asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia



Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.


Thoughts on the 3rd Mechademia Conference in Seoul

At the end of November last year, my colleagues and I attended the the 3rd Mechademia Conference in Seoul, South Korea. Focusing on Japanese popular culture, especially anime and manga, but also the long-standing relationship that Japan's animation industry has with Korea, the conference brought to my attention many specific areas with which I was unfamiliar. It also happened to be my very first time visiting Korea, so it was a new experience in that regard as well.

The conference had a number of rare opportunities. One was a showing of the first Korean animated film, The Story of Hong Gil-dong, recently restored, and another was talks with people working within the industries. Probably the biggest name was Ohtsuka Eiji, but it also featured interviews with animators Ahn Jae-ho and Watanabe Hideo. Watanabe was especially intriguing because of his long history in the animation industry, particularly with shows meant to sell toys, and I was able to ask him how this affected the ways in which they produced animation. Watanabe went on to explain about his time working on the anime Toushi Gordian, and how an unfortunate situation where the series director had fallen ill left him as de-facto director, and the resulting product amidst the chaos was predictably subpar. However, Watanabe mentioned, the toys sold well enough that they could keep going, and in the end the show finished at over 70 episodes.

For those who don't know about Gordian, think of it as an anime from the "giant robot" genre, where the hero gets into increasingly larger robots stacked on top, much like a matryoshka doll.


Watanabe and Ahn both talked about the Korean involvement in Japanese animation, and probably anyone who's bothered to look at the ending credits of an anime is aware of the fact that Japan has been outsourcing its animation work to Korea for many years. At the conference, one of the topics that a number of presentations either spoke about, whether as its main focus or as a brief point, is the reputation of Korean animation in the world.

The "dilemma" that faces Korean animation is that, despite its notoriety within the overall industry, with work not just in anime but also popular cartoons such as The Simpsons, "Korean animation" as a concept lacks the clout of other cultures' animated works. One presenter argued that animation made in Korea is too culturally odorless, while another attributed the problem to an unfair characterization of the Korean animation industry as one which lacks the talent to generate interesting ideas, a headless body of sorts. Overall, addressing this topic seems borne from the idea that Korea's animators deserve recognition, and I can respect that motivation.

My colleagues and I from Leiden also had presentations of our own. Mari Nakamura presented on the anime Appleseed and its ideas about the post-human, Martin Roth presented on the video game Shadow of Memories and how it played with notions of "time," and I presented on the manga Zettai Karen Children and how it expressed a political science fiction world through a focus on character. The Q&A made for a lively discussion, and I took a lot away from it.

On the comics side of things, one of the panels I attended focused on a topic close to mine, which is the ways in which manga are used in a political sense. In particular, I enjoyed seeing Takeuchi Miho and Olga Antononoka from Kyoto Seika University present on how the conventions of manga could be used to subtly convey strong political ideas, either by having the artwork itself belie a seemingly more banal aesthetic, or using existing tropes as metaphors for heavier arguments.

Attending the conference, I became aware of a recurring mistake made in academic discussions about the concept of kyara moe, or the visual features of a character which generate strong emotion in those who look at it, to put it somewhat succinctly. I want to actually elaborate on this in a future post, so I'll save my thoughts for now.

The last thing conference-related I'd like to mention is Yun Seongcheol's paper on an old Korean comic titled Rayphie (rhymes with "sci-fi"), which I found quite interesting. Unlike modern "manhwa" which can be roughly described as manga-esque, the older Rayphie (unfortunately I can't remember the exact dates, but it was somewhere between 1950 and 1970, I believe) is more of a hybridization between American superhero comics aesthetic and elements of Korean traditional art. According to Yun, the series enjoyed its own fair share of success, but a period of censorship killed it prematurely. While I don't think that current manhwa is simply trying to mimic the popularity of manga, I do wonder what the Korean comics landscape would have been like if comics like Rayphie had been allowed to persist.



As for the rest of my brief stay in Korea, my experience can probably be summed up as "food and comics." Whenever I travel I look forward to eating a variety of things, and this was certainly no exception, especially given the strong reputation Korean food has, and of that experience my favorite part must have been going to a night market and trying a variety of things. While I generally enjoy tteokbokki, chewy rice cakes in a spicy sauce, I was especially impressed by the liver I had there. Tasting more like actual meat than internal organ, it was probably the best liver I've ever had. I also took the opportunity to compare bulgogi burgers from McDonald's, Burger King, and Lotteria. My verdict is that Lotteria has the best-tasting meat, while McDonald's has the best sauce.

As for comics, I was sadly unable to visit the Manhwa museum in Seoul, but was able to make my way to a nice comic store in Hongdae called Booksaetong. There, I found it interesting that, unlike the US or countries in Europe, that the manhwa and the manga were all mixed together instead of given their own separate spaces.

So overall, visiting Korea and attending the Mechademia Conference was a learning experience, in more ways than one.

A Sushi Typhoon?


A few days ago I had the pleasure of listening to Sten-Kristian Saluveer from the Department of Asian Studies at Estonian Institute of Humanities (Tallinn University/Tokyo University), who presented his Monbukagakusho research project titled "Contemporary Japanese film in distribution: between imagination, globalization and gaze".
In recent years, Sten argues, Japanese cinema has become an increasingly global phenomenon, not only in the sense that A-movies have gained international popularity, but also with respect to an increasing number of B-class movies produced specifically for the international market. Arguing that both tendencies are strongly connected to discourses of exoticism, techno-orientalism, Japanization, or Asianization, and lastly Americanization not only via content, but also on the level of distribution, he hopes to work out a vocabulary to analyze and understand the international distribution of Japanese cinema in the age of globalization—a field which, according to Sten, has been widely neglected in (Western) research on Japanese cinema. Sten's project sounds very interesting and I'm eager to read the findings. In the meanwhile, I'd like to write about some thoughts that came up in a discussion we had afterwards, mostly concerning the label "Sushi Typhoon" (Nikkatsu) and "Japaneseness", in hope this may trigger further discussion.

Sushi Typhoon is, according to Sten, a film label exclusively launched less than two years ago with the aim of creating "Japanese" films for the overseas market. With excessively violent and "Japanese" films like "Yakuza Weapon" ("Machine gun arm. Rocket launcher leg. And a bad attitude to match. [...]"), "Alien vs Ninja", "Helldriver" ("Ash from space has divided Japan into two halves, and a schoolgirl with an artificial heart and chainsaw sword must travel to the zombie-infected north... to kill her undead mother."), or "Karate-Robo Zaborgar" ("A modern-day update of the classic Japanese sci-fi television show!"), Sushi Typhoon is dedicated to trash of a very specific, “Japanese” kind.
But what exactly does that mean? Looking at these descriptions, what interests me most is why and with what exactly Sushi Typhoon might, as their trailer promises, “blow your mind wide open”—nice phrase, by the way.

[If you have a few seconds, please watch the trailer for yourself.]

The self-recognition of Sushi Typhoon reads: "Connoisseurs of dangerous and wild Japanese cinema need look no further to satisfy their hunger for comedy, action, horror, splatter and raucous cult entertainment: The Sushi Typhoon is headed for America’s shores, ready to fill your belly with the raw entertainment you’ve been craving!" (http://www.sushi-typhoon.com/about-sushi-typhoon, emphasis mine)
My initial reaction was to label this as yet another example of (successfully) selling "Japaneseness" (or "Orientalism")—notice by the way who is targeted here—which, as far as I am concerned, would to some extent mean that they use the idea that there is something called "Japan", and it might also imply that the images of this "Japan" re-presented by Sushi Typhoon are somehow "wrong". However, refusing to believe that fans identify these images with something like a "real" Japan per se—not only because I don't believe such thing exists—I would like to think about how the notion of "Japan" or the exotism behind it works here, what kind of "Japan" is sold and consumed.

A first observation from the website of Sushi Typhoon is that, while something vaguely recognizable as "Japanese" (Ninja, Yakuza, etc.) is present here, it is present in a strongly twisted form that seems to generate a fictional world fairly distant from "reality". This does, however, not imply that the idea of "Japan" has nothing to do with this fiction and the popularity these films, according to Sten, enjoy since the label was launched. Rather, I would argue that it has everything to do with it, in the sense that this "Japan" in Sushi Typhoon films is the password to an "imaginary space", here understood with Phillip Wegner (2002: xvi-xvii) as a space that is nowhere (utopian) "precisely to the degree that [it makes] somewhere possible, offering a mechanism by which people will invent anew the communities as well as the places they inhabit."
This imaginary space of "Japan" is a symbolic space, stretched out by the symbolic traces of various images of Japan but reaching beyond them, is produced by fans and directors and functions as a cross-genre label and a space of expectation and expressive possibility beyond existing categories. Undeniably, this is only possible because of these traces of a "Japaneseness" (as a specific "Otherness"). But my feeling is that for the fans, this Japaneseness has its meaning not in its "information value" (in the sense that they would expect insights into any "real" Japan), but rather in its function as a distancing device that exoticizes the imaginary space named "Japan" and thus equips it with a sense of alternativeness to their own everyday life (e.g., the films they are used to). A space that makes you expect the unexpected.
Although, at this point, a closer look at the contents of the films is required (they are out and running since last weekend in Tokyo's cinemas), this could suggest that this imaginary space of "Japanese" B-class films has a deconstructive political potential. If this imaginary "Japan" is, in any way, related to what is thought to be the "real" Japan, this relation would be a disruptive one in the sense that "Japan" hosts alternatives to the common images of Japan. "Ninja-robots" and "machinegun-arms" instead of "sushi" could (intentionally or not) be, in a sense, a pretty radical engagement with the idea of a "Japanese reality" itself, thus making the title "sushi typhoon" and the advertisement-like message about blowing minds a quite adequate description. On the other side, one could argue that the fans are not interested in establishing a connection to (Japanese) reality at all. Maybe the attractiveness of Sushi Typhoon films rather origins in the collective engagement with this space of "Japan" and its "Othering" itself.

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Phillip Wegner (2002): Imaginary Communities. Berkley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Counter-asia-scape-goating?

The short serial “The Japanese Tradition” by the Japanese comedians RAHMENS includes various enjoyable parodies on different cultural aspects of Japan and can be found on youtube with English subtitles. I most enjoyed the one called “Sushi”, which claims to teach the viewer (foreigners?) how a sushi restaurant works and how one has to behave there. RAHMENS employ a great variety of exaggerations and “fake” information, but season it with what I conceived of as “true” statements about the Japanese culture and society (which, in the end, might say more about me than about the film). To me, the interesting question here is, what exactly RAHMENS are making fun of in “The Japanese Tradition”? Before explaining this any further, I would like to encourage you to watch the 8-minutes-movie [here] and decide for yourself before reading any further…
[hopefully 10 minutes pass by…]
My first impression was, that this is a parody on Japanese culture (sushi) and Japanese society. As such, it was fun to watch because I could tell where they are exaggerating or faking and where the information is “true” (but nevertheless provides a critical view). At least I thought I could… Thinking about this a little more, I realized that I am not at all able to completely distinguish between fake and “true” information in the film. This feeling might be even stronger with anybody who is not familiar with Japanese culture or its global entities, and who might for example have no reason to doubt that you have to dip your sushi into the soy sauce until the weight changes (which is very “dangerous”, since the sushi falls apart when soaked with soy sauce). Aren’t RAHMENS actually mocking me by confronting me with my perception of Japan, my personal asia-scape-goating. And doesn’t this parody then, work better, the more I think I know about Japan? From this prespective, the topics that come up in “Sushi” can be categorized in some general fields where (Western) stereotypes converge. Critique of whale-hunting and related topics might have been the source for the idea to show that, by asking the cook for his suggestion, you get access to a variety of dishes made from protected species.
It would be interesting to know, whether this is intended by RAHMENS or not, whether they had a foreign audience in mind and deliberately played with this audiences images of Japan as a place where they eat anything and don’t care about extinction of species at all, but this cannot be answered here (although I think their target audience is located in Japan). To me, the more interesting question is, whether this kind of parody created by deliberately blending “fake” and “true” self-criticism can be a strategy to engage with the asia-scape-goating of others in a thoughtful and productive way, a form of counter-asia-scape-goating? And, would I think of it in these terms if it was produced by a Western group?

What are asiascape-goats?

Asia has a long history of being recognized by Western writers as something “alien.” In particular, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea are frequently referred to out of exploratory spirit, in order to mystify and exoticise the otherwise everyday, or even to mock the apparently strange and unintelligible. Commentators often implicitly or inadvertently exploit this sense of the “alienness” of East Asia in order to criticize their own societies: complaining about the “strange” lack of gender equality in Japan or the “unusual” treatment of human rights in China or animal rights in Korea. In other words, the idea of the “alien” enables Western commentators to deny the problems in their own societies by projecting them onto others, scapegoating East Asia for social, cultural and political woes. And conversely, commentators in East Asia can be prone to do this with stories about Western nations. We call these twin phenomena, asia-scape-goating.
This section will by no means try to abolish “otherness” and “alienations.” On the contrary, it will develop ways to make productive use of this alien or fictional character of the other (be it Asia or the West) as a means for critique with great but yet unknown (or: alien) potentials. By actively deploying Asia as a scapegoat (or exposing how the West can be scapegoated in Asia) this section hopes to contribute to new, provocative, radical, and hopefully productive forms of (self) critique and reflection.
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