Kayarath’s Adventures In Ethnography

Posted on Mar 13 2014

Kayarath's Adventures In Ethnography

How much do we know about anime? I’m not talking about being able to rattle off a dozen different titles or explaining what minovsky particles are. I’m talking about comprehending the underlining trends and processes in which it’s created. While we all may watch anime, we may not know the how or the why of it. Despite being a person who writes about anime, I felt deeply inadequate in my knowledge of the subject. In order to rectify it, I went old school and drove myself to the library. What I found was… The Soul of Anime.

The Soul of Anime is a book written by Ian Condry, Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Try saying that three times fast). While it may not be the first book about anime you read, it does distinguish itself by using the lens of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of different cultures using scientific methods. While there are more precise definitions out there, I am unable to provide them because I really can’t tell the different between anthropology and other social sciences. I even had my friend who majored in anthropology explain it to me, but I still didn’t get it. Even though I don’t understand it, I am happy to know the anime world is receiving academic analysis because it will allow us to understand it better.

What I can define is ethnography. Ethnography is the act of studying something by putting yourself in it. For example, to do ethnography work on bakers, you would go to a bakery and watch bakers work for a few weeks to see how they actually do it. In other words, Condry put himself in the trenches. He spent years hanging out in studios observing, and even participating in, anime production. He also watched and discussed anime, as well as attended conventions like Anime Boston. Due to the impromptu nature of ethnography, there are several things his research overlooked, but he’s aware of them at the very least. Either way, Condry got an insider’s look at things, so he’s speaking from solid experience.

Anime makes characters popular.  Figures make characters buy-able.  Now that's synergy.

Anime makes characters popular. Figures make characters buy-able. Now that’s synergy.

The central thesis of the book is that anime’s popularity stems from “collaborative creativity,” or group effort: that anime is successful because people across multiple disciplines and demographics pour their skill and dedication into it. Producers, writers, animators, and voice actors all work together to make anime. In other industries, manga and light novels provide source material while video games and merchandise generate cultural and monetary capital. Fans throw conventions, cosplay, make websites, and otherwise create places where fandom can grow and flourish. To quote Full Metal Alchemist: one is all, [and] all is one.

While there are many reasons to like this book, there is a Third Impact sized strike against it. Frankly, reading it can be a grind sometimes, and I’m not talking in a good way either. This is because a good third of the book is written in “academic” style. That’s when you overuse big obtuse words and unusual phrasings in order to make your writing seem more intellectual. It’s especially prevalent when covering social theory. I found it difficult to read and understand as a person who studies and appreciates this type of thing. I imagine this would drive away people with shorter attention spans and less interest in social sciences. A good comparison would be to a video game with genius ideas but a weak user interface. If you can withstand that issue, you’ll find an enjoyable product.

Reading The Soul of Anime feels like taking a quiz in anime fandom. The less stuff surprises you, the more knowledgeable you are about anime. Subjects covered include the focus on characters, how anime grew from the ruins of World War II, how exactly Gundam became Bandai’s bread and butter, fansubs, moeh and much, much more. While not every stone was overturned, a lot of ground was covered. Chances are you’ll learn something new, or gain further knowledge in a subject you’re already familiar with.

Chicks. Dig. Giant Robots!

Chicks. Dig. Giant Robots!

What I really benefited from was the chapter explaining anime history. It opened my eyes to the history and conditions that formed anime into its current state. What I enjoyed reading about the most was the history of GAINAX. Apparently, they got their start when their discussion drew a crowd at a science fiction convention. They soon started their own science fiction convention and animated a short opening sequence for it. That lead them to animate more stuff, slowly building a reputation until Evangelion put them on the map.

Another feature of the book is Condry’s recounting of his time at various anime studios. Like I said, that man went straight to the source. He goes in-depth into the production and thought processes behind anime. He interviewed many animators and sat through dozens of meetings. He was there when they planned Summer Wars. When Bandai held a workshop to brainstorm future ideas, he was there. When the Princess Tutu Hold Me Now AMV premiered at Anime Boston, he was there! That’s not an anime studio, but you get the point!

If you want to make the step from anime fan to anime expert, The Soul of Anime is a great first step. The note and reference sections alone makes it worthwhile to get. I won’t say it’s a must-buy, though. The writing style is quite dense, making it a chore to read at many points. While you may not always enjoy reading it, you will learn something.

You Might Also Like...

  • nerdwerld March 15, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    I need this book, thanks for the review and little session on ethnography.

    • Kayarath March 15, 2014 at 10:12 PM

      Thank you for the facebook post that inspired me to go read it! You may be able to get it at a library if you look.

  • You must be logged in to comment. Log in