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 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.


“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.


Article “The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West” published

task

My conference paper from 2014, which so far had been only published in German and in print, is now available online and in English:

de la Iglesia, Martin 2016, ‘The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West’. The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship 6(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/cg.59

There’s also a PDF version.

Abstract:
Translated editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira played an important role in the popularisation of manga in the Western world. Published in Japan between 1982 and 1990, editions in European languages followed as soon as the late 1980s. In the first US edition (Epic 1988–1995) the originally black and white manga was printed in colour and published in 38 issues, which were designed not unlike typical American comic books. The first German edition (Carlsen 1991–1996) marked the beginning of Carlsen’s manga publishing efforts. It was based on the English-language edition and also printed in colour, and combined two American issues in one.

This article analyses the materiality of these two translated editions with a focus on three main issues – the mirroring (or ‘flipping’) which changes the reading direction from right-to-left into left-to-right, the colouring of the originally black and white artwork, and the translation of different kinds of script (sound effects, speech bubble text, and inscriptions or labels) – before concluding with a brief examination of their critical reception.


Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, “manga singer”?

photograph from The Voice of Germany by ProSiebenA couple of weeks ago, a headline in a local German newspaper caught my eye: “Manga singer wins The Voice of Germany” (a television talent show similar to Idol(s)/Superstar). What on earth could a “manga singer” be? Maybe someone who writes songs about manga stories? There is one German YouTuber I know of, Daniela Winkler a.k.a. Horrorkissen, who sings not only cover versions of anime theme songs but also her own songs about anime characters, cosplayers, etc.

Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, the aforementioned “manga singer”, does no such things as far as I know. Instead, her designation as “manga singer” (sometimes also “manga voice” or “manga girl”) in the media seems to be based on three other things:

  1. According to one newspaper article I’ve found, she likes to draw manga, and she is pictured drawing something (in a photograph provided by her television channel). Unlike Daniela Winkler, however, I don’t think she has published any manga, and there’s no connection between her manga drawing and her singing.
  2. Jamie-Lee Kriewitz said she is a fan of K-pop, i.e. pop music from South Korea. This has very little to do with manga, but some journalists still manage to link together Kriewitz’s music to “animation film pop” to anime to J-pop to her K-pop endorsement.
  3. Something all media outlets comment on are her stage outfits, which are apparently inspired by Japanese fashion – particularly Decora style, or Decora Kei. I have to take Kriewitz’s word for it because I can’t tell all the Japanese fashion styles apart, but the funny thing is that her clothes form the basis on which the media draw the connection to manga. On her first The Voice performance, she wore a hooded sweater modeled after Stitch from Lilo & Stich – i.e. a character from an animated film, not even from a comic – and this seems to have triggered an amalgamation of “Japan” and “animation” into “manga” in some people’s heads. This idea was further cemented at the Voice of Germany season final on which one of the coaches wore a Dragon Ball outfit as an allusion to Kriewitz’s style. She also said she cosplays at conventions, but her stage outfits aren’t strictly speaking cosplay in the sense that she portrayed a particular character (let alone a manga character).

photograph from The Voice of Germany, ProSieben

So Jamie-Lee Kriewitz’s “manga singer” denomination stands on shaky ground, to say the least. But I bet we’ll hear a lot more of that sort when she competes in the German preliminaries for the Eurovision Song Contest on February 25.


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.


Conference paper “Akira im Westen” published

panel from Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo

Last year at a conference on “the translation and adaptation of comics” in Hildesheim, Germany, I gave a talk on the first English and German editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira . The conference proceedings have now been published as a book, albeit with most of the papers in German, including my own. I’m working on making an English-language, Open Access version of my talk available soon. Anyway, here’s the bibliographic data:

de la Iglesia, Martin. “Akira im Westen.” In Comics. Übersetzungen und Adaptionen, edited by Nathalie Mälzer, 355-373. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2015.

The ISBN of the book is: 978-3-7329-0131-9