The Soul of Anime by Ian Condry
While I’ve more or less reinvented myself as a daughter of Western fandom (which usually means yelling “SEPTEMBER 1974 WOO!” a lot), I was introduced to fandom through anime—Digimon, to be specific, although it was Yu-Gi-Oh!, with its use of ancient Egypt, that captured my imagination as a young wombat. As preteens in the early aughts, my friends and I were witness to and participants of the rise of the popularity of manga in the United States. But I drifted away from it as I grew up, and, for better or worse, I think I have a tendency to keep away from it precisely because I associate it with my child self. So when I saw The Soul of Anime on NetGallery, I thought it was high time to get back in touch through an academic lens.
The Soul of Anime is an ethnographic analysis of the anime industry aiming to explain why anime not intended for overseas consumption has become a global phenomenon. Cultural anthropologist Ian Condry draws on several years of research, experience, and interviews artists at animation studios across Japan in order to discover what really is the soul of anime—that thing that sets it apart from other mediums—while trying to avoid explanations that hand-wave it as something vaguely inherent to Japan itself.
As an older teen, I began to drift from anime for many reasons, but one of the major ones was because I was baffled by people who swore allegiance solely to anime and manga. They’re just mediums, I reasoned, popping the VHS ofThe Hunchback of Notre Dame into my parents’ DVD/VCR combo player. How can only one medium appeal to you? (Therein lies the fatal flaw in my younger self’s thinking; I thought everybody else was just like me—or should, at the very least, die trying.) Several years later, Condry answers my younger self’s question by identifying anime’s singular appeal as the fact that the stories told in anime are usually examples of transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling are stories that float from medium to medium. For instance, the story of Final Fantasy VII, the game that put Japanese role-playing games on the map for my generation of nerds, continues in not only other video games, but also in films and books—and this happens with a majority of financially successful anime. Transmedia storytelling, Condry argues, focuses on characters and worlds much more so than stories (he reports a production meeting for an anime series where, when asked where the show is going, the creator doesn’t care), and can thus slip the skein of specific mediums. According to The Soul of Anime, it’s this that anime fans respond to, rather than the story of the text itself.
Such transmedia storytelling offers, in Condry’s estimation, a platform for collaborative creativity, a term he uses to indicate both the collaboration inherent to the production of anime and the collaboration inherent in certain types of fan labor unique to anime, such as the practice of fansubbing. Such collaboration generates a social energy that sets anime apart (although I would argue that social energy is inherent to both Western and Eastern fandoms). In the book’s fourth chapter, Condry details the formation of the anime studio Gainax, perhaps best known for Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yasuhiro Takeda and Toshio Okada were fans who met in the late seventies and early eighties at a con, organized cons themselves, and entertained crowds with their “sci-fi standup”—essentially, riffing on worldbuilding—before setting their sights on making their own anime. And this is the subversive soul of anime; the value economies generated by fans, producers, and those that straddle that line that lie wholly outside any financial transactions. Condry’s sixth chapter focuses on piracy, file-sharing, and fansubbing as a way for anime fans to reject markets imposed on them by considering themselves part of an international community of fans with its own set of ethics. For instance, many fansubbers only make available anime that isn’t available legally in the US or anime that is licensed but not out yet. This argument relates more to fandom as a whole (ask any Britcom fans about releases of The Young Ones), rather than specifically anime fandom, I find, but it’s still quite interesting.
But Condry loses me a bit with his exploration of adult male fans who love the moe character archetype (cute, defenseless, and clumsy young girls) and the realm of “2D lovers” (men who prefer the charms of anime characters, often screen-printed onto body pillows, to real women). While Condry does point out that if you Google moe, it’s usually porn, he focuses instead on the idea that’s a pure love that attracts male fans to these characters, a love that makes them want to protect these characters. (No distaff counterpart to this phenomenon is discussed; in my own experience, it’s only brought up as a disarming joke.) He also argues that 2D lovers aren’t rejecting the 3D world, as many of them claim, but are broadcasting out to the world in order to find affirmation and affection among those who love the same thing. The chapter, as a whole, focuses on this as an alternative masculinity to the traditional Japanese salaryman and masculinities that focus on production as your worth as a man. In his introduction, Condry states that “[g]ender in anime is a topic that deserves more attention than my limited access could achieve” (6), but I found it shocking that Condry didn’t even discuss the possibility of misogyny being a factor for some 2D lovers or the fact that moe, pure-hearted or not, definitely sexualizes characters who are children (if it’s pure, you’re still protecting her virginity; if it’s not, there are not enough boiling showers in the world for me to get that out of my brain). I understand not wanting to focus on that, given the analysis he’s doing, but not to bring it up at all feels wrong to me. Every fandom has its dark side, but the dark side of anime fandom, years after I’ve left it, still makes me uneasy. This is, of course, not to dismiss all of anime fandom—I would absolutely adore recommendations for great spaces in anime fandom, if you’ve got them. But this chapter feels irrelevant compared to the rest of the book. Ugh.
Bottom line: The Soul of Anime offers intriguing theories as to the unique appeal of anime, with the concepts of transmedia storytelling, collaborative creativity, and social energy. While I would argue that twenty-five percent of what Condry is talking about here applies to all fandoms, not just anime, it’s a good look into the medium’s specific charms. Unfortunately, a chapter on moe and 2D lovers examines them without even acknowledging the possibility of misogyny or examining their sexualization of children just gives me the utter creeps. Worth a read, but maybe skip chapter seven.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
The Soul of Anime will be published on the 29th—tomorrow!