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Anime's 'Transnational Geekdom'

Anime's 'Transnational Geekdom'

Mizuko Ito explores anime culture in Japan and its popularity abroad.

By Ayub Khattak

After hours poring over the card-game manual and searching the Internet, Ito and her fellow researchers learned that they needed tutelage from a more experienced playera young boy in this case.

Mizuko Ito of USC's Annenberg Center for Communication has been tracing the lines anime has been drawing across the culture in Japan and, increasingly, across the world—a "transnational geekdom," she called it at a Feb. 6 colloquium sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies. Popular anime franchises like Pokemon have attracted the international eye to this animated comic book form.

In her first year researching with a MacArthur Foundation grant, Ito began her investigation in Japan, where it all started. It's hard not to be visually assaulted there by anime and the accompanying ads and merchandise; anime producers have employed a successful formula of marketing coordinated merchandise such as card games, toys, and computer games to keep the young gripped in the series.

Of particular interest to Ito is the phenomenon of the show Yugioh and the hold it and a related card game have on their young fan base, including her own kids. This series plays with devices and themes common to most anime: futuristic metropolises, fighting, romance, and the brush with fantasy.

With shiny Yugioh card packs at checkout counters of convenience stores everywhere, "parents can easily appease their kids." Kids anxiously tear open the glittery packaging to see if they got an "ultimate-rare" (produced in extremely limited quantity to jack up their value), or that hero they like, or the monster needed to complete a deck.

Amid all the card-trading fervor, some parents complain, kids brush shoulders with a generation of adults, known as Otaku, who participate in anime culture. Taking advantage of a mini-economy, some Otaku even make their living by selling the cards to kids. There is stigma associated with adult interest in what the Japanese see as cartoons for children. And some concern: parents say that Otaku fetishize and drool over the large-eyed, infantilized girls in kawaii (cute) anime, primarily marketed to pre-teen girls.

That said, Ito believes the Japanese share little of Westerners' concerns about sexuality and violence in the media, preferring at least to "have sexuality dealt with in the open.” But they abhor the anti-social characters in the anime series, not wanting kids to grow into the Otaku of the future. The anti-anti-social sentiment drives many parents to cough up the 180 yen for the card packs so their kids can play with their friends, Ito said. At least that way they aren’t always fighting against the computer.

Overall, then, the cards are seen as facilitating social behavior. In fact, after many hours poring over the card-game manual and searching the Internet, Ito and her fellow researchers learned that they needed tutelage from a more experienced player—a young boy in this case.

And there’s a lot to learn beyond the basic dynamics of the card game, since this genre of anime involves vast "domains of esoteric knowledge that some gain expertise in." The kids express themselves with the monsters and heroes they choose.

Girls aren’t as interested in the heroics and villainy, Ito said, but go for the kawaii cartoons, which are all about cuteness. Like the boys, girls identify with dolls and other merchandise of the characters they like. All good for business.

Older fans in other countries, Otaku abroad, have created fan art as their mode of expression. Drawing is of course common among fans, but lately large conventions and amateur anime music videos have begun to pick up popularity. Some fans spend hundreds of hours splicing together scenes from Yugioh to go along with music of their choice.

The Japanese don’t mind the pirating and sometimes even make arrangements with amateur distributors to broadcast fan-subtitled shows on the web. Producers have seen how effective their fans abroad can be at "evangelizing" their shows until they catch the attention of American broadcasters. Toy stores follow quickly behind, ready to pounce on emerging markets.

Ito admitted that her kids are big fans of anime, showing pictures of her "munchkins" wearing costumes at a convention. They turn the lens back on her, finding it “intensely amusing” that their mom studies their cartoons.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies