Not Your Typical Magical Girl: The subculture of Grand Narrative Consumption.

Hiroki Azuma proposes that within postmodern otaku culture there is a lack of desire to consume the grand narrative, and instead otaku seek to consume a character database. However, there are several anime that can be pitted against his theory. One is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, a magical girl anime that completely deconstructs the magical girl genre. Madoka Magica is one of the few anime with a grand narrative that have made it into mainstream anime consumption. Azuma’s theory is that there is a lack of a grand narrative in postmodern anime and I agree that the grand narrative is dissipating, however, what can’t be seen on the surface of otaku culture is that there is still a subculture of anime that focuses on a grand narrative.

Database Consumption

Azuma built this idea off of Otsuka Eiji’s theory of narrative consumption. He modernizes it by claiming that postmodern otaku culture has further digressed from the consumption of small narratives in the 1980’s to a different consumption behavior in the 1990’s that focuses more on the desire for a specific set of characteristics a character may have that otaku feel “moe” towards, and he calls this “database consumption” (Azuma 38). The database is a list of these characteristics that many otaku find appealing, and what they strive to consume. Instead of looking for a story with meaningful plot they look for the characteristics of a character that they find attractive. There are also other attractive “moe-elements” other than visually appealing characteristics that include the way a character speaks, “settings”, “stereotypical narrative development”, and the “specific curves” or body proportions of a figurine (42). An example of this could be a character that is typically seen as a klutz and dimwitted. Otaku search out anime that contain this particular character trope and endlessly consume it. Magical girl characters are a perfect example of this character consumption model. The magical girl genre stereotypically contains characters that are cute, heroic, and seek to bring justice to those that do wrong. They can also contain typical anime characteristics like cat ears, maid-like or school-like uniforms, and colorful unnatural hair colors.

YouTube Preview Image

Not so typical Magical Girls

However, there is a popular magical girl anime that breaks down Azuma’s Theory of database consumption that is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. It was written by Gen Urobuchi and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, and is a series about Madoka Kaname, an eighth grader who decides to become a magical girl which is granted by a creature named Kyubey (MAL). Kyubey in turn grants them one wish, but in order for their wish to come true they must become a magical girl. Once they become a magical girl they receive a Soul Gem. These magical girls battle an opposing force called witches and this is supposed to represent a “good vs evil” framework. Throughout the anime we are confronted by dream-like and ‘cutesy’ imagery and also database representations of what a magical girl looks like, which is a magical girl fighting uniform and also unnatural hair colors. The main Character, Madoka, comes across as a naïve and hardworking junior high student who doesn’t have any hardships in her life but wants to selflessly help other people.

Initially Madoka Magica comes off as a generic Magical girl anime, but after the first few episodes the anime starts to take a darker more psychological turn. It completely “deconstructs” the magical girl genre and throws fans through a loop (Wu). After the death of one of the main characters there was an uproar within the fandom. Especially since the death came so “sudden and without warning” (Wu). The death threw the characters and fans into emotional turmoil and they started to discover the truth about what it meant to be a magical girl. By becoming a magical girl they are in a sense giving up their humanity, and this is shown in episode 6 when “Madoka threw away Sayaka Miki’s Soul Gem” (Wu). By doing this Madoka Magica uses a bait-and-switch style of marketing in which is presents the grand narrative to its viewers regardless of whether or not they were seeking it. They used the database as a camouflage and as a result, we are presented with a series that breaks away from the database as soon as it seduces its viewers.

YouTube Preview Image

Madoka Magica also contrasts with mainstream database consumption anime merely by the amount of episodes that it is composed of. Unlike other magical girl anime, Madoka Magica is a 12 episode anime. Most magical girl anime are compose of approximately 50 or more episodes in which there is a generic repeating story arc where the characters face a new evil and defeat it successfully. Story arcs can be repeated hundreds of times and contain many filler episodes that contain no plot and only a light-hearted interactions between the characters in the series. Sailor Moon is a perfect example of a popular magical girl anime that is based off of character consumption with a small narrative in contrast to Madoka Magica that contains a database framework but also a grand narrative. Sailor moon is a series that contains 46 episodes in the first series, and goes on to repeat the good vs evil fight in several different story arcs. Despite the small amount of episodes, Madoka Magica successfully produces a grand narrative that is resolved within the last episode and leaves you fully satisfied with the story line.

Even though Madoka Magica strayed from the path of a typical Magical girl anime it was very successful. The very moment the true nature of Madoka Magica was revealed during episode 3 “the popular forum 2ch achieved a record-breaking number of posts discussing the anime” (Wu). The unexpected inclusion of a grand narrative solidified the consumer’s emotional investment into the story line of an anime that started off in a very generic way. The success of the anime was further confirmed when “the first Blu-ray Disc volume sold more than 50,000 copies in the first week of sales” which broke “the original record held by Bakemonogatari” and was only “surpassed a month later by its own second volume”(Wu). Though reactions to the anime were polarizing at times. Some original fans of the Magical girl genre opposed the deconstruction of what it mean to be a magical girl and don’t consider it a true magical girl anime. Even so, based on the differing reactions the anime drew, the subculture of otaku that still crave the grand narrative were drawn to the concept of the anime. Some even consumed it entirely for the purpose of the grand narrative it was said to contain. This shows that the database consumption model can be used as an effective marketing tool to draw viewers into a grand narrative.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think that the grand narrative is something that is currently on the rise in comparison to the 1990’s?
  • What do you think of the concept of genre deconstruction?
  • Do you think disguising the grand narrative in the database as a way to shock viewers is a good or bad thing?

Sources:

Azuma, Hiroki. “Chapter 2: Database Animals.” Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. 29-54. Print.

MAL. “Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.” My Anime List. MyAnimeList, LLC. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://myanimelist.net/anime/9756/Mahou_Shoujo_Madoka%E2%98%85Magica/>.

Wu, Justin. “The Madoka Legacy: A Brief Review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” The Artifice. N.p., 22 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://the-artifice.com/puella-magi-madoka-magica/>.

Related Links:

Top 20 Psychological anime – http://www.imdb.com/list/ls073030809/

My Neighbor Totoro Conspiracy theories – http://www.tofugu.com/2013/08/15/conspiracy-theory-totoro/

Satoshi Kon: Existentialism and Reality – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp-IjV0wjIo

Shoot ‘Em Up & Slice ‘Em Down: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Western and Samurai Cinema

Seven Samurai Poster

Seven Samurai (1954) poster

At first glance, one may look upon films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and think that the two are wholly aesthetically different, coming from two separate genres.  The samurai and western genres, however, are more correlated than one might believe.  The samurai film, and other forms of jidai-geki (period piece), is “singularly Japanese in that it draws upon the peculiarities of Japanese history and myth just as the Western [has drawn] upon those elements in America” (Nolley 232).

The similarities are various, even amongst their histories, but which ones would have helped Japan and the United States latch onto the other’s traditional genre, especially in the case of the United States?  First, it will be necessary to examine how influences have not been just a one-way street.

American Influence on Japan

Akira Kurosawa, arguably one of Japan’s most important filmmakers, may have started his career with other forms of jidai-geki and cemented his legacy with Rashomon (1950), but he is most notable for being the greatest auteur that samurai cinema has ever seen.  Films such as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Ran (1985) have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and remain some of the most influential pieces of cinema to come from Japan.  He admits, however, that the influence for his films, specifically Yojimbo, was born “out of a love for the Hollywood Western” (Frayling 122).  He points out that “Westerns have been made over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved” and that he has “learned from this grammar of the Western” (Frayling 122).

What Kurosawa says about the western not only applies to Japan, but also to the rest of the world.  The image of man in a cowboy hat with a pistol at his hip is recognizable the world over and the “explanation for the astonishing popularity of the Western can be contained in one word: Hollywood” (Buscombe 15).  Hollywood has always been the dominant force in the global film industry, and even during its turbulent history, the Western genre always seemed to find its way into theaters or television screens.  Whether or not anyone calls themselves a fan of the genre, anyone can recognize the iconography.  The influence has been global, and the effects are certainly visible in samurai cinema.

pp32043-fistfull

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) poster

Japanese Influence on the U.S.

There are certainly a fair share of westerns and filmmakers that owe their thanks to samurai cinema.  John Struges remade Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the ‘Man with No Name’ character popularized by Clint Eastwood was the product of Toshirô Mifune’s ‘Samurai with No Name’ from Yojimbo.  The history is present, although the influence is perhaps a little more speculative.  From 1930 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of strict guidelines by which filmmakers had to follow in order for the censors to approve their films, dominated Hollywood.  The originators of the Code were concerned with the effects that film might have on the moral standing of the American people, and one of their chief concerns was the depiction of violence.

Among many other stipulations, the Code essentially told filmmakers not to depict violence in a graphic or excessive manner.  As long as the violence was central to the plot, it was deemed acceptable.  By 1960, however, the American public became more liberalized and the Code’s authority began to crumble.  Filmmakers, such as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, were slowly able to get away with more brutal depictions of violence.  With American – although perhaps Western, because of Leone’s identity as an Italian – directors finding influence from samurai cinema, it is entirely possible that depictions of violence from Japan, whose film were not affected by the Code, inspired them to push the bloody boundaries of what could and could not be shown.

As previously stated, numerous aesthetics of samurai cinema were an influence on the western genre, but which aspects do these two share that Americans would have been able to identify with most?

Ties to the Landscape

Although potentially a less obvious reason for an American embracing of samurai cinema, the presentation of the Japanese landscape in these jidai-geki bears a few similarities to other depictions of the landscape in the western.  Admittedly, however, not very many samurai films “present the wide open spaces of the old-style Western.  The Japanese setting has always tended to close in on the swordsman” (Anderson 9).  Some westerns may do the same with the right intimate setting, but ultimately the territory remains too important a piece of iconography to ignore.

As J.L. Anderson points out, for the most part, the “expansive natural landscapes with the body of a Western film contrast with the closer views of blossoming flowers, pools of reflecting water, butterflies soaring in the wind, and solitary naked bushes of the conventional jidai-geki” (10).  What this quote from Anderson points out, however, is a similarity in the romanticizing of the landscape that the samurai film presents.  The iconography and how it is depicted may differ, but the presentation from both reveals nostalgia for images of nations of old, and could instill as sense of national pride in the viewers.  American viewers may have embraced the samurai film as a means of Orientalizing Japan, but there is no denying the similarities between the western and the samurai film and the influence it had.

There is, however, a more obvious reason for an American embracing of the samurai film, and it lies with the protagonist.

All a Man Needs is a Weapon and His Morals

Whether the hero uses a sword or a pistol, American audiences embraced samurai cinema because of its traditional depictions of powerfully masculine protagonists resembling the loner heroes of the western.  Kenneth S. Nolley accurately states that films from both genres “are about how a group of people with a great deal of expertise (as fighters) employ their expertise in the defense of a group of people weaker than they” and these groups of people are mostly, if not always, strong men (233).  These men have been used to exploit graphic violence in both sorts of cinema, and their use has reinforced traditional ideas of masculinity, in terms of physicality.

For both sorts of films, however, honor and the inner battle between duty and morals have been essential narrative qualities, even in the seemingly lawless Wild West.  Just as the samurai have the code of bushido – at least, in those that do not attempt at being revisionist – and the inner struggle between giri (duty) and ninjo (personal morality), the West and its characters, mostly, abide by an unspoken code of honor and experience the same struggles.  For instance, to attack a person from behind “is to violate, if not the code of the real West, then the code of the Western movie” (14).  Some outlaws, such as Billy the Kid, may break this rule, but for the most part protagonists in westerns uphold whatever honor they have.  Additionally, some western protagonists, such as Pat Garrett, experience the same inner struggle as those in samurai films, as he struggles with having to kill longtime friend and outlaw Billy the Kid.

Discussion Questions:

1. Western and samurai films have been one of the most successful and popular genres for each respective country’s film industries, but have equally turbulent histories experiencing rapid booms and steady declines.  They may not be as popular anymore, but can we still call them culturally relevant?  Is there any chance for a resurgence in popularity in contemporary cinema?

2. One of the reasons that makes western and samurai films so unique is that each is immediately recognizable based upon the iconography that has been instilled in the minds of viewers for decades.  If there is any chance to save both genres from falling into obscurity, does the iconography need to be updated to modern times?  Has the traditional setting for each been so engrained in cinema that audiences need these familiarities to recognize a film as belonging to either genre?

Sources:

Anderson, J. L. “Japanese Swordfighters And American Gunfighters.” Cinema Journal 12.2 (1973): 1-21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Nolley, Kenneth S. “The Western As Jidai-Geki.” Western American Literature 11.3 (1976): 231-238. America: History & Life. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Buscombe, Edward, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Print.

Links:

Samurai Cinema 101 – http://www.midnighteye.com/features/samurai-cinema-101/

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 – http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/ProductionCode.htm

“How the Western Was Lost (and Why it Matters)” by Michael Agresta – http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/how-the-western-was-lost-and-why-it-matters/278057/

Arcades: Japan’s Unconventional Social Space

The World’s Only True Meritocracy

The arcade is a place where respect comes with skill. It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, man or woman. All that matters is whether you’re good on the machines. “Put your quarter up” is the same as slapping someone in the face with a glove for a duel. When it’s your turn at the machine, you and your opponent are prepared to risk your pride, reputation, and money to prove one thing: which of you is the better player? Win, and you stay on the machine, gaining another victory for your mental scorecard and securing more playtime from your quarter. Lose, and you had to walk to the back of the line in shame, stewing over your defeat and formulating a new strategy as you await your chance to plunk another quarter into the coin slot.

Chinatown Fair was one of New York's last remaining arcades before it finally closed in February 2011.

Chinatown Fair was one of New York’s last remaining arcades before it finally closed in February 2011.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the classic arcade narrative that every arcade aficionados could call their own. In the present, the word “arcade” no longer exists in our daily lexicon. The word is a relic of an age long past just like audio cassettes, Betamax, and floppy discs. These days, if you hear the word at all, it’s in reference to places like Chuck E. Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s. During our parents’ generation, society saw arcades as Han Solo saw Mos Eisley:  a hive of scum and villainy frequented by ruffians, delinquents, and all manner of riff-raff. It’s not hard to see why society said “Good riddance!” when arcades started to die one after another in America.

While arcades died in America, they continue to thrive in East Asia. In Japan, arcades are a sustaining industry where arcade game manufacturers such as Taito see nearly 100 billion yearly. But what’s Japan doing different from America that allows their arcades to succeed? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the business model. Japanese arcades have stayed true to the 100 yen per play ever since the 1970s. The arcade scene still exists today because it’s necessary for them to exist. For the Japanese, the arcade is a social space that simply cannot be recreated by any other means. Arcades are the last truly meritocratic space left in Japan, and perhaps in the whole world.

A Social Haven

For many customers, the arcade is one of the few places they can really let loose. Arcade regulars often say that at home or in an apartment complex, it’s difficult to invite people to play games or have a party without getting complaints about the noise. In the high-volume arcade environment, customers are encouraged and yes, almost forced to raise their voices to communicate with one another. It may sound like it causes problems, but an arcade event manager who goes by Gama no Abura finds that the loud atmosphere affects customers positively, raising the excitement for everyone and contributing to a good time.

Momochi Yusuke (Left) and Kusachi Yuko (Right), both skilled Street Fighter players and members of the professional gaming team, Evil Geniuses.

Momochi Yusuke (Left) and Kusachi Yuko (Right), both skilled Street Fighter players and members of the professional gaming team, Evil Geniuses.

In fact, this high-energy arcade environment is where many regulars forge their deepest friendships. Known as “gemusentomo” or “arcade friends,” these people not only share common gaming interests, but compete against themselves, motivating one another to improve their scores in space ship shooting games or perfect their technique in a fighting game. Sometimes, the bonds grow beyond friendship. Gama no Abura actually met his current wife after spending years together playing at the arcades. One of the most skilled fighting game players, Momochi Yusuke, met his longtime girlfriend, Kusachi “ChocoBlanka” Yuko, at the arcade where she worked.

The bonds these dedicated players form rivals the team dynamics of any school sports club or town hobby league. Fighting game players especially love to partake in inter-regional competitions in much the same way as any big sports leagues. They become not just host and guests, but home and away teams. They come to the arcade to duke it out and see which region was the best Beyond proving one’s own skill, players fought to represent their region’s strength, and more importantly to bring glory and reputation to their arcade. At the end of the day, these tense matches and heated rivalries don’t stop these players from going to a bar after a tournament to drink together in celebration of a shared hobby.

A Place Which Accepts Everyone

Some people in the west associate Japan with hyper-conservative political leanings and a rigid, normative society. It may come as a surprise then that arcades bring together incredibly diverse demographics. Much like the arcades in America, Japan’s arcades do not discriminate against any of its customers. Native or foreigner, rich or poor, young or old, it doesn’t matter as long as you have some 100 yen coins and a desire to play. While arcades see the most traffic through teens and young adults, a considerable amount of arcade regulars are in their mid-30s and 40s. These individuals see the arcade as a place of rest after a hard day at work, taking advantage of their close proximity to train stations for a few hours of entertainment.

Member of team Evil Geniuses, Ricky Ortiz (left) and model and TV personality Sato Kayo (right). Both are transgender females who are passionate about arcade fighting games.

Member of team Evil Geniuses, Ricky Ortiz (left) and model and TV personality Sato Kayo (right). Both are transgender females who are passionate about arcade fighting games.

These days, as the average age of Japan rises, arcades are seeing more foot traffic from the elderly. As with every industry in Japan, arcades are seeking the patronage of the older demographic and try to find ways to entice them. In most cases, elderly men and women such as Shiba Noboru come to arcades to enjoy horse race simulation games or medal games. However, there are some interesting elders such as Mr. and Mrs. Akiyuki, a married couple aged 75 and 71 respectively who are regulars at a Shizuoka arcade. Their game of choice? Dance Dance Revolution. Rather than try and force them off the machine, younger players wish to challenge the Akiyukis and compete for high scores. The Akiyukis take pride in their ability and practice with a home version of DDR to maintain both their health and their skills.

However, it is the arcade fighting games fanbase that truly push the normative boundaries of Japan. The games themselves have a rich history, including characters that, while problematic, still acknowledge demographics that the rest of society marginalizes. Capcom’s Street Fighter II was the first fighting game to allow players to pick a female character by introducing the famous Chun-Li. Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear franchise was the first fighting game to feature an openly homosexual person of color through the character named Venom. In the real world, players such as the aforementioned ChocoBlanka are members of a still rare, but increasingly numerous population of female players. And there are players such as Sato “Kayo Police” Kayo and the American Ricky Ortiz who are openly transgender individuals who grew up playing and loving fighting games. While individuals like Ricky or Kayo may turn some heads when they enter the arcades, once they jump on the machine and rack up a winning streak, nobody looks at their gender or sexuality anymore. They care about their skill.

Are the Arcades Dying?

Despite their continued popularity, Japan’s arcade industry is experiencing a variety of difficulties. Between an ongoing recession, rationing of power due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and stiff competition from the home video game industry, arcades are struggling to attract new audiences. For Ishikawa Kiyoshi, corporate manager of Taito, one of the largest arcade game manufacturers, it’s a matter of creating new experiences you simply cannot experience anywhere else. Okano Tezu, former Sega employee, believes that home console hardware such as Nintendo’s Wii have started to turn Japanese thoughts back towards home gaming, a shift in the video game industry that arguably killed arcades in America.

However, former Sega music composer Kawaguchi Hiro has a different idea. To Kawaguchi, there are numerous facets of Japanese popular culture that have gained traction in the west such as manga and anime. But he notes that despite the uniqueness of it, the Japanese arcade culture hasn’t migrated westward in the same fashion. Kawaguchi believes that this arcade sub-culture is “a rich experience that shouldn’t lose to anime or other Japanese sub-cultures.” Perhaps he’s right. The declining success of Japanese arcades may have to do with its inability to exist anywhere but Japan. As we look to the future in an attempt to stimulate the declining arcade industry, perhaps we need to look outward to a solution. It could well be that the future survival of arcades in Japan hinges on a second arcade wave across the globe.

 

Discussion Questions:

1)  How do arcades as a social space differ from social spaces you’re familiar with? How are they the same?

2) What are some possible reasons that the Japanese arcade culture seems more socially accepting than society at large?

3) Kawaguchi believes that the arcade sub-culture in Japan is at least on par with anime and manga. Could the reason Japan’s arcade culture continues to exist only in Japan be related to Iwabuchi’s idea of cultural odor and global markets?

4) It’s been said that the Japanese borrowed the idea of an amusement arcade from America. The Taito corporation started in the 1950s as a shipping company that brought many arcade games from America to Japan. How might this information tie together Japanese arcades with Azuma and his observations of the unique historic and cultural relationships between Japan and America?

 

Sources:

100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience. 2013. DVD. (Note: Available through Amazon Instant Video, Apple iTunes Store, and on Hulu Plus)

Ashcraft, Brian. “Believe It Or Not, You Are Looking At Three Dudes.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 1 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5627165/you-are-looking-at-three-dudes>.

Ashcraft, Brian. “Watch This Elderly Japanese Couple Tear Up DDR.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 11 July 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5925039/watch-this-elderly-japanese-couple-tear-up-ddr>.

Chinatown Fair: A Documentary. 2012. Film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM1goDcEepk.

“Elderly DDR Masters.” Japan Probe RSS. 27 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.japanprobe.com/2010/11/27/elderly-ddr-masters/>.

Nakamura, Toshi. “Japanese Arcade Owner Is So Sad about Japanese Arcades.” Kotaku. Kinja Media, 3 May 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/5907255/japanese-arcade-owner-so-sad-about-japanese-arcades>.

Watson, Leon. “A New Generation of Gamers: Japan’s Elderly Take over the Arcades to Play Push Penny.” Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2085539/A-new-generation-gamers-Japans-elderly-arcades-play-push-penny.html>.

 

Cosplay Culture: A Study in Transculturation Gone Wrong?

By Victoria Mikolaski

Cosplay is a word that is becoming more well-known everyday with the exponentially increasing interest in everything that has to do with popular entertainment nowadays. The emergence of Marvel films and popular books and TV shows, and countless other franchises, has amassed fans from all over to each respective fandom. One thing that seems to link these fandoms is cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

The word “Cosplay” is an abbreviation for the phrase “costume play”, and is defined as a performance art in which participants dress up in a specific costume with accessories to represent a character or idea from their preferred TV show, book series, comic, anime and/or manga, movie, video games, or any other form of entertainment. This also includes music groups like Visual Kei rock bands, the most popular choice among cosplayers in Japan. Cosplayers buy, or make from scratch, their costumes and props, basing their character’s look on reference pictures taken directly from the source for greater accuracy in color schemes and costume design. All this effort is solely for the purpose of expressing their affections for existing narratives, an effort in reworking these stories through various media. A “fannish subculture”, cosplay culture is also closely linked to other groups set on achieving the same goals: fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos to name a few. Cosplay motivates fans to interpret existing works, and not only perform them but extend them with their own narratives and ideas. It is a way for fans to actualize fiction in everyday life, and in doing so subvert reality for a while.

History: Cosplay’s Origin Story

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Curiously enough, the origin story of cosplay is still debated among cosplayers today. Based on photographic evidence, I will tell the version most likely to be true. Cosplay is agreed to have been around since conventions began. It is said to have started as early as 1939 in the U.S. with Forrest J. Ackerman when he attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York wearing a futuristic costume (made by his girlfriend Myrtle R. Douglas). That led to the ever-increasing interest in costume-wearing at conventions in the 1960s and 1970s, namely shown by dressing up not only as characters from the popular sci-fi TV shows Star Trek and Star Wars, but also characters from the classics like DC comics Batman. Soon after this hobby swept the nation, Nobuyuki Takahashi (founder of Studio Hard) traveled to the U.S. and attended the 1984 Los Angeles Sci-Fi World Convention and encountered costuming practices there. He promptly returned to Japan and wrote an article about his experiences at the convention, encouraging his readers to try the hobby and incorporate it Into Japanese anime and manga conventions. It was he who coined the term “cosplay”. The first appearance of cosplay in Japan was in 1978 at a fan event, so either Japanese fans had the same idea around the time American fans were increasing their practice of cosplay in the 1970s, or the Japanese fans heard about it from America earlier and the encouragement from one of their own celebrities around a decade later got cosplay enough traction to become a major practice in Japanese fan culture. Nevertheless, Japanese fans gained interest in making costumes for their anime and manga conventions and the craze spread from there, finally returning full circle to the U.S. with a distinctly Japanese vibe attached to it.

Cosplay Today: Not What it Once Was

Presently in the U.S., cosplay is restricted to limited and specific settings: conventions and other similar get-togethers separate from the rest of the community. The cultural practices attached to cosplay are intentionally separated from everyday life and the professional atmosphere. In Japan, cosplay is more intertwined with the public domain. For example, participants often gather in public parks of Akihabara and Harajuku districts. Cosplay is also a large part of consumption culture: shops sell wigs and full costumes, and costume restaurants attract fan customers. That cosplay is a professional practice shows that it has a more prominent role in Japanese society than that of the West. Such emphasis in the professional world also indicates that cosplay is a selling point for Japan’s economy nationally and internationally. There is an integration through advertising in which the Advertising industry now uses cosplay models, “Cosplay Idols”, to show off costumes for anime, manga, and video game companies. They are viewed as fictional characters in the flesh, thus encouraging the younger generation’s interest in whatever they are advertising and keeping that interest, as opposed to an inanimate object or character that inevitably falls under the category of fiction and ‘not real’ in its 2D-ness. In recent years these promotional models have been requested for other areas of commercial goods, such as food and beverage commerce as well as fashion stores, clubs, restaurants, and other franchises.

Cosplay/idol group Steam Girls cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Cosplay/idol group ‘Steam Girls’ cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Americans now associate cosplay with Japan. Anime and manga are immediately linked to cosplay, but not original material such as Star Trek or Star Wars. The two types of material have been essentially separated into two different categories despite coming from the same beginnings and engaging in the same cultural practices. U.S. and Japanese goods are even being sold side-by-side at conventions, and still cosplay is considered the “other” and inherently different from the U.S. cultural and national identity. Transculturation in this case complicates the notions of national and cultural identity. Is cosplay now inherently Japanese even through the concept seems to have originated in the U.S. and still practices the same things? I would argue that the West is relabeling this cultural practice as Japanese because it fits into what is considered to be “otherness”. Dressing up as a fictional character and role-playing could be stereotypical of Japanese “weirdness” and “quirkiness” (and often cult-esque behavior). The U.S. would then be Orientalizing Japan to distance itself from its own cultural “weirdness”. Japan is then taking advantage of this “otherness” and capitalizing on the brand nationalism that cosplay provides. This however, leaves the secondary category of cosplay in an odd position. It is not inherently Japanese, but it does follow the same practices.

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

By definition cosplay should be culturally neutral and odorless, because the way it operates is the same wherever cosplay culture occurs. Cosplayers go to the conventions, attend panels, participate in the Masquerade, and buy goods produced by the fandom and the original works’ producers. Cosplayers mirror typical fans in that they serve as consumers and producers simultaneously.  Western and Japanese-based cosplay practices occur in the same space at conventions, so why are they perceived as different? What’s more is that gender, class, age, and identity do not seem to have any bearing on who participates in this culture. All fandoms are welcome, so the range of interests includes all genders and age groups. Because all that is required is attendance and engaging in the fun, class also has no bearing on participation. Identity as a consumer or producer varies, a small but not insignificant portion of the attendees at conventions self-identify as both consumer and producer in the commercial context of selling their wares, which are mainly hand-crafted. Often larger conventions are national and international events. This means that there is no reason for there to be a distinction between U.S. cosplay and Japanese cosplay, as the participants are diverse enough to make the culture nation-less and culturally odorless. Ultimately, it is up to the cosplayers and fanbase in general to decide whether the origins matter.

 

Discussion Questions:

Transculturation is the process of globalization in which an asymmetrical encounter of various cultures result in the transformation of an existing artifact and the creation of a new style. As the products get circulated globally they become by default less marked, more culturally odorless, thus the origins become less important.

  1. By this definition, why has cosplay culture been re-marked as Japanese rather than become culturally and nationally odorless after being circulated globally from the U.S.?
  2. How should the Western category of cosplay be labeled now that the subculture overall has been culturally and nationally marked as Japanese?
  3. Is cosplay capable of transcending nationality and becoming culturally odorless?
  4. Can you think of another product that has undergone a similar transformation? If yes, what allowed it to happen?

 

Sources

Ackerman, Forrest J. “Through Time and Space with Forry Ackerman (Part 1)”. Mimosa 16: 4-6. (1994) Web. 20 Mar 2015. <http://www.jophan.org/mimosa/m16/ackerman.htm>

Baseel, Casey. “Coffee mascot event with cosplaying idols proves to be too much for some fans to handle”. Rocket News 24. (2013) Web. 26 Mar 2015. < http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/08/09/coffee-mascot-event-with-cosplaying-idols-proves-to-be-too-much-for-some-fans-to-handle/>

Frankenhoff, Brent. 2011, “It All Began…. “. Beautiful Balloons CBG #1677. (May 2011). Web. 21 Mar 2015. <http://www.cbgxtra.com/blogs/beautiful-balloons/it-all-began-%E2%80%A6-beautiful-balloons-cbg-1677-may-2011>

Napier, Susan Jolliffe. From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. First edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Winge, Theresa. 2006, “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay”. Mechademia Vol. 1: 65-76. (2006) doi: 10.1353/mec.0.0084

Sacai: Fighting Fashion’s Western Dominance

by: Brooke LaRue

In 1999, Chitose Abe, a former design team member at Comme des Garçon, founded her own Tokyo based label, Sacai. Since then she has worked as creative director, maintaining full ownership of her company. The label has expanded from women’s wear to include Sacai Man and Sacai Luck, a more casual line of clothing. Far from the spotlight, she successfully built her business on a relatively small scale until 2010 when she made her international debut at Paris Fashion Week, launching Sacai into the global fashion market. Following its debut, Sacai has gained international acclaim in the fashion world for its innovation in design. In an industry determined by Western approval, Sacai proves that it will not be dominated by Western designers.

As a designer not based in the United States or Europe, Sacai is almost always labeled by its nationality. Very few articles fail to cite the brand as Japanese, and in many interviews, Chitose is posed with questions concerning Japanese influence. In an interview with Interview Magazine, she was asked if she envisioned a Japanese or European customer while designing. She replied, “I never really design with a specific person-or culture-in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally.” From this statement she quickly shifted the conversation away from nationality to the specifics of her designs, the focus of which is functional elegance through transformations of basic items. She has also been quoted saying, “Japanese-ness may be important for some when selling to Europe, for me it’s not important. I think it says something that I’m the only Japanese brand that many of my stockists carry.”

After just two seasons in Paris, Sacai had 15 clients outside of Japan including renowned boutiques such as Colette in Paris, Biffi in Milan, and Joyce in Hong Kong.  Three years later and her international growth has continued. Yet, the fact remains that as one of the prominent Japanese designers, her presence in the global market may always be partially characterized by her nationality. This is particularly true, when one considers the regional exclusivity of the fashion industry. The world’s fashion capitols are New York, Paris, Milan, and London. These are also the cities in which the most distinguished fashion weeks take place. For this reason, these cities are also home to the most influential fashion publications and therefore voices in the industry. However, with growing globalization the industry has begun to expand, albeit slowly, and Sacai is a significant factor in this growth.

AP088222In certain regards, Sacai has been potentially limited by the media’s simplistic categorization of its nationality, but in other ways it has offered the label unique opportunities. For example, this past fall the Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché, celebrated the 90th anniversary of Franco-Japanese cultural partnership with featured exhibitions and a showcase of Japanese designers. Sacai was at the forefront of this exhibit with a pop up store instillation on the 3rd floor that remained for nearly two months.  The label’s most recent Sacai and Sacai Luck collections were sold, in addition to a capsule collection exclusively designed for the event.  The timing of the installation overlapped with Paris Fashion Week, when the most influential people in the industry flooded into the city and when Sacai showed its Spring/Summer collection, augmenting the brand’s recognition. However, this recognition exclusively came from a connection with Japan.

Most recently, Sacai partnered with Nike to release an 8-piece collection as part of Nike’s NikeLab project. This facet of Nike aims at innovation by innovators and selects different designers from around the world to create collaborations. With the collection, Abe was able to bring her creative use of fabric to Nike and many of her signature design techniques, such as pleating and lace details. She worked with the Nike team, using Nike archive pieces as reference points for design. The collaboration will expose a broader range of consumers to her designs and demonstrate her range of creativity.ChitoseAbeandBinx_native_1600

The release of the collection has been surrounded by press events, however the most interesting included a dance performance featuring pieces from the NikeLab x Sacai Collection. Performed last week in London, dancers highlighted the movement and functionality of the collection. The theme of the production was to contrast different worlds. The noted contrasts were ballet verses street dance and artist verses athlete. However, it is worth considering the underlying contrast of East versus West that is present between Sacai and Nike.

Stuart Hall argues that globalization must acknowledge the West’s historical dominance and this point is extremely true in the case of fashion, where the West’s dominance still very much exists. Any designer based in the East is under the jurisdiction of the established Western market if the brand aims to achieve any sort of international presence. However, though the fashion industry is strongly rooted in a regional exclusivity, it lacks dominance from one single nation, which could possibly lend itself well to future regional inclusion.

Sacai’s relationship with the West and with Japan is somewhat varied by situation. It is hard to determine whether a contrast really exists or if the media and Western expectations socially construct it. It appears, that the designs are not based in an inherently Japanese aesthetic, that in terms of Iwabuchi’s arguments in Recentering Globalization Abe aspires towards a cultural neutrality; but contrastingly the brand has been continuously characterized as Japanese through the Western media and contains a sense of cultural odor in that it is positively associated with Japan.  Sacai will continue to grow and find its place within the international market. With this, public perception will develop to form a deeper understanding of the designer, but without a doubt the label will always be associated with innovative design.

Discussion Questions:

In class we discussed Stuart Hall’s argument that globalization occurs through connections by travel, trade, markets, capital and the flow of labor, goods and profits, which leads to a blurred lined between what is considered “inside” and what is considered “outside”.

  1. How does fashion both blur these lines, yet also enforce them?
  2. Do you think it’s possible for the East to overcome the distinction of insiders and outsiders in fashion? If so, how?
  3. How do designers like Sacai, whose designs aren’t aesthetically Japanese, change Western perception of Japanese fashion?

Sources:

Graham, Mhairi. “Watch Nike X Sacai Tear up London.” Dazed. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Johnson, Rebecca. “BoF Exclusive | Nike to Launch Collaboration with Chitose Abe’s Sacai – The Business of Fashion.” The Business of Fashion. N.p., 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Phelps, Nicole. “Nike Celebrates Its Sacai Collab With a Kappo Masa Feast.” Style.com. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

“Sacai.” Sacai. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Wynne, Alex. “Le Bon Marché Celebrates Japan.” WWD. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015