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.


The Digital Comic in an Increasingly Portable World

Back in 2000, comics artist Scott McCloud wrote Reinventing Comics, wherein he gave ideas for where comics could go and would go as technology improved and the means for both creating and distributing comics changed. Taking the computer into account, McCloud proposed the concept of an "infinite canvas," stating that the screen could act like a piece of paper without borders, and thus the conventional dimensional restriction of the comics page need not apply. In practice, the truly infinite canvas turned out to be extremely unwieldy and impractical in most instances, and the act of putting comics on computer screens turns out to be not so much a matter of "unlimited potential" but of understanding the screen as something with its own restrictions and particulars that have to be overcome. Nevertheless, as more and more people use electronic devices to look at images and comics, the adaptation of comics to screens, especially portable ones, becomes increasingly relevant.

There are two rough categories when it comes to the adapting of comics for digital screens: converting a paper comic to a digital form, or drawing the comic from the start with the intent of having it viewed on a screen. In both cases, part of the challenge comes from the fact that, even as visual clarity continues to improve, there is a limit to physical dimensions of the device itself, as there will likely people who prefer to view things on their phone, rather than a larger tablet or something similar.


For the once-paper comic, one of the most prominent ways of handling the physical dimensions of smaller devices is through what is called "guided view," shown above. Utilized on sites such as the digital comics distributor Comixology, guided view zooms in on one panel or element (certain faces in a large crowd shot for example) at a time, and removes or cuts away anything deemed at that point in the comic "irrelevant." Essentially, the view moves your eyes for you, telling you what you should be looking at. The drawback of the guided view, in turn, is that it mostly relies on comics which do not prioritize the panel so heavily, and therefore becomes a problem for comics where whole-page composition is especially important, such as most manga.

Indeed, digital manga sites such as jmanga or j-comi do not even try to provide a guided view, despite the option being supposedly available on jmanga. Just the same, however, by keeping the page intact and whole, the act of having to drag and pull through the comic is itself a different and awkward experience. At some point, the physical dimensions of the device become too much, and such whole-page comics will most likely forever require a certain minimum size + visual clarity combination. Even putting computers aside, attempts to convert paper manga to tiny, thumb-sized books, such as the example of Tezuka's Black Jack below, have been an eye-straining novelty at best.



That leaves us with the other route, that of creating the comic for the screen, and the area which McCloud was trying to address the most. Again, however, the "infinite canvas" turns out to be almost anything but, because of a combination of the existing habits of users and different priorities for comics in how they present themselves. The full-range infinite canvas is, perhaps ironically, best suited for images that are more murals of visual information. In "Click and Drag" from the webcomic xkcd for example, the infinite canvas acts as a way of exploring that space where a reader can discover small details on characters or get a sense of how visually dense the image is, but for comics that are visually less dense or less vast, it becomes a potential hindrance.

One effective compromise between the finite screen and the infinite canvas has been to restrict the image horizontally to the sides of the screen while allowing the comic to progress vertically. This takes into account the fact that horizontal scrolling is much more unwieldy on screens compared to vertical scrolling, at least for horizontally written languages such as English or Korean, and it is actually in digital manhwa, Korean comics, where this appears to be utilized most readily. In these digital manhwa, such as the title Tower of God seen left, there are at most two panels horizontally adjacent, making the progression somewhat like seeing a scroll or a film strip continuously unravel, and panel composition takes this into account. These comics thus become easier to read on phones and tablets, and I would suspect that the fact that South Korea is one of the most wired (and wireless) nations on Earth means that this is probably not a coincidence.

At least, that is what we see at this point. If ever physical media disappears entirely and the tablet or similar devices (or perhaps even a "tablet" without a physical presence itself) becomes the primary method for reading comics, then I would have to think that the form of comics would change accordingly, just maybe not as quickly or as drastically as one might expect

Lounging in CHAOS


Some time ago, I had the chance to visit the art exhibition CHAOS*EXILE in Akihabara (Tokyo), which was part of the FESTIVAL/TOKYO, a performing arts festival organized in various Japanese cities.

CHAOS*EXILE is described by it's creators, the artist group CHAOS*LOUNGE, as a collection of deliberate efforts to create new art style in our postmodern, animalistic times—a reference to Azuma Hiroki's 2001 book on the otaku culture in Japan. The artists of CHAOS*LOUNGE acknowledge that they cannot but draw on their own, contemporary culture, which is strongly influenced by the otaku culture with its manga, anime, figures, concentrated in places like the electric town around Akihabara station. At the same time, CHAOS*LOUNGE explicitly aims at inquiring the critical potential of this same subculture, which they criticize for its partly apolitical, apathetic reaction to the the events of March 11. “After 3.11 what has become clear is that there are aspects of the otaku that will not change even after the catastrophe, a rather regretful part of digital Japan where an indigenous system becomes simply peer pressure. […] We must make inquiries. What are the possibilities for art after the era of “animalization”? In the midst of this “animalized” world, the opportunity for constructing relations between society and the individual, and chief of all for the function seemingly possessed by “art”, can only be discovered in subcultures.” (http://chaosxlounge.com/chaosexile/chaosexile.html)

The exhibition consisted of two stages, the first of which was publicly accessible and free of charge. Here, the visitor was confronted with a room full of ufo catchers, which she could play endlessly. Instead of the usual prices (plush toys, etc), these cases were filled with various items equipped with a wire loop to grab, which could be exchanged for a ticket to the second stage. Whoever didn't have time to play or failed to catch one of the wires could also buy a ticket for 500 yen (about 5 euro). The second stage was located on two floors of a small building in a side street, almost hidden from the eyes, and could only be found with the help of a map printed on the back of the ticket.

Although I was not able to make any photographs, I will try to describe the exhibition a little. The first stage, with its ufo catchers, helium filled balloons, and a great variety of distorted figures known from anime and manga, which were attached to the walls and—together with stacks of books—filled the inside of the ufo catchers, could be read as an apocalyptic environment ruled by chaos. While there were no direct references to any specific manga or anime, the whole idea of free play might refer to “playfulness” as a way of entering (exile?) today. But it could as well be understood as an allegory on the mechanism through which effort or skill can be short-circuited with money, which granted equal access to the second stage.

The second stage consisted of three rooms on two floors. All walls consisted of wooden boards, all surfaces in the first room were filled with collages of different styles. The website may give an impression of parts of this room. The second room was dark and only contained a monitor which showed a video art work, containing of an endless walk through a labyrinth of website screenshots. The third room had a plastic tent in it, with all kinds of tools and entertainment goods scattered on the floor. The impression was chaotic and reminded of the video footage from the refugee camps after March 11. Without this element, to be honest, I wouldn't have found any explicit reference to March 11 or the situation afterwards.
With it, however, in particular through the combination of all three rooms, the second stage seemed to express and criticize the chaos in the aftermath of 3/11, and the impossibility and inability to cope with the situation. The aimless run through the labyrinth in the video art work at least did not suggest any direction, neither gave hope for finding a way out. Maybe the artists have not yet found, what they are inquiring for. Or maybe I couldn't detect it. Speculating a bit further, the pop cultural collage in the first room, read from the chaos in the tend, might even be read as a critique towards the apolitical disorder of Japanese popular culture in general.

Yet, maybe it is my own pessimism that prevented me from detecting much hope in the second stage—or maybe my ignorance towards the field of contemporary art. If anybody who had the chance to visit the exhibition or is familiar with other works of CHAOS*LOUNGE, I would be very interested in other impressions In any case, the activities of CHAOS*LOUNGE are rather sincere and might be worth following in the future.

Dream or Nightmare? Kon Satoshi’s Paprika

written by Mari Nakamura

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”, Sigmund Freud says [1]. Psychologists have used dream analysis but they can only ask people about their dreams when people had woken up. So it would be wonderful if we could electronically record and interpret dream. Writing in the journal Nature, the US researcher Dr. Moran Cerf said his research team has developed a system for recording higher-level brain activity, “We would like to read people’s dreams” [2]. Dr. Cerf’s project aims to develop a system that would allow psychologists to corroborate people’s recollections of their dream with visualisation of their brain activity.

If we could record and interpret dreams and find clues to the unconscious mind, would it be possible for us to control the unconsciousness? Furthermore, once the unconscious mind is controlled, is this also affect to the consciousness? The Japanese science fiction animation film, Paprika (2006) [3] deals with these psychological/philosophical issues.

Paprika is based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (1993) [4], and is directed by the late Kon Satoshi. The film is about a device, the DC-Mini that permits psychologists to enter people’s dream. The DC-Mini is developed by a group of scientists and one of the members, Atsuko Chiba, is using the machine for psychiatric therapy secretly with her alter-ego Paprika. One day three DC-Mini are stolen and the inventor Tokita reveals that these devices were unfinished products and the user can enter peoples’ dreams and manipulate their unconscious minds. As the investigation continues, Chiba and her associates find that in fact, the DC-Mini also allow users to manipulate dreams and delusions when people are awake. The reality and the dream in this context are merged.

Dreams start invading realities and things become fluid. The distinction between the reality (the conscious) and the dream (the unconscious) is no longer clear. We are not sure which one, Chiba or Paprika, is herself or her alter-ego anymore. The film here raises a series of questions about the idea of control – what it mean today, how to take control, on what to do when we take it. In the film, Chiba thinks she controls over Paprika and Paprika should obey her. In this sense Paprika is subject to Chiba. Yet, Paprika raised a question to Chiba, “Have you ever thought that maybe you are a part of me to think that you can control yourself and others?” Paprika points out a possibility of her control over Chiba. The relation between subject and object is reversed in this aspect. Who does control whom? The distinction between subject and object is blurred. In this vein, the very meaning of what being in control is no longer clear.

The film Paprika provides us an interesting example to think about the concepts of reality/dream, consciousness/ unconsciousness, control and subject/object. Once the dream record device becomes ‘possible’, will it be a dream or a nightmare?

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[1] Sigmund Freud, cited in Quinodoz (2005:36). Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Reading Freud: a chronological exploration of Freud's writings Volume 1 of New library of psychoanalysis. New York:Taylor & Francis, 2005.

[2] Pallab Ghosh, ‘Dream Recording Device ‘Possible’ Researcher Claims’. BBC news on 27 October 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11635625

[3] Satoshi Kon, Paprika, 2006.

[4] Yasutaka Tsutsui, Paprika, Tokyo:Chuokoronsha, 1993.

Comipo! and the Constructed Definition of “Manga”

Comipo! is a recently-released Japanese computer program advertised as a tool that allows people to create their own “manga” even if they cannot draw. While I have not sampled the program myself, the promotional materials for Comipo demonstrate how this is achieved. Using a wide selection of pre-existing templates for backgrounds, word bubbles, characters, effects, and other visual elements, a user drags and drops these elements onto a page layout (for which there are also templates), and essentially “model” their comic pages. Characters are 3-D models, which allows them to be placed and viewed at any angle within each panel. Photos can be imported as backgrounds and filtered so as to make them more in-line with the characters.

Given this idea of “instant comics,” what I find particularly interesting about Comipo! is the pre-set library of “manga-like” features itself. The second promo shows samples of effects that can be utilized, such as where multiple sharp lines populate the inside of a panel border to emphasize that something dramatic is happening, or when a similar effect is used on the outside of a word bubble to express that the words inside the bubble are an intense inner thought. As manga are printed in black and white, the third promo goes out of its way to point out that the full-color imagery used in Comipo! can be turned monochrome. The character models themselves are also indicative of this manga-centric angle. Instead of allowing the user to pose the models themselves, the program has a list of pre-defined physical behaviors.

Through these effects, Comipo! seems to imply that there are indeed recurring visual elements that can be seen as “typical” of Japanese comics, with quite a discrete definition of “manga” (or at least “the average manga”) emerging out of the rigidity of the templates used. While some of these elements could be said to be “comics elements” in general, when compared to a similar program in the form of the “Create Your Own Comic” feature at Marvel Comics’ “Superhero Squad” website, very immediate differences can be seen. Despite the greater simplicity of the one provided by Marvel, the differences in how the two programs treat the concept of drag-and-drop comics is evident in what they choose to include am emphasize. For instance, instead of the “intense inner thought” effect used in the Comipo! promotional material, the Marvel online creator showcases a variety of cloud-like “thought bubbles.” Whether or not Comipo!’s implied definition of “manga” or the Superhero Squad’s definition of “superhero comics” are accurate is not a subject I want to address at this point; instead I just want to consider the fact that these definitions exist at all.

Perhaps the most noticeable visual elements of Comipo! are the pre-existing character designs themselves, which are firmly planted within the “moe” (a sort of cuteness which promotes strong empathy and desire) aesthetic that has come to the forefront of manga and particularly anime over the past decade or so. Generally targeted towards males already familiar with anime and manga, the decision to feature moe character designs in the program in lieu of others is a decision which seems to say that this is the face of manga today, or at the very least the face of manga for people who would buy the program and use it. Obvious technological impossibilities aside, I have to then wonder what a program such as Comipo! would have looked like if it had existed in decades prior, say, in the 1980s when the influence on character designs by artists such as Mikimoto Haruhiko (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross), Azuma Hideo (Nanako SOS!) and Takakashi Rumiko (Maison Ikkoku) could be seen in their peers? What would the implied definition of “manga” have been then?

What is digication?

Manga, anime and video game are not only cultural, artistic or technological products, but are also powerful channels to deliver information and promote ideas. Their roles become increasingly prominent in East Asia (and elsewhere), as more and more business sectors, media companies, governments and artists use these media to express ideas and to attract, persuade, or manipulate their target audience. In 2008, the Japanese government produced an animation on the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea, which was shown in cinemas and through the internet. While in 2009, the Apple Daily, a tabloid newspaper based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, launched their “3D Animation News” online, bringing about huge controversies over its sensational crime story coverage with detailed violent images. In Korea, comic books have triggered a revival of learning Chinese characters.
Given the increasingly pervasive presence of digital media and the ways in which it is being utilized by various groups, ‘digication’ explores the educational, political, social, and historical significance of media as a channel of communication and expression/persuasion in East Asia in order to highlight how manga, anime and video games are used and the intentions behind their use.

Links:
Animation film MEGUMI: http://www.rachi.go.jp/jp/megumi/index.html
3D Animation News: http://www.youtube.com/NMAworldedition
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