Where is the scholarship on the U.S. anime industry?

The new March 2014 issue of the journal Pacific Affairs features, as one of the articles in its East Asian Cultural Industries special section, a paper by Nissim Otmazgin (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on Anime in the US: The entrepreneurial dimensions of globalized culture. The article’s abstract summarizes it as one that “[d]rawing on interviews with Japanese and American key personnel in the anime industry, field research and market surveys…focuses on the organizational aspect of the anime market in the United States since the mid-1990s, with particular attention to the role of entrepreneurs.” I am going through the article right now, and will probably have some comments on it in the next few days, but just looking at the title and the abstract brings up one question that I’ve always found interesting.

When we look at papers on Japanese animation, the kinds of studies that are the most common are close readings – looking at particular themes and images in a specific anime film or series, across several, or within the work of a particular director or creator. Typical examples that come to mind include Baby you can drive my bed: Technology and old age in Japanese animated film (Journal of Aging and Identity, 7:2), Breaking boundaries: The representation of split identity in anime (Animation Studies, 2), Hey, you’re a girl?: Gendered expressions in the popular anime, Cowboy Bebop (Multilingua: Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication, 32:1) and “Excuse me, who are you?”: Performance, the gaze, and the female in the works of Kon Satoshi (in Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation, pp. 23-42). And papers on how viewers approach and react to anime – through fan activities, cosplay, doujinshi, fansubbing, anime music videos, etc. are also common.

But what is largely missing is something to connect these two ends – something that would look at what happens after anime is created – and before it reaches its audience. How is anime produced and funded, marketed, licensed, translated, packaged, and actually distributed.

To be fair, some scholars are doing work of this kind. Brian Ruh, in particular, has written on ‘Early Japanese animation in the United States: Changing Tetsuwan Atomu to Astro Boy’ (in The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki, pp. 209-226) and on Transforming U.S. anime in the 1980s: Localization and longevity (Mechademia, 5). As far back as 1995, Jonathan Clements published ‘The mechanics of the US anime and manga industry’ (Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 64). And British scholar Rayna Denison has written extensively on topics such as Star voices in the American versions of Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 3:2). But still, studies of the U.S. anime industry are few and far between. So, the obvious question comes up – why are scholars not able to look at the industry? Or not willing? Or just not interested in looking?

There are several possible answers:

– Anime studies is an area that is squarely and definitely in the humanities field. This means that most anime scholars only have access to a particular skill set and particular ways of asking questions – that then lead to particular answers.  For that matter, the skill that that is needed for looking at an industry – designing and conducting market surveys, running a SWOT analysis, interpreting sales and profit figures – is just not something that anime scholars are generally familiar with.

– Given that the U.S. anime industry was (and is) composed primarily of small private companies, any sales/profit figures that do exist are generally not available to the public or to scholars.

– Maybe the sales figures weren’t really impressive to begin with. For example, according to a widely-quoted JETRO study, at its peak in 2003, the value the U.S. “anime market” stood close to US$5B. But, breaking that down, sales of actual anime DVDs made up less than ten percent of that total value. Which is to say, maybe, an industry that at its height did not even account for half a billion dollars in sales is simply not worth spending time on.

– Even if a scholar was able to put together something like a history of an anime licensing and distribution company, or a general history of the “anime industry”, where would they go with it? Would a journal be interested in publishing this kind of history?

At the same time, though, these questions in turn bring up another one – why have American scholars embraced studying the manga industry so enthusiastically? In 2004, Kaoru Misaka wrote for Publishing Research Quarterly about The first Japanese manga magazine in the United States. Wendy Goldberg’s “The manga phenomenon in America” (2010, in Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives, pp. 281-296) surveys several different models that American manga publishers have pursued, such as Dark Horse’s positioning of manga as just a different kind or shape of comic book, Viz Media’s aggressive foregrounding of manga’s “Japaneseness”, or Vertical’s presentation of manga as non-European literary fiction. And of course, Casey Brienza has built a name for herself as an established and acknowledged scholar specifically of manga publishing in the U.S. Is the answer simply that “publishing studies” as a field has existed long before manga came about, so, studies of manga publishing could easily fit into a particular niche?

As I mentioned, I will be sharing my thoughts on the Otmazgin paper in the next few days. But in the meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this question – why so few scholars seem to be interested in studying the anime industry in the U.S.?

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