The Shortcomings and “Blind Spots” of Anime and Manga Studies – a survey of the critical commentary

Recently, a colleague passed around a call for “more good scholarship on shonen as a genre” and voiced frustration with how little such scholarship currently exists – essentially the only one that addresses the genre as a whole, rather than specific works, is Angela Drummond-Matthews’ “What Boys Will Be: A Study of Shonen Manga” (in the 2010 essay collection Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives, pp. 62-76). One recent article that I recommended – and that he found useful – is Straddling the Line: How Female Authors are Pushing the Boundaries of Gender Representation in Japanese Shonen Manga (New Voices in Japanese Studies, 10, 76-97) – as I noted, “pushing the boundaries” first requires establishing just what these boundaries are, and in fact, the paper does include an extensive discussion of “the framework” of shonen manga. But the original question, and the frustration at not there not being more material available, led me to some thinking of my own.

The first English-language academic article on anime was published more than twenty-five years ago. It’s now been about twenty years since the first full class on Japanese animation at an American college. Anime is an accepted and acceptable area of scholarly interest, and anime and manga studies is as established academic field. And, as the field continues to define its its shape, it becomes particularly important to highlight not just what it is about, but the internal discussions that are taking place within it – the debates and the critiques. So, since that first article – Susan Napier’s Panic sites: The Japanese imagination of disaster from Godzilla to Akira appeared back in 1993, what kinds of comments have scholars made identifying particular shortcomings in anime/manga studies?

Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation can, at this point, be considered one of the foundational texts of anime/manga studies – it is the most cited English-language book across all 10 volumes of Mechademia. And, right on the first page of the book’s preface, Lamarre states – although without providing any concrete examples:

“The bulk of anime commentary ignores that its ‘object’ consists of moving images, as if animations were but another text. Such a treatment of anime as textual object has tended in two directions. On the one hand, even when anime is treated largely as text, some commentators will call on the novelty and popularity of anime to bypass the tough questions that usually arise around the analysis of texts. Anime is, in effect, treated as a textual object that does not or cannot pose any difficult textual questions. Analysis is relegated to re-presenting anime narratives, almost in the manner of book reports or movie reviews. [emphasis mine]. On the other some commentators treat anime as text in order to pose “high textual” speculative questions  (such as the nature of reality, or the relationship of mind and body), again ignoring the moving image altogether but for different reasons. In this kind of textual treatment, the anime stories serve as the point of departure for philosophical speculation, without any consideration of the materiality of animation.”

Lamarre, “The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation”, ix-x.

Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, in her chapter “Global and Local Materialities of Anime”, in the essay collection Television, Japan, and Globalization, addresses some of the major challenges of “studying anime” right away too – “the transformative quality of anime makes it elusive in terms of its discursive development as an academic discipline”…”there is little consensus about what anime actually is.” Her approach, and the shortcomings she identifies, at least as of 2010, are related to Lamarre’s, but place the emphasis on the relative lack of attention paid to anime as a product that is created with particular audiences in mind:

“Anime studies….relegate TV anime, as having less aesthetic and discursive value, within the larger category of anime. Little work has been done on Japanese TV anime since that would force a reassessment of the paradigm of anime as global culture.”

Wada-Marciano, “Global and Local Materialities of Anime”, p. 243.

“This preference for textual analysis continues to be the dominant approach in anime studies. In the process of constructing a body of knowledge in anime studies, anime has been dislocated from specific patterns of reception whether culturally, temporally, or technologically configured. The facts of how anime is tied to local specificity and needs, for instance in the form of TV series, have often been neglected or erased…

…Anime studies studies in the United States, intentionally or not, is being organized around canons, which serve to legitimize the academic discipline. With anime studies as a forming discipline, discussions often center on the visually more complex anime “films”, but not on the domestic and mass-produced anime TV series. Big budget anime films such as Metropolis, Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira are frequently discussed, along with their contemporary critical themes of technological alienatation, environmental issues, cyborg feminism, and postmodernity, while the majority of TV anime series have been neglected, since an analysis would require an examination of anime’s connections with local audiences and the complex popular culture of Japan.”

“Global and Local Materialities of Anime”, p. 245.

Jaqueline Berndt is currently at the fore-front of defining the dimensions of “anime and manga studies” through her publications and her work as an editor and in organizing lectures and exhibitions. And one of her earlier essays, “Considering Manga Discourse: Location, Ambiguity, Historicity” (in Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, 2008) already outlines a number of “blind spots in the study of manga” – in a section of the chapter with that specific heading. Among the “blind spots” that Berndt identifies are:

“Non-Japanese scholars tend to assume that [Hayao Miyazaki’s] movies are typical of anime as a whole because of their mere presence in Japan; they frequently treat these animated movies as mirrors of Japanese culture, assuming the existence of a homogenous audience, and often implicitly comparing them to Disney products, but they rarely locate them within the history and present variety of animation in Japan. Equally symptomatic of a decidedly foreign approach is the astonishingly small emphasis on comparing animated movies (or series) with their respective manga works, even in the case of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Ghost in the Shell. This arises from different ways of experiencing the works in the first place, but it also involves a widespread disregard for Japanese perspectives.”

“Foreign scholars also tend to concentrate on thematic interpretations of manga and anime. However, considering how they are consumed in Japan would shift the emphasis of criticism in this area. Without this context, authors may overlook that genres within manga are less centered on thematic context than in the United States and, furthermore, that many regular readers today are less attracted by narrative content than the are by technical craftsmanship, visual spectacle, intertextual references, or cute characters.”

Berndt, “Considering Manga Discourse”, p. 296-297.

Another issue she points out is the “isolation” of manga studies apart from comics studies – and some of the reasons behind that isolation – although I think that the emergence of publications such as the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics and Studies in Comics that simply make it easier for scholars to access multiple perspectives on the different global “comics cultures” will work to reduce this isolation. Nonetheless, she argues that:

“Students of manga within Japanese studies usually do not attempt comparisons with other sorts of comics or consult theoretical literature by authors not specializing in Japan who publish in periodicals like the Comics Journal and the International Journal of Comic Art. This segmentation between manga and the “rest” of comics can be traced back to two completely different motivations. In some circumstances, it comes from an exclusive interest in things Japanese, without a significant exposure to comics and their specific discourse; at other times, its genesis is the enthusiasm of manga fans, who usually refrain from consuming any other sorts of comics. As opposite as these positions seem, both focus on manga as a particularly Japanese cultural artifact and therefore tend to reinforce exoticism and neonationalism. However, instead of engaging the issue of “Japaneseness,” I prefer to draw attention to the lack of familiarity with comics as a whole, including the range of variations within the medium. This lack is perhaps one reason why Japanologists neglect manga’s aesthetic and cultural particularities. But without considering comics on their own terms, it will not be possible to examine multiple perspectives on them.”

“Considering Manga Discourse”, p. 297.

Of course, these critiques should not be read as implying that any particular piece of scholarly writing on anime/manga is in of itself incorrect or invalid. Rather, I think the authors’ intent is to provide constructive criticism and contribute to building a stronger foundation for anime and manga studies as the field continues to evolve and develop. And certainly for my own part, I hope to remember what they point out, and apply it to my own writing on anime/manga going forward.

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