Re-Embracing the Line – The Story of an Ex-Re-Anime Fan

[A Personal Essay on the Sociology of Anime Fandom in North America]

There are many appealing things about Japan. For some it’s the mystique of ancient ninja, padding silently along the tiled curlicues of temple roofs; the dignity of the swordsmith’s art; or the solemnity of the tea ceremony…and for people like me, there’s this:

Boohoohoo!

I won’t lie, I’m a little disappointed in myself for never finding a used underwear vending machine in Tokyo. Do they really exist, or are they just a perverted fantasy created in the minds of perplexed (and intrigued) foreigners? Whatever the truth may be, Japan is a country strange enough for literally anything to be possible. If a drunk/chemically altered/just plain weird mind can conceive it, it exists.

WTF-elements aside, Japan has always held a special appeal to me, ever since I watched my first episode of Sailor Moon back in the 90’s. My oldest cousin was always a subculture geek; whether she was tracing dark circles around her eyes, attaching 20 pounds of safety pins to shredded plaid and jean jackets, or adding anime lashes to herself with liquid liner, there was always some interesting “phase” to observe whenever we made the 6 hour journey to my aunt’s house south of the border.

While my sister and I had always enjoyed Sailor Moon in Canada (running in front of the TV every day at 4 o’clock sharp, ramping the volume up to maximum and blasting our poor grandmother’s ears with “FIGHTING EVIL BY MOONLIGHT!” shrieks), it was only in Boston that we were able to indulge ourselves in sweet, imported paradise. Because my cousin, being an avid collector from the start, had in her possession a series of VHS tapes imported straight from Japan, tapes on which were the late seasons of Sailor Moon (yet unaired in North America), in their original language, with grainy yellow subtitles. Given that Napster did not exist yet (or the internet, really), these were exotic rarities, and expensive ones at that. I could tell how precious these tapes were by the trembling enthusiasm with which my cousin clutched them, or how excitedly she bellowed out the jumbled syllables of attempted Japanese whenever the theme song came on.

From that moment, Sailor Moon was no longer just a cartoon – it was an anime. And now that I had heard the names Usagi, Minako, and Takeshido Kamen, there seemed to be something distinctly lacking in the North American names Serena, Mina, and Tuxedo Mask. (Oh, who am I kidding – Tuxedo Mask can whisk me away any day!) Those VHS tapes introduced to me to the cult of the original, of the authentic, of the officially licensed product, and it was a fever I caught then and there.

Is that a copy of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix released only in Japan with the special extended secret cut scene?? すごい!!

There is a point I am going to make today, and I’ll spell it out now: Anime is a culture of commodity. It is the collector’s dream, the fantasist’s ultimate fantasy. And in an era when anime was barely on the North American scene (that is, the early to mid 90’s), it represented a exotic rarity that was to be fetishized and exalted.

Whenever my cousins made the trip North to visit us in Montreal, we’d always drive to Chinatown to visit the “anime store,” a tiny Asian goods shop that sold a collection of wall scrolls, posters, sticker cards, Gundams, keychains, figurines, and other, completely unrelated items like ginger-scented soap and back massagers. Thus I began my life as a fandom collector, as my cousins and I bought hundreds of Sailor Moon sticker cards, carefully protected in our Sailor Moon card booklets, to be traded or swapped amongst ourselves, but never, under any circumstances, to be “used up” as stickers.

Piles and piles of them!

It was also during this time that I taught myself how to draw. In the afternoons my sister and I would, side by side, tape our Sailor Moon posters to the living room window, where the light shone through brightest, and standing on tiptoes on kitchen chairs, we would trace the bold fluid lines of Sailor Moon’s flowing hair, her ruffled skirt, with all the skill and attention to detail an 8 year old can muster.

A rough approximation of my drawing skills at the time (not actually drawn by me)

My drawings were pretty shitty by adult standards, but here is what I was learning: a flowy, highly exaggerated form of line drawing with an emphasis on block shading and flat aesthetics. In other words, drawing like a cartoon. No matter how much depth is suggested by anime cell shading, it is still an very 2 dimensional form of illustration. Anime and Manga (Japanese comics) do no convey volume the way that traditional, Western “Fine Art” does.

A traditional charcoal sketch
A page from “Black Jack” by Osamu Tezuka, forefather of manga

Of course, all of these artistic concepts were years out of my reach.  It wasn’t until I took a sociology course on Japanimation at McGill University that I began thinking about anime aesthetics in an analytic way. Professor Thomas Lamarre’s textbook on the topic, The Anime Machine, is a fascinating read and one that I’ve kept on my bookshelf at home. One very interesting point he made regarding the flatness of the anime style is by drawing attention to its roots in Japanese Ukiyo-e – traditional woodblock prints.

Traditional Ukiyo-e, 1710

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the West brought its artistic influence to Japan, introducing into their art the use of linear perspective. The advent of photography played a huge role in this artistic development in Japan, as well. As you’ll see from this print from Ukiyo-e’s peak period, linear perspective (3 dimensionality) had become a major influence of Japanese art.

“Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo” by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1829-1833

What we have, at the end of this artistic progression, is an aesthetic at times superflat, at others three dimensional, but always with a focus on bold lines, block shading, and vivid colours. Throw in an infusion of American pop culture (primarily Disney), the cultural aftermath of WWII, and the birth of television, and you’ve got the perfect medium for 2 dimensional cel sheets and animation reels, a style that evolved quite naturally from Japan’s traditional arts, breathing new life and energy into them. And with artists such as Osamu Tezuka, anime and manga grew into a mature medium that explored deeper sociological issues than just providing a Saturday morning lark.

Godzilla – metaphor for fears of radioactive disaster (1954)
Scenes of destruction – echoes of atomic catastrophe (from Rebuild of Neon Genesis Evangelion, 2012)

In Japan, anime is a genre born of a sociological process. The way that Warhol echoes, refutes, and irradiates a long evolution of art, down from the Dadas and Cubists, Rembrandt and Fragonard, anime and manga illustrate their own interaction with history and art. In 2000, Takashi Murakami, a contemporary artist from Japan, developed the term “superflat” to describe the 2D aesthetics of manga and anime. Quoted from the Wikipedia article on the matter:

“Superflat […] served as a commentary on post-war Japanese society in which, Murakami argues, differences in social class and popular taste have ‘flattened,’ producing a culture with little distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’. […] In accordance with the Superflat concept, Murakami’s practice involves repackaging elements that are usually considered ‘low’ or subcultural and presenting them in the ‘high-art’ market. He then further flattens the playing field by repackaging his ‘high-art’ works as merchandise, such as plush toys and T-shirts, making them available at more affordable prices.”

A take on the traditional 3-panel piece by Takashi Murakami
A more direct interaction with Japanese art traditions by Tenmyouya Hisashi, in a style the artist calls “Neo Nihonga.”

While Takashi Murakami commercializes his “high brow” art in a sort of ironical fashion, in North America, the importation of anime and manga strips them (at least initially) of their historical context. What we are given instead is the glossy, prepackaged commodity. It’s the difference between this:

and this:

Whatever, Cup Noodles are friggin’ delicious

In the early 2000’s, Canada’s Teletoon Network began airing some darker, more adult-themed animes at late-night. No, not the naked tentacle kind – the kind with bloody swords, betrayal, and political unrest. Series like Ninja Scroll, Macross Plus, and Escaflowne. They came on for a two-week period once a year, and when my cousin caught wind of it, she begged me to tape it for her. So I did. Slowly, by tangential, cousin-inspired exposure, I became introduced to an increasingly diverse world of Japanese animation. As my taste in the genre bloomed, so did its popularity in North America (thanks also in part to the airing of Cowboy Bebop and others on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim segment).

Definitely one of the most disturbing things I watched with my cousin.

Around 2004, a.k.a my awkward high school era, the anime subculture in Montreal had reached a certain manic frenzy. 2002 was the first Anime convention in the province, and bigger cons like Anime North in Toronto started becoming very well known. It seemed anime was finally entering into mainstream North American culture – not hidden in the dark corners of collector’s basements, but to be openly enjoyed in large groups, to be celebrated together. Coinciding with this was the increased air time given to anime on daytime television, and even the development of North American cartoons drawn in an anime-inspired aesthetic, like Avatar the Last Airbender, Powerpuff Girls, and Cyber Six. No longer were we left with the few choicest pieces, but now we were becoming exposed to more “mass produced” anime, the daytime fluff, the shows that even the Japanese would call mainstream.

It’s time to duel!
Chii?

and then there was this guy:

Naruto

who unfortunately inspired many of these guys…

I may have known some of these…or been one…

“Oh god, what is that?” you may be asking yourself. That, readers, is called a weeaboo. You might have seen them hanging out at the bubble-tea shops in Chinatown, or collecting in the corners of high school halls. They’re the kids with thick wristbands, printed tees, and fox tails hanging off the back of their pants. They wail in the most excited tones about barely anything, obsessively covet their favouritest bishies, and insist on glomping anyone within a 5-foot radius, much to everyone’s annoyance. What is glomping, you say? It’s a running hug. It may look excitable and endearing in an anime, which is naturally the realm of visual exaggeration:

YAAAAAY!

…but in real life, it looks something more like this:

Oh god. The awkwardness. I’m cringing even as I write this.

I’d like to apologize if any semblance of an objective, well-read discussion evaporates from this post. Weeaboo fandom represents a part of my life that I most vehemently regret, even if I never reached such levels of obsession. I just had…a passionate appreciation…for J-culture…(as most reformed weeaboos would like to say to themselves). Yes, I may have indulged in far too much Final Fantasy and memorized too many songs in Japanese…in fact, let’s fill out this Weeaboo bingo chart and see how far the rabbit hole I’ve gone.

Oh dear...
Oh dear…

IT WAS A VERY AWKWARD TIME, OKAY?

And awkwardness is a key feature of the weeaboo culture. If the weeaboo stereotype centres around one specific demographic, it is this: the painfully awkward, pale teen weirdo. They come in three basic shapes: tall and gangly, overweight and gross, or ugly-duckling-turned-ridiculously-hot-with-DD’s girl who takes every opportunity to display herself in the most revealing of cosplay outfits, bathing in the hot spray of nosebleeds all around.

A popular choice for girls with abs

I’d just like to make the point that just because you cosplay, you are not a weeaboo. There is a time and a place for costumes, like conventions, Halloween… In fact, it’s very possible to express your anime fandom in a way that keeps your dignity and self-esteem intact.

wee

Like I said, anime is a culture of commodity, and when imported to the Western world, it becomes an exotic fetish. That’s what a weeaboo is – a Japanese fetishist, a Japanophile, a Wapanese. And within the cult of the import, anime is presented in a purely commodified form. What weeaboos relish are the fantastically extravagant costumes (hence the popularity of Chii and FFX-2 generation Yuna cosplays), the shrink-wrapped original soundtracks, the feeling of belonging to an exclusive group that comes with speaking in their disjointed Japanglish.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon – in the gamer community there is leet speak (“”0MFG D00D /\Ü571N 15 T3H l_l83Я 1337 Я0XX0ЯZ), along with a whole host of non-leet wordage that constitutes a sub-dialect in itself. The comic book community also used to share the same cringe-inducing reputation as that of anime fandom, the notion that all gamers and geeks were dirty, fat mouth-breathers with no concept of hygiene or human interaction.

don’t give a shit if I pull aggro, I got totally nerfed with the last patch

But what is it about weeaboos that are so enduringly uncomfortable? How has Marvel pushed its way into popular culture, not with just the greasy neckbeards, but also the normal everyday guy – how has the comic book become naturalized into the mainstream? How has the IT geek become cool, but the anime fan has not? (Actually, many geeky IT guys watch anime…but it’s sort of secret.) It’s because of this: weeaboo culture is an identity crisis.

It’s okay to enjoy another culture. It’s okay to take interest in learning a foreign language, or foreign customs and costumes, exotic food, music, art, fashion. But the weeaboo worships Japan as a mecca for the misunderstood, as a fantasy land in which their sub-par Western selves can be shed off, or covered up in Loli dresses. They indulge in the fantasy of the perfect girl, the perfect boy, so shiny and colourful and perfectly amenable on the screen. Since they aren’t in Japan, they bring it to life in themselves by acting out the (highly eccentric, commercially processed) anime characters they so dearly love.

And other people see this. And they see someone so deeply insecure about themselves.

oh god…my girly parts just shriveled up

For the weeaboo, Japanese culture has been so fetishized, so reduced to a single element, that it becomes inherently superficial. Oh, and the Japanese themselves have a version of this, too. They have a term that may be more familiar to you: “Otaku.” While the Otaku does not suffer the same Orientalist fantasies of the weeaboo, they both share the same affliction of living in a delusional fantasy realm. The Otaku lives not in an apartment, but in a collector’s museum, with figurines crammed into every conceivable corner: character blankets, anime clocks, piles and piles of DVD’s and manga. And they are just as reviled in Japan as weeaboos are in the West.

Miyazaki: rejecting the cultish behaviour of Otaku

So where does that leave the rest of us? Like I said, there are those who still watch anime, but somewhat secretly, lest they shatter their reputation as the “cool” kind of geek and cross into the “loser” geek category. And new initiates, when recommended an anime series to try, usually do so with a level of reluctance and skepticism. Many former fans dismiss the genre altogether as an embarrassing, childish phase (as I did for a long time). But ever since my trip to Tokyo, I’m sensing in myself a shift back into the vibrant, eccentric world of J-culture, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel…

While sitting in my hostel bunk in Tokyo two weeks ago, headphones clamped over my ears, I began facebook chatting with Mtl-friend MB. MB and I have always had a special relationship with Japan, in that whenever we talk, we inevitably meander into a conversation about how weird Japan is, and how messed up their popular culture has become. Underlying this whole conversation is a subtle “I’ve seen more fucked up shit on the internet than you have” competition, which is entirely friendly but has pushed us to internet bizarreness beyond anything I could have anticipated (a tower of milk enemas, anyone?).

pkmn

This particular night, I was sitting in my bed with a sketchbook. I had just spent the day wandering through Akihabara, Tokyo’s anime and video game district, and the neighbourhood I would come to visit 6 times during my two week stay. It is the absolute mecca for those in J-culture fandom, so electric and alive, so full of eccentricities found only in Tokyo, like cosplay cafes and figurine stores 4 stories high. It’d been so long since I’d even thought about anime that it all seemed strange and new to me. When I booked my ticket to Haneda airport, I was guided by a last-minute seat sale, not a burning desire for original manga and limited edition DVDs. And yet at the same time, I felt a dull glow of nostalgia.

Remember when you used to fill binder after binder with silly character designs and original stories? When you invented your own Pokemon and built up entire universes, history, language, and all, in the blink of an eye?

That’s what Akihabara said to me. And when I saw the enormous flashing billboards, the six-story high posters of characters from anime I didn’t know, I felt in my hand the familiar ease and flow I once had while drawing. That’s right, I thought. I used to draw like that…and I was pretty good!

But there was always that stigma. That cringe-inducing stereotype of the mangaka wannabe, the anime artist applying to university with a folder full of yaoi bishies and cat girls, whining, “How can they say that anime isn’t art?! They don’t know anything!!” And so I stopped drawing in the margins of my agenda, all those costume designs and original characters bursting with life and adventure. I started sketching instead. In CEGEP I took classes on colour theory, negative and positive space, human figure, and I learned to draw like this:

and this

I learned it well, and could execute a more conventional style with great concentration, but there was always something unnatural in it. I remember spending hours with Marta at a cafe, music in our ears, and while she was able to draw, by magic, it seemed, whatever was blossoming in her mind that moment, with all the depth and fullness of character as a sculpture being scraped out of the page, my own sketches were only ever a collection of meaningless lines and shapes. I just couldn’t do it without a model in front of me, something to look at and emulate with exacting realism. But in Akihabara, I was getting a renewed sense of visual creativity, one I had buried a long time ago. And I have Hatsune Miku to thank for that.

Who is Hatsune Miku, you ask? She is a fictional character, an anime embodiment of a digitized voice called a vocaloid. In Akihabara, you will find her everywhere: posters, buttons, figurines, CDs, dishes and pillows. Oh, and did I mention she performs in concert to enormous audiences? Fans all over Japan flock to her concerts to watch her (and other vocaloids) “sing” and “dance,” only…she’s a hologram.

MB and I have talked about Hatsune Miku before. About how it must be a symptom of an over-technologized society, one succumbing to some sort of grand, deluded absurdity. It’s just plain weird. What the fuck, Japan? That’s how it usually goes. What the fuck, Japan?

But as I stood in a cramped anime shop, watching Hatsune Miku singing to frenzied audiences on a small TV propped in the corner, I realized that she and the vocaloids represent something vital. They’re not real. They just plain don’t exist! And yet…

A few years ago at Christmas time, my family had gathered all together to eat at a nice seafood restaurant downtown. My uncle was there, sitting at the end of the table, surrounded on either side by my cousins, and my sister and I after. Now, my uncle is a highly practical man. Believer (and achiever) of the American dream. He worked hard, he built himself up, and knows that success is only the accretion of much, much labour. His world doesn’t have time for Lala Land, and if it doesn’t add a profit or increase efficiency in something, if it doesn’t have a practical value, it has no value at all.

The dinner was winding down, and people were just pushing at their potatoes or savouring their precious last bites, when my cousins started debating Harry Potter. Was it really realistic for Lupin and Tonks to be together, or was that totally out of character? What about that scene when Professor Trelawney said this or that, and then Snape reacted this way? He wouldn’t have, he would have said it differently, Harry did it right he did it wrong and Ron shouldn’t have been there at all!

The conversation was growing so heated, each person arguing their side with such conviction and passion that our voices started to rise and our peas were forgotten. It was almost aggressive! And yet every face had such a bright, delighted smile…

Except my uncle.

“Stop arguing!” he barked. “It’s stupid and a waste of time. It’s not even real!”

The light died out of our eyes, and the conversation wilted. We couldn’t quite express what it was that hurt so much. Was it the implication that we were foolish, or that Harry Potter was? In my mind I screamed, But it is real! It’s real in the minds of the readers, millions of them all over the world, they form a community of dreamers and wishers, witches and wizards. Every book is real!

Hatsune Miku is an echo of that. She’s not real. She’s not even a character from an established anime series, but rather some sort of ephemeral pop cultural reference that pop ups here and there in series belonging to other characters. She’s a prototype, a doll, an outfit with hair and a particular voice, and she’s ready for anyone to pick her up and pose her how they want. Google her – you’ll find only fanart. She is the perfectly amenable fantasy. Her image, her voice. Put some words in the computer and she’ll sing them. That’s what a vocaloid is.

There is freedom in that, and I found it in my sketchbook. Don’t think, just draw. However you want her. Him. That mug of coffee. That electrical pole. Trace from a comic book, blatantly steal someone else’s design, do whatever you want on the page…and don’t think about stigmas.

Maybe that’s why I revel so much in the bizarreness of Japanese pop culture. Not because I’m some social misfit looking for somewhere to fit in, but because there is just such ecstasy in it. That complete lack of self-consciousness, the comfort with exposing to the world that extra nipple on the sole of your foot and at laughing at it yourself.

I’ve started drawing a lot more since visiting Japan. I don’t do linear perspective and I don’t use human models. It’s just the smoothness of the page and my trusty black pen, extra fine.

20140201_020621

1609577_10151862775441283_446693480_n

hatsune


5 thoughts on “Re-Embracing the Line – The Story of an Ex-Re-Anime Fan

  1. Gah I love your drawings!!! : D I’m so happy you’re drawing again. Seriously, what a good post too. Super interesting about the whole history behind the art – and then ending on Hatsune Miku. Very fair point about fictional verses.

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  2. I am absolutely floored by this. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE your art and am glad you are doing it YOUR way. Fantastic. And this blog shows that if you must teach at all you should be teaching at higher levels…about THIS very subject.
    And for what it’s worth…I STILL have a crush on Darien/Tuxedo Mask. Don’t know how many times I’ve watched the episode where he and Serena ride the elevator together and then reveal themselves to each other in the battle they face…and the episode where they are caught in the tree that grows in Alan and Ann’s apartment….sigh.

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  3. Thank you A. for explaining some of the perplexing thoughts I have had about Manga, anime, and the 2D art form. Being raised in a Western art culture I found the cartoon like artform cells so fascinating and yet so DIFFERENT and alien when I was first exposed to it vegging out with R. on the futon weekend mornings while watching Sailor Moon. I was fascinated with the super close-ups that filled the tv screen and the unsynced english overdubs wondering why this has so much attraction to my family. But the more I watched Serena and her entourage the more I became entranced by it all. Only years later did I look back on it and saw a resemblance/relationship (not imitation) to the long legged Barbie dolls and the whole fantasy world that replaced and outpaced an older generation of playtime with far more exuberance, intensity, and creativity. All this activity on the fantasy fictional level has become real through Cosplays, Comicons and street festivals celebrating fictional stories and characters, just like the lyrics in the song ‘Glass Onion’, “you know the place where nothing is real, well here is another place where you can go”.
    I’m glad you wrote about all this stuff that’s been simmering in your brain and finally taking a trip to the mecca land of your past anime life. Gone but not forgotten, just reenergized and beaming up to earth once again. Perhaps the days of your return while you’re not teaching helped get your art back where it belongs . . . . on a page, translated from your mind. I enjoyed seeing your drawings way back at the beginning (e.g. the sketches you did of M.) AND the ones you did on this recent blog.Keep it up!

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  4. Pingback: Down From The Door

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