Cyborg Dreams

An Intersection of Media, Japan, and Fandom


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Is Avatar the Last Airbender anime?

Or perhaps a better question, what counts as anime?

Bias alert: I love Avatar and Korra, I think it’s one of the best series to hit American television in a long time. So this article comes with some bias, but I have done my best to be as objective as possible.

I first phrased this question in my head as – Why do anime fans hate avatar? – but I realized that maybe it wasn’t that they hated the show, but just hated that it was considered anime by so many people. As such, I revised the question especially as I dove further into researching the topic but I believe I will be tackling both to an extent. If it sounds like this question has been asked before, it is because it has. I recommend watching PBS’ Idea Channel video on the subject (LINK IN THE DOOBLY DOO). While I think this video is great at introducing the topic (as well as Chris O’Brien’s article for The Escapist) there are a some ideas I think deserve some deeper exploration; namely that of South Korea’s involvement in both the Japanese and American animation industries as well as the cross-pollination of ideas by animation producers from these countries.

The main argument that is made against Avatar is that it was not made in Japan, it is not Japanese so therefore cannot be anime. But this becomes a flimsy argument when South Korea is taken into consideration. Korea’s involvement as a subcontractor for Japanese animation dates back to the late 1960’s when Japanese company Daiichi Douga hired South Korean TV station Tongyang Bangsong to work on Ougon Batto and Youkai Ningen Bemu (Kim, Joon Yang. “South Korea and the Sub-Empire of Anime: Kinesthetics of Subcontracted Animation Production.” Mechademia 9 (2014): 90-103).

DR Movie is a name I imagine most people are not familiar with but came up often in my research. This is a South Korea based animation studio that has animated more “anime” than can be listed here, but I can list a few; Bleach, Claymore, Code Geas, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Macross, Nana, Naruto Shippuuden, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and the list goes on. They worked on key frames as well as mattes and in-between cels. Another show they worked on: Avatar the Last Airbender. Having the same studio work on both an American production and a Japanese production does not necessarily mean everything they produce is anime, but it does throw into question this idea that anime is purely Japanese.

What about productions that are animated in Japan? I think most people that were asked this question might say “Well yes, if Japan animated it, then the show must be anime. Does that mean The Legend of Korra is anime? Because parts of it were animated by Studio Pierrot, the same company that’s been animating the Naruto movies since 2004 (The show was also jointly animated by Studio Mir of South Korea and Nickelodeon’s own animation studio Ginormous Madman). Are only those episodes anime (Episodes 13-18, and 21 for the curious), but not the rest? That does seem like an odd proposition to make, but maybe there is something to support that claim?

Macross, as Robotech, is considered one of the most influential anime for Americans growing up in the 80’s. Like Star Blazers before it, Robotech was constructed from three different Japanese shows. I do not think many people would argue whether Macross/Robotech were anime but what about the 2006 production Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles? This was a joint venture between three production companies from the United States, South Korea, and Japan (Harmony Gold USA, DR Movie, and Tatsunoko respectively) and released by Funimation. There were Japanese and American and Korean producers as well. So does this mean that Macross/Robotech is anime, but the movie made as a sequel to these shows is not, just like the episodes from Korra?

For the sake of argument, let’s use a fallacy and move the goalposts here. Anime doesn’t have to be animated in Japan, or produced in Japan, but it definitely needs to be developed or thought up by Japan, right? I have not met a single fan who claims The Transformers is an anime, but it was developed by Toei Animation and based on Japanese toy lines Diaclone and Microman. The toy lines were eventually sold to Hasbro, who combined the two to make the Transformers toys. When The Transformers eventually stopped airing in the United States, Toei continued to make a sequel series as well as a manga adaptation (Once again leaving us with the odd question of whether a show can be a part-time anime).

We could keep jumping around, finding ways in which a show is not Japanese. Maybe it has to be written by Japanese people, or directed, or any number of things. But what is there to gain from this kind of exclusion? Why would fans want to exclude people who might be interested in their hobbies just because they call Avatar, or Korra, or Transformers anime? Perhaps it has to do with social capital amongst peers (Which I wrote about here), but it seems like a self defeating way to approach the thing you love. My answer is this:

Anime is a sort of metaphysical term, a social construct that we use to categorize a set of aesthetic, stylistic, and trope choices used in animation. It has nothing to do with the country of origin.

 

Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it  to Gurren Lagann

Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it to Gurren Lagann

 

 

Look at all this anime

Look at all this anime

 

Japan has intentionally promoted anime as something to be exported and shared with the world, so much so that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry established a Creative Industries Promotion Office in 2010 just for the purpose of exporting “Cool Japan,” which includes; anime, pop culture, idols, and gourmet. Because of this there has been a cross-pollination of ideas from all over the world that have come together to make this “genre” a more rich and rewarding hobby for people from many countries. I propose we stop arguing and start watching, because if someone is excluding an amazing show because it is not “Japanese” then they are missing out.

If you are not convinced though I will leave you with this; If I buy beef raised in the United States and cut it thin, and buy rice grown in California, and Dashi powder imported from Japan, with onions grown in Mexico and cook that up into Gyūdon, are you going to tell me I’m not eating Japanese food?


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Nostalgia is a Drug for Geeks

Nostalgia from the Greek words nostos and algos, return and suffering. Literally, the suffering caused by the yearning to return to one’s place of origin.

After hearing neuro-anthropologist Dr. Daniel Lende give a lecture on how he was studying drug addiction and the culture and reasons behind it, I had the realization that much of what he was describing was exactly what I go through when I feel nostalgic. According to his study the basic breakdown of what is happening in the brain is this:

  • A shift in attention, paying attention to cues that let addicts know it is time to use
  • Feeling a desire, usually one that consumes their thoughts
  • Urges that happen beyond conscious control

Inevitably the things I find nostalgic are geeky; NES, Ninja Turtles, old D&D games, Megaman, the first time I watched Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z. And this led me to wonder; is nostalgia the geek’s drug of choice? While most people experience nostalgia, it seems to be especially prevalent among geeky/nerdy people. It is something we actively seek out; in a world with PS4’s and Xbox One’s we still seek out and recreate the 8-bit experiences of our childhood. Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and JoJo’s Bizarre adventure are all getting remakes and new seasons while new and popular anime wait patiently for the next round. (Will Shinjeki no Kyojin resurge when I’m 50?)

Of course capitalism has something to do with that, childhoods are easy sells. But the geek childhood we see repackaged more often than most, markets thrive on our nostalgia. I haven’t seen a modern remake of Happy Days or I Love Lucy, but TMNT is on its fifth television incarnation, has had six comic series, and three live-action movies with a fourth just released. (I know I’m leaving some out, but you get the idea) Funimation releases Dragon Ball Z in some new and premium boxed set every, what, three years? And now there is Dragon Ball Kai.

So it’s profitable, and I think that’s because we seek it out more than any other sub-culture or age group.

Why?

A study titled “Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (91, 975-993) suggests that nostalgia is often onset by sad or negative feelings. Additionally, in a majority of those studied nostalgia acted as a cure or relief from those feelings. My theory is that because many of us grew up isolated from our peers and were shunned for our interests. The games and media we participated in brought us solace and a sense of community with other like-minded individuals.

If those activities helped us cope with the hardships of growing up as outsiders, or with the difficulties of growing up in general, then it would make sense that we would draw strength from those memories. But we do more than draw strength, we surround ourselves with it. Sing songs about it, plaster it all over our homes, purchase and repurchase original and reproductions of our childhood loves. We never tire of exploring Hyrule or of throwing a spirit bomb at Frieza.

I have found myself more than once watching re-runs of anime I grew up with when I was feeling down. Sometimes I think of it as “anime junk food” but what is actually happening here is that I am seeking relief from feeling depressed or worried. And it is not feelings of exclusion (I have grown up to have many friends in many circles) but the worries of the adult world; jobs, rent, bills, etc. And in those moments I have a sense of comfort brought about by reliving my childhood experiences.

Perhaps in a world where we “millenials” are often lost, underemployed, and in debt (read Sarah Kendzior’s great article about this) we seek to comfort ourselves by filling our lives with memories of a life less full of worry. Who needs narcotics and anti-depressants when you have Duo Maxwell?


If you’re interested in further reading check out these links:

Dr. Daniel Lende’s neuro-anthropology blog

Nostaliga: Content, Triggers, Functions

Sarah Kendzior’s blog


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Why Does Fansubbing Continue to Exist?

This will be the first in a series of articles exploring the fansub community, for those unfamiliar, please read The Anime News Network’s definition of a fansub.

 

The anime fansub community is something I have been involved with off and on for many years. My participation really only started once anime became readily available online (the early 2000’s), so I was not a part of what I like to call “the first generation” of fansubbers. Those veterans would do everything by hand using VHS recordings, collaborate through the mail, and all gather around static ridden copies of copies of copies to watch their favorite shows once every month or more. These days fansubbers have a much more sophisticated array of tools that allows for high quality and fast turn around time; the question I want to ask is “why.” In light of instant streaming services like Crunchyroll.com and Netflix, that have a comparable turn around times and cheap or free access, why do fansubbers continue working and why are the fans still downloading them?


 

My theory is that fan translators are taking what companies have traditionally placed a monetary value on and turning it into social capital. Additionally, these fans have gone a step further and added both value and content to a product where licencors and media companies have neglected to meet the desires of the fan base.

The law is clear between Japan and America; fansubbing is illegal. But both proponents and critics of the practice (within the fan community) have eschewed arguments of law in favor of arguments focused on social and ethical practices. The question is often when and why is it allowable instead of is it legal. Jordan Hatcher, and intellectual property lawyer states in his paper Of Otaku and Fansubs that American licencors of anime are less litigious than most media companies, often sending informal letters to fansub groups or sending representatives to anime conventions to comment on the practice.

Fansub groups do not seem to care about money in so far as selling their products; the driving factor seems to be recognition for their hard work by their peers. Peers in this case are not necessarily the fans of anime, but other fansub groups (This can be seen in the contempt many groups show for fans in their FAQs or in their responses to fan criticism). The value here is not economic but social; recognition as experts in their field by others pursuing the same craft. At the same time, this reach for perfection has also subtly redefined what “normal fans” (Those who participate in the culture in different ways other than translation) value in their anime experience.

For example, many sub groups go out of their way to explain Japanese cultural nuances that many media companies either ignore, or gloss over by localizing a particular pun or reference, i.e., purposefully mistranslating dialogue in order for jokes and puns to “be more American” (At least in my case). These explanations are commonly known as translator’s notes, and over the years have become a valuable addition for many fans that seek a more authentic and genuine understanding of Japanese culture. As Professor Ian Condry of MIT points out in his book The Soul of Anime, the fansub group AnimeForever went through the trouble to provide extensive translator notes for the 2005 release of Samurai Champloo. They clarified uses of words, explained the hiragana syllabary so that an entire episode would make sense to American audiences, and gave short history lessons that put certain scenes into context. There were four other groups subbing the show at the time and Professor Condry expects they were in competition with each other. And none of this was for money, but social capital; a different value system.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Director Hiroki Hayashi apologies to overseas fans for prematurely ending the series.

Even some creators of anime in Japan have recognized and seem to appreciate the trouble fansubbers go through so that overseas audiences may see their creations. In 2004 director Hiroki Hayashi (surname last) apologized to fans, including those “outside the broadcast area who took special measures…and to everybody that watched it subtitled overseas without permission” for ending the show Battle Programmer Shirase early and not continuing with the second and third seasons.

What does this mean?

It seems clear that fansubbing is not going away any time soon, and while Netflix and Crunchyroll’s anime selection continues to surge, fan translators have carved a niche for themselves within a niche community. Not only are they not going away, but they have increased their value to a certain segment of the fan population (namely those that seek a more “authentic” Japanese experience). In addition to redefining the value landscape fan translators can bring certain series overseas that would never be released here; whether from red tape, licensing issues, or monetary shortfalls. This in turn leads to an increase in demand that fosters a sense of competition between groups seeking to be the best and have recognition from their (fansubbing) peers.

So what do you think, why do fansubs continue to exist?