Interviewed by Jingyi Li for the New Books Podcast, I discuss some of the book’s main points and how this research aims to shift the view of anime toward analyzing the dynamics of globalization.
In its performances in/of animation, the anime film Kaiju no Kodomo depicts a lively world where the human becomes open to the vitality and activity of the nonhuman (what Jane Bennett would call a world of “vibrant matter”), embracing an egalitarian openness to the nonhuman, presenting a method of expressing the self that goes beyond the anthropocentric individualism so coveted under neoliberalism. This is explored through a specific employment of embodied and figurative acting operations, each engaging with different tendencies of performing the self: embodied acting tending toward anthropocentric individualism with a bordered inside-outside bodily division; figurative acting tending towards a self that is enacted through interconnection with others, whose constitutive parts link across bodies. As such, figurative acting embraces what might be labeled as object-oriented dividualism—a conception of selfhood that Bennett develops where dividuals are entities whose constituent parts stem from disparate sites, affecting themselves as well as others.
Through the specific configuration of the spatiality of embodied and figurative acting, specifically in the character Ruka, the film moves through individualism toward transforming into a specific type of dividual. Not suffering from the radical lack of closure and dissolution of self that dividuality can teeter toward, Ruka maintains an internal-external border like the individual of embodied acting, but acknowledges the permeability of that boundary, still embracing the interdependency and openness to the outside employed in figurative acting. As such, the animated film can be seen as presenting, in Bruno Latour’s terms, a fictional mode of existence, exploring a world and beings with distinct dispositions, and the interdependency with the means and materials through which they are performed.
Mechademia—an intellectual community built around a conference and a journal (University of Minnesota Press)—has stood at the forefront of youth-focused Asian popular culture scholarship since its inception in the early 2000s. With its emphasis upon manga, anime, video games, and other forms of East Asian popular culture and their fan bases, Mechademia has regularly brought together scholars, fans, and practitioners in seeking common dialogue, fresh approaches, and innovative insights.
This Digital Dialogues session seeks to probe the interconnections between Mechademia and Asian Studies. We begin with a brief history of Mechademia led by its founding organizers discussing the impetus for creating the conference and journal. The discussion subsequently broadens to address the following questions:
- What is the place of popular culture studies in the larger field of Asian Studies? What can popular culture studies contribute to Asian Studies (and vice versa)?
- How do fan cultures contribute to our understandings and interactions in Asian Studies?
- What roles do race, gender, class, nation, and other structuring properties play in the study of fan cultures, with a particular eye to Asian Studies?
- How might querying popular culture studies help queer Asian Studies?
Session Participants: Edmund Hoff, Thomas Lamarre, Frenchy Lunning, Kazumi Nagaike, Stevie Suan, Christine R. Yano (Moderator)
Different forms of selfhood enacted in the TV and filmic endings of the anime Evangelion can be revealed by building on Donald Crafton’s typology of performance of/in animation of “embodied acting” and “figurative acting.” Embodied acting is “introverted,” and tends towards the production of modernistic, anthropomorphic individuals that appear to provide a sense of depth in their enactment of emotion through their individualized movement. Figurative acting, which repeats similar codes in varying combinations for different characters, is “extroverted,” as the codes appear shared between various characters, forcing a recognition of the surface location of the code for that emotion, on not in the character. As such, the interrelation and tension between these forms of performing selfhood play out in Evangelion: objects of human creation, the Eva-units, boldly display their agency as they exhibit shocking performances of embodied acting, the Eva-units appearing with the same autonomy as human individuals; on the other hand, humans are broken into parts, their psyche examined in pieces as they delve into their minds to find only more pieces of other characters, an interrogation of the constitutive codes of figurative acting—the examination of objecthood that we see in the TV ending. However, the filmic ending departs from the optimistic embrace of objecthood and presents the harrowing vision of ecological catastrophe as it explores different individualisms, taking them to their world-ending climax.
This chapter focuses on Virtual YouTubers (or Vtubers: actors using 3D model anime-like characters to post on YouTube), examining how they are performed through two modes of acting utilized in concert with certain technologies: embodied acting (where unique gestures express individualized personality) in the usage of motion-capture, and figurative acting (where pre-existing codified gestures constitute characters) in the facial expressions from anime performed on a digital avatar after getting filtered through facial recognition technology. Analyzing the varying tendencies of embodied and figurative acting of Vtubers, this chapter concentrates on the popular Vtuber Kizuna Ai, who is an “official cultural diplomat” for Japan, but also has an official Chinese “version” of herself on BiliBili. Her existence across platforms, nations, and languages raises questions about the contemporary intersection between digital, national, and cultural boundaries, and how we perform ourselves in digital media. Kizuna AI’s character performance operates across technologies and platforms in a manner which brings into relief how the contemporary tensions between distinction and duplication play out in our transnational, (trans-)platform society as we perform at the intersection of different modes of selfhood.
A formal approach to anime rethinks globalization and transnationality under neoliberalism
Anime has become synonymous with Japanese culture, but its global reach raises a perplexing question—what happens when anime is produced outside of Japan? Who actually makes anime, and how can this help us rethink notions of cultural production? In Anime’s Identity, Stevie Suan examines how anime’s recognizable media-form—no matter where it is produced—reflects the problematics of globalization. The result is an incisive look at not only anime but also the tensions of transnationality.
Far from valorizing the individualistic “originality” so often touted in national creative industries, anime reveals an alternate type of creativity based in repetition and variation. In exploring this alternative creativity and its accompanying aesthetics, Suan examines anime from fresh angles, including considerations of how anime operates like a brand of media, the intricacies of anime production occurring across national borders, inquiries into the selfhood involved in anime’s character acting, and analyses of various anime works that present differing modes of transnationality.
Anime’s Identity deftly merges theories from media studies and performance studies, introducing innovative formal concepts that connect anime to questions of dislocation on a global scale, creating a transformative new lens for analyzing popular media.
Praise for Anime’s Identity:
“Stevie Suan utterly transforms our understanding of anime. Using media theory to expand the formal analysis of anime conventions, while calling on a transnational framework to avoid a simplistic opposition between local and global, he not only provides incisive readings of key anime series, but also lays out a powerful and much-needed methodology for thinking anime in the world.”
—Thomas Lamarre, author of The Anime Ecology: A Genealogy of Television, Animation, and Game Media
“Focusing on formalism and performance studies in particular, Stevie Suan proposes a radical alternative for engaging with anime studies.”
—Daisuke Miyao, author of Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema
“[Anime’s Identity] is also a readable and concise digest of much of the theory and research on anime in the last decade, serving as a valuable primer for the new scholar….Suan gets to grip with an issue that has hounded people who write about anime for decades – to what extent can we get away with an essentialist notion that it ‘comes from Japan’?
—Jonathan Clements, author of Anime: A History.
Titles of the chapters and subsections:
Introduction: Anime’s Performance of Identity
Anime’s Identity; Macross’s Identity; The Anime-esque; On Forms; Shifting Spatiality; Area Studies and Situating Anime; Media-Form; Historical Moment; Performance/Performativity; Overview of the Book
1. Anime’s Local–Global Tensions
The Bordered-Whole Inter-National; Mapping Anime’s Distribution; Anime’s Inter-national Stasis; Defining Anime; Anime as National Cultural Media-Form; AnimeJapan; Blurring Internal and External
2. Anime’s Dispersed Production
Authorship and Agency in Anime Production; On Anime Production and Publicity; Shirobako; Negotiated Decisions; Media Mix and Materiality; Anime’s Media-Form; Transnationality
3. Anime’s Media Heterotopia
Geographies of Production; Transnational Development; Anime’s Animation Production Network Across Asia; Heterotopic Images; (In)visible Performances; Transnational Hierarchies; Anime’s Media Heterotopia
4. Anime’s Citationality
Anime’s Brand; Felicitous Anime-esque Performance; Database, Citation, Re-performance; Re-performance, Convergence; Decentralized Network of Citations
5. Anime’s Creativity
Anime’s Creative Industry; Creativity and Copying; Citationality and Anime’s Creativity; Citations across Borders; Anime’s Creativity in China; Openly Transnational Anime; Anime across Asia
6. Anime’s Actors
Animation and How Objects Act; Embodied Performance; Figurative Performance; Mutual Implication; Lifestyle Performance and Figurative Acting
7. Anime’s (Anti)Individualism
From Evangelion to Sekaikei; Sekaikei and (Neoliberal) Individualism; Evangelion’s Success and Failure; Deconstructing Individualism; Global Anxieties; Micro-Macro, Local-Global Tensions; After Sekaikei
8. Anime’s Dislocation
Place-Focused Anime; Dislocation in Anime’s Performances; Theatricality; The Animatic Apparatus; Producing Places; Anime Out of Place; Dislocating Differently; Anime’s Complex Spatiality
Conclusion: Anime’s World
Anime’s Performance of Media-Form; Enacting Selfhood; Global Inflections; Shifting Transnationalities; Clashing Forms, Complex Regionality
The sustained achievement of the Kimetsu no Yaiba film in the number 1 spot at the box office and claim to the highest grossing film of all time in Japan marks an important achievement for late-night TV anime. While two other anime, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi and Kimi no Na ha, have reached similar levels of sales and popularity, neither of these works were based on an established late-night TV anime like Kimetsu no Yaiba is. This may invite questions of what makes Kimetsu no Yaiba so special as to achieve this degree of fame. However, instead of pursuing the question of Kimetsu no Yaiba’s uniqueness, this presentation will instead explore how conventional the anime actually is, through an examination of its media-form, exploring how Kimetsu no Yaiba performs as an anime. Such an exploration will examine some of the recent trends in anime that are employed in Kimetsu no Yaiba, including certain character types, narrative tropes, and character designs. In addition, I will examine some of the patterns of production, and, in comparison with the manga, reveal how the media-formal elements of both mediums reveal divergent types of transnationality.
“Through a Glass Darkly: Identity Crises in Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion“
Re-examining the TV and filmic endings of the first Evangelion series, this talk inquires into the notions of selfhood explored by the series by utilizing performance theory for animation. Examining the different modes of existence enacted through the performance of animation, this lecture presents an ecological reading of the two, divergent finales.
Talk given for the Japan Foundation NY with Susan Napier and Frenchy Lunning.
The theme of this issue of Mechademia is “Materialities across Asia,” exploring how attending to materiality and medium can reveal the transnationality of media in/across/from Asia. The articles submitted to this issue tended to focus on East Asia, but the various frameworks employed aim to emphasize media-specifics and cross-border flows more generally. Analyzing contemporary media such as anime, manga, webtoons, 2.5D theater, the labor that produces them, and the sites of their sale and engagement with fans, this issue underlines how materiality seems to both locate us and expose the intensity of movements occurring.
The over-arching tendency of anime research in academia (both inside and outside of Japan) has been to see anime as a “Japanese media product,” analyzing anime for sociological readings of Japan and its society. However, attending to anime’s media-form—its conventionality and the material actualities of its production processes—would reveal that while Japan is a central node in anime’s production, significant portions of the animation of anime productions have actually been produced throughout Asia for decades. In addition, there are an increasing number of anime produced outside of Japan (for Japan and other markets). Such facts invite multiple inquiries: How do we account for anime’s transnational labor, operating inside and outside of Japan? How do we conceptualize cultural production when anime’s visual conventions are animated outside of Japan? Are these merely “copies” of “authentic (Japanese) anime”? Can we conceive of a new geography to engage with this transnational dynamic?
From this standpoint, contrary to the tendency to “read Japan through anime,” there is a complex politics of place that intersects with the framework of the nation, in conflict with the transnational flows that define this moment of globalization, all enacted through the media-form of anime. Drawing on media studies and performance studies, this paper examines how anime’s performance of media-form does not insist on the neat, ordered world of the nation-state, as on multiple different levels anime explores a difficult, complex geography, enacting the tensions of contemporary globalization. Such complexities are revealed through an analysis of place-focused anime depicting locations in Japan and China (specifically the Chinese-Japanese co-production, Shikioriori), highlighting the dynamics of transnationality rather than a (national) locality on multiple levels.