In the opening chapter of The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Thomas Lamarre identifies what he calls “the book report or film review model” of writing on Japanese animation – “a summary of the major narrative in conjunction with a consideration of major themes”. He does not dismiss this approach, and acknowledges it as “frequently insightful”, but argues that it is only one of several possible or potential approaches that anime scholars can take. However, as he points out, far too much of the scholarly writing on Japanese animation that is published in English falls under this model. Anime scholars select particular themes, and highlight how these themes are expressed in particular anime, or working in reverse, scholars pick a particular anime work and examine the themes and images that it contains. Or they look at how audiences interact with anime – as consumers, but primarily, as fans. Less frequently, authors describe the particular technical characteristics of a director’s work.
In an earlier post, I presented some examples of each of these approaches. Some more can be seen in articles like Between the worlds: Liminality and self-sacrifice in Princess Mononoke (Christine Hoff Kraemer, Journal of Religion and Film), Hoodwinked! and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade: Animated “Red Riding Hood” films and the Rashomon effect (Pauline Greenhill and Steven Kohm, Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies), The cultural dynamic of doujinshi and cosplay: Local anime fandoms in Japan, USA and Europe (Nicolle Lamerichs, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies), and The shot length styles of Miyazaki, Oshii, and Hosoda: A quantitative analysis (Itsutoshi Kohara and Ryosuke Niimi, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal)
In that same post, I wondered why anime scholars very rarely look at what happens after an anime film or series is actually created, how anime is promoted, marketed, distributed and translated, and how anime actually reaches audiences in Japan, in the U.S., and around the world. I offered several possible answers. Probably the strongest of these answers involves the nature of “anime studies” as an area. Frequently referred to as an “interdisciplinary academic field”, it falls firmly and definitely within the boundaries of the “humanities”. Anime studies developed primarily out of literature, Asian/Japanese Studies, and film studies. Scholars who write about anime mostly draw on the skills, methods, resources, and ways of asking questions that they already have – and drawing on these skills and methods and resources makes it easier to ask certain questions, and much harder to ask others.
So, what are some of the resources that would be available to a scholar who is interested in going beyond the book report/film review model, and considering anime as a product?
For example, I was recently asked for advice by a history professor, whose own interests are in the area of “cultural relations” between the U.S. and other countries. One of the professor’s graduate students is interested in the history not just of anime and not even “anime in the U.S., but rather, the history of a particular company that licenses cartoons from Japan, translates and adapts them for domestic consumption, and packages/distributes the resulting product to American audiences. The kind of research that would go into working on this kind of topic is thoroughly different from what would be needed for more “typical” political or military or even social history. There are no books to draw on, no published first-hand accounts, no archival records. However, good research asks for – and rewards – being creative. Such as, for example, thinking about where could reliable historical information about a company that licenses and then translates/distributes anime be found.
It will not be found in scholarly journals. But, if anime is a product and selling anime is a business, would business magazines cover anime? At least at the height of the “anime boom” (or “anime bubble”) in the U.S., they certainly did. In September of 2004, Forbes Magazine profiled ADV Films, then “America’s leading licensor and distributor of Japanese animation” and its founder, John Ledford. And next year, ADV made an appearance in Fortune Magazine.
A related approach is to consider the kind of publication that would be interested in writing up an anime company. Even at the peak of the bubble, the anime industry in the U.S. was not anything significant when compared to, say, film or video games. But, on the scale of a single city or region, a successful anime company could very well be a big deal, and worth writing about. And so, for example, one of the most interesting pieces about the origins and early history of Funimation, the company that brought Dragon Ball to America, will be found not in Forbes or Fortune, but in its hometown Fort Worth Business Press!
Similarly, although most of the companies that released anime in America were privately owned, and therefore, not required to disclose any details about their operations to the public, for several years, from 2005 to 2011, it was owned by Navarre Corporation, a publicly traded company. And, as a public company, Navarre had to file regular quarterly and annual reports that disclosed, among other things, extensive details about Funimation. So, for example, Navarre’s annual report for the fiscal year ending on March 31, 2005, includes an in-depth description of Funimation’s business practices, and a number of answers to questions about the potential risks that the acquisition of a niche company like Funimation could present for Navarre and its shareholders.
So, the resources to expand anime studies beyond Lamarre’s book report/film review model certainly exist. Of course, just because something can be done does not mean that it should be done. But, in response to this entirely valid point, the answer is also straight-forward. To limit “anime studies” to looking at stories and techniques is to limit “anime studies” to a subset or area of interest within other, broader fields. It is to avoid potential questions – and potential answers – without ever even considering them. Just like Lamarre does, I am not saying that every work in anime studies needs to consider the business and production aspects of anime. But, at least some of the work that is being done in anime studies should!