only such disciplined inquiry can trace the complications of an increasingly globalized cultural identity, one that we all already share.

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