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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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.


Roland Barthes’s packages – in comics?

Speaking of grids: in his book about Japan¹, Empire of Signs (L’Empire des signes, 1970), Roland Barthes doesn’t mention manga and their panel grids directly. However, he comes close to it in a chapter titled “Packages”: “every [Japanese] object […] seems framed. […] around it, there is: nothing, an empty space […].” (p. 43 in the Hill and Wang translated edition; italics by Barthes). This sounds like comic panels and gutters alright. On the other hand, “this frame is invisible; the Japanese thing is not outlined” (ibid.).

Now, while outlines are certainly a typical feature of comic panels, they are by no means a necessary characteristic. Borderless layouts are rare, but they do exist. The bottom row of the Kimi ni todoke page I’ve shown in my Rosalind Krauss blogpost is one example. In the same volume, there are entire pages without panel borders, such as this one:

page from Kimi ni todoke, vol. 7, by Karuho ShiinaThe page background is black, which means that the tiny black strip between the bottom two panels is part of the gutter, not a panel outline.

Still, Barthes is more concerned with traditional Japanese room furnishings, ikebana, and wrapped souvenirs than with comics. The interesting question here is: if the Japanese culture has developed a general fondness for framing, packaging, delimiting things, does this explain why comics with their framed panels have become so popular there? From the way in which Barthes characterises his framed objects, the answer seems to be ‘no’. “The [Japanese] thing is […] distinct […] by an excision which removes the flourishing of meaning from the object” (ibid.). Comics work the other way round: by placing a panel into a sequence of other panels, meaning is bestowed on the panel. Thus the gutter between the panels doesn’t excise them – on the contrary, it glues them together.

It’s curious and regrettable that Barthes doesn’t mention manga (or anime, or most other contemporary Japanese pop cultural media for that matter) at all in Empire of Signs. Perhaps, if he had written it 20 years later (if he would have still been alive by then), at the height of the manga boom in Japan, he wouldn’t have been able to ignore them.

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


¹ Barthes makes it clear, though, that his book is not about the ‘real’ Japan, but rather about a “deliberately formed system” out of “a certain number of isolated features”, a “fictive nation” which he chose to call “Japan” (p. 3 in the Hill and Wang translated edition).