Presenting at Mechademia: Ecologies

The Mechademia conference series explores the global innovations and the creative and cultural implications of Asian popular cultures, especially Japanese anime, manga, and gaming.” It is one of the oldest and most important conferences for scholars of Japanese pop culture. The most recent conference in the series took place on the weekend of June 5-6.

The conference was organized in a very innovative, asynchronous format. Every presenter uploaded their presentation as a video recording available for all attendees, with actual panels serving as synchronous Q&A sessions for the presenters. Discussions continued well into the night (Japanese time, where the conference and the majority of its steering committee was based), and the time for Q&A in each panel was never enough to accommodate every participant, which is a testament to the vibrancy of the field.

The theme of the conference was ‘ecologies’: namely vast, multi-layered, multimedia constellations, which can seem overwhelming to the outside eye, which are, however, recognizable to fans immediately by an index of familiar and familial elements via the various fandoms that produce, re-produce, and consume them.

Building on the ever-increasing usage of ‘ecology’ as a metaphor for describing a range of cultural formations, the Mechademia: Ecologies conference hosted several presentations discussing ecology from a variety of perspectives. The JVMG project can also be seen to deal with such multi-layered, multimedia constellations of Japanese visual media as they are made visible and comprehensible by fans for fellow fans in the form of databases.

The conference featured two keynote speeches, one by renowned media scholar Thomas Lamarre and the second by famous mechanical designer and animator Hidetaka Tenjin. Thomas Lamarre explored the media ecology of television and animation, drawing from his most recent work in the field of media theory. He used the intersections of statements, public panic, media assemblages and hardware settings surrounding the string of epileptic seizures caused by Pokémon’s 38th episode, Dennō Senshi Porigon in Japan during 1997 to highlight many still-unexplored dimensions (e.g. the ‘infra-structural’) that constitute television animation. Hidetaka Tenjin provided a practitioner-based perspective, with an overview of practices of mechanical design and its cultural evolution in Japan. He offered comparative views with other modes of envisioning mechanical design, such as the United States, and the practices of the Japanese anime industry.

The first day featured panels such as panel 9, Creating Form, Using Form: Multidirectional relationships and expression in popular culture. Therein, Miho Takeuchi’s exploration of amateur “SNS (social media) manga” discussed the intersection of practices, media and users behind a new and emerging type of manga, which is popular on Japanese social media and which detaches itself from previously established aesthetic/industrial canons such as chara-moe. Masashi Sakaguchi explored the entangling of verisimilitude, audience expectation and filming techniques in Japanese tokusatsu (special effects-focused) movies. Finally, Olga Kopylova surveyed the practices by which visual style is preserved as it is deployed in different media types and channels across the ecology of anime-manga, especially as fans and producers alike employ their knowledge to uphold a fictional universe’s aesthetics. Kopylova highlighted these tendencies both in authors creating content within an existing franchise and in fans pushing back against perceived aesthetic transgressions by producers.

Even though not tied to the JVMG project directly, two of our project’s researchers also presented in panel 15, Fan Practices and Transmedia Ecosystems around Japanese Videogames. Within this panel, Martin Roth, together with fellow scholar Martin Picard, presented their joint research on historical characters in the Sengoku Basara video game and the playful contribution that engaging with them makes to the construction of the idea of the Japanese nation. Luca Bruno presented a perspective on Japanese visual novel games – which he redefined as ‘character intimacy games’ – and their character-based media ecologies. Mikhail Fiadotau explored the changing position of dōjin games in Japan in relation to the increasing prominence of the ‘indie game’ label, the rise in digital distribution, and the increasing enforcement of copyright claims by major companies. The final presentation in the panel was Fanny Barnabé‘s discussion of the many ways in which the various characteristics of the Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) experience can be interpreted through the framework of remix culture, highlighting the ways in which the original game’s interface and gameplay were deconstructed, ultimately leading to a “renewed fictional universe” and a string of further remixes of TPP itself.

The Data Frontier: Potentials, Problems, Communities panel featured Martin Roth representing the JVMG project, and Allison C.E. Bidulock, lead administrator at fan database site MyAnimeList (MAL). Bidulock employed MAL data to highlight two developments within English-speaking fandom, a) the shrinking female demographic and corresponding decline in new shōjo/josei anime titles, and b) the viewing habits of the English-speaking fan base vis-à-vis broadcast patterns in Japan especially in relation to the so called “Netflix Jail” phenomenon versus the simulcast airing of content. Our own presentation provided an overview of the developments of the JVMG project, as well as results from tiny use case 1 as an example of employing the tiny use case methodology (see the presentation video and slides below).

Panel 20, Media Mix, Media Ecosystems, Platform Capitalism, featured Akinori Nakamura and Susana Tosca’s exploration of the birth of the Mobile Suit Gundam media ecology, combining Japanese perspectives on media-mix and Euro-American scholarship on transmedia storytelling, with an eye towards the changes in media environment brought about by the emergence of the Gundam ecology. Within the same panel Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux employed the concept of the metagame to analyze the failure of top-down produced Artifact and the success of the bottom-up game mod Dota 2: Auto Chess both part of the wider ecology of US-developed MOBA game DOTA2.

Finally, Panel 29, Historical Perspectives in Conceptualizing Media Ecology, provided historical examples of the development of media ecologies. In particular, Alexander Zahlten’s exploration of the emergence of media thought from an ecological perspective, focusing on the inter-connectiveness of media, machinery, locales, practices, beginning from Japan’s early twentieth century to the postwar period and its more radical articulations during the occult boom in the 70s and 80s. Tara McGowan discussed magic lanterns and Kamishibai within a wider ecology of Japanese play prints (omocha-e). Andrea Horbinski outlined the wider ecology of Japanese manga fandom, initially fostered by COM magazine and centered around amateur circles, fanzines and later conventions, most prominently Comiket.

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to the Mechademia Steering Committee, Frenchy Lunning, Edmund Hoff, Andy Scott, Stevie Suan and Sookyung Yoo for all their hard work in organizing this outstanding event (including sacrificing sleep time to accommodate European and North-American schedules), as well as all of the conference presenters and attendees for the great discussions. We look forward to continuing these conversations at the next Mechademia conference.