The Origins of English-Language Anime Studies

When I talk about anime and manga studies, especially in formal presentations, some questions come up over and over again. How much academic/scholarly writing on anime/manga is out there? How many scholars study (and more specifically, write about) Japanese animation, Japanese comics, and related topics? And, can we really talk about a “history” of anime/manga studies and anime/manga scholarship?

My work has actually put me a in pretty good position to answer the first two questions. I have identified almost 100 individual English-language books on anime/manga (with several more due to be published later this year). When I put it on hiatus about a year ago, my database of English-language publications on anime/manga of all types (books, book chapters, and journal articles), contained over 1,520 entries, and the names of over 900 individual authors. And neither of those numbers include the materials and authors I have identified in 2014 and this year so far.

It’s the third question – “what are the origins of anime/manga studies?” that’s more complicated.

Some of the dates that are important to anime/manga studies as a distinct academic area of interest are relatively easy to point out. Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics was published in 1983. Ten years later, in 1993, Titan Books, a small UK publisher, released Anime: A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Animation, followed by titles like Antonia Levi’s Samurai From Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (1996), the essay collection Japan Pop: Inside the World of Japanese Pop Culture (2000), and finally, in 2001, Anime From Akira to Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation – the first book on anime that could definitely be categorized as academic, rather than popular. And by that time, there were already at least two academic monographs on manga published in English – Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics and Censorship in Japan, and Sharon Kinsella’s Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society.

But, as should be obvious from the numbers that I mentioned above, books make up only a small portion of the total amount of published writing on anime/manga. The majority of it is in the form of single essays in general essay collections, and articles in academic journals. And trying to locate the first or earliest one of those is an essentially endless task – no matter how far back I go, there is simply no way to know if there are even earlier items that I simply have not identified yet.

What I can do, though, is draw on my own knowledge and resources to respond to any statements other scholars make about the history of anime/manga studies. And, as it turns out, one of the essays in the most recent volume of Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and Fan Arts includes just such a statement. The issue’s theme is “origins” – the origins of many of the major themes and images in anime/manga, early writing on Japanese animation/animation in Japan, such as a translation of Taihei Imamura’s 1938 essay “Japanese cartoon films”, depictions of the historical origins of Japanese society and culture in anime, and finally, how certain anime have served as points of origin for adaptation, translation – and scholarship.

This specifically is the topic of Christopher Bolton’s essay From Ground Zero to Degree Zero: Akira from origin to oblivion (pp. 295-315). Akira, itself of course a story set after a specific event, is, in Bolton’s view, the point of origin for the influence of Japanese popular culture on America. And, as he notes, Akira is also the subject of an article that is “the origin point for academic criticism of anime in North America” – Susan Napier’s Panic sites: The Japanese imagination of disaster from Godzilla to Akira, published in the Summer 1993 issue of the Journal of Japanese Studies. Bolton calls it “the earliest article on anime published in a Japanese studies journal in the United States”.

So, if nothing else, with this in mind, we can search for articles on anime published in English-language academic journals before the summer of 1993. Searching various EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Art Full Text/Art Full Text Retrospective, Film & Television Literature Index, Humanities International Complete, MasterFILE Premier, MLA International Bibliography, and SocINDEX) for the term “anime” in results published before January 1, 1994, returns 116 results – but in almost all of them, ‘anime’ in the title or abstract is a word in French or Italian, not English. It is possible to limit the results by subject, and 8 results do have animation listed as a subject – of those 8, one is for a November 17, 1992 article in the New York City alternative weekly Village Voice. EBSCO also offers the option to limit results by “geography” – this returns a short review of Akira in the Video Movies column of the April 15, 1991 issue of Library Journal. But, interesting and even useful as these results are (the Village Voice piece has, for example, been cited in a chapter on “Girl fans of shoujo anime and their websites, in the 2005 essay collection Girl wide web: Girls, the Internet, and the negotiation of identity), they are not articles in academic journals. Searching another major package of databases, offered by Gale Cengage Learning (including Academic OneFile, the Communications and Mass Media Collection, the Popular Culture Collection and several dozen others) produces essentially similar results – several hundred total, with a few from industry magazines from before 1993, but the earliest one in an academic journal is Annalee Newitz’s 1995 Magical girls and atomic bomb sperm: Japanese animation in America, Film Quarterly, 49(1), 2-15.

Turning away from the established databases, and to the resources I have assembled, the only English-language article on Japanese animation I know of that dates to before 1993 is Grassmuck, Volker, Otaku: Japanese kids colonize the real of information and media, Mediamatic: Art & Media, 5(4), 197-220 – this essay was published in the magazine’s Winter 1991 issue, and a full PDF copy of the entire issue is also available.

So, at least based on this investigation, it does indeed appear that “Panic sites” was not only “”the earliest article on anime published in a Japanese studies journal in the United States”, but indeed, the earliest article on anime to be published in any academic journal – definitely in the U.S., and possibly anywhere in English.

Granted, even with this statement, there are at least two caveats. In my searches, I was able to also locate a 1990 article published in the academic Journal of Educational Television, entitled The development of programming for young children in Japan, which discusses several animated programs running at that time on Japanese television – not “anime” in the narrower Western sense, but certainly Japanese animation. On the other hand, I will also readily acknowledge that my search process was fairly basic – I did not utilize advanced bibliographic techniques such as “reference chaining” (reviewing the works cited sections of articles that I have already identified/located), and made no attempt to refer to pre-compiled outside bibliographies (although I am not aware of any that would focus on anime specifically, or for that matter, even on non-US animation).

But, even with those caveats in mind, right now, I think I can be fairly confident in saying that right now, the history of English-language scholarship of Japanese animation can be traced back to 1993.

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One thought on “The Origins of English-Language Anime Studies

  1. While noting where and when individual pieces are published is important, one thing that often gets left out of such avenues of inquiry is how or even whether such pieces contribute to or emanate from an institution or discipline or field or scholarly community, some structure that lends a sense of intellectual cohesion–not saying whether this is good or bad–to an array of publications. Mechademia, for instance, is more than just an annual, it’s a conference as well and a close affiliation of scholars (Orbaugh, Lamarre, Lunning, Napier, and many others) whose work all tends to appear together, even in venues not specifically given that Mechademia label (the Mangatopia and Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams volumes, for instance). Schodt, on the other hand, is largely a creature unto himself, and it’s worth noting that his most recent work isn’t anime/manga related at all.

    Moreover, looking at this from the perspective of manga studies (since you focus here more on anime), Tsurumi Shunsuke’s writings on manga in English predate Schodt’s, yet he is never pointed to as the “origin” of English language manga studies, precisely because his work was not taken up and integrated into a larger scholarly conversation in the way Schodt’s was. I happen to think that is a shame, but it happened nevertheless. The sociology of academia can get a bit tedious, to be sure, but it’s a far better indicator, to my mind, of how things played out historically and, more importantly, how they continue to play out in real time.

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