Stevie Suan on his book, Anime’s Identity

Interview by Wendy Goldberg

Wendy Goldberg: How fixed is Japan’s perceived cultural dominance for anime? How could cultural dominance spring back along the node of transnationalism? I’m thinking, for example, of how American culture has been a dominant node of popular culture globally by absorbing other cultural materials. Your discussion here shows how anime remains supposedly Japanese in American and other country’s consumption of anime and manga (whereas before, especially in the US, Japanese origins had been suppressed. Now, its Japanese-ness became a selling point to consumers). This works well within your discussion of local/global. In other words, do you see how another culture (nation-state) could begin to dominate among these transnational networks?

Stevie Suan: These dynamics, are, as you’ve pointed out, very complex. I think part of the difficulty is that a lot of cultural analysis starts from the national context and endeavors to break free of it by exposing the transnational. But, in the book I try to foreground the transnational as the point of departure—that anime is always already transnational.

However, this transnationality is usually shunted into a national framework. So, for anime, although this is probably an unpopular position, I see the broader nation branding of anime as effectively claiming anime as Japanese culture despite anime’s decades long global visibility and transnational production. Yes, the idea that anime is Japanese predates the nation-branding campaigns, and yes, the campaigns are horrendously ineffective in making any actual improvements to the abusive work conditions of workers in the industry. But there has been a shift in the past few decades towards accepting anime as part of what counts “officially” as “Japanese culture,” a rise that directly coincides with the inclusion of anime in nation branding, both domestically and externally.

This is the “soft power” at work, making anime a symbol for Japan both inside and outside of Japan, which creates the image that anime, even outside of Japan, is always already Japanese. These campaigns, which in my view are often most effective in partly-privately, partly-publicly funded industry showcase events like the aptly named “AnimeJapan,” that tend to tie anime to Japan (in this case directly in the name). The result is a defining of anime in relation to Japan, where, as the event’s tagline states, “everything anime is here.”

Because of this consistent tying of anime to Japan, the transnationality of anime becomes a point of contention. Works that are openly transnational (for instance, with productions that advertise as partially done in China, or by a Chinese studio) get scrutinized as “not really anime,” or “not anime enough.” This is despite the fact that most anime, unbeknownst to most viewers, are actually transnationally produced.

What might best evince the effectiveness of this branding is how something similar does not happen with, say, Dreamworks animations. I doubt many would question the authenticity of a Dreamworks film because part of the production occurred in India, for example. But for anime, websites in both Japanese and English stress how they define anime as “animation produced in Japan.” The perceived importance of Japan for anime is so prominent that companies from China go through great lengths to either found studios in Tokyo or make sure the anime is dubbed into Japanese to “authenticate” these works as “real anime” because “everything anime is here (Japan).”

So, with the rise in fans across Asia of anime, and the fact that there are already skilled animators there who work on anime anyway, it should be no surprise that there are increasing numbers of anime that are produced almost entirely outside of Japan. These are also transnationally produced, with some so-called “Chinese anime” actually having parts of the production done in Japan and Korea. This is also not uncommon for games like Genshin Impact, produced mainly in China but with animation sequences done in Japan, featuring anime voice actors (who speak in Japanese), and advertising itself as an “anime-style” game.

The question remains if anime will go on to be equated with a broader “East Asian” aesthetic, if Japanese nation branding will continue to claim anime effectively, or if anime could be seen as something more global and transcultural. So, the aim of the book was to develop ways to assess the transnational operations at play in anime, to trace the different forms of globality and how to address them.

These appear in tandem as distinctive types of globality for anime: 1) the tensions of the internal-external (domestic-foreign) dichotomy of anime as a (local) Japanese media with a global presence; 2) a centralized transnationality with Tokyo as the privileged point in a transnational network of cultural production; 3) a decentralized transnationality, where anime is produced by referential reiteration of conventionalized components in various locales, which enables a more heterarchical network of connection across borders and has a transcultural potentiality that may be radically divorced from nationality. Each affords a very different notion of spatiality, of conceptualizing and ordering space, and our relation to that space.

Anime seen from this perspective, as performatively constituted through citations of reiterated components, would produce a very different geography when tracing the paths of its enactment. “Chinese anime” would then be part of a broader transcultural media-form that is anime, linking it with so-called “anime proper.” I think there is far more potential there, where media-form is radically distanced from the national. Alternative organizations of space, regionality, and conceptions of cultural production would then come into view, which I try to outline in the book.

For me, this is a more promising avenue of pursuit than to categorically allocate out nationalized notions of aesthetics. The latter approach risks restaging national literatures and cinemas debates, except this time every country needs an animation style. I’d rather challenge those notions and experiment with what a transnational, transcultural view of culture might conjure up—I wanted to explore how to chart or sketch how a regularly occurring transnational context and geography might look like, and how to read for it.

With that in mind, one of the aims of the book was to radically get away from notions of origin, to focus on what sustains something instead of focusing on origination; to move away from two completely divided segments that come into contact and instead focus on the tensions of hybridity, even in areas where it is not often recognized like anime, in order to trouble the claiming of something through the national. Instead, I wanted bring into view potential formations of transcultural commonality.

Wendy Goldberg: Could you argue that this model of citation is also a model already at work and in force in other popular cultural forms? That is, in how we consume, cite, and reconfigure pop culture properties? Is anime an especially fungible set of texts?  Does the speed of production (made possible through these putatively invisible transnational productions) make anime a special case of citation?

Stevie Suan I definitely think that citational practices can operate similarly in all sorts of cultural forms. Manga operates very similarly, and part of its appeal, as has been noted by a number of scholars, is the consistency of its media-form. This allows for readers to gain literacy and for artists to gain fluency very quickly. Because manga does not require as much financial investment and number of laborers to produce, this may be partly why many of its stylistic elements have spread throughout the world in the past few decades.

Genre media is another good example where citations are so important. You want the shadowy lighting and the down-on-their-luck detectives to be a film noir. There is a lot of sophistication in these operations, as it’s not easy to reproduce effectively. And the specific combinations of citations can link in distinct directions, make unexpected connections, or sustain common assemblages.

With that in mind, I think that anime is a particularly rich site for that because it wears its citationality so openly. There is a staggering amount of anime produced each year and so much of it very blatantly resembles prior iterations. Fans (casual and more dedicated) actively search out anime precisely because it looks, sounds, and has many similar narratives—they want more of the same.

Another important aspect is that operations of citation tend to link across iterations. Because of the way anime’s production has developed historically from cel animation practices where individual layers are produced by different people in disparate places, these citations are employed on multiple layers in multiple places.

It also allows for a coordination across the complexity of this production network as everyone is “sharing” a certain degree of understanding of citations. In turn, this helps with the rapid speed of production across the transnational locations of the various studios that produce anime. In this way, anime’s citations constitute a multilayered transnational image that is composited into a single frame, making the very images themselves transnational cultural products.

 Wendy Goldberg: As you have noted, visual and narrative citation dominates what we call anime but citation also comes through performance, in the seemingly moving figures these images and stories create. Can you talk more about the modes of performance (embodied and figurative) you describe and how that helped you think about anime’s differentiation?

Stevie Suan: When I encountered Donald Crafton’s typology of embodied and figurative acting in animation, I was elated because I finally found terminology to articulate the distinction in different types of performance I was sensing. For Crafton, “embodied acting” places the emphasis on the uniqueness of movement as an externalization of an interior. In my view, the actor thus presents an individualized character, one where outside and inside are cleanly divided. This is roughly analogous to method acting and what is famous on screen in Hollywood films. It makes its way to animation via Walt Disney, who invokes this mode of animated character acting which, to this day, is often seen as “the gold standard” for quality performance in animation globally.

But figurative acting involves preexisting movements that the actor must follow. These codified expressions are then employed in combination to express a character. And different actors and different characters can perform the same expression, usually in different situations, but sometimes even right next to one another. There is an overt engagement with repetition, with referencing prior iterations, citing them to reenact them with as little deviation as possible.

So, there is an emphasis here on the externality of the expression, of it performed on the character from prior iterations on other bodies, rather than something sourced from within. Figurative acting is found across the world (from Ballet to Kathakali) and in various types of animation (from Betty Boop to the Simpsons), and employed frequently in anime.

But one aspect that Crafton does not expand on is the implications for the type of characters produced by these two modes of acting. I started to wonder if perhaps each mode of acting affords a very different way of conceptualizing the self more broadly. Embodied acting only comes into prominence in modernity, and certainly emphasizes a very specific notion of individualism and strictly dividing inside and outside. Disney—which is still so invested in embodied acting—is a massive globally influential media, evincing how important embodied acting still is to our global conception of self.

But then, what type of selfhood does figurative acting afford? Anime may be one of the few types of media, especially in animation, that can claim a similar degree of global influence to Disney. And working through repetition, or rather, citation and combination, each anime character is somehow pre-individual (built from codes that exist prior to the character) and trans-individual (each code is cited across bodies). In this sense, anime’s characters are not individual-characters but particular-characters, where the distinction is produced through the specific combinations, and can involve a radical interconnectedness and lack of closure.

But as Crafton notes, and as I try to further develop, in truth neither mode of acting is entirely separable from the other. Figurative acting is, like all attempts to repeat, only possible through difference; and embodied acting’s gestures are usually involving some codified element to be legible (even unique smiles resemble other smiles).

With the expansion of neoliberalism, these two modes come into connection in contemporary lifestyle performance. Here, the interiority of the self is supposedly made externally visible through the purchase and wearing/using of various fashions and commodities, thus making one into an individualist neoliberal subject—aligning with the individualism invoked by embodied acting.

But in its operations, the individual is only made legible through mass-produced, external objects. In this sense, the combination of those external objects becomes inseparable from the performance of self, aligning with the operations of figurative acting. With lifestyle a globally prominent expression of self, in some ways, it makes sense that Disney (which tends towards embodied acting) and anime (which tends towards figurative acting) are two of the most dominant types of animation globally in this historical moment.

Wendy Goldberg: Can you talk more about the final paragraph in Chapter 6 about hyperindividualism as “isolating” and how “figurative acting may appear to be a potential alternative to the dominant individualism of embodied acting” (pp. 236-7). I’m also struck by your statement that figurative performance can be “as exclusionary as it is participatory, and figurative modes of expression are still bound by the processes of citation and the power dynamics at play within them” (p. 237). There seemed to be a lot to unpack here in terms of power (both participation and access) so was there more you wanted to explore here?

Stevie Suan: Yes, there was so much more I wanted to write! I wanted to underscored how hyperindividualism can be isolating because the individual, with its strict divisions between the internal and external, has become the de facto unit of the social under neoliberalism. This becomes apparent in embodied acting, when the movements and gestures emphasize distinction and uniqueness. In the extreme, the resultant character’s self can appear totally disassociated from anything external. It becomes isolated because it is purposefully unrecognizable or illegible, appearing unrelated to anything, slipping into modes of isolating hyperindividualism.

But on the other side of the spectrum, figurative acting operates as repeating codes with a minimization of distinction between iterations. Here citations are openly shared across bodies, so inside and outside don’t work in the same way as in embodied acting.

In regards to figurative acting’s participatory elements, viewers and performers must share, and acknowledge that sharing, of the codes even if not explicitly—otherwise the performance is not as effective. But this also means that there will be those who do not understand, who are not trained in performing or learning the codes. Furthermore, there may develop systems of authorities on who is and isn’t allowed to perform (and perhaps even read) those codes.

For anime, this is seen as Japan/Japanese culture: the figurative acting codes are authenticated by their relation to Japan/Japanese culture, and those who perform it outside of Japan are seen as inauthentic or “merely imitating” (despite the fact that that’s how figurative acting even in Japan operates). And those who view/read those codes outside of Japan are simply accessing, not engaging in an exchange with Japanese culture. So, there are exclusionary tendencies that can occur.

This includes the politics of citation, as who and what is cited by whom can have important effects. Because figurative acting depends on prior iterations, if a code is not regularly cited, it loses visibility and becomes illegible. Thus, those who are authenticated to perform or engage have a lot of power to acknowledge or disavow certain codes through their own citational practices (or lack thereof). In the context of transnational production, if an anime largely animated in China innovates on an expression, due to the current understanding of anime as Japanese, if it is not cited within an anime that is perceived as Japanese, it may become a derided deviation, rather than an addition to the repertoire.

The other issue is the conservativism in expression. Because the figurative acting codes operate through citation, they tend towards minimizing difference. This can become stale and rigid very quickly. But more importantly, it is also about subjugating oneself to the pre-existing codes. You must contort and conform oneself to the prescribed pattern. It is very difficult for an individual, even those with authoritative status, to make any substantial changes because they are so decentralized. It has to be a massive movement of repeating (or ceasing) to affect any substantial shifts, for better or for worse.

And while I have focused on the potential pitfalls here, it is also important to acknowledge the constructive potentials. Figurative acting could also be very inclusive. Technically, anyone from anywhere can perform the codes. Indeed, the rigidity towards maintaining the code and the decentralized network of citations that sustains figurative acting is here a double-edged sword: as long as the codified element is reiterated within the limits of its preexisting range of expression, it is technically a felicitous performance; furthermore, it is hard to pin-down and control or own definitively.

This could facilitate a radical openness to accepting a diversity of performers, and indeed, as I show throughout the book, anime’s figurative acting codes are performed regularly by people outside of Japan. Additionally, there is also the capacity to expand beyond the current repertoire and include more and more codes. As long as it gets repeated regularly, almost anything could become a figurative acting code.

I think there is a lot of potential to be explored in figurative acting as an alternative to individualism for performing the self, but it is also important to acknowledge its own limitations, and to think across and through the two modes of acting, to expose how they function in the world, and the far-ranging implications of their operations.

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