Books: Anime’s Knowledge Cultures

February 28, 2024 · 0 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

The subtitle of Jinying Li’s new book, “Geek, Otaku, Zhai” alludes to the rise of fandom and fans as movers and shakers in modern media and culture, tracking the Rise of the Nerds from a period, say, when only “losers” read comics in the eyes of the mainstream, to an age where comics formed the bedrock of blockbuster movies. Japan, of course, can track a similar progression from the otaku of 1980s anime fandom, who famously took over the asylum, appropriating sci-fi conventions to their own ends and forming the elite of late twentieth century creative collectives like Gainax. It’s Li’s third term that is liable to surprise many outside China.

Many words in Chinese pop culture sneaked into the language out of Japanese, including the words for novels themselves, sci-fi and even wuxia. Li points out that the same applies to zhai, a buzzword that sprang into the Chinese media in 2008, and which has achieved a new lease of life in the COVID era as a marker of the shut-in, cyber-aware lifestyle of modern youth. The word had its origins as a straight port of the Japanese word otaku, and is one of several modern Chinese terms that owe their origin to Japanese fandom, including the ever-popular ke’ai (kawaii).

Li is particularly interested in what makes Chinese zhai different from their Euro-American or Japanese counterparts. She finds anime, or a love of the anime-esque to be a major unifying feature, although she points out that stages of the development of anime fandom in China are very different from those in other parts of the world. Whereas in Japan itself, anime developed as a cinema event, then televised serials, then video, then streaming, its progress in China was twisted by external factors. There was, indeed, as mentioned by numerous other authors (such as Wu Weihua and Sean MacDonald) an initial explosion of Japanese animation on Chinese television, spearheaded by Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, which Li characterises as a delivery system for adverts for Casio watches and calculators. It, like many others – including Transformers, and outside anime, Mickey Mouse and He-Man – was practically given away free to the Chinese networks in order to seize control of the all-important advertising space in between the programmes. In the case of Astro Boy, he even starred in the commercials, bragging that Casio used the same technology that made him (presumably without the arse-mounted machine guns).

But as Li relates, in China there was no video era to come next, at least not legally. She points to increasing paranoia among Chinese bigwigs, as the proportion of foreign television threatened to overwhelm local culture. In the case of Shanghai TV, for example, the amount of foreign programming on-air climbed from 7% in 1980 to 73% in just six years! As government initiatives tried to push out such pernicious foreign influences, Chinese fans of many foreign media, including anime, were pushed underground, into a subculture that relied on digital piracy. Li’s account of the third stage, which coyly calls it “semi-legal”, is the rise of fansubbing.

As noted elsewhere, there is a liminal relationship in China between fansubbing and outright piracy, with the latter often appropriating the work of the former as material to sell. The Japanese may well have given away huge swathes of anime for free in the 1980s, but they were doing so as a loss-leader for advertising – the customer, in the case of Astro Boy, was not the viewer, but the Casio calculator company that wanted to sell widgets. Fansubbing itself is a fascinating legal area, since an .srt file on its own doesn’t really infringe anyone’s copyright until it is linked to a video file. The nature of this act has been a hot topic in the industry ever since the 1990s, when an unwise employee of a well-known American company suggested that there was nothing wrong with watching raw anime without translation if you could understand it, but the moment you turned to the person next to you and told them what was going on, you were committing a crime. This opinion was swiftly swept under the carpet, but elements of it pop up every now and then, every time subtitles are discussed in academic terms.

Li points to the role of computer and gaming magazines in promoting a love of and interest in anime and manga among Chinese readers. I have previously discussed this phenomenon as dongman – she prefers the term ACG, short for “anime, comics and games.” She claims that this fandom and phenomenon was unsupported by Japanese companies, because it relied upon access to materials that were not legally available – that’s as maybe, but I reserve judgement on that, on the basis that the first extra-legal anime screenings in American conventions not only used tapes supplied by the anime companies themselves, but were shown on video recorders that had similarly been donated by the anime makers. Then again, we have seen previous evidence of the sort of troubles that can accrue when Chinese entrepreneurs steal material that the Japanese have not dared release in China. I am thinking, in particular, of Death Note, which somehow managed to be “banned in China” without ever having been legally released there.

The rest of Li’s book relates some elements of zhai culture, sometimes mirroring the worlds of geeks and otaku, and sometimes heading off in its own direction. There is discussion of the rise of Chinese fansubs, although much of Li’s material is from several years ago, and hence does not deal with the recent shuttering of some of the main motherlodes of material. She explains the curious world of danmaku – which is to say, those scrolling graffiti that create a constant and often annoying background conversation to streaming videos, as if one is at the theatre having to listen to half a dozen hecklers debating everything from the quality of the acting to the size of the visible boobs. But I am revealing my age by finding it so intrusive – as Henry Jenkins might say, the writers of danmaku are participatory creators, diving into a digitally accessible “conversation” of which the media they are watching is only a part.

There are shadows, here, of what other researchers have called “database animals”, and allusions to the self-identification of some fans as “cyber-children”. Li wanders for a chapter into what Tom Lamarre would call an alternative to Cartesian space, describing the shape of the zhai’s world in terms of a “super-flat” appreciation of an anime-style world, rather than a 3D grasp of reality. I think there is real potential here to go a little bit further, and to investigate the degree to which so-called “2.5D” entertainments really are adding a little bit extra to anime, or rather taking a little bit away from the three-dimensional world. Li cites the literary scholar Xiao Ying, who ridicules modern entertainments as “simply commercial formulas typical of the post-80s generation, who have apparently grown up watching too much Japanese anime.” It would have been nice to have seen more of such a negative dialectic, just in case some of the critics of fandom’s lesser obsessions might turn out to have a point. When some of the greatest otaku of all, Gainax themselves, are prepared to differentiate between Wings of Honneamise as a film, and Gunbuster as a “product”, there is surely space for such a consideration.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Anime’s Knowledge Cultures by Jinying Li is published by the University of Minnesota Press.

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