Teaching Anime: Exploring a Transnational and Transmedia Movement

Teaching Anime: Exploring a Transnational and Transmedia Movement

Ed. Note: Professor Antonia Levi has also posted a provocative article, Anime and Manga: It's not all Make-Believe, presenting ideas about how to use anime, as well as some of the pitfalls of using this medium, in the classroom.  She provides more extensive information about individual anime and guidance for their use in the classroom in her Anime: An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom.

Look here for resources from Japan Society's past exhibition KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games.

Anime refers to animated television shows, feature films, and direct-to-DVD “original video animation” (OVA) series. Some people insist that the word “anime” should be pronounced “AH-nee-may,” to mimic the Japanese pronunciation, and this is just one of the ways that anime has become part of a debate about what is authentically Japanese. Perhaps the most interesting thing about teaching anime is that it provides a way of exploring in ourselves and our own cultures what it is that draws our attention and that we deem significant. Anime acts a litmus test for cultural and media awareness on a number of levels.

The most common way to teach anime is to use it as a window on Japanese society. Several films can serve this purpose quite effectively. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, portrays a fantastical world in a Japanese bath house, with spirits and mystical creatures drawn from Japanese folklore. The film revolves around a strong girl, thus emphasizing both connections of anime to Japan’s traditions and the importance of young women as a force in today’s popular culture. The film Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, eloquently depicts the firebombing of Japan in the closing months of the Pacific War through the eyes of two young children. The suffering and perseverance in the face of war is thoughtfully represented, and the film offers poignant lessons for any generation. Alternatively, we can see a portrait of contemporary high school life in Japan, combined with a sci-fi time traveling theme, in the recent, award-winning film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. These films, and many others, are all available as DVDs with English subtitles. It is easy to use these films to ask questions of students. Is imagery used in ways that seem unfamiliar or exotic? Do the motivations of the characters make sense, and if not, what that might tell us about cultural assumptions? How are these films different from some of the American fare from Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks? With questions like these, we can draw students into the complexities of thinking about other cultures by trying to consider them in light of our own.

There are, however, a other ways to approach anime that can provide alternative understandings about the ways media works. For one thing, anime can be viewed not only as a Japanese media phenomenon, but also as something connected to international developments in media as well as connections across media forms. Anime is both a transnational and a transmedia phenomenon. A simple example of this is the Pokemon media empire. The TV series airs in over sixty countries worldwide, and of course it is connected to a huge range of licensed merchandise, including game cards, clothing, and much more. Pokemon began as a video game for the Nintendo Game Boy and then came the TV series and films. Like other examples of popular culture, Pokemon moves across media platforms and encourages a diverse range of engagements on the part of fans. Indeed, sixty percent of all anime produced in Japan is based on already popular comic books. This began with the godfather of Japanese comics, Osamu Tezuka, and continues to this day with manga artists like Naoki Urasawa. How do students think about what crosses from anime into other parts of their lives? Anime raises questions of how media representations are viewed, and also how they are lived and experienced.

What is it exactly that moves across media platforms? This is a complicated question that can be explored in a number of directions. Much of the analysis of anime tends to begin with the “story.” By reading the themes or message of a story, especially considering how it is resolved, we can perceive a certain cultural logic. This is a useful analytical technique, but I would suggest a different approach that may open up a potentially more open-ended range of questions and possibilities for discussion. What if we think about anime in terms of its characters? The stories are often different in different media platforms, in the comics versus the anime and games, but what remains the same are the characters. What can we learn about media in terms of characters that move across platforms? What makes a great character? What other media forms rely on this? TV sitcoms, yes, but feature films, less often. What are some similarities and differences in characters compared to celebrities, politicians, sports figures, everyday people.

"We can explore anime through the features of the characters, the dramatic premises that link them, and the characteristics of the world-settings in which their dramas unfold."


This in turn encourages us to think about how anime is designed. Since 2004, I have been interviewing anime directors, producers, writers, animators, and publicists, in an effort to learn more about how anime is made. In the summer of 2006, I conducted three months of fieldwork, focusing especially on script meetings for two TV series (one for children, another for adults). In both cases, I was struck by how the logic of anime centered not on the story, but rather on the characters. What makes anime an intriguing tool for thinking about movement across media is this emphasis on characters, and on the dramatic premises that link them. This core foundation allows both creators and fans to build worlds around them. We can explore anime through the features of the characters, the dramatic premises that link them, and the characteristics of the world-settings in which their dramas unfold. It seems to me that this provides an alternative to focusing on the story, and allowing instead a different kind of discussion. If we think of the world as filled with characters and dramatic premises, then perhaps we can see the story of the world—our current, unfolding history—is something that is being remade all the time.

This logic of the characters, premise, and world-settings also helps us see the creativity of some fan activities around anime. “Cosplay,” short for “costume play,” is the practice of dressing up as a character, ideally in a homemade costume. Anime conventions around the US, which draw tens of thousands of anime fans, include many people dressed as their favorite characters. In Japan, there are thousands of fan artists who make “dôjinshi,” that is, fan-made comic books featuring their favorite characters in new situations. An annual summertime convention in Tokyo where groups of fans sell these amateur works draws over 400,000 people over three days, constituting the largest annual convention in all of Japan. I would also draw attention to the practice of anime music videos (AMV), which are mash-ups (remixed and re-edited samplings) of favorite anime. At the Anime Boston convention in 2006, the “best in show” award-winning AMV was created by an Italian video artist, who sampled the anime “Princess Tutu,” and placed it with a song called “Hold Me Now” by a Swedish pop group. It can be seen on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHZqxecCukg. 
(Click here for a podcast by Joichi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons, discussing interative technologyClick here for a podcast by bestselling author Daniel Pink about dôjinshi and manga in Japan.)

Some people argue that these fan uses of anime characters and images is stealing. Other people argue that the creativity that goes into creating these works should be valued (or at least not prohibited), especially if they are made as art that speaks to a larger community and is not part of a large business. I tend to agree with the latter position, but it raises interesting questions for discussion about what are our responsibilities towards those who create these cultural goods. The AMV clip linked above was not awarded any money. She was simply recognized for her high quality work. 

Teaching anime (Japanese animated films and TV shows) poses a range of challenges for adult teachers who often (myself included) have less familiarity with anime than their students. Unlike the more common situation where the teacher is the expert who conveys information to a less knowledgeable group of students, those of us who attempt to teach anime to young people may well find that now we are the dummies. Certainly, this complicates the challenge of teaching and takes away some of the comfort zone that comes with gaining expertise in a subject, but it also opens new possibilities for classroom engagement. Moreover, given the importance of popular culture in our students lives, and the ways it does offer real advantages for teaching, we teachers should commit ourselves to finding ways to incorporating new media examples into the classroom in order to help nurture a deeper sensitivity to variety of expressions coming from Japan. I also think that anime can teach us more broadly about media outside of Japan, and about the ways culture is constantly cross the boundaries of nation, being conveyed through a range of transmedia channels.

Ian Condry is associate professor of Japanese cultural studies in the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, Prof. Condry has publications available at http://iancondry.com. He also runs the MIT-Harvard Cool Japan research project which organizes seminars, international conferences, and arts performances to explore the cultural connections, dangerous distortions, and critical potential of popular culture. More info: http://mitcooljapan.com


Topic,Art; Type,Article; Theme,Culture; Topic,International Relations; Topic,Popular Culture; Theme,Using Pop Culture to Teach About Japan;
Ian Condry, Condry, anime, manga, popular culture, transmedia, media,anime