By adding scenarios, suggesting alternate endings, offering different interpretations of characters, and by allowing the reader to view the original work in a different narrative tone or context, dōjinshi challenge the authority of the original works (原作) on which they are based as monolithic entities reflecting the specific and singular vision of an auteur. Instead, they raise the possibility of a plurality of receptions and interpretations, perhaps as many as there are viewers. In other words, the intentions of the director – not to mention those of the producer, the screenwriter, and all the other artists involved in the production of a film – effectively disappear as soon as a work enters the eyes and hands of an audience. In fact, I believe a film (or any text) is interesting to an audience precisely because it is capable of multiple meanings and interpretations.
Fan works like dōjinshi can be used to explore these multiple meanings, building and adding on to the original work, if not openly defying it. Moreover, in breaking down and rebuilding the original text, dōjinshi also raise the possibility of disassembling other conventions, such as those of genre and sexuality. I personally believe that artists use dōjinshi to fill in the gaps created by the original text in a way that will make the text satisfying to them as intelligent adults seeking a more nuanced story and more complicated, three-dimensional characters. In this way, the bathhouse of Spirited Away becomes a brothel, and the relationship between Howl and Sophie comes to have a sexual component. The characters of a children’s movie like Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, which are necessarily seen from a child’s perspective, take on adult attributes, like worries relating to parenting. Therefore, I believe that dōjinshi both show appreciation for a film (or television series or novel or video game) and challenge it, augmenting and replacing the elements given by the auteur (or artist or author) with personal and individual interpretations and desires.
This short series of essays has probably raised more questions than it has answered. I would therefore like to give the titles of several books and articles that expand on the topic of dōjinshi and explore it in greater depth. Sharon Kinsella’s Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society gives an overview of the dōjinshi market and how it functions. Henry Jenkins’s seminal study Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture offers many interesting insights on the value and implications of fan culture in general. Matthew Thorn has a thought-provoking article entitled “Girls and Women Getting Out of Hand: The Pleasure and Politics of Japan’s Amateur Comics Community” in an anthology dealing with Japanese fans of all persuasions called Fanning the Flames: Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan. For a more casual reader, Frederik Schodt’s classic Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga remains invaluable. Perhaps the best reference, however, is the Wikipedia article on dōjinshi, which provides an excellent summary of the major issues related to the art form, lists numerous dōjinshi artists and circles (like CLAMP) who have gone on to become successful professionals, and links to many other online sources, including a lengthy essay on copyright issues.
Finally, for those of you who are interested in getting your hands on actual, authentic dōjinshi, I suggest spending some time browsing on eBay (your search term is “doujinshi”). In fact, I heartily recommend it. Many dōjinshi are beautifully published, beautifully illustrated, and beautifully written; and, in my opinion, their status as one-of-a-kind art objects only adds to their value.