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|Written by Allison Jarvis|
|Wednesday, 22 June 2011 00:00|
After returning from the Anime North convention in Toronto, Ontario, I was trying to figure out what to write about. There are so many things that I could focus on, from the increased presence of female fans of anime, to the queer-centric sub-sub-cultures of Yaoi (stories in anime or manga that portray relationships between two men), or even cosplay (an aspect of anime and manga culture where fans dress up as their favourite characters). Finally, the realization hit that unless there is a solid background to work from, these angles would go largely misunderstood. There are still stereotypes out there that dictate that if it is animated, it is for kids, and does not have much value as entertainment. It is with this in mind that I bring to you a truncated history and overview of anime and manga in NorthAmerica, and those who love and live for it.
Within "geek culture" as a whole, there are many sub-groups, including gamers, movie buffs, sci-fi enthusiasts, comic book junkies, and music hipsters. As is to be expected, there are sub-genres within each group. What is somewhat unique about the world of Japanese Animation and culture is that each of those sub-groups exists within this genre itself. Not only that, but said fandom is growing in North America at an exponential rate. Where several years ago Anime North was a single hall at the Toronto Congress Centre (TCC), it has ballooned this year to span six halls within the TCC, the entire Doubletree Hotel across the street and the Sheraton Hotel across the bridge, a kilometre away. The convention has grown to the point where it now encompasses other conventions, including the Polaris Dr.Who Convention, Yaoi North, and a separate gaming convention.
First, a few definitions for those who have yet to encounter these specific media:
Anime: Japanese animation, including television series, movies, and OVAs (original video animation - known here as "straight to DVD").
Fan-subs: Shows which have been translated and subtitled by fans into languages other than Japanese and are considered by some as a form of piracy.
Manga: a Japanese form of comic book, always printed in black and white, read from right to left, distributed in Japan first within a magazine, and if popular, later to be printed in tankoubon format (chapter compilation printed in a bound book).
Otaku: Japanese word for Fan boy, defined in North America as a fan within the Anime community.
If you want to learn more about the language of anime, my suggestion would be to visit the Anime News Network website, one of, if not the, largest source for anime information and industry news.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to anime, the first having already being noted: that anything animated is only for kids. Granted, there is a lot of anime that is child-friendly, like Pokémon, but most of what's out there is not for the faint of heart, mind, or stomach. The majority of anime that we see on the small screen in the western hemisphere have been edited and censored in order to market it to younger audience. For instance, in the original Sailor Moon Season One finale, all of the sailor soldiers actually die and suffer through rough, bloody battles. Contrary to popular belief, it was not sexual depictions of the sailor scouts, but overt violence and blood that had it censored. Even the battle between Usagi/Serena and her love, Mamoru/Darien, is a long one-sided beating in the Japanese version, while over here we get a fifteen-second plea from the princess after one or two lessened blows. To reduce the criticism that would arise from the presentation of violence against women to impressionable children, the broadcasters toned it down and dropped the rating from teen to "ages 5 and up." Comparatively, even this is tame within the world of anime. Series like Shigurui and Gantz take the concept of animated gore to a whole new level. Using 3D computer rendering they bring realism to depictions of the human body and how to disassemble it.
As international accessibility increases through internet and international cooperation, so does the number of youths who find the geek world of Japan fascinating. Most North Americans have heard of Pokémon, and many know about Sailor Moon; but anime in North America goes back further than that. I remember being seven years old and watching Robotech on Saturday mornings, Astroboy when I got home from school, and Voltron whenever it is was on. Back then, though, we only had access to what we were shown on television. Understanding that these shows were originally in a different language and had been censored for our consumption was beyond the thinking of a seven-year-old. When I was in high school I had to find the guys who had friends overseas and were able to get fansubs and fan-dubs of original series pirated on VHS (for those of you who don't know what VHS is, please refer to Wikipedia's definition). Later I was able to find clubs through the University of Ottawa, who had more access to these shows and projected them onto the big(ish) screen once a week.
Oh, how things have changed. Within the past ten years the otaku sub-culture has come up from the underground to become almost a mainstream community. Through the wonderful world of the internet we can now download, or even stream what the Japanese can watch every night on network television. Although for much of it we still depend upon the hardcore fans that fansub and fandub many of theworks for us, we still have such a vast library of works at our fingertips that it is near impossible to get through it all. Streaming sites like Crunchyroll and Hulu have even expanded what otaku can access legally, as well as simulcasting, bringing the world up-to-the-hour in line with Japan.
Behind the scenes of this growing fandom is a tireless and dedicated group of people who help those of us outside of Japan enjoy the more recent or the more obscure titles that exist. They have been around since the beginning, but technology has allowed for their numbers to increase. These are the fans that spend their spare time translating dialogue from the native Japanese to any number of languages around the world, the most prolific being Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. Despite the large number of series available through North American distributors, there are some who want to go further, deeper, and more underground with their playlists. This is where the brave and fervent otaku must turn to those who translate the works on their own and make them available online. Sometimes these are the options available for certain titles that are not licensed in the western hemisphere. Needless to say, these fansubbers are just another aspect of the anime culture that goes unnoticed by the masses, but contributes greatly to whom otaku are.
Each genre of anime has its own stereotypes and archetypes, often making them seem quite similar. There is a formula to many of these stories, and it is the ones who either perfect that formula, or who break from it entirely, that tend to be more successful. On top of those, there are also the originators, whom you can't fault for following a formula since they are the ones who created them. It is harder to find youth in the community today who are familiar with the classics, but are often aware of what they are. It's similar to asking teenagers today about the Rolling Stones or The Clash: they know who they are, but don't really listen to their music.
One of the biggest divisions in the anime world is that between shonen (young boy) stories, written for a young male audience, and shojo (young girl), which are stories written for a young female audience. Shonen often comprise either action-filled plots, a lonely guy surrounded by pretty girls, sports themes, or a combination of the three. These are the works that are often what comes to mind when people hear the word anime. Staples like Dragonball and Mobile Suit Gundam fall under this category, bringing to mind large robots and alien beings fighting each other with increasing intensity.
The other side of the anime and manga coin is the generalized genre known as shojo. These are normally character-driven comedies and/or romances, usually involving love triangles, devastatingly handsome boys, cute animals, or children and strong bonds of friendship. I often jokingly refer to shojo as the "Dawson's Creek" of manga and anime. It is a side of the culture that is not normally expected in North America, and is also one of the things that expands its breadth. Because it is not as widely known on this side of the Pacific, the popular titles like Boys Over Flowers, Skip Beat! and Kimi ni Todoke are relatively unheard of outside the community.
There are some facts that must be pointed out. First and foremost is that the above "definitions" of shonen and shojo are rough and generalized at best. The best way to learn about them is to read a few manga or watch a few anime. It should also be mentioned that just because these broad genres are named for young boys and girls, they are obviously not limited to these audiences. Many of the female con-goers I spoke with at Anime North mentioned how they really like the shows aimed at boys, like Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto. They like the action and the characters, the stories and the artwork. There are recent polls in Japan that show that the largest growing audience for One Piece -- one ofShonen Jump's most popular manga about pirates -- is, surprisingly, women between the ages of 25 and 35. The female audience worldwide is expanding in the anime and manga communities, contributing to a whole different aspect of the expanding and changing otaku culture.
One area of the otaku phenomenon that seems to appeal greatly to the female fan base is the Cosplay culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Anime North, where cosplay thrived. One could not walk two feet without bumping into conspicuously clad con-goers. There were just as many young ladies dressed up as a multitude of characters as there were guys -- if not more. There were sailor scouts and strike witches, aliens and ninjas alike. Some costumes were homemade with great intricacy; others were purchased from a multitude of sites that specialize in furnishing these cosplayers with their desired wares. It is a way to display and share one's love of a certain series, and sometimes a specific character within said series. It becomes a way to bond with other otaku, whether it is because you share a love of similar things, or because curiosity is piqued and you want to learn about why someone loves a certain title so much. It is also a way to just be someone else for a day, like when you were kids and played cops and robbers, tea-party, or whatever fantasy or dress-up game you and your friends spent your time doing together.
What I find refreshing is that nobody asks you why you are in costume, or not, as the case may be. The different types of fans within the otaku community, for the most part, are just that: one community. They are all-encompassing and all-accepting. Of course, as there always are, there are exceptions, but as a whole, anime and manga fans mingle positively, no matter the genre, age range, sexual orientation, race, colour, or series loyalty. People may disagree about some things, but that is just part of what makes otaku close-knit as a group. Although they are all snippy when anime is referred to as "simply cartoons," if you're willing to listen, they can tell you why this genre is for more than just kids.
(A quick and heart-felt thanks goes out to Sebastien, Charlie, Louisa and Sienna who put up with me hanging out in the media centre at Anime North. I'm looking forward to working with you guys again next year!)
You can read some of Allison's manga and anime reviews (under the alias Aurora Jackson) on her blog at http://auroraonanime.blogspot.com/.