Anime, Manga, and the Question of Multi-Culturalism

One of my favorite things about SF Signal is its wonderful Mind Meld series. Not only is it interesting to see the contrast of opinions from authors you know but often the aggregate sum of the discussion leaves you with a slightly different perspective on the subject at hand.

When I saw that their most recent edition was on anime, I thought I’d chime in here with some observations of the nominations generally and also try and talk a little bit more briefly about how influential Eastern thought and artwork has been on SF as a whole.

First: Miyazaki. Of the 15 contributors, all but two picked at least one Miyazaki film for their top five (and many picked more than one!) Even better, the sheer variety of his films nominated: Laputa, Cagliostro, Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Totoro all got picked. I think that is such an impressive showing of his breadth as a filmmaker. It proves he can really make something that appeals to everyone which nicely echoes how accessible his films are for both children and adults.

Second: Cyberpunk on the top. With the votes totaled, Ghost in the Shell and Akira take the #1 and #2 positions. Serial Experiments Lain is also a finalist which is arguably Cyberpunk, or at least heavily influenced by it. But as much as it pains me to say, I’m not sure this is a mandate for this particular subgenre more than it is a bit of a coincidence. Akira was the most expensive animated film of all time when it was created (costing over a billion yen) and Ghost in the Shell also had extremely impressive production values for its time. Not to mention they are both very SFnal in their plots and presentation – instant appeal for any voracious SF reader or writer. Both have certainly been major influences on myself and my own writing. (I also want to point out how they fly in the face of the Budget to Numbskull Ratio which is a point worth exploring all in its own post.)

Third: It looks like there was a bit of confusion as to whether or not TV series were eligible for nomination or if it was only stand alone movies. Perhaps a second edition is order just for series?

Fourth: Speaking of which, manga is another interesting, related artform and a bit more bookish so perhaps we can see can see another of these in the future focusing on just this medium? In Japan, it is a much more respected medium than television anime. I think there’s a number of good reasons for that but, generally speaking, the sophistication of the stories, characters, ideas, and the overall aesthetic is usually more developed and refined.

Japanese SF has, more or less, had its western reception almost entirely in these two mediums with the written word neglected. I’m leaving aside bigger names here like Haruki Murakami or Ryu Murakami, although in the latter’s case, the novel I most want to read by him, The Fascism of Love and Fantasy, has yet to be translated either. The reason I’m not counting them is that they are exceptions to a much wider rule and a bit more tangential to SF than mucking around in it. (This is not an argument for or against their inclusion in the genre. I would hope it’s made clear by the title of my blog that such ideas are completely inconsequential to me.)

However, the scarcity of Japanese SF looks like it might be beginning to change for bookshelves with the new Haikasoru imprint, a very interesting and exciting move by Viz Media. Viz was, up until their imprint, primarily focused on the release of manga and anime. What’s exciting to note here is that there are a great many anime and manga that derive themselves from SF novels, so there’s certainly plenty of material to work with. Going by Viz’s prestigious manga catalog, there should be a fair share of noteworthy titles coming out.

One precisely in this category of adaptation is Yukikaze which I have heard is a fairly decent anime series. I’m actually very tickled at the thought of seeing the original work that inspired the anime, maybe even doing a cross comparison so keep your eyes peeled for a forthcoming review. I also have All You Need Is Kill sitting on my shelf and waiting patiently, which won me over on the strength of its opening alone. We shall see if the rest can continue to impress in the same manner.

All of this begins to wade into a subject that continues to stir the SF community in fits and starts: the idea of diversifying the field, culturally and/or ethnically. This subject makes me a bit queasy for various reasons but I think the biggest one is the sort of the implicit exoticism of it – I don’t have the impression that Stanislaw Lem would tell you to read his fiction because he is Polish and therefore offers “a different perspective” only because of his Polish roots. Stanislaw Lem, if he should be read at all, should be read because he’s probably the best-selling SF author in history. Which is not to say that this identity would not be influential in the creation of his fiction. But his “different perspective” comes from the sum total of his identity, not just the legal fiction of nationality. Identity does matter a great deal in fiction but the diversity of identity cannot be simplified down to nationality or even ethnicity. There is also age, gender, socio-economic status, not to mention the experiences of a life lived. The diversity of expression available in the best of 19th century fiction (largely European male-dominated) should be example enough of this.

I think what I find perplexing is the sort of exoticism inherent in the arguments I hear put forth around this subject. Is SF from Thailand to be sought after simply because because it’s “other”? What kind of respect does that give to a Thai author exactly – that we have stereotyped his voice and prose down to a category he shares with millions? Isn’t that absurd?

Different, as far as I can tell, has only ever meant different. And that alone is enough justification in my mind.

I agree with those who argue for more diversity from SF publishers. More voices coming from a broader range of cultures will give us a broader range of ideas and fiction. I would say this is a definitive improvement to the field. What I am less comfortable with is this kind of ethno-national classification being made in conjunction with the argument. I would prefer, however idealistically, a world where authors are appreciated on the basis of their individuality, not their ethnicity or their birthplace.

Just as it would be absurd for me to laud those anime films I’ve mentioned on the sole distinction of their “Japan-ness,” I find it equally strange to approach fiction this way. Furthermore, I am dismayed at the convenient pigeonholing that can occur if we start wandering into this “ethnic fiction” territory. The most disappointing turn SF could take would be to smush these new voices into their places of origin and only pay attention to the stories ostensibly about their own culture. It’s very convenient marketing for the publisher and already a real phenomenon in publishing today.

So when it comes time to review Yukikaze, I will try do to so with the intent not steered by the background of the author but by the words on the page. If something about it strikes me as definitively Japanese, of course I’ll be happy to make mention. But I am uncomfortable at the idea of starting from a place of trumpeting “I AM READING A JAPANESE AUTHOR” and moving forward. While Yukikaze‘s relationship to the anime medium is a point of intrigue for me, maybe even a (barf!) “selling point,” the fiction will succeed or fail in my eyes based on its strengths and weaknesses, not in its origin.

Chouhei Kambayashi is an individual, not a category. I think every artist deserves acknowledgment at this level.

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