Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Otaku Autoethnography Continues: Suspended Animation

So I'll be posting excerpts from my second "Shifting American Images of Japan" talk over at Citizen of Somewhere Else (like I did for the first), but the one I'm going to give Saturday fits Mostly Harmless much better, as I get a bit personal and finally get around to answer a question onechan's uncle Bill Benzon posed months ago. Namely, where does my interest in Japan come from? Here's part of the answer.

I was born in 1969. Growing up in a small town in central New York, I was oblivious to all things Japanese for many years. None of my grandparents were W.W. II veterans; my parents and their siblings were either too young to remember the war or born after it. To be sure, when we visited my father’s parents, I couldn’t help but notice the Asian art hanging on the walls of their home, but the fact that my grandmother had worked in a major New York city art gallery for decades was not all that impressive or interesting to me at that age. What I was into as a kid were cartoons like Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, and Voltron. What I want to emphasize about these cartoons is something I think is true of many Americans of my generation, including people a little older than I who first got into Astro Boy or Speed Racer (which I had neither seen nor heard of then): before we were even aware that they originally came from Japan, we were exposed to Japanese culture through them.

Part of the reason for my lack of awareness, as I found out much later, is that many Japanese elements were removed and many American elements added as Space Battleship Yamato, Gatchaman, and Hyaku-o Go Lion were translated, edited, modified, redubbed, and released in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And part of the reason was my own preteen and early teenage cultural illiteracy--I was certainly aware of the differences between these cartoons and the American-made ones I watched on Saturday mornings and weekdays after school, but I simply didn’t know enough to mark those differences as Japanese at the time.

Nor did I mark the video games my friends and I played as often as we could in mall arcades, movie theaters, hotel lobbies, and entrances to department stories in the early-to-mid-1980s as Japanese, either. I neither knew nor cared that games such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong were Japanese imports. When my family moved to North Carolina for a year in the early 1980s, my next-door-neighbor and best friend had an Atari home video game console, but neither it nor the Nintendo system that friends in upstate New York allowed my younger brother and me to play upon our return to our hometown stood out to us as particularly Japanese. Like the cartoons we liked, they were simply part of the media landscape in which we were growing up, one part of our lives balanced by a range of other leisure activities and entertainment sources. This kind of obliviousness, I believe, was relatively benign, given its contrast with the techno-orientalism and Japan-bashing in more adult settings and media niches of the 1980s that I surveyed last week.

What did stand out as Japanese to me, oddly enough, besides weekend afternoon showings of badly dubbed Godzilla movies, were American-made movie series like The Karate Kid and Marvel Comics superhero titles like Daredevil, X-Men, and Wolverine, whose plots and themes in the 1980s often revolved around American (and Canadian) encounters with a mystical, mysterious, mixed ancient-futuristic Japan. Even though I was aware of parodies of these “Japan”-engaging works like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, at the time I preferred the inspirational movies and tragic comic books to its kind of humorous, critical approach to American images of Japan and appropriations of Japanese culture that I would only come to appreciate later in life.

As the 1980s wore on and I matured, of course, I became more aware of the larger political and economic contexts that framed these cultural forms. But I was always distanced from if not overtly skeptical of the “Buy American” campaigns, moral panics over Japanese purchases of classic American corporations and properties, and evidence of trade frictions in the cartoons and editorials of even our local newspapers. The unreflective, unstudied, anti-political approach of my friends and I--who simply enjoyed playing (Japanese) video games, watching (Japanese) cartoons, and hanging out--paradoxically became a reproach to any and all Japan panics going on around us. To the extent that I paid attention to politics over sports, cartoons, comic books, science fiction and fantasy novels, video games, television, music, and other forms of popular culture, I was critical of the “Reagan Revolution” for its rollback of civil rights, war on the poor, and confrontational and interventionist foreign policy. Even after I entered college in the fall of 1987, I was much more focused on apartheid in South Africa and the Iran-Contra scandal than on anything to do with Japan. The courses that interested me the most were in English, political theory, and African-American Studies; the literature of slavery and the Holocaust was such a main focus of mine that even a winter term comparative literature course on women in modern Japan didn’t make much of an impression on me.

Even after I entered graduate school in the fall of 1991 and decided to focus on the study of race and American literature, I largely conceived of race in terms of black and white then. To be sure, I looked back at the exoticization of Japan in the comic books I loved as a teenager more critically, was angry at the racism of Japan-bashing Hollywood movies like Black Rain and Rising Sun, and was infuriated by the American media’s framing of Asian Americans in the O.J. Simpson trials and the Los Angeles riots following the exoneration of the police officers who were caught on video beating Rodney King, but my core interests were in Black Studies. It took me until the mid-1990s to begin to branch out into the variety of U.S. literatures, learn from the comparative and integrative approaches in the critical race theory I was studying, and apply what I was learning about postmodernism, postcolonialism, and cultural studies to my own understanding of American popular culture.


Bill Benzon said...

I think what got me was seeing Sayonara – BTW, look at the cast. I would have been all of 10 years old at the time. That and various things around the house, including stuff one or two uncles brought back from WWII. I still have a (very faded) purple silk kimono one of them gave my mother.

The Constructivist said...

Wow--I wrote about Sayonara in my second talk. I think I'll be posting the part of the second talk where it comes up tomorrow!

Bill Benzon said...

Pop culture'll get you every time.