Homi K. Bhabha’s mimicry – in comics?

Homi K. Bhabha’s 1984 journal article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” is often cited, even though (or perhaps because?) it is a rather opaque, difficult text. In it, he outlines the concept of mimicry, “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” Mimicry is a kind of “colonial imitation”: colonised subjects imitating the manners of their colonisers. One of the few examples given by Bhabha, quoting a 19th century text, is the “mimic representation of the British Constitution” in British colonies with its “fancied importance of speakers and maces, and all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of the imperial legislature”. Another is the adoption of the Christian faith and rites.

Mimicry is thus similar to two other postcolonial concepts, transculturation and the contact zone, both of which I have written about elsewhere. Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation is a general framework of cultural exchange, whereas Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone, developed after Bhabha’s article, focuses on those instances of cultural exchange that take place “in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”. This is also true for mimicry, but in contrast to transculturation and the contact zone, which both stress reciprocity, mimicry only takes in to account one direction of acculturation: from the colonising culture to the colonised.

At first glance, the act of mimicry seems to be something rather objectionable, as if it was fake – a poorly understood but not truly internalised behaviour, worn like a fancy dress which conceals, or is at odds with, the true nature of the colonised. Bhabha’s point, however, is a different one. It is the ambivalence of being “almost the same, but not quite” that “poses an immanent threat” to, “disrupts” and has a “profound and disturbing effect” on colonial authority so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”. At least part of the subversive power of mimicry is due to its effect to point to the colonisers’ hypocrisy when the colonised are e.g. granted a parliament but no actual political participation, or baptism but no equality as Christian brethren.

Is mimicry actually a “strategy”? If so, who actively employs it, the colonisers or the colonised? And why would they want to do it? Bhabha implies that mimicry is voluntarily performed by the colonised as well as encouraged by the colonisers, both parties seeking to benefit from it while being unaware of its drawbacks. If we follow Ortiz, transculturation is inevitable when two cultures meet, which would thus include the process of mimicry in the case of colonial encounters.

Are there any traces of the phenomenon of mimicry to be found in comics, or specifically in manga? Of course, Japan has never been a colony; quite the contrary: for decades, Japan ruled over colonial territories such as Korea and Taiwan, and one could also regard the Japanese settlement of the island of Hokkaidō as a kind of colonisation. Then again, there were times when the relations between the United States and Japan resembled something not unlike a subtle form of colonisation: in the 1850s, the U.S. Navy forcefully “opened” Japan. Unsurprisingly, the first embassy to be established in Japan was the American. From the Meiji period onward, Japan turned to several Western powers, including the U.S., as models for the reform of many aspects of society – e.g. baseball was introduced in Japan at that time. In 1939, Friedrich Sieburg summed up this trend of industrialisation, modernisation, and, ultimately, Westernisation, in his book Die Stählerne Blume: “Whatever its [Japan’s] world politics are going to be, it will always depend on contact with the ‘West’ – and by that, one can by all means understand ‘America’.” (On the other hand, Sieburg also wrote that this modernisation process was what enabled Japan to resist being colonised.) At that time, the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil imported from the United States. Then, of course, after WWII, Japan was under American occupation for almost seven years. (As I show in the aforementioned paper, some of these events, especially the latter, have had a lasting impact on the image of Japan in the Western world which amounts to a kind of Orientalism.) In addition to these influences, throughout the 20th century, the same American cultural influence – some call it ‘cultural imperialism’ – had been at work in Japan as everywhere else in the world. Again, this is not to say that Japan has ever been an American colony, but these look like historical circumstances from which some form of mimicry might well have emerged.

Japanese mimicking Americans? Baseball players in Hiroshima, 1937. Photograph by Dietrich Seckel.

Besides, if the concept of mimicry was only applicable to colonies in the strict political or legal sense, its usefulness would be rather limited. The popularity of Bhabha’s concept, which is invoked in all kinds of contexts, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Bhabha intended to describe a specific historical situation, but as with any methodological concept, I’d like to find out whether it is universally applicable.

So what about manga? Are manga mimicry? It is generally believed that foreigners working in Japan, such as the Englishman Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and the Frenchman Georges Bigot (1860-1927), have significantly contributed to their formation. ‘Modern’-looking manga with speech bubbles reached maturity in the 1930s, most likely influenced by imported and translated American comic strips such as the wildly popular Bringing Up Father by George McManus.

Our example for today, however, shall be a later manga: the classic Devilman by Gō Nagai from 1972. Looking at its page layouts, we recognise a level of sophistication on par with contemporaneous European and American comics. Instead of earlier layouts in which the usual page was merely a stack of strips with strictly rectangular panels, Nagai uses a vast variety of layouts with different panel shapes, bleeds, splashes, and overlapping speech balloons and sound effects.

P. 180 from Devilman. Note the 2nd panel, an isosceles trapezoid – a device already used by Osamu Tezuka before, e.g. in Dororo.

However, to explain the formal properties of Devilman with Western influences would be unnecessary and far-fetched. By the year 1972, 25 years had passed since Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) revolutionised long-form manga – a lot of time for manga to evolve, with each new wave of mangaka building on the accomplishments of the previous one and adding their own innovations. Occasionally, mangaka would turn to Western comics for inspiration, but by and large, manga was (and still is) a self-contained, autonomous system.

Thus, if there is mimicry in Devilman, it is not to be found in its form, but perhaps in its content. In the early 1970s, Japanese attitudes towards the United States were ambiguous: on the one hand, resistance to the American-Japanese Security Treaty coincided with opposition against the Vietnam War to erupt in massive anti-American student protests. On the other hand, American pop- and counter-culture continued to be popular among young Japanese. Which brings us to the most famous scene in Devilman: the “Sabbath”.

P. 179 from Devilman, part of a double-page spread.

In what must be the longest superhero origin story ever, by pages 178-179, Ryo has led his friend Akira to a secret party where people are indulging in frantic dancing, drinking and drug-taking. There is a band playing, which includes two dark-skinned musicians, surely meant to be African Americans. The line-up consists of two electric guitars, drums, electric organ, and an upright bass; there doesn’t seem to be a vocalist. As for the genre of music they are playing, we can only speculate (disregarding the soundtrack of the Devilman anime adaptations, which differ from the manga in the depiction of the band), but this line-up, and the intense, fierce way of playing their instruments, perhaps points to some kind of jazz rock. This genre was quite popular in 70s Japan and spawned several notable Japanese musicians, but for them, America was still the epicentre and point of reference of their music. They aspired to tour the United States and play with American musicians; Ryō Kawasaki even emigrated to New York in 1973.

This is the decisive difference between Japanese comics in 1972 and Japanese jazz rock in 1972: the former has become something completely domestic, while the latter is essentially still something American. Perhaps the entire band in Devilman is meant to be from the U.S. and merely visiting Japan, but then the act of mimicry could be located in the Japanese audience attending the gathering – some of them even wearing typical hippie clothes such as fringed vests. In the spirit of Bhabha, Nagai’s depiction of such mimicry is delightfully ambiguous: unknowingly and in combination with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, the dancers enter a state of mind that allows demons to possess them, thus bringing about the Black Sabbath. Nagai’s America – as well as the whole Devilman manga – is cool and hip, and at the same time twisted and evil.

As ever so often, Bhabha’s mimicry turns out not to be a radically new concept for something that couldn’t be described otherwise. However, when we look at transculturation processes through the lens of mimicry, we might reach a deeper understanding of them.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


It’s Wikipedia Asian Month again

Wikipedia Asian Month 2018 official logo

November is Wikipedia Asian Month. Each year, Wikipedians are invited to write new articles relating to any aspect of Asia. Depending on the number of articles you manage to create within this month, you are awarded bronze, silver and gold virtual badges (though that might be specific to the German Wikipedia), and anyone who creates at least 4 articles gets a postcard (by snail mail!) from a random Asian country.

If you’re reading this weblog, chances are you’re particularly knowledgeable about manga, so how about participating in Wikipedia Asian Month by checking if there’s any manga or mangaka not yet in the Wikipedia of your choice (but should be)? However, there are two caveats:

  1. Make sure that any articles you’re about to create meet the appropriate notability guidelines. There’s already too much stuff in Wikipedia that shouldn’t be in there, and if no one else cares about the topic of your article, it won’t get improved much by the Wikipedia community.
  2. I won’t say “Writing a Wikipedia article is easier than you think”, because probably the opposite is true: successfully creating an article takes a lot of effort, particularly because you need to properly cite published sources for everything you say.

Last year I took part in Wikipedia Asian Month for the first time and created articles on the German Wikipedia on a Japanese live-action film and its director, an anime voice actor, and an anime series. This year I’ll try to reach 4 articles again on the German Wikipedia, maybe with a stronger focus on manga this time.


Artifacts from Japan, part 5: Morning #43, 2018

Two years ago I already introduced another original Japanese manga magazine here, Weekly Young Jump, but I don’t want to give the impression that all manga magazines in Japan are like that. So here’s a look at a magazine that is also filed under seinen (i.e. targeted towards young adult men), but much more mature.

Language: Japanese
Authors: various
Publisher: Kōdansha
Pages: 400
Price: ¥370 ($3.30 / €2.85)
Website: http://morning.moae.jp/ (Japanese)

Morning (or “Weekly Morning” according to Wikipedia, but the word “Morning” [EDIT: I mean “Weekly”, of course] is not on the cover as far as I have seen) is not quite as widely read as Young Jump, but its circulation (well over 100,000 copies per issue) is still huge compared to Western comic magazines. In the past, Morning has run famous manga series such as Gon, Planetes, Space Brothers, and Vagabond.

The copy of the issue at hand (dated October 11, but actually published two weeks earlier) has the same dimensions as Young Jump and the same printing quality (or lack thereof), but already on the outside, the content is quite different: instead of an erotic photograph, there’s a cover image that actually refers to one of the manga inside – グラゼニ / Gurazeni by Yūji Moritaka and Keiji Adachi, a baseball series that seems to be relatively popular in Japan. Inside there is very little editorial content apart from a 4-page interview with Moritaka and film director Hitoshi Ōne.

Which brings us to the manga in this issue. There are roughly 20 chapters of 18 pages on average, and these are the more noteworthy ones apart from Gurazeni:

<img class="wp-image-3485 size-medium" src="https://650centplague.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/theseus.png?w=200" alt="A particularly striking page from Toshiya Higashimoto's Theseus no fune.” width=”200″ height=”300″ /> A particularly striking page from Toshiya Higashimoto’s Theseus no fune.

As you can perhaps see from these short descriptions, most of the manga in Morning are set in the real world rather than some fantasy or science fiction setting. Considering Morning and Young Jump alone, the vast variety of manga within the seinen demographic becomes palpable – a variety hardly represented by the few of these titles that have been published in the West.


Paper “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: Between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’” published


More than two years ago, I gave a conference paper titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: Between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’”. The proceedings of this conference, Migrations in Visual Art, have now been published as an Open Access PDF at https://e-knjige.ff.uni-lj.si/znanstvena-zalozba/catalog/book/122 (doi: 10.4312/9789610601166, ISBN: 978-961-06-0116-6). There you’ll also find a table of contents with links to the PDFs of the individual papers. Again, this paper isn’t about comics, but I dare say it’s relevant to anyone interested in transnational manga reception. Here’s the abstract as published in the proceedings:

After WWII, Japan came to be economically and politically at eye level with its
former enemy nations. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of
Japanese artworks takes place within an actual context of an asymmetrical power
relation. Yet, European and American audiences often approach Japanese art from
a position of perceived superiority. Overt and subtle traces of this attitude can be
detected in reviews and other texts on Japanese artworks ranging from the films of
Akira Kurosawa to the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki.


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Planetary #2

Happy May Day everyone, or ‘Warren Ellis Day’ as for some reason it has come to be known in this little corner of the Web. This time we’re going to look at politics in Warren Ellis’s classic, Planetary (art by John Cassaday). Planetary was published in 27 issues by Wildstorm/DC from 1998-2009. As far as the main story is concerned, the political setup of Planetary is a standard Warren Ellis one: it’s a conspiracy of supervillains who pull all the strings in this world, and the democratically elected governments of the world are powerless against them. It takes superheroes – vigilantes, rogues, operating outside of the law – to protect the world from these supervillains.

There is more going on here, though. Among the earlier issues (collected in Planetary Book One, not to be confused with Planetary Volume 1 which only contains #1-6), some stand out in particular from a political perspective because they comment on real-world political events and figures. Of these, we’ll discuss issue #2 (“Island”) here (but #7 and #8 are also noteworthy in this regard).

“Island” is mostly set on “Island Zero”, a fictional island that “forms the far north-western tip of the Japanese archipelago. Also the closest island in the group to the Eurasian landmass – specifically, Russia”, says Shinya Fukuda, a Tokyo-based employee of the Planetary organisation. He continues, “It’s off-limits, due to an issue of war legality still under arbitration. Basically, we think it’s ours, and the Russians think it’s theirs. One of our prime ministers visited Yeltsin to try and iron it out last year, but, you know…”

Another Japanese character, the terrorist Ryu who plans to overthrow the Japanese government, describes Island Zero like this: “The last island between Japan and Siberian Russia. Unpopulated because of its nature as a political football. The Russians claim it as spoils of World War Two. We, naturally, claim it as part of Japan. Legally, this island is a nowhere thing.”

Ellis probably alludes to the Kuril Islands dispute here, even though they are located north-east of Japan, not north-west. The status of the Kuril Islands has been settled in several treaties which say they belong to Russia (as the successor of the Soviet Union). The Japanese government accepts these treaties, but claims that the four islands closest to Hokkaidō do not belong to the Kurils and are therefore not part of the treaties. Another difference between the disputed Kuril Islands and Island Zero is that the former are not entirely uninhabited: almost 20,000 people live on three of them, while on the fourth there’s a Russian border guard outpost.

The interesting thing in Planetary, however, is how the two aforementioned Japanese characters – only one of which is a fanatic nationalist – talk about Island Zero: “we think it’s ours”, “we claim it as part of Japan”. Why do they include themselves in the pronoun? It’s the government that does the claiming, so why do Shinya and Ryu adopt this claim as their own? What would Shinya and Ryu specifically gain if Russia ceded Island Zero to Japan? Sure, if Island Zero was part of Japan, Ryu could go on his hiking trip there without the risk of getting caught by the military, but the reason he goes there in the first place is precisely its remoteness due to its disputed status.

For Shinya and Ryu there’s nothing at stake in the dispute over Island Zero, so they probably don’t really “think” and “claim” much about it. More likely, there are some common but oversimplifying conflations at work here: of state and nation, of individual citizen and nation, and of state and individual politician. As abstract entities, states can’t think or claim anything – politicians such as the Japanese prime minister mentioned by Shinya can. And while it can be said that some views are more prevalent in a given nation than others, the assuredness with which both Shinya and Ryu include all Japanese people in their “we” creates the illusion of a completely homogeneous society in which everyone agrees with their government.

It’s particularly problematic that it’s the Japanese society, because this basically repeats the old prejudice of a purported Japanese conformity that borders on blind obedience. It seems like in the world of Planetary, governmental authority is only questioned by superhumans (who are powerful enough to stand above it anyway). Ryu says he wants to topple the government and become “paramount leader of Japan”, but he never says what his problem with the current government is. He is dismissed by Shinya as having “that Yukio Mishima, Aum Shin Ryko [sic, i.e. Rikyō] smell about” him. However, Aum Shinrikyō had their religious doomsday beliefs and Mishima wanted to restore the divinity of the Emperor. What does Ryu believe in? One of his followers says to him, “I believe in your theories. I believe in armed resurrection and revolution and nerve gas and acceptable casualties and all the rest of it.” But what are Ryu’s theories? Ellis doesn’t say. Ideological debates don’t seem to interest him. Apparently ideology is something for fanatics and terrorists, who make for good plot devices – but these characters must be wrong, because they’re the villains, so their ideology must be wrong too and doesn’t need to be discussed. Neither do we learn much about the political beliefs of the protagonists, the three superhero members of Planetary – they’re the good guys, so if they believe in anything, surely it must be right after all…


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.


Artifacts from Japan, part 4: Miyajima Misen Story manga

Miyajima Misen Story #3 coverThis 14,6 × 21 cm, 15-page manga leaflet is available for free at the ropeway station on Miyajima island. It’s the third part of a four-part story, but from what I gather, the manga is about a girl named Aki who visits several sights on Miyajima and runs into supernatural beings. Time travel might also play a role – the Japanese title on the cover says, 弥山へ。。。時の旅人, “time traveller to Misen” (Mt. Misen is the mountain on Miyajima to which the ropeway goes).

double page from Miyajima Misen Story #3Compared to regular, professional manga, the artwork might be a bit amateurish, but it’s still significantly better than what you would expect from what is essentially an advertisement comic issued by the Miyajima Ropeway company and created by locals from Hiroshima (writer: Yatarō Ichimonji, artist: Hitomi).

The four manga chapters are also available from the Miyajima Ropeway website as PDF files (Japanese only): part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4


Artifacts from Japan, part 3: Barefoot Gen wheat

barefoot gen grainWhen I bought this item at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I had no idea what it actually was. Well, obviously it’s two ears of wheat sellotaped to a booklet with はだしのゲン / Barefoot Gen on the front. On the back there’s the first page of Keiji Nakazawa’s manga on which Gen and his father talk about growing crops, so the connection between wheat and Gen is made clear even to those who haven’t read the manga.

Inside there’s a fold-out leaflet with instructions on how to plant the wheat and raise it, as well as some information on Nakazawa, Gen and the atomic bombing. Enclosed there is also an envelope which can be used to send a message to be entered into the ‘Hiroshima Heart Database’  (http://ichinen-hokki.sakura.ne.jp/heartdatabase/, Japanese). The idea seems to be that one should grow wheat as a symbol of peace. At least some of the database entries reflect this (“As the wheat continues to grow, so will the awareness of peace” etc.).

Barefoot Gen wheat leaflet


Artifacts from Japan, part 2: Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016

Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016So this is the thing around which the whole manga industry revolves: the manga magazine.

Language: Japanese
Authors: various
Publisher: Shūeisha
Pages: 440
Price: ¥330 ($3.20 / €2.90)
Website: http://youngjump.jp/ (Japanese)

cover of Weekly Young Jump #27, 2016More precisely, this is a copy of the June 16 issue of 週刊ヤングジャンプ / Weekly Young Jump. Not quite as legendary as 週刊少年ジャンプ / Weekly Shōnen Jump by the same publisher, it is still a venerable manga anthology magazine that is sold at every convenience store.

Manga magazines are often said to be ‘phone book sized’, but that’s only true for the bigger monthly magazines. The smaller weekly ones like Young Jump are staple bound, measuring ‘only’ approximately 25,5 × 17 × 2 cm. This also means that the paper format is about 1.5 times larger than a tankobon.

The most obvious difference between Young Jump and Shōnen Jump is the ‘gravure idol’ on the cover of the former, advertising photo pages of young women in underwear at the beginning (in this issue: Anna Iriyama from AKB48, 8 pages) and end (Yūna Ego from SKE48, 6 pages) of the magazine. In other words, the cover is not representative of 97% of the content.

A page from Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Ryu Fujisaki. The poor printing shows particularly in panels with large black areas.

As for the manga pages, their printing quality really is abysmal – light grey ink on white paper, resembling printouts when the toner is about to run out, and guaranteed to come off on your hands. But most of the time it’s good enough to let you figure out what’s going on in the drawings.

An issue contains one chapter (usually 18 pages) from each of 20 different manga series, spanning various genres such as action, sports, and ecchi. The most noteworthy in this issue are:

  • キングダム / Kingdom by Yasuhisa Hara, a long-running samurai-era tale with somewhat sub-par artwork and over-the-top violence that seems to be quite popular at the moment;
  • ゴールデンカムイ / Golden Kamui by Satoru Noda, set in late Meiji-era Hokkaidō;
  • Terra Formars by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana, a science-fiction story that has already been published in English and German;
  • 東京喰種:re / Tokyo Ghoul:re by Sui Ishida, a sequel to the popular supernatural horror manga;
  • 銀河英雄伝説 / Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Ryu Fujisaki (of Shiki fame), a new manga adaptation of an 80s science-fiction novel series;
  • 精密機械とてきと一人間 by NisiOisiN and Kei Takizawa, a 45 page one-shot about football;
  • 君と100回目の恋 / one hundred times I was fallin’ in love with you by Chocolate Records, Inabaseri and Kumichi Yoshizuki, a manga to promote an upcoming teenage pop music film of the same name.

In the past, Weekly Young Jump ran such famous series as Gantz, Elfen Lied, Liar Game, and All You Need Is Kill.

Thanks to manga magazines like Weekly Young Jump, manga readers in Japan (in contrast to most of those outside Japan) can decide whether to buy these and get their cheap ‘weekly (or monthly) fix’, or to ‘wait for the trade’ which is more expensive and of a smaller format but of a higher printing quality. Of course, the manga industry wants readers to first buy the magazines, then discard them and buy the tankobon too.


Artifacts from Japan, part 1: Totoro

Chū Totoro plush figure

This fellow here is ‘Chū Totoro’ / ‘Middle Totoro’, or ‘Blue Totoro’, one of (Big) Totoro’s two little helpers from Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic となりのトトロ / My Neighbor Totoro. In this incarnation, Chū Totoro is a 4.5 cm tall plush figure. It comes with a chain to be used as a mobile phone strap charm or keychain pendant.

The interesting thing about it is, it was sold in a small department store in Ōsaka along with other merchandise, such as pencil cases or towels, of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters. All three of said characters are from multi-media franchises: people who buy their merchandise might know them from a television series, a comic, an animated film, or a novel. Or they might not even know where they know them from. Some characters become more popular through their merchandise than through narrative media, even if the publication of the latter precedes the former.

Take Snoopy, for instance: countless children all over the world probably have a Snoopy T-shirt or a Snoopy eraser without ever having read the Peanuts comic or watched the animated films. While we (as scholars of Japanese popular culture, or students of anime, or international ‘otaku‘) naturally trace back the Totoro characters to a single work, the aforementioned My Neighbor Totoro anime, maybe it’s different for children in Japan. For them, Totoro might be another Snoopy, as it were, who has simply always been there.