Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.

Anime Explosion!

anime-explosion

Title: Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation
Author: Patrick Drazen
Publication Year: 2003
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 369

When I got Anime Explosion! in the mail from Amazon, I was so excited. I had seen it on a friend’s bookshelf, and, silly cover illustration aside, it seemed like a fairly serious reference source on anime. Instead of merely listing one anime series after another, its chapters are structured around broad themes (portrayals of nature, anti-war messages, etc.), with chapters devoted to single works or directors at the end of the book. The chapters are filled with well-selected and well-formatted illustrations accompanied by captions that do not merely repeat what is in the text, and there are numerous footnotes, which are also well-formatted and easy to read. The bibliography at the end of the book references such serious scholarly works as Professor William LaFleur’s Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan as well as numerous creator interviews from the pages of the long defunct but still fondly remembered anime magazine Animerica. The book hits all the big bases, like Japanese folklore in anime, nudity in anime, the Pokémon phenomenon, Studio Ghibli, and even one of my personal favorite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. What’s not to like?

The fact that Anime Explosion! is one of the more boring books I’ve ever read is not to like, actually. And you’ll have to believe me when I say that, during my six years in higher education, I have read some pretty boring books. During my two years in higher higher education, I have also read some pretty terrible student papers, and so I think I can put my finger on what I dislike about Anime Explosion! – it’s the plot summary. Pages and pages of it. All written in singularly uncreative and unevocative prose. Judging from the level of the language, I would say that, despite the occasional frank discussions of sex and sexuality, the target audience for this book is currently enrolled in middle school. The book also assumes that the reader knows nothing about Japan, which I suppose is fair; but, to those of us who have studied the country, the cultural clichés referenced over and over again come off as a little stale. There also isn’t much interpretation involved, and the little that does exist is tepid and sophomoric.

I hesitate to say this, as Drazen acknowledges this problem in both his introduction and his conclusion, but Anime Explosion! is also a bit dated. The individual works covered in the book are, for the most part, classics, and no amount of time is going to change that. In that sense, Drazen has done an excellent job of creating a reference work that will transcend the whims of an extremely capricious field. On the other hand, for having been published in 2003, this book feels like a relic from the mid-nineties. The internet? What is this strange thing? The Japanese bubble economy collapsed? Oh my god! Also, to me, a presumably serious scholar, many of the seventies and eighties era texts Drazen references (like Kitteridge Cherry’s Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women) can no longer be taken seriously. Also, for those fans curious about such recent phenomena as moe and hikikomori, there is nothing to be found.

All that being said, this is a solid book and may prove interesting to younger or more hard-core anime fans. And, to be fair, Drazen’s chapter on “Gay and Pseudo-Gay Themes in Anime” (which Drazen aptly titles “A Very Pure Thing”) is bold, insightful, and well ahead of its time. For those of us interested in how anime stereotypes came to be, chapters like “Shojodo: The Way of the Teenage Girl” are also useful. For older readers looking for thrills and entertainment, however, I would recommend an anime magazine like Otaku USA, which tends to function at a much higher level than Drazen’s well-meaning but regrettably prosaic reference work.