Upcoming talk: Japanese art in the contact zone

Not directly comics-related, but hopefully relevant to anyone interested in manga readership outside Japan: later this week, I’m going to give a talk titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining'” at the 3rd International Conference for PhD Students and Recent PhD Graduates in Belgrade on “Migrations in Visual Culture”. Below you’ll find the abstract as I had submitted it; in the meantime, I cut the examples of Takashi Murakami and manga/anime mentioned therein and made some other changes.

Hat tip to Nicholas Theisen on whose weblog What is Manga? I first encountered the beautiful word “Japansplain”!

Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’

Whenever migrations of works of art and other artifacts become the subjects of scholarly analysis, those that originate in one culture and end up within a different culture are the ones that generate the most interest. Scholars who study such cross-cultural migrations operate within a methodological paradigm that has been shaped by theories such as Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation and, building upon it, Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone.

These theories suggest that artifact-based communication between different cultures – including the reception of works of art – often takes place „in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power“ (Pratt). Such contexts have been strikingly examined by postcolonial studies, which identify these relations between colonising and colonised cultures, First and Third World countries, etc. Most famously, Edward Said located such a relation between Occident and Orient. The Far East, however, is where we find an example (though probably not the only one) that does not quite fit in this paradigm.

After WWII, Japan has come to be perceived as economically and politically on eye-level with its former enemy nations. The Japanese cultural industry is nowadays largely self-sufficient: as a rule, its products reach Western markets through a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’ mechanism, i.e. (some) Western consumers demand Japanese products, but Japanese producers and distributors are not desperate to break into an American or European market. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of Japanese artworks takes place within a context of an asymmetrical power relation. Yet, this context is far from homogeneous. From the imagery of Takashi Murakami to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki to manga and anime, Japanese artworks seem to divide European and American audiences into those who admire them, and those who cannot make sense of them.

In a way, these two audience groups reiterate the context of asymmetrical power relations, but in contrary ways: on the one hand, the ‘worshippers’ of Japanese art perceive it – and, by extension, the whole Japanese culture – as vastly superior to their own, up to the point where Japanese pedigree in itself becomes a decisive quality. The mode of reception in this group places Japan as the dominant culture, and its own Western culture as the subordinate. On the other hand, the ‘sceptics’ of Japanese art perceive it as inferior because they find it less accessible, thus reversing the power relation. The phenomenon of ‘Japansplaining’, i.e. attempting to explain Japanese culture (often in order to help make sense of Japanese works of art), works in both of these ways, and is at any rate an indicator of the perceived foreignness of Japanese art. This paper seeks to discuss this and the other aforementioned concepts related to the idea of the contact zone, and on that basis to critically examine the theoretical and methodological foundations underlying the study of cross-cultural migrations in visual culture.

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“The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)”: Bwana remixes Akira soundtrack

Bwana, producer of electronic music from Toronto/Berlin, has released an EP titled The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes) (Comicgate reported last week) for which he had rearranged the Akira anime soundtrack into 9 EDM tracks. This EP is available for free both as audio stream and YouTube video playlist. The latter is more interesting in this context: each video consists of a sparsely animated black-and-white still image from Akira. The funny thing is, the images are taken from the manga, not from the anime.

still from Capsule's Pride (Bikes) by Bwana

It’s funny because not only music samples were taken from the anime, but also dialogue samples (from the English dub) that directly refer to the major plot difference between the comic and its adaptation: “there is your messiah…” (in both track 1 and 5). At first I thought, whoever made those videos didn’t know the material well. On the other hand, at least two of the videos fit the titles of the corresponding tracks: the video for the title track “Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)” shows Kaneda on his motorcycle (pictured) – his first one, the one he has when he is still leader of the “Capsule” gang – and the video for “K&K (Lovers in the Light)” shows Kei and Kaneda. Another nice touch is that the Canon decal in the former image has been inconspicuously replaced by one bearing Bwana’s name.


Bartkira the animated trailer

(via Major Spoilers)

Remember Bartkira, the comic mashup of Akira and The Simpsons (mentioned briefly here one year ago)? Based on this idea, Kaitlin Sullivan, in collaboration with many other artists, has made an animated short film. This fan film adapts the animated Akira film rather than the comic, so we get to see some new scenes and characters not present in Bartkira the comic.


Recent Akira adaptations

In my PhD research I don’t deal with 21st century reception of Akira, but recently I’ve come across some interesting adaptation projects which I wanted to share here, just in case you haven’t heard about them already:

The Akira Project – Live Action Trailer (via Major Spoilers)

A three-minute fan-made “trailer” for a live-action film that doesn’t exist (i.e. not the one that was recently announced to be at the scriptwriting stage).

 

Player Piano – Akira (via Geek & Sundry)

An elaborate video of a performance of the anime soundtrack.

 

Bartkirahttp://www.bartkira.com/ (via Comicgate)

A faithful panel-by-panel remake of the manga – except all original characters have been replaced by Simpsons characters.

panel from Bartkira vol. 1

 


X-Men: Days of Continuity are Past

Who's that girl?

Who’s that girl?

X-Men: Days of Future Past is still being shown in German cinemas, and by now, probably more than a million people have seen it here. While I found it enjoyable enough, I’m still wondering who these Marvel films are made for. Or, to put it differently: are film makers still concerned about continuity at all, or is it considered nitpicking and party-pooping to point out continuity errors in this postmodern day and age?

Basically, I can think of four ways in which films deal with continuity:

a) the film is a stand-alone story and doesn’t need to adhere to any extra-textual continuity;

b) the film is part of a series of films and conforms to the continuity established by the earlier films;

c) the setting of the film (“world”/”universe”) is adapted from another medium and is consistent with the continuity established there;

d) the entire story of the film is adapted from another medium, and continuity is not an issue as long as the adaptation is faithful.

The problem with films like X-Men: Days of Future Past is that their category would be “e) all of the above”. There’s the continuity of the previous X-Men films and the continuity of countless X-Men comics, and X-Men: DoFP makes references to both and can’t be fully comprehended without ample knowledge of both. However, the two continuities are not quite compatible with each other, and each of them has its own issues, so it comes as no surprise that X-Men: DoFP isn’t free of continuity errors either. A month ago, Rob Bricken published this helpful overview on io9: http://io9.com/8-ways-x-men-movie-continuity-is-still-irretrievably-f-1581678509

Not mentioned there is the conundrum of Pietro/Peter Maximoff and his sister(s), which is explained in Empire magazine (see e.g. here).

All this makes me wonder: if everything we see in a film is potentially subject to later revisions, and ultimately nothing is authoritative, why do filmgoers still care about these stories at all? Many comic book readers, tired of convoluted continuities and endless retconning, have turned their backs on this kind of storytelling years ago. How long will it take cinema audiences to realise that all these superhero “cinematic universes” make little sense?


Raymond Bellour’s fragmented perception – in comics?

Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.

This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.

But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.

Subnormality #214

For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.


Film review: The unsurprisingly unamazing Spider-Man

Are we drowning in a torrent of sequels and remakes?

Unfortunately, Andrew Garfield isn’t Tobey Maguire. Sadly, Emma Stone isn’t Kirsten Dunst. Regrettably, the Lizard isn’t the Green Goblin. And it’s a pity that James Horner isn’t Danny Elfman.

It was daring, to put it mildly, to release The Amazing Spider-Man only five years after Spider-Man 3. Many filmgoers still remember the Sam Raimi trilogy well, and are well able to compare it to Marc Webb’s reboot. There was no way that The Amazing Spider-Man could come off well in this comparison, and indeed it turned out to be inferior to the 2002 Spider-Man in every aspect. (However, I’m aware that some other reviewers apparently like the new film better, so this might be a matter of taste.)

That being said, ASM raises the question whether it makes sense to reboot a film franchise shortly after three previous films of that same franchise in the first place, or, generally, what to make of the endless torrent of sequels and remakes that Hollywood pours out. That topic has been extensively discussed for years, but at the cinema, the bleakness of the situation dawned on me with full force, when I got to watch not only Spider-Man 4 but also trailers for Madagascar 3, the Total Recall remake, Bourne 4, Prometheus a.k.a. “Alien 5“, Twilight 4.2, and Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film. The only original advertised film (yes, there were a lot of trailers) was, if I remember correctly, Brave.

And yet, people don’t seem to mind to spend their money on films they’ve basically already seen before time and again. Box Office Mojo reports ASM‘s worldwide gross at 521 million dollars, which is more than twice the production cost. So while economically this self-plagiarism makes sense, it strikes me as a sign of a creative bankruptcy of the US film industry. The immediate effect of the apparent popular demand for such films is that they run in the theatres for months, thus blocking the screens for more original but less commercially promising films that are dropped after a week (if they make it to your town at all).

To end this review on a more positive note, not everything was bad about ASM: Webb’s film reminds us that, with Gwen Stacy and the Lizard, there are two classic characters in the Spider-Man comics that were neglected in the Sam Raimi films but whose stories might be worth to be told, possibly in a film. But they deserve to be told well. Maybe another time.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○