Manga and anime at MCAD: Taking cartoons seriously

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The influences of manga and anime are everywhere, even if they’re not always identifiable. Japanese artists often go unnoticed in the US because people often dismiss manga and anime as mere comics and cartoons. Despite this prevailing attitude, manga and anime are making significant and transforming inroads into the cultures and economies of the world. The Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits (SGMS) sessions that ran at MCAD from September 26 to 28 not only responded to the popular aspects of this phenomenon, but also provided a forum for a deeper and more profound look at the influence manga and anime are having over a variety of cultural forms and in various arenas around the world.

Mystical TV, misty eyes

Artist and writer ABe Yoshitoshi, a special guest at SGMS, says he relied on his subconscious to create the series Haibane Renmei. In American culture, we might call it “stream-of-consciousness” writing. Yoshitoshi says simply, “I had to get it done, so I didn’t stop to think.”

Marc R. Hairston, research scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, made a two-hour presentation of the series at SGMS, explaining the story, the themes, and the ethereal beauty of Yoshitoshi’s series. Haibane Renmei is a vastly complex and challenging masterpiece that is both gentle and compelling. The story concerns a group of children, both adolescent and pre-adolescent, who live in a walled city, Glie, with other humans. These children, though, are Haibane, having halos and gray-colored feathered wings. The title Haibane Renmei translates into English as Ash Feather Federation.

Despite the angelic appearance of the Haibane, they are relegated to abandoned buildings and live as a group of second-class citizens. The story’s main character, Rakka, appears during the opening credits of the first episode in a dream, falling from the sky, unclear where she is. She awakens from the dream to find herself inside a cocoon in Old Home, one of the Haibane abodes. When she emerges from the cocoon, she finds the other Haibane, including Reki, the unofficial leader, a motherlike character who befriends her.

The series ultimately addresses mythic themes and epic conflict. Rakka learns the truth of her condition: she came to Glie from a previous life, having no memories, but feels she has left someone behind and that she must return to help that person. The series takes us along on Rakka’s journey as she learns about her new world and, eventually, the dark truths that hold Rakka and her friend Reki captive. Moving through loss, confusion, conflict, and suffering, Rakka seeks answers to questions that are universal to the human condition. By the end of the presentation, everyone in the auditorium, including Hairston, sniffled and wiped stray tears.

Yoshitoshi spoke of his approach to art:

[When we look at the world], what we think we are looking at is really a very rough image. When you look at me, you think I must be here, but what you really see is a reconstruction of your memory fitting to this place. We are utilizing information in the brain to match the image to someone we saw in the past. Manga combines symbols to create a totally new different style of reality. I want to find a collection of symbols that stimulates your memories of what you experienced. This image isn’t exactly what I want to tell you. It’s more like a question for you. Quite often people tell me that my illustrations are memorable—very impressive—and I think this is the reason.

The sessions included a look at manga- and anime-inspired fashion design. 60 models displayed the work of nine designers, including Samantha Rae, Megan Maude, Joyce Cheng, and Samantha Ring. Common themes in the fashion show included “Lolita” (“Loli” for short), a common theme in manga and anime. These outfits featured ruffles, short pleated skirts, and the various accessories commonly associated with young schoolgirls and their school uniforms. Consistent with the postmodern, ironic flavor of manga and anime, these elements often co-occurred with modified Victorian and Edwardian styles, including petticoats (without a skirt covering them), top hats, bustles, pin stripes, paisley, canes, and laced boots. Gothic (Goth) also showed up as a common theme: dark, heavy makeup, black and gray cloth, skulls, spiders and spiderwebs, bones, and tattoos.

Such blending of cultural elements is a vital aspect of the allure of manga and anime. “The Japanese take something in from another culture, adopt it, and make it their own,” said Frenchy Lunning, co-founder and director of the SGMS sessions. This is further evidenced in the emergence of Kawaii Noir. Theresa Winge, manga and anime fan and assistant professor of fashion design and theory in the Indiana University Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, discussed this cultural movement. The Japanese word Kawaii translates into English as “cute” or “cutesy.” Winge used Hello Kitty as the quintessential example of Kawaii. “Hello Kitty evokes sympathy and vulnerability,” said Winge. “She doesn’t have a mouth. She is a silent, cute character you feel drawn to.”

The Noir facet of Kawaii Noir derives from the French word meaning “black,” but also harkens to the darker and more sinister aspects of art represented in movements like Film Noir and Goth. “On the surface, [Kawaii Noir] looks cute,” said Winge. “But when you look close, there is complexity. The images and the interest are compelling and repelling at the same time.” Examples of Kawaii Noir include renditions of Hello Kitty dressed in black leather and a pink skull button affixed to the knot of her black hair bow. Lunning believes these kinds of complexities account for the popularity of manga and anime in Western nations. They don’t represent the typical forms dispensed from Paris, New York, Hollywood and other commercial and cultural centers in the West. “Their [popularity is] generally spread by word of mouth,” said Lunning.

Manga and anime creators often develop challenging, original plots and characters. They represent a context beyond the mythology and value sets of Western civilization, yet still invoke familiar archetypes. Voice actor Crispin Freeman explored this effect by using the teachings of Joseph Campbell to analyze the anime film The Adolescence of Utena. The film includes scenes of a woman warrior turning into a pink, highly stylized race car when she passes through a giant car wash that falls out of the sky, and a mammoth castle on wheels that blocks Utena’s path to destiny. Despite the vast differences between this film and, say, The Little Mermaid or Shrek, Freeman argues that the film uses strong imagery and compelling, though often bizarre and foreign plot lines to draw upon the archetypal hero’s journey. The message of Utena, according to Freeman: “Find your own metaphor and revolutionize the world by becoming the author of your ultimate reality.”

Manga and anime also often challenge the morality and history of values in the West. Verssen Werks, an overdub parody production company, presented a discussion of Yaoi, a specialized genre that centers on themes of homosexuality, yet is generally produced by females for females. Much of Yaoi presents masculine homosexual sex as a manly pursuit, a kind of literal “male bonding,” whose tradition dates back centuries in Japan. Stories tell of different kinds of gay sex and different kinds of gay men. In Yaoi, men create close, meaningful relationships that are not necessarily sexual—though in Yaoi, they usually are.

Other sessions at SGMS included explorations of manga and anime distribution over the Internet and via cell phones. More than once, I overheard discussions of the problem of Internet piracy and how the market is changing. Some sessions focused strictly upon craft, giving participants tips for developing and drawing characters, drawing one’s own comics, and designing fashion. The vast array of information presented allowed both a broad and a deep exploration of these two increasingly important forms of Japanese art.

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.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Mark Weaver’s preview of the SGMS converence.

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