Rock Outside Japan

Triple H Cosplay

I recently had the pleasure of meeting translator and writer Naoki Matsuyama (Twitter) from Contectures, a Japanese publishing company started by literary critic Azuma Hiroki. We sat down at a large café in Shinjuku, the heart of Tokyo, along with freelance translator Ko Ransom (Twitter), who had graciously set up the meeting for me by serving as a point of contact. The three of us talked for almost two hours, discussing topics ranging from anime to American intellectuals and pundits, but there was one overarching theme that held together all of our discussion: Japan reaching out and becoming more global. Immediately, I made the connection between what Contectures was doing and what I often did as a blogger, which was analyzing anime-related topics for a non-Japanese audience.

Japan Rocking Overseas

My interest in Contectures developed sometime last year because I had devoured Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals during my freshman year of college, so to me it was an absolute delight to be able to sit down with someone from the company that Azuma had established. It also turned out that Naoki was curious about how an American college undergrad like me came to be familiar with the writings of a few Japanese critics since they’re virtually unheard of in the West. The reason for his curiosity was because Contectures manages Genron, an English web portal for critical discourse in Japan; the website’s goal is to render more accessible intellectual work written in Japanese for a wider audience. A desire to globalize has become increasingly strong in the past several years inside Japan, which is continuously being forced to change in the face of growing economic competition from Asian neighbors on the economic front.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, as a native English speaker, that obtaining proficiency in English is a key skill in non-English speaking countries. Not only is it the lingua franca is many regions, but a significant amount of scientific research is published in English. This makes the politics and economics behind English second-language instruction an incredibly important, yet startlingly complex issue that is inextricably tied with culture and national identity. Japan has since developed a strenuous relationship with English, in particular after World War II and the Allied occupation of Japan, along with recent calls to increase English teaching at the elementary school level. The challenge thus faced by organizations and companies, such as Contectures, in their quest to distribute the works of Japanese intellectuals, is not only to translate text, but also to market the content to an overseas crowd.

But bringing interesting content to a foreign crowd isn’t a simple job. For example, Naoki asked me what I knew about different types of influential intellectuals in the U.S. Quite honestly, I know very little—though I did offer the names of influential American philosophers that I was familiar with. That’s beside the point though. In Japan, social and literary critics can serve as a powerful voice nation-wide by writing books or articles in newspapers, but in contrast in America we often see specialists, researchers, and professors called in to discuss a specific topic. Some pundits and critics have wide-spread influence via television, but it’s less clear that their job is similar to their Japanese counterparts. Now there’s the additional question of legitimacy: How do you present Japanese writers to a global community when even prominent writers overseas have never heard of local stars within Japan?

If you think carefully about it, at the heart of such difficulties in addressing a foreign audience lies an issue directly related to what I do as an anime blogger. It drives at the very essence of what it means to write on anime, and is another form of an issue that bloggers are always dealing with. I’m talking about culture and language.

Turnstile leading into Himari's transformation scene in Penguindrum. Rock over Japan, baby!

Rocking Outside Japan

When I picked up a copy of the Mawaru Penguindrum album Triple H last week at Tower Records in Shinjuku, I listened to it for about a week straight non-stop. What I love about the album in terms of style is that it’s the cute and modern take on songs original written and performed by the band ARB, an influential group that performed from the late 70s up into the new millennium, carrying with it the same edge that the original rock pieces had.

But hold on a second. Think about that paragraph I just wrote. How many of our readers were familiar with ARB before reading this article? How many people outside of Japan had ever heard of ARB before downloading an episode of Penguindrum online? I myself had not heard of ARB prior to Penguindrum, and it was only through my desire to learn more about the anime that I looked into the band and its music.

The Penguindrum anime itself evokes a similar response. There’s a ton of symbolism in the series, and dozens—maybe even hundreds!—of people besides myself have come to love the anime for its thought-provoking content. At the same time, however, there are other people who find the series overly confusing. Here I quote a frequent commenter on our site, Fumoffu!!, who wrote the following in regards to a previous article by Sorrow-kun:

I’ll be honest, I know PenguinDrum is good, but whenever I hear about it being the best or the most ambitious anime this decade, I always hate it a little, since I feel I’m missing on this masterpiece that everyone can see but me. Granted, I can see it’s got much more depth than most anime, but why does that matter? Why should symbolism make my anime viewing experience better?

One reason why I’m utterly torn and anguished by this type of comment is because I think Penguindrum’s strengths are exactly its weaknesses: it focuses on Japan and draws distinctly from the collective Japanese consciousness. Because of this, it’s a series that is inspired by events and concepts most likely foreign to those individuals unfamiliar with Japan, which means that the impact it has on a foreign audience is significantly mitigated compared to its Japanese audience. It’s not the fault of the audience or the director per se, but it does not change the fact that there’s a gap in cultural and historical identity involved when viewing anime. It’s like the elephant in the room that overseas anime fans must deal with.

Now, that’s not to say that I think anime cannot be understood by foreign audiences. I do, however, believe that certain series are distinctly popular in the West because they appeal to Western sensibilities. The popularity of Cowboy Bebop and Trigun in the United States immediately comes to mind. Of course, their popularity is also the result of how shows were marketed and released on television here, so it’s a much more difficult to analyze than I may initially be leading on. I will say, however, that I think the viewing process for anime necessitates some study of Japanese culture in order to have a richer, more fulfilling experiencing.

As anime bloggers, what we do is share our thoughts and knowledge with others regarding anime for a larger crowd. We offer any bit of knowledge we have, our time, and our interest in pursuing more about the world of anime, brushing up on our writing skills in the process in order to convey the things we want to share. I think a significant part of this is bridging the gap between cultures and languages. My meeting with Naoki struck a chord inside of me because of how similar I felt my goal and his were, and for this reason, I’m incredibly glad that I was given a piece of the Penguindrum, so to speak, by having built a connection to Contectures.

Others may reject my assumption that knowledge of Japan is required to understand anime. To frame this discussion, allow me to point readers in the direction of Ogiue Maniax’s newest article, in which he discusses what constitutes an anime that has “broad appeal.” Though it doesn’t talk about differences in culture and anime, but instead focuses more broadly in terms of narration and style, the article essentially makes a parallel argument to the one I made in the above paragraph. That is, even when it comes to style or narrative there may be a gap between a series appeals to a broad audience and a series that someone might enjoy. Something that is good might not translate to being popular, and even older classic works, when revisited, have to cross a generation gap. They’re gaps that have to be filled in some way, by people who are willing to analyze the differences. So no matter where you look, there’s a lesson to be learned about appealing to different audiences.

Hence, I think Mawaru Penguindrum falls on deaf ears in a sense, when viewers see the show as depending far too much on its multiple levels of symbolism without a strong repetitive motif that sticks. Penguindrum, in fact, does have these elements when it comes to a Japanese audience. Trains and the Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks of 1995, Takarazuka and Miyazawa Kenji—these are some of the elements of that are obvious to Japanese viewers but not immediately to us.

And I think one purpose that anime bloggers serve is to explain why all of this matters, so that when people go back to watch the show again, things will start clicking. If, one day, someone comes up to me and says: “Your interpretation and explanation of [insert anime name or Japan-related event here] really changed the way I’ve come to look at it,” then maybe I’ll have been able to contribute just a little bit to the globalization that Japan must necessarily go through in order to continue strong into the future.

Just as there are Japanese reaching out globally to try and change the fate of their country, there are some of us non-Japanese who can help facilitate the changes. Looks like it’s time to rock over Japan.

10 Responses to “Rock Outside Japan”

  1. I hate to be dickish and point this out (lies, I love doing it), but did you definitely mean to say that Japan has long had a tenuous relationship with English?

  2. @dyssymulation

    Actually, no. I re-read it a few times but I guess I missed that one. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s supposed to be strenuous.

  3. Great article, my friend. Keep up the good work.

  4. I noticed ‘strenuous’ too and still am not sure… ‘strained’ relationship? English isn’t exhausted by the relationship, whatever it means to personify a language like that.

    Your http://genron.contectures.jp/ link is broken, btw.

    > My interest in Contectures developed sometime last year because I had devoured Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals during my freshman year of college, so to me it was an absolute delight to be able to sit down with someone from the company that Azuma had established.

    I made a scan of that translation a while ago, and I’ve been wondering if it would be a good idea to type it up and make a nice clean HTML version.

  5. @gwern

    Thanks for pointing out the broken link! WordPress automatically adds http:// to the beginning of links whenever I try to copy paste it, and I’ve already had to change it twice.

    Seems like strenuous is a bit iffy. I’ll have to do a bit of searching to find the right phrase to use there, but I wanted to capture the imbalance between Japanese and English.

    By scan, are you referring to the entire book? That’d be a lot of effort.

  6. > By scan, are you referring to the entire book? That’d be a lot of effort.

    It’s not as much effort as one might think; I watch a movie as I flip the pages.

  7. Given our focus on Murakami, Miyazawa, Sakakibara, the 95 attacks, and philosophy, this was the modus operandi of Altair & Vega from the very beginning. And based on the comments we received, I think we managed to achieve just a tiny bit of that.

    http://altairandvega.wordpress.com/2011/12/24/colloquium-mawaru-penguindrum-episode-24-end/#comment-1692

  8. I’m definitely going to have to keep an eye on Genron in the future. I think it’s very interesting what they’re trying to achieve, since, to make a gross generalization, in the past, Japanese discourse has tended to appear to be a very insular thing, as if they preferred to have their debates and disagreements in private and present a united front to the rest of the world.

    As far as Penguindrum goes, it certainly has a high entry barrier. As I’ve said earlier, I think interpreting it is an ongoing project from its collective fans. With the exception of Ikuhara himself, probably no one completely understand Penguindrum at the moment, but as more people see it, think about it and read the interpretations of others on the internet and publish their own, I suspect we’ll all have a better understanding of the show in time.

  9. Thanks so much for this Tony, and reading the comments too boosted my motivational level to an all-time high. I’d love to hear your opinions on how we can improve “genron” and what we do at Contectures to connect with non-Japanese readers. Thanks!

  10. @Sorrow-kun

    You’re absolutely right about the insularity of Japanese criticism. And that’s exactly why I sort of dislike the almost meme-like use of the phrase “dirty gaijin” by websites who target the previous seclusion of Japan from the reset of the world. I definitely think through hard work things can change.

    And yeah, I’ll still be writing about Penguindrum for years!

    @Naoki

    I’m just doing my small bit as a guy who is likes Japan and is interested in connecting it with the world. If something comes to mind regarding Genron, I’ll be sure to write it up and send it your way. Thanks for reading!

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