Here at Reverse Thieves we try to entertain the notion that we are intellectuals. We like to think that sometimes we have tread new ground or started deep discussions. (Feel free to debate these ideas.) We also like to be engaged by others taking such lofty ideals and exploring them through anime and manga. So in the spirit of that Mechademia was picked up.
I first heard about Mechademia on an episode of Anime World Order. It intrigued me because as I get deeper into otakudom I become more and more interested in the mechanics of anime, manga, and the associated fandom. Where does anime and manga draw its inspirations from, what is its history, what makes stories captivate the viewer, and how does it effect society and how does society effect it in turn? I have seen individual papers being quoted and there are several books done by individuals that are quite informative but what I really wanted was a collection of papers from different authors. An anthology of analysis. My first sampling of such was Mechademia.
This is a collection of essays from all types of people from all over (mostly the United States) attempting to take a closer look at anime, manga, the fandom that comes along with it, and all things that influence these things in between. Sometimes it is easier to tackle weighty subjects in a smaller format. This was one of the appeals of a collection, which requires things to move on fairly quickly. As with any anthology you can expect to really like some of it and dislike some, too. One of the overall observations about this book is that some essays are just plain uninteresting for a seasoned anime/manga fan.
That seems to stem from the fact that this book was their first go. They published works in this book that reached for these extremes. You have very simplistic papers that assume you are not well versed in the intricacies of anime and manga where as other papers assume you have scholar level terminology. It also has to do with the fact that most people write these essays for school or their professional careers and therefore they are written for some target audience not for the readers of the book. If Mechademia picks up a reputation as a well done academic resource for papers they will have more people who write exclusively with the intent of being a part of these books and with a common reader base in mind.
Unsurprisingly we start off with an essay about fandom, specifically how Japanese pop culture has starting moving into youth culture around the world, and indeed there are many throughout the anthology. This subject has many angles it can be approached by and therefore makes it one of the more interesting things to read about. However, most glaringly narrow is the essay “World of Anime Fandom.” It only concentrates on Naussica.net. Surely no one, not even the writer, could actually think one website represents the whole. And more to the point, a website dedicated to only Ghibli works is even less representative of the many fans in the United States, let alone the world. The cosplay essay is super basic. But more importantly it left out the competitiveness of the subculture. I have heard many tales of first time cosplayers (and last time cosplayers) receiving a not so friendly welcome. It’s certainly something worth mentioning.
We start off with a comic that is a mixture of poetry and comic art. It was very clearly a western artist trying to use a manga style but was neither mimicking a Japanese feel or their own artistic style. Maybe that is what they were going for but I did not work for me. “The World of Anime Fandom” is a misleading title for a paper because you assume it’s going to be about composition and habits of anime fandom as a whole but it is all about Naussica.net. What is worse is it then tries to prove how the people on Naussica.net are heads and shoulders above other anime fans. “Costuming the Imagination” is essentially a brief history of cosplay. How it started and an overview of what it has developed into. It was a cosplay article for people who know nothing of cosplay. I, too, would have rather seen a paper on the social complexities of the cosplay community both in how it brings people together but also sets them against each other.
I found the essays about manga history some of the more worthwhile in the book. The essay “Globalizing Manga” that included the Chinese manhua market was just fascinating to me. It’s pretty well-known that China has a crazy large bootlegging market, this has an interesting history in their comics as well. Essentially having Chinese artists turn around series by copying the art from popular Japanese series at the time. Of course, this wasn’t all that was made! Learning more about a relative unknown facet of the Asian comics market was great. Another essay to lookout for is the translated from Japanese one about Mori Minoru. I had never heard of him and indeed to appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye. But the man was acknowledged by Tezuka in his day! Also the color pages showing pieces of his work was a nice addition.
“Globalizing Manga,” looks at how the attitude towards westernizing anime has changed over the years. Anne Allison looks at how in the beginning the need to remove all traces of Japanese culture was considered essential for adapting work. Now leaving in Japanese culture is not only commonplace, but a distinct Japanese feel is sometimes a selling point. It does not focus in depth on any one market but it does give a sense how manga is spread and influenced each market it has gone to. It is a very cursory, but solid, look into the topic but it makes its point with several examples of the change over the years. It made me interested in reading a longer paper or book on the subject. “Mori Minoru’s Day of Resurrection” is refreshing because we see an article looking at the career and contributions to the industry of a lesser known artist. I had heard of Mori Minoru but only because of his science fiction works, like Japan Sinks, being referenced by several anime. I would have never guessed that he was a manga author for a time.
There are always a few more technically or theory heavy essays in a collection like this. You just have to take these as they come since everyone’s versatility of schooling is unknown. The essays looking at art and symbolism I didn’t fully comprehend the material/references but they certainly got me thinking. “Metamorphosis of the Japanese Girl” didn’t seem fully realized. It was a good starting look and indeed there is so much about Revolutionary Girl Utena to look at that it is sort of forgivable.
I will admit right off the bat that the Superflat and the multiplanner image papers were much like the airplane joke: way over my head. I defer any deeper insights into them to the member of the blog who has an art education. I did like “What is Animation?” although it’s more a look into what is Mamoru Oshii’s animation than animation in general. I disagreed with some of the points of the “Metamorphosis of the Japanese Girl” more than I thought it was not fully realized. Still it was a well-written piece and I felt it defended its points well enough even if I wasn’t swayed. The “Werewolf in the Crested Kimono” paper was a bit odd to me. There were many different types of human-wolf hybrids mentioned but the author just misses tying it all together. Still it made me think about the differences in cultures for the human-wolf hybrids so it succeeded in its goal.
No sorry, the critical Superflat paper was pretty much over my head, too. On the other hand, the essay about the multiplaner image was atleast mostly comprehensible to me from my year of animation history in college. Using a specially designed camera and layering cells to create movement and depth within animation was something made famous and patented by Walt Disney in the 1940s. This essay discusses Japan’s decision to go in a different direction. At times the essay gives too much credit. The method was expensive so using a different approach was born our of necessity not because they didn’t want to use the technology. This isn’t a bad thing, many great things come from using only what resources are available. Of course, it then became a vision and staple of anime.
I was a little perplexed by the paper on “Assessing Interactivity in Video Game Design.” It was a good paper but it was a 100% video game focused paper that had no relevance to anime or manga. It’s like having a Star Wars paper in the middle of a Star Trek anthology. They sort of go together if you want them to but it is still really out of place. The few little reviews and essays in the back remind me of blog posts (which is hardly a bad thing) rather than scholarly papers. However, they are mostly entertaining and illuminating. I would have like to seen some of the concepts there expanded upon but leaving the reader wanting more is sometimes a good thing.
The snippets in the back are nice quick looks at many things. Perhaps something written by us may appear in the that section some day! Even if I stumbled through a few of them or found a couple uninteresting, the generally feeling was one of positivity and growth. This collection is worth a look to any fan wanting to stretch their intellectual muscles. We already grabbed up the second one!
Overall, I got a good amount out of the the first book of Mechademia. The content was varied in both the topics and the depth and complexity of the papers. I did not enjoy nor fully absorb all the papers but I got enough to recommend the book. This is the greatest strength of properly chosen anthologies: anyone can find something they like in it. I look forward to seeing how they improve and change the anthology as they release more books. This is an excellent step towards getting a good base of exchange for scholarly discussion about anime and manga in North America.