The Gentle Inclusivity of Mental Illness in Kawakami Hiromi’s “Summer Break”
Annual Conference of the Association of Japanese Literary Studies
January 25, 2020
“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.
From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces. In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.
Link Is Not Silent: Disability Positivity in Fan Readings of Breath of the Wild
Annual Conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), Seattle
March 15, 2019
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was given a global release on the Nintendo Switch console to overwhelming acclaim on March 3, 2017. In the tradition of the Legend of Zelda series, the player controls a silent protagonist named Link. Because Link’s voice is never heard, fans of the game have speculated on how he is able to have conversations with other characters. One of the dominant interpretations of the “silent protagonist” gameplay mechanic in Breath of the Wild is that Link is mute and communicates in a sign language that everyone in the world of the game is able to understand. This reading of the character is used to compliment and to complicate the diegetic explanation for Link’s silence, which is that he suffers from severe social anxiety.
This paper uses Breath of the Wild and the transnational online communities surrounding it as a case study in order to explore the intersection between the emerging disciplines of Game Studies, Fan Studies, and Disability Studies. Game Studies scholars such as Shira Chess and Christopher Paul have argued that the ludic structures of many games emphasize neoliberal capitalist ideologies that privilege success and ableism, while Aubrey Anable and Edward Chang have demonstrated that there are limits to how developers and players can challenge these ideologies through creative design and gameplay. Disability Studies scholars such as Sarah Gibbons and Diane Carr emphasize the need to reshape the cultures of gaming at the corporate and at the grassroots levels to attract and accommodate a greater diversity of gamers, while Fan Studies scholars such as Paul Booth and Natalie Chew have demonstrated how active online communities of fans have encouraged and achieved this change.
I argue that fan communities have embraced the perception of Link as neurodiverse and differently abled in Breath of the Wild by using fanwork to imagine positive yet nuanced representations of a society in which difference is enthusiastically embraced. This culture of disability positivity has been supported by Nintendo, which has fostered ludic accessibility for a broader range of gamers while promoting diversity within the staff of its global offices. I will argue that, although the discourse within communities of fans is not without friction, fannish conversations on social media are capable of constructing and normalizing utopian frameworks for how difference is portrayed and accommodated within gaming cultures.
Linkle and the Female Gaze: Differences in the Reception of Female Character Design in American and Japanese Fan Communities
Annual Conference of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), Washington DC
March 23, 2018
Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors (Zeruda musō), an action game developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In a Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on YouTube in November 2015, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends (Zeruda musō Hairaru ōru sutāzu), an updated port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.
The internet exploded after this announcement, with some fans going wild with glee while others became consumed with righteous feminist anger. The main point of contention was an element of character design known in both Japanese and English-language fandom communities as the zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory,” which designates an exposed area of skin between the top of a character’s stockings and the hem of her skirt. Japanese female fans were, for the most part, delighted by what they saw as a cute and trendy design, while American female fans were appalled by the way Linkle appealed to what they assumed was a male gaze.
This paper investigates the cultural conversations that inform this difference in the character’s reception by referencing broader discussions within feminist scholarship and online fandom communities concerning representation and symbolic annihilation. I argue that these attitudes arise not from opinions regarding drawings of two-dimensional women, but rather from varying levels of inclusiveness within the industries that produce popular media.
The Next Big Thing: Charting Fan Cultures, Social Media, and the Content Industry in Japan
Annual Conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), Toronto
March 14, 2018
The visual and narrative stylizations of Japanese popular culture have exerted a large influence on global media over the course of the past two decades. During this time, what has become known as the “media content industry” (kontentsu kigyō) within Japan has increasingly been driven by the activities of amateur and independent fan creators. Fannish production has always been tacitly encouraged by Japanese publishing and media companies, but it was typically seen as the realm of students and other young writers and artists who would soon graduate into salaried and contracted positions within established development studios. Recently, however, independent creators have achieved enormous success outside of formally sanctioned channels, and the industry has shifted accordingly, with social media popularity beginning to supersede the tastes of industry gatekeepers.
This paper examines three case studies representative of the increased visibility of Japanese creators working primarily through Twitter, Kickstarter, and the artistic social networking site Pixiv. I argue that, as has been the case in the United States, the diminishing influence of career industry professionals has coincided with a concomitant rise in a greater marketability of diverse stories that would have formerly only found expression through alternative methods of distribution outside of mass media outlets. This region-specific discussion enters into an ongoing conversation concerning the developing relationship between online fan cultures and the media industry. I challenge assumptions regarding fandom as a purely ludic discursive space that operates according to a gift economy as I demonstrate the tangible role of fan communities and their interests in shaping contemporary transnational mediascapes.
Postapocalyptic Political Fantasy in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Philadelphia
January 6, 2017
In The Wind Waker (Kaze no takuto), the 2002 GameCube installment of Nintendo’s high fantasy adventure series The Legend of Zelda (Zeruda no densetsu), the courageous hero Link sets out to save the land of Hyrule from the villainous Ganondorf. Unlike previous games, the Hyrule of The Wind Waker is not filled with towns and castles but is instead covered by an endless sea. In the final scenes of the game, Ganondorf reveals that the watery apocalypse that beset Hyrule was not his doing, yet Link is still compelled to fight him, thus ensuring that the world remains in a seemingly ruined condition in which human life is slowly fading away. This ending runs counter to the expectations of the heroic quest, in which the player’s actions presumably lead to the restoration of a peaceful political order conducive to the continued existence of humanity.
Contemporary Japanese popular culture is known for its explosive scenes of apocalypse, and The Wind Waker is indicative of a complimentary postapocalyptic narrative through which elegiac stories play out against a setting in which civilization is already in severe decline. I argue that, far from presenting the end of humanity and its concomitant political structures as a fate to be avoided, many anime, manga, and video games produced during the past two decades have encouraged their audiences to consider the apocalypse in a positive light. This worldview reflects trends in international posthumanism and feminist ecocriticism, in which the Anthropocene has been viewed with alarm and disdain. By allowing the player to experience the thrilling jouissance of inhabiting a world largely devoid of people, The Wind Waker reconfigures ethical valuations of villainy and heroism through a political fantasy in which humanity is not privileged.
A Legend of Regret: Fallen Kingdoms and Postcolonial Ghosts in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Association of Japanese Literary Studies (AJLS) Annual Conference, Pennsylvania State University
October 29, 2016
In the standard video game narrative, an anonymous hero is chosen by destiny to fight a great evil or right a grievous wrong, gradually growing stronger and marshaling allies in preparation for a final battle that will restore order to the political and natural environments. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, released by Nintendo for the Wii home console in 2006, seems to be a reiteration of this heroic narrative, with its teenage protagonist overcoming an escalating series of trials in order to rescue a beautiful princess and save her kingdom from hostile invaders. The game begins with an elegiac meditation on the twilight that heralds the setting sun, however, and it ends with a tearful parting. Ephemerality and loss are the major themes of Twilight Princess, a fact that betrays a startling subtext regarding the motivations of its villains. The kingdom of Hyrule, which a young man named Link is tasked with saving, is presented as both postapocalyptic and postcolonial, with the ruins of former conquered civilizations dotting the landscape. The villains of Twilight Princess, Ganondorf and Zant, both hail from minority groups that were marginalized and persecuted by the dominant culture of Hyrule, and their attack on the kingdom is propelled by a desire to rectify ancient injustices. Although Link is forced by the heroic narrative that guides him to battle these postcolonial ghosts, their defeat is not celebrated at the end of the game. I therefore argue that Twilight Princess delivers a subtle yet poignant protest against neoliberal discourses of empire reflected in the rhetoric of heroism informing the interlinked geopolitical movements of Japan and the United States throughout the twentieth century, in which the glorified actions of postcolonial nations have resulted in tragedy and regret.
The Legends of Zelda: Fan Challenges to Video Game Narratives
Communicating with Cool Japan: International Communication Association Preconference, Waseda University
June 8, 2016
The Legend of Zelda is one of the bestselling franchises in video game history. The series began with the original The Legend of Zelda, which was released by Nintendo in 1986, and it now includes roughly two dozen titles. Many of these games re-enact versions of the same story centered around the heroic Link saving the princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf. Due to the rarely challenged repetition of these plot elements, the Zelda series has become an archetypal example of what American game critic Anita Sarkeesian has called “damseling,” or using the disempowerment of female characters as a motivation for the male player-protagonist.
Fans around the world have been inspired by The Legend of Zelda, creating their own parodies, commentaries, and transformative works based on the games. This paper investigates Zelda-related fanworks from Japan, Europe, and North America, focusing on how fannish creators deconstruct the damseling narrative and recombine its elements in ways that reflect larger conversations surrounding gender, culture, and media. I argue that the activities of these fans reflect a tendency in many international fan cultures to view media properties not as passively consumable content but rather as templates from which more individually meaningful stories may be created.
What It Means to Be Human: Magic and Gender in Final Fantasy VI
American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) Annual Meeting, Harvard University
March 19, 2016
Final Fantasy VI, a roleplaying video game released for the Super Nintendo console in 1994, is generally considered to be a turning point in the groundbreaking Final Fantasy franchise, which has sold over a hundred million units worldwide. Final Fantasy VI expresses a deep thematic concern with the relationship between human beings and technology, especially as this relationship is mediated by the narrative and ludic element of magic. The game’s story focuses on two young female protagonists, Terra and Celes, who are variations on the magical girl (mahō shōjo) and beautiful fighting girl (sentō bishōjo) archetypes of Japanese popular media from the closing decades of the twentieth century.
As in many animated and illustrated works of science fiction and fantasy in contemporary Japan, Final Fantasy VI explores its themes through the bodies of its female characters, using Terra and Celes to represent different possibilities for the future of the human species in relation to seemingly magical biotechnologies. The liminality culturally associated with young women provides a powerful analogy to anxieties surrounding new ontologies of humanity in contemporary Japan as expressed in fin de siècle debates concerning issues ranging from organ transplants to oral contraceptives. I argue that the prominence of animated and digital shōjo characters during the 1990s served as an oblique yet compelling navigation of the physical and spiritual stakes of the reconfiguration of human identities during this tumultuous period.
The Beautiful End of the World: Eschatologies of the Bishōjo
Anime and Manga Studies Symposium, Los Angeles Anime Expo
July 4, 2015
As scholars of Japanese religion have argued, Buddhist eschatologies tend to be more cyclical than teleological. This perception of the end of the world as something inevitable yet not final manifests itself in so-called “otaku media” through the common scenario of characters living in a world that is slowly fading away after the apocalypse has already occurred. Some of these scenarios, such as those of the 2006 animated series Ergo Proxy and the 2009 video game Final Fantasy XIII, feature a dystopia that is largely a result of humanity artificially clinging to life through an authoritarian application of advanced technology. In other scenarios, such as those of the 2013 animated series From the New World and Humanity Has Declined, extremely low birthrates and sparse population densities have resulted in relatively peaceful agrarian societies in which most humans lead rich and satisfying lives. As opposed to the narrative tendency in American popular media in which a small band of male heroes attempts to avert an apocalypse, the apocalypse has already happened in many Japanese popular narratives, and the heroes left to pick up the pieces afterwards tend to be attractive young women, or bishōjo.
Many of the most iconic characters of contemporary Japanese manga and anime are bishōjo directly associated with apocalyptic and posthuman themes. Cultural critics ranging from Saitō Tamaki to Thomas Lamarre have highlighted the parallels between bishōjo characters and themes of freedom, flight, hope, and healing, so it is interesting that so many of these characters are also closely related to themes of human extinction. Using the gynoid Chi from CLAMP’s 2002 manga series Chobits as a representative example, I argue that, through the regenerative reproductive capacity of these characters, whose nascent sexuality is not yet tainted by masculine bodies and “masculine” ideologies such as nationalism, militarism, and scientific rationalism, the end of the world is coded as a positive event whose promise of ecological balance and emotional serenity extends beyond Susan Sontag’s famous “delight in disaster.”
Watch Out, or Adults Will Control You: Angry High School Girls in Kirino Natsuo’s Real World
Annual Conference of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), Chicago
March 26, 2015
In Kirino Natsuo’s 2003 suspense novel Real World (Riaru wārudo), four high school girls help a young man who has killed his mother evade arrest. These four friends have nothing in common with the boy save for their shared hatred of adult society. Over the course of the novel, each of the four girls unleashes a litany of petty complaints against her parents’ generation, thus exposing the ugliness at the core of her personality. This affective nastiness is targeted at adult women in particular, and the misogyny underlying such attacks is striking in a novel written by a female author known for her thematic focus on politicized gender issues. I argue that Kirino is exaggerating the misogyny implicit in two widespread media discourses of the turn of the millennium for the purpose of cultural critique. The first is a chauvinistic and patronizing concern for high school girls in the wake of the Kobe child murders of 1997, which added fuel to the fire of debates surrounding “compensated dating” (enjo kōsai). The second is a body of academic discussions positioning beautiful female characters (bishōjo) as consumable properties for male genre fans (otaku), for whom young women were presumably mythical creatures entirely divorced from reality. By rendering her female characters as thoroughly unpleasant, Kirino challenges the protectiveness and sentimentality associated with high school girls in popular representations, whose underlying distrust of women is caustically exposed by the negative attitudes of her narrators. Kirino thus forces her reader to feel bad about wanting to feel good about high school girls, who are real people who live in the real world and not empty symbols floating freely across mediascapes.
The Poetics of Boys Love: Transfiguring Masculinities in Yaoi Parodies of Final Fantasy VII
Manga Futures: The Sixth International Scholarly Conference on Manga, University of Wollongong
November 2, 2014
This paper highlights several common themes and tropes in yaoi dōjinshi parodies to argue that the female gaze queers not just male characters but masculinist ideologies as well.
How does an aloof soldier with an enormous sword become an adorable cuddle bunny with big eyes and an even bigger heart? How does an evil and treacherous villain become a sensitive and misunderstood loner eager for redemption through the power of love? How does a despotic and disturbingly militarized multinational corporation become a force for positive social change? Through the homoerotic parodies of mainstream media properties presented in yaoi dōjinshi fan comics, stereotypes of masculinity and masculinist ideological systems are routinely disrupted and transformed by the application of a diverse set of hermeneutic lenses. This paper offers a close reading of a set of dōjinshi based on Square Enix’s perennially popular role playing game Final Fantasy VII, which was originally released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997 but has since seen a series of sequels and spin-offs across multiple media. By analyzing how canonical characterizations and scenarios can yield different meanings than those suggested by the original works when viewed with a female gaze, I argue that dōjin artists are able to queer the source texts using the tropes and conventions of yaoi manga. Although such narrative devices, most notably the dichotomy between the uke (the “feminine” partner) and the seme (the “masculine” partner), may superficially conform to heteronormative stereotypes of representation, they in fact function as part of a larger system of creative tools used to challenge and reconfigure both sexual normativity and sexist hierarchies of societal power.
Queering the Media Mix: The Female Gaze in Japanese Fan Comics
Anime and Manga Studies Symposium, Los Angeles Anime Expo
July 4, 2014
The expression “media mix” is often used to describe multimedia marketing strategies concerning popular entertainment franchises such as Harry Potter and Pokémon. Although such franchises are generally understood as being controlled by large corporations, the fans of these media properties make significant contributions to the mix, often expanding on the central themes of the source texts and “queering” them by rendering their subtexts explicit or teasing out feminist perspectives. This talk focuses on amateur dōjinshi fan comics created by communities of people who have been inspired by contemporary Japanese popular media, and I demonstrate how these fans employ a female gaze to create their own interpretations of stories, characters, and relationships in narratives targeted at a male demographic. These dōjinshi commonly fall into the genre category of BL, or “boy’s love,” which is notable for its focus on romantic and often physical connections between male characters. The female gaze implicit in BL is capable of creating homoerotic interpretations of relationships between male characters in a way that creatively subverts the phallocentrism implicit in many media properties. The interactions between the source texts and their readers therefore illustrate how cycles of narrative production and consumption have changed in the face of active fan cultures. Using examples of Japanese and English-language fan comics based on works ranging from the BBC television series Sherlock to the Attack on Titan anime, I argue that international communities of fans have the potential to make positive and progressive contributions to the media mix ecosystem that are capable of shaping mainstream media at the global level.
Between Fans: History and National Identity in Online Debates on Axis Powers Hetalia
Korean Wave Beyond Nationality: First Annual Conference on Korean Studies, University of Notre Dame
April 25, 2014
In Axis Powers Hetalia, World War II is a game played by two teams of handsome men. The Hetalia franchise, which began as an amateur webcomic written by Himaruya Hidekazu, anthropomorphizes the world powers of the early twentieth century: America sports a bomber jacket and guzzles hamburgers, Germany enjoys making cuckoo clocks and is serious to a fault, and Italy, the namesake of the series, is a pasta-loving coward who depends on Germany to protect him. Although the original comic plays with national stereotypes and caricatured reenactments of decisive battles, other incarnations of the franchise focus less on historical jokes and references and more on the homoerotic tensions that arise between the masculine representations of countries engaged in heated competition with each other.
Because of its humor and female-oriented fan service, Hetalia became a major site of internet-based fandom activity between 2009 and 2011. During the height of the franchise’s popularity, the interaction between international fandom communities led to disputes concerning national identity and the erasure and marginalization certain minority groups and viewpoints in mainstream histories. This paper will focus the online activities of South Koreans who articulated a pointed critique of Japanese historiographical attitudes regarding the military and political conflicts in East Asia during the twentieth century. I argue that online debates concerning Hetalia demonstrate a sophisticated reworking of the Eurocentric and masculinist constructions of modern history among transnational communities of contemporary media fans.
The Cute Shall Inherit the Earth: Postapocalyptic Posthumanity in Tokyo Jungle
Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago
January 10, 2014
Tokyo Jungle (Tōkyō Janguru) is a survival-based adventure game published by PlayStation C.A.M.P. Studio for the PlayStation 3 in the summer of 2012. In Tokyo Jungle, the player is able to take on the role of a variety of animals that roam the streets of a Tokyo devoid of human life. By surviving as a small animal, such as a Pomeranian dog or sika deer, the player can then play as other creatures, which include several types of robotic animals. Each animal has its own narrative; and, through continued gameplay, the player is able to combine these small narratives into a larger narrative concerning the apparent extinction of humanity. At the end of the game, the player must decide whether to allow human beings to return to Tokyo or to fade quietly into oblivion.
The story and gameplay features of Tokyo Jungle encourage the player to develop an antagonistic attitude towards humanity and its failed stewardship of the environment, a view that reflects the theories of environmental philosophers such as Nick Bostrom and John A. Leslie. When examined in the context of other depictions of disaster in Japanese literature and television, the ideology of Tokyo Jungle demonstrates an emerging awareness and acceptance of philosophical posthumanism and a literally post-human world. Fears concerning disaster and the resulting annihilation of humanity are often assuaged by a representation of non-human harbingers of the post-apocalyptic world as small, furry, and adorable. This link between cuteness and the nonhuman is tied to a broader connection between apocalypse and the feminine in contemporary Japanese media, in which adolescent female sexuality is often imbued with anxiety over the reproduction and possible extinction of the human species.
Short Skirts and Superpowers: The Female Gaze in Anime and Manga
Anime and Manga Studies Symposium, Los Angeles Anime Expo
July 5, 2013
The female gaze, which posits female characters and female readers as subjects instead of objects, is a hermeneutic lens that may applied to contemporary Japanese media featuring the shōjo characters that have become iconic figures in the cultural landscape of Japan during the past three decades. Using Takeuchi Naoko’s Sailor Moon series and the graphic novels written by the popular and prolific artistic collective CLAMP as examples, this talk will demonstrate how the emergence and application of the female gaze in Japanese graphic novels serves as an alternative both to phallocentric theories of narrative consumption and to male-dominated discourses concerning women and gender roles in contemporary Japan. The works of these female creators deliberately encourage the female gaze, which offers alternate avenues of interpretation in media that are generally understood as taking a male gaze for granted. Takeuchi and CLAMP do not merely recycle tropes in order to generate entertainment for an unintelligent and uncritical audience but instead challenge gendered genre conventions, as well as the gender-related ideologies behind them, and engage with a readership that is perfectly willing to interrogate texts from multiple perspectives. Using fan responses such as blog entries and dōjinshi (fan-created manga), this talk will also demonstrate how the female gaze can be used as a means of resistant reading that allows interpretations of anime and manga that are empowering from feminist and queer perspectives.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone: Teaching Video Games in a Japanese Context
Between ‘Cool’ and 3-11: Second Annual Teaching Japan Conference, Elizabethtown College
April 27, 2013
As the twenty-first century has progressed, video games have emerged as an important arena of storytelling and cultural production, earning the attention and interest of scholars and undergraduates. Unfortunately, even though a significant portion of the video games available to a global audience originate in Japan, most of the academic work done on video games has focused on American and European titles, making it difficult to teach video games in Japanese culture classes. In this presentation, I will outline strategies and resources for teaching video games in a Japanese context. I will begin by summarizing some of the major themes and topics in academic research on video games and listing several prominent journals publishing articles on video games in English and Japanese. I will then give an overview of some of the most popular Japanese video game franchises, which I will organize according to a spectrum of focus on gameplay as opposed to focus on story. I will also address several issues regarding the incorporation of actual video games into the classroom by offering examples of how non-traditional digital texts may be accessed through internet and library resources. Finally, I will briefly discuss resources for understanding the broader cultures surrounding video games. Through this introduction to video games from an academic perspective, I hope to suggest several effective means of incorporating productive discussion of popular new media texts into the study of Japanese culture, art, and literature.
Sexuality, Politics, and Misogyny in the Work of Kirino Natsuo
Rethinking Modern Japanese Feminisms Research Conference, Emory University
April 20, 2013
In her two bestselling novels Grotesque and Real World, Kirino Natsuo contrasts the commodified sexuality of young women with the sexual alienation of older women. Through her fiction, the author responds to several strands of discourse on women and social responsibility that shaped public policy in Japan during the late 1990s, in which women were blamed for issues such as Japan’s low birthrate and economic stagnation. At the center of these debates was women’s sexuality, which politicians and the media alternately worshipped and villainized. Kirino critiques the contradictions inherent in these discourses by demonstrating their effect on her female characters, who find themselves trapped in a cycle of outwardly imposed misogyny and internalized self-hatred that they in turn direct toward other women.
Mythical Landscapes and Imaginary Creatures: Pokémon as a Construction of a Fantasy Japan
Annual Conference of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies, The Ohio State University
October 14, 2012
Each of the first four installments in Nintendo’s Pokémon series of video games has been set in a different fictional region of an archipelago closely resembling Japan. Each of these regions (chihō) has its own native population of pokémon, as well as its own distinctive cultural character loosely based on Japanese regional cities and natural features. By exploring the region that serves as the setting for a particular game, the player learns the history and mythology of that region, which resemble the various regional myths of Japan. The player is thus encouraged to think of the Pokémon world as a fantasy version of Japan; and, by virtually touring the regions of Japan through the Pokémon games, the player actively engages in a narrative of regional differentiation and, through an awareness of the overarching connections between these regions and their proximity to real-world Japan, national identity. In the imagined version of Japan represented by the Pokémon series of video games, the ludic exploration of different Japanese regions not only reinforces a broader national identity but may also be applied to a flexible and accommodating understanding of internationalization in contemporary Japan.
Queering Gendered Manga: CLAMP’s Subversion of Female Character Tropes
LibrAsia: The Second Asian Conference on Literature and Librarianship, Osaka University
April 8, 2012
CLAMP, a four-woman team of writers and artists, is one of the most famous and prolific manga creators in contemporary Japan. Two of their most recent and popular series, Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle and xxxHolic, feature a young woman and an older woman as their respective protagonists. These two series, which were conceived and released simultaneously, incorporate numerous crossovers and intersecting plots. Tsubasa and xxxHolic belong to the genres of shōnen (boy’s) manga and seinen (men’s) manga, publishing categories designed to target a specific gendered audience. As such, one would expect both titles to make liberal use of character types that conform to narrative conventions that serve to further gender the shōnen and seinen demographics. A common character dynamic in such manga involves a pure-hearted young girl fighting and triumphing over an experienced older woman, thus perpetuating a phallic economy of desire that privileges female youth and beauty over intelligence and power. In this paper I will argue that CLAMP subverts such gendered character tropes by allowing the older female protagonist of xxxHolic to protect and mentor the young female protagonist of in Tsubasa. The relationship between these two characters not only suggests an alternate avenue for female empowerment but also queers the gendered nature of mainstream manga genres by representing the relationship between shōnen and seinen with two female characters. This paper thereby offers an alternative reading of common narrative patterns in Japanese popular culture by demonstrating the agency of both female characters and female creators.
Theories of Narrative Consumption and the Evolution of Shōjo Manga
Mid-Atlantic Region Association of Asian Studies Conference, Princeton University
October 23, 2011
In his 2001 study Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, cultural theorist Azuma Hiroki proposes a paradigm of narrative consumption that he calls the “database model.” Azuma developed this model as a response to anthropologist Ōtsuka Eiji’s “tree model,” which states that the entirety of a grand narrative is suggested by and contained within each of a work’s small narratives. Azuma argues that, as far as otaku (fans of media such as anime and manga) are concerned, there are no grand narratives, and each fragmented small narrative can thus be neatly filed away within a tiny square of an “otaku database” to be cross-referenced with other plot and character elements. Azuma concludes that the otaku who produce and consume the narratives of Japanese popular culture have degenerated into animals incapable of a self-aware critique of the media they mindlessly consume.
In this presentation, I will suggest a counter-argument to Azuma’s theory of narrative consumption by closely examining two manga titles by the artistic collective CLAMP. Through these examples, I will demonstrate that tropes such as the bishōjo, or beautiful adolescent girl, are not merely reiterated through multiple incarnations but rather subjected to a process of reevaluation and reinterpretation by both creators and readers. This process prevents stereotyping and leads to the evolution of otaku tropes, thus discrediting Azuma’s rigid database model, which only allows for substitutive reproduction of these tropes. Azuma’s model is constrained by its exclusive focus on male producers and consumers of illustrated and animated female characters, and I will thus suggest a less phallocentric means of reading Japanese popular cultures by arguing for a greater awareness of a female gaze that disrupts and queers both textual and cultural narratives of consumption and sexuality.
Illusion, Reality, and the Feminine Ideal in Miike Takashi’s Audition
Mid-Atlantic Region Association of Asian Studies Conference, Pennsylvania State University
October 23, 2010
This paper explores the changing image of femininity in contemporary Japan, as well as reactions to this change, by examining Miike Takashi’s 1999 film Audition. The film’s protagonist, Aoyama, is portrayed as a representative of the Shōwa period conservative home drama, and Aoyama’s love interest, Asami, is initially presented as the perfect fulfillment of “traditional” feminine virtues espoused by the genre. Halfway through the film, however, the predominant genre switches from home drama to horror, and Asami becomes a fearsome yet sexually alluring femme fatale. This abrupt transition expresses a mounting terror with regard to the increasing social and economic power of Japanese women at the end of the millennium.
In Audition, the new Japanese woman who is socially, economically, and sexually liberated from a patriarchal society is viewed with horror as she proceeds to torture Aoyama, a masculine representative of the social atmosphere in which the old feminine ideal still held sway. Because Audition has become a horror movie by the time Asami strips away her pretensions as an ideal woman, the audience cannot help but regard the disintegration of the feminine ideal with unease. This film demonstrates, in microcosm, a society beginning to confront the reality of its decreasing birthrate while acknowledging the deterioration of the feminine ideal that it had long cherished. I will connect Audition not only with social currents but also with a wider realm of pessimistically misogynistic discourse as seen through contemporary horror films and literature in Japan.
What Dreams May Come: The Postmodern and the Premodern in Kon Satoshi’s Paprika
Mid-Atlantic Region Association of Asian Studies Conference, Villanova University
October 31, 2009
This paper examines the Japanese postmodern perspective on the premodern as expressed in director Kon Satoshi’s 2006 animated film Paprika. Kon’s attitude toward the premodern is one of fascination mixed with a concern that Japan will lose itself in a postmodern fantasy. This anxiety is expressed in three main loci throughout the film. The first is the visual representation of premodern artifacts in the diseased dreamscapes central to the film’s system of imagery. The second concerns the blurring between dreams and reality within the film’s narrative structure. The third centers on the film’s protagonist who, through her alter-ego Paprika, is able to navigate between these two spaces.
Through an analysis of these three aspects of Paprika, I will investigate the discursive friction between the premodern and the postmodern in contemporary Japanese media culture. In my discussion I will also address Kon’s treatment of the modern period, especially the masculine-gendered grand narratives that characterized this era of urbanization, industrialization, and political centrality. I will connect this discussion to the director’s other works, as well as to the 1993 science fiction novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka on which Paprika is based.