We were very happy to be able to participate at the Mechademia US conference, which took place on June 28 and June 29, 2022. Held at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. This year’s theme centered around ‘migration and transition’: movement of media follows in the wake of movements of persons, and is as much affected by forces similar, if not the same, as those precipitating the movement of people. Anime and manga, and their contiguous media forms, are subjected to similar forces, encountering tensions, and undergoing transitions as they continue to establish themselves as a global media. Conference presenters approached such phenomena from a multitude of perspectives, ranging from singular case studies to at-scale, survey-like approaches.
The conference’s first panel centered around ‘Definitions and Delineations’, opened with Transcultural Perspectives on Moe: Fan Theories, Discourses, a comprehensive account of US-based fan theories and discourses on the moe phenomenon by Paul Ocone. First providing an outline of Japanese moe criticism, Ocone’s approach moved to highlighting the shifts in perceptions and usage of moe, both as a phenomenon and as an aesthetic descriptor, in US and Anglophone contexts. Moe, as it travels to US-centric contexts, leads to the formation of discourses around particular works, the emergence of canonic and/or ‘classic’ works, and to a delayed usage, just as its usage in Japan is declining. With Rise of the Weeaboo: Differentiating Japanese otaku from global anime and manga fans, Ana Matilde Sousa provided an important distinction between two descriptors, weeaboo and otaku, both employed to describe hardcore fans of anime and manga. In non-Japanese contexts, a distinction has emerged between fans, related to individual expression of said passion: when one’s status as a fan is expressed in excessively overt and emotional ways, such fans may be referred to as a weeaboo (a derogatory slang derived from ‘wannabe Japanese’), in derogatory fashion. When one’s status as a fan is expressed in more detached, reserved manner, one may be referred to as otaku, denoting a heightened status. Sousa then proceeds to compare western usages of the term with the evolution of the otaku term in Japan, highlighting differences and similarities.
Afterwards, Stevie Suan’s Anime’s Alternative Geography: On Form and Transnational Cultural Production opened the Means of Production/Destruction Panel. He produces a re-envisioning of the geography of anime production, highlighting the transnational nature of anime production well before its global turn at the turn of the twenty-first century. Suan thoroughly maps the network of anime production, highlighting the status of anime as a transnational media form where the center is located in Japan, connecting several geo-social production contexts in East and South-East Asia – South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines etc. Betty Stojnic’s Anime War Machines: Depictions of Military Technology in Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s Cannon Fodder instead highlights the strategies of mechanical representation within Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s Cannon Fodder [Taihō no Machi](Shochiku 1995), one of the three animated shorts that comprise the memories compilation film. Stojnic thoroughly analyzes the perspectival foci, the takes and the exploded perspectives on mechanical war machines, tying it to – amongst others – Eiji Ōtsuka’s examination and critique of world war two era juvenile picture books and anime juxtaposing photorealist depictions of mechanical apparatuses with iconic characters.
Fan Culture as a Template of Migration: The Case Study of Hello Kitty, the conference’s keynote speech by Christine H. Yano, outlined the evolution of Hello Kitty as an object of global fandom and as a cultural ambassador for Japan. As Kitty moves and migrates across contexts, a global, multifaceted fandom develops, with Kitty becoming an object of desire, catalyzing a shifting and intangible interaction between and among fans and their objects of desire. Migration is thus both a proving ground and an object of friction between global fan cultures, companies and entities like Hello Kitty in a self-reflexive loop.
Opening the second day of the conference, Lillian McIntyre’s The Subway Speaks: Emigration and Escape in Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion examines the visual and linguistic coding of Octolings characters. McIntyre examines the Octoling’s visual encoding in reference to Afro-American rap visual stereotypes, together with a peculiar linguistic encoding in Japanese – speech dominated by katakana Japanese, not present within international releases. McIntyre outlines how the ramifications of these representational strategies might pose wider interrogatives on perceptions of foreign elements such as Afro-American culture within Japanese pop culture. From the JVMG project Luca Bruno presents Imagining (Animating) Waifus and Husbandos in Japan and Abroad: A Comparative Data-Driven Perspectives on Character Intimacy Games. He provides a data-driven approach outlining how players imagine characters in niche, intimacy-focused game software in Japan, and how these practices are sedimented as part of data-cataloging efforts by fans. He traces a comparison between sources part of the JVMG project (VNDB, ACDB) and another Japanese fan-curated repository, providing a comparative, data-driven perspective on Japanese intimacy-focused game software.
The Gendered words; Gendered performance(s) panel opened with De-sexualization and multi-sexualization in RyōSeiRui fandubbing circle in China by Wenjin Yao, providing an extensive overview of anime fandubbing practices within Chinese-language fandom. The presentation focuses on practices that either de-sexualize originally sexualized voices or sexualized performances that were not sexual in the beginning. Yao also provided an interesting overview of gender differences in performances, highlighting male fandubbers producing voice performances gendered as feminine, along with fandubbing project practices. Makoto Hunter, with Queering Confucianism and Confucianizing Queerness in Japanese Popular Culture: How Family Reverence Overcomes Parental Transphobia in Love Me for Who I Am, discusses the representation of approaches to queerness from a Confucianist perspective. Hunter provides an interesting overview of the how reactions to queerness are depicted according to the dominant view of family and gender relations in Japan. Hunter discusses representational and narrative strategies within the Love Me for Who I Am [Fukakai na Boku no Subete o] (Konoyama Kata 2018-2021) manga series and highlights how the same Confucianist tenets can be re-appropriated to depict the overcoming of parent’s transphobia towards their children. Finally, Rhea Vichot examines Otokonoko identity in From Abjection to Self-Identification: Shifts in the Definition of “otokonoko” in English-language Online Spaces. She first provides an overview of existing usages of the descriptor, highlighting its origins in Japan and then moving to its employment in US-based contexts. She traces a path through an initial usage in derogatory fashion through a progressive movement towards self-identification and re-appropriation of the descriptor, away from its original usage in Japanese contexts.
The following panel saw two presentations tackling migration towards Japan, rather than from Japan. Alex Tai, with From the Apennines to the Andes to Mount Fuji: Neorealism in Isao Takahata’s 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, describes directing and representational practices derived from Italian neorealist movies such as Fellini’s Bicycle Thieves, among others. He highlights differences from the exaggerated, motion-heavy animation practices of Disney animation and relative influences. Tai emphasizes how Takahata’s directorial work instead reproduces the non-professional ‘naturalistic’ performances of Italian neorealism – non-professional acting, for instance – and how this results in a distinct genealogy of animation, influenced by non-Japanese film making. Frenchy Lunning, with Considering the East/West inscriptions in the illustrations of the bodies of Taishô era ‘S’-coupled shojôs, offers an overview of migration and tensions from and between East and West via an examination of esu shojō illustrations. Lunning presents a thorough overview of how concepts, images and fashion from outside Japan are deployed in representations of young girls, shifting ambiguously from hegemonic gender roles to unstable and ambiguous positions.
Paul Price provides a survey-like approach of more than seven hundred works in the Isekai [hero reincarnates in a fantasy world] genre, deploying a thorough exploration of the genre’s tropes on a large scale. Price’s presentation is an example of how to conduct research on media formats which are characterized by self-sameness. Despite the potential for each work to be representative of the genre, it is only by working at scale that proper understanding can be garnered from the data. Finally, Scott Ma engages with isekai works as a genre characterized by a conservative bent, where it is Japan that brings ‘real’ progress to medieval European environments. In a sense, Japan positions itself as being more western than westerners themselves. In Isekai works, this translates into the emergence of an occidentalist lens through which medieval Europe is viewed from a conservative Japanese perspective.
This conference, while involving a change of location from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and associated difficulties, was still a fruitful occasion to exchange ideas and to present opportunities for data-driven research in Japanese visual media. We would like to sincerely thank the organizers for their efforts and the passion they demonstrated in getting the conference in motion in post-pandemic times. We thank Frenchy Lunning, Edmund Hoff, Wendy Goldberg, Diana Tolin and all other organizers who made this event possible.