Japanophilia at MCAD


Speed Racer ran Sunday afternoons. My brother and I never missed an episode. As far as I know, this was the only Japanese animation I watched as a kid, and I was enthralled. In the early 1980s, as I was leaving the nest to begin my adult life, a tsunami of Japanese artwork and culture headed for the US and flooded the hearts and minds of the emerging generation. Since that time, anime and manga, two forms of Japanese pop culture, have become a formidable industry with an annual gross of nearly $1 billion.

Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits (SGMS) 2008 takes place Friday, September 26 through Sunday, September 28 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. You can register, check the schedule for events, and read more about SGMS here.

While in American culture cartoons and comic books (less pejoratively referred to as “animation” and “graphic novels”) are considered childish, in Japan, manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons) are produced for and consumed by people of all ages and stations in life—from those espousing conservative Japanese values to those pushing for social and cultural change. Manga and anime have become accepted vehicles for conveying the vast range of values in Japanese society. This work reaches a broad market all over the world and has left its mark on the world’s cultures and the world economy.

The Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) began a “Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits” (SGMS) series of meetings in 2001. According to the MCAD Web site, SGMS is neither a convention nor a conference. “SGMS has developed over time into a casual and intimate interaction between audience members and speakers.”

SGMS combines opportunities for cosplay, shopping in Otaku bazaars, and viewing fashion shows and anime films with the presentation and discussion of academic papers and the demonstration of artistic techniques, resulting in open-ended discussions between guests and participants. For the uninitiated, “cosplay” involves dressing up like your favorite anime or manga character, and the word “Otaku” translates from Japanese slang into English as “fan.” Thus, an Otaku bazaar provides attendees with the occasion to purchase books, DVDs, games, toys, posters, pictures, trinkets, figures, and cosplay-wear.

The co-founders of SGMS are Frenchy Lunning—a professor in MCAD’s Liberal Arts Department—and Barbara Schulz, comic book artist and professor at MCAD. Lunning specializes in the history of comics and received a Fulbright grant this year to study manga in Japan for three months, looking at its artistic and cultural underpinnings. Her doctoral dissertation addressed comic book superheroes and male identity. Schulz has been in the comic book industry for more than twenty years. As SGMS grew and expanded, Lunning founded and still serves as editor of Mechademia, an annual journal published by the University of Minnesota Press. According to the MCAD Web site, “the heart and soul of Mechademia is found in the work of [conference] speakers and the work of a growing wave of young scholars and creators. As we look to the future, the SGMS workshop will expand and continue to open the discussion and ask the questions of this uniquely pervasive and influential culture.”

Lunning says that the fascination with Japanese animation and graphic stories is not surprising. “The craftsmanship of the artwork contains details that please the eye, and the stories are complicated and uncommon—not Hollywood plots.” The fan base for manga and anime includes teens and pre-teens as well as adults, including many academics. Japanese manga and anime enjoy large-scale popularity not only in the U.S., but all over the world. Lunning calls it a global phenomenon where Japanese art and stories are “not only accepted, but longed for.”

Japanese artists and storytellers have a way of making us think about our lives and our world in unexpected ways. An example is the manga series Togari, by Yoshonori Natsume, which concerns a wicked soul who committed great crimes during the middle ages in Japan. A benevolent spirit gives him the opportunity to be free from hell, but he must find 108 demons in the modern era and subdue them within 108 days without causing harm to the humans he encounters. He finds himself in high school in a modern Japanese city, where he struggles to sort out the parameters of his new existence. The demons he finds are connected to obviously evil people such as rapists and murderers, but also to seemingly good people such as police officers, teachers, priests, and kids from the popular crowd.

As a kid watching Speed Racer, I remember the gut-wrenching, close-call races, the evil villains trying to do Speed Racer in, and the Mach-5 with all its amazing gizmos that got its rider out of just about every tight fix. The story lines often bewildered me, and sometimes left me feeling uneasy. I remember an episode where Speed Racer gets lost in an Amazon jungle and happens upon Incan pyramid. As he approaches and climbs it, he falters and loses consciousness—not the kind of thing that happened on Superfriends, The Jetsons, or Scooby-Doo.

In addition to these engaging elements of the story and graphics, I had a prepubescent infatuation for Speed Racer’s sister, Trixie. Lunning said that this also is not surprising. “Sexuality is a bigger part of life in Japan,” Lunning said. Characters in Japanese manga and anime are drawn provocatively—youthful, beautiful, and sexy. “Sexuality and curiosity about it is not something to be ashamed of or afraid of,” Lunning said, “even for pre-teens in junior high school.”

The SGMS moniker emerged from the major themes inherent in manga and anime. Those made for girls tend to feature young women in a variety of situations (schoolgirls), while those for boys tend to be fantasy or science fiction and often feature young men wearing power action suits with many accessories (mobilesuits). The sessions promise entertainment and insight into manga and anime, two Japanese genres that have swept the imaginations and the pocketbooks of the world.

Mark Weaver grew up in Fairborn, Ohio and then embarked on a life journey that has taken him across the U.S. and around the world. He has spent the last ten years teaching linguistics and English as a second language at colleges and universities in Texas, Minnesota, and California. Before that, he worked with a linguistics organization in Ethiopia. He is currently a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.