Cover art for The Soul of Anime

Book Review – The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story

Condry, Ian. The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Brian Bergstrom

Ian Condry’s new ethnography of anime is a wonderfully accessible and lively tour through a comparatively understudied aspect of the medium: its production and circulation.  Our sustained scholarly interest in anime — as well as manga, video games, and attendant other cultural forms — would not exist without the production and marketing, as well as the legitimate and illegitimate circulation, that, as Condry points out, has enabled it to become a global “success.” One of his main points is that the value of anime resides in the investments both producers and consumers make in it.  In this sense, its value is not primarily measurable in monetary terms, but in terms more nebulously of “excitement,” which means that the work of fans contributes immeasurably to its success even while much of their work is technically illegal.  As Condry points out in his introduction, the bulk of anime analysis focuses on the interpretation of works as texts, framed as commentaries on Japanese culture and society.  He positions himself as an anthropologist intervening into this textually-focused field, asserting that ethnographic inquiry contributes a crucial avenue to understanding the social aspects of anime, which he says condition the production, circulation, and consumption of these texts and confer upon them their value.

By shifting the focus of anime studies in this way, Condry contributes greatly to the understanding of anime as a cultural form with both Japanese and global features. The picture that emerges is compellingly kaleidoscopic, leading from the paper-choked rooms where animators toil frame-by-frame, to the alternately vivifying and tense meetings where the direction of anime projects gets hammered out; from the contentious, competitive world of fans devoting huge amounts of time and energy into the illegal subtitling and distribution of unlicensed anime, to the agonized negotiation of affect by men who seek social acceptance of their intense attachment to virtual characters.  Condry argues that these social phenomena are not offshoots, after-effects or re-appropriations of anime works, but rather the very stuff of anime as a medium, so that an analysis of anime cannot be separated from the sociality that conditions its emergence.

The book is organized into seven short chapters, each detailing a facet of the collaborative processes that define the creation, consumption and circulation of anime and related products.  The first five chapters are based directly on fieldwork Condry conducted at anime studios, both well-known (such as Gainax and Studio Ghibli) and emerging at the time of his research (such as Gonzo, creators of Red Garden [2006]); toy companies like Bandai, famous for its lines of toys and games associated with the ongoing series Gundam; and self-consciously avant-garde studios like 4°C, which produced Tekkonkinkreet (2006). The last two chapters are based on analyses of Internet-mediated communities of fansubbers and self-proclaimed devotees of “moe,” glossed by Condry as “a term for the affectionate longing for 2D characters” (187).  Tying these disparate examples together is Condry’s focus on, as he puts it, the way that the “social in media” (29) generates value.

Indeed, value is a key term in the book as a whole, one that ties the emphasis on the collaborative creativity that produces anime to anime’s global emergence as the success story of the book’s title.  Condry’s argument depends on pushing the idea of value away from sheer exchange value and toward an idea of value as a measure of “that which is most meaningful” (29) to those engaged with anime as a platform for creative social interaction.  In fact, collaborative, social energy moving through the engagements that condition both the production and consumption of anime is precisely what Condry calls the “soul” of anime.  The value of anime is thus its soulfulness – its ability to facilitate a kind of collaborative creativity that is bound neither to notions of a national, cultural “essence,” nor to purely economic market relations.  This means that even a phenomenon like moe, which at first seems completely exterior to anime’s movement through the global marketplace, can be reconceptualized in terms of value and exchange. “What kind of value,” asks Condry, “arises from consumption, especially if that consumption is immaterial, a kind of affective attachment – simply, in a word, love?” (187).

This conceptual move allows Condry to analogize the collaborations that go into, for example, the creation of an anime feature such as Summer Wars (dir. Hosoda Mamoru, 2009) with those that go into, to take another example, the creation of thickly annotated “fansub” versions of anime made by teams of fans who collaborate and compete purely for the sake of facilitating anime distribution in non-Japanese-speaking environments.  It also expands the ambitions of ethnographies of cultural industries, gesturing toward ways to connect analyses of fan cultures to analyses of the corporate cultures that produce the media around which fan cultures organize themselves.

Condry considers both kinds of activities to be part of a generalized flow of collaborative creativity that constitutes anime as a platform uniquely proficient at forging connections with the other media – manga, video games, character goods, toys, etc. – within which it is embedded.  Yet despite the conceptual links he traces between the creative collaborations of anime creators and those of anime fans, Condry finds few historical links between corporate production and fan production.  That is, fans who pour energy into becoming well-known fansubbers or producers of unlicensed anime or manga by using established characters do not serve as a talent pool that anime studios use to staff their ranks.  This finding agrees with other ethnographies of the Japanese popular culture industry, such as Jennifer Prough’s study of the publishers of mainstream shojo manga (Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga, University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).  Rather, with few exceptions, studios rely on talented individuals working their way up through the ranks of artists and writers within the industry. The major exception to this is the phenomenon of self-identified “otaku” founding their own studios (such as Gainax).  But even this is unusual, since founders of studios more commonly worked at an established studio before forging their own path.

This tension between conceptual and actual collaboration leads Condry to one of the main points of friction between fan-based and studio-based modes of creativity: the status of copyright.  The studio heads and directors he interviews seem at best indulgently dismissive of the unlicensed subtitling and distribution of their products, and at worst threateningly litigious.  Condry details several instances of companies sending cease and desist notices to fansites, invoking a copyright law.  In Condry’s account, this atmosphere has resulted in a culture of self-policing within the fansub community, with many sites asserting an ethical imperative to take fansubbed materials down once there is a licensed version available.  Indeed, he points toward this kind of self-regulation when he maintains that a proper “way out” of the conundrums of copyright battles resides in “the potential of open spaces and how audience energy helps make connections” (184).  In other words, Condry argues that there must be a middle ground between seeing the anime industry either as a top-down, corporate-controlled culture industry in the Frankfurt School sense of the term or as a bottom-up, truly popular efflorescence of fan-driven passion.

The concept of a space that allows for innovation, creativity, or flows of capital informs many of the discussions in the book. Technically illegal fansubbing is one example, a space created by the combination of the lag in legal distribution of anime outside Japan and the Internet’s ability to serve as a platform for anonymous collaboration and the redistribution of digital files. But Condry also extends the “open space” metaphor to talk about creativity itself, the formal innovations of certain studios and creators arising from the collaborations that move a project from initial conceptualization to concrete execution. In his discussion of the “cutting-edge” anime studio 4°C, for example, Condry writes:  “[A] useful way to imagine a crucible of creativity is to see it as an open space that people can fill with energy, commitment, and skill.  It’s like the open space between the frames of a comic strip, known as the ‘gutter,’ where the reader must fill in the missing steps.” (137) The subtitle of the chapter – “The Value of the ‘Gutter’” – cues the reader that this concept will also speak to the question of value that runs through the book.  Where does value reside, and of what does it consist?  One answer appears to be in these open spaces that both anime producers and fans fill with labor, energy, and affect.

Condry’s analysis hinges on a general theory of the soulfulness he locates in characters and worlds associated with anime, soulfulness that takes the form of the value produced though the collaborative filling of empty spaces with creativity. Invested with soul, the characters and worlds of anime move transmedially and transnationally to knit together producers and consumers, fans and executives, Japanese and non-Japanese into a networked web of collaboration and collective investment. Conceptualizing anime in this way expands the purview of Japanese popular culture studies in provocative ways, allowing for a more comprehensive view than that allowed in analyses that focus exclusively on modes of consumption or modes of production.

But the emphasis on a collaborative creativity characteristic of both fans and studios can sometimes obscure the workings of power that also operate through these networks.  Even if there are aspects of the collaborative creativity Condry examines that seem to redefine “success” or “value” in ways that move beyond strictly economic measures, these collaborations – especially fan collaborations, like those that create fan-subbed anime – still must negotiate the global economy and national interests to find the “open spaces” in which to pursue their interests.  In formulating value as “that which matters most” to creators, Condry cites the work of anthropologist David Graeber, who argues for a redefinition of value beyond use value and exchange value in favor of one that recognizes social functions that do not fit into capitalist exchange.  He does so in order to clear a space for the conceptualization of human sociality, and therefore a mode of life, that is not determined by capitalism (Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, Palgrave 2001).  Graeber associates this new kind of value with “pure creative potential” (261), and Condry’s emphasis on creativity in formulating what defines anime’s success follows up and elaborates on Graeber’s formulation.  But what sometimes becomes hard to locate is an account of what might still obstruct or segment these flows of energy as they cross economic or national boundaries to connect fans and studios, and how the re-valuation of anime along social and creative lines might subvert, bracket, or operate independently of these boundaries.

To answer these questions, one would have to account for the asymmetrical array of forces in a marketplace made up of corporations producing and distributing products within and across national borders, which is what, for example, copyright laws attempt to control by segmenting these flows in order to generate profit.  This asymmetry is what makes the distinction between “top-down” and “bottom-up” culture operational, indexing vectors not just of the distribution of value but also of its enforcement — that is, the transformation of value into force along lines benefitting those with the most economic and political power.  To lose sight of this asymmetry, to quote a sentence from one of Graeber’s more polemical arguments, is to risk placing oneself in a position where “the perspective of the anthropologist and the global marketing executive have become almost indistinguishable” (Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004, 100).

This is a thorny theoretical problem for popular culture studies in general, and the very fact that Condry’s book provokes such reflection demonstrates the extent of its contribution to the study of anime as medium and social platform. Condry opens up a discussion that is usually foreclosed in the study of popular culture as a series of texts to be interpreted in isolation or in the context of a static conception of Japanese culture.  His intervention thus spurs the reader to consider popular culture forms as social actors, dynamic flows through which society can be made and remade to better express what “really matters” to those who participate in it. In his conclusion, Condry writes that he has attempted to locate “entry points” for examining how “social and business worlds form a kind of scaffolding around which production achieves certain kinds of value” (206). Condry finds such value primarily in the affective attachment that drives both the production and consumption of anime; this attachment emerges throughout the book as the excitement shared by those who make anime for profit and those who labor intensely for no material benefit in social worlds organized around it.  To read Condry’s book is to become excited about these social worlds and creative collaborations, and the “open space” that he creates within the study of Japanese – and global – forms of popular culture demands further exploration and debate. His book will endure as a landmark publication in the field for precisely this reason.

Brian Bergstrom is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago and a Sessional Lecturer and Visiting Researcher at McGill University in Montréal.  He has written about Japanese literature, popular culture and fandom in a variety of venues, including Mechademia, and is the editor and principle translator of We, the Children of Cats: Stories and Novellas by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press: 2012).