TCJ 300: Lost in Translation

Posted by on December 30th, 2009 at 12:01 AM


Bring the Noise
Essay by Bill Randall

From Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball Vol. 3, translated by Mari Marimoto; ©1984 Bird Studio.

A little prelude. Not long after this journal started, I was a kid watching Star Blazers on a crackling UHF channel the rabbit ears barely caught. When it rained, Desslok died in the static. I watched every episode regardless. Its deadly serious quest through space entranced me even as it sent older fans off to find the pop-culture Golden Age that spawned it. That pocket universe of vital, romantic and violent comics, from Leiji Matsumoto to Moto Hagio, hid behind a nigh-insurmountable language barrier. The few who made the trip became evangelists. As for me, I could barely understand the script, stumbling over words like “infinity.”

Now I’m older. I know the language and that I missed the Golden Age. Tezuka’s long dead. No one artist rose up to replace him. His form has gone from perhaps Japan’s most vital mass medium to just another bubble in the media mire. The biggest change, though, is manga’s growth abroad. It’s a global subculture, a visual language for hipsters and geeks alike. Meanwhile, the odd American comics pundit still talks of manga like Lou Dobbs does of Mexicans. And fan groups smuggle their own digital translations. But talk of markets bores me.

So, the subject. Talk of the flow of ideas fascinates me. Manga’s a curious case, as its popularity coincides roughly with the spread of digital culture. Perhaps its art, easily apprehended, loves the screen; perhaps it’s just a footnote to videogame culture. I believe it is a unique case, a non-Western pop form that spread despite its creators’ intentions. I only have a partial view of how it spread, so here are four moments in manga’s progress, all gestural.

First moment: in 1976, Maurice Horn included a handful of manga artists in his World Encyclopedia of Comics. I suspect it’s the first mention in the English-language press of the Japanese wing; Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics didn’t appear until 1983. Horn’s encyclopedia fails to give a picture of manga’s scope, or of the relative importance of its artists. Honestly, with certain genres like pachinko comics, it doesn’t make very much sense to talk about the artists who have to crank them out. So Horn had a hard task. He didn’t live up to it, but he got there well ahead of everyone else, at a time when information trickled at best.

Second moment, not yet 20 years later. In the interim a small handful of fans tried to fill the void. A lot of their energy first went to animation, which has been so inseparable from manga as a subculture that I don’t feel bad including it. Decaying on a shelf somewhere, I have a three-ring binder I never gave back to Clay Smith. Inside, fading pages from a dot-matrix printer hold scripts for Bubblegum Crisis, BAOH and Appleseed, three not-yet popular anime shows. Clay had loaned me some Nth-generation bootlegs. I was supposed to watch the show while reading along in the binder. I never did. Four years later, having caught the bug, I drank green light from a VAX terminal in my college’s computer lab, reading about anime and manga on Usenet. There were a few lists and guides out there, well suited for my text-only Web browser. Horn’s encyclopedia had appeared almost exactly 20 years before, and Schodt’s book eluded me. To get the real stuff, I’d heard, you had to go to a conference in New York, or maybe even Japan. The whole field still seemed esoteric. I could watch a straight romance and flatter myself that it was countercultural. Since then, I’ve wondered if part of the appeal’s not having the corny and sincere repackaged so cynical Americans could let themselves enjoy it.

From Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999 Vol. 3, translated by Kaoru Hosaka; ©2000 Leiji Matsumoto/Shogakukan, Inc.

The third moment comes around 2003 or 2004. Manga exploded in the English-language comics world. I missed it, having taken a job in Japan. When I left, the usual suspects (Viz and Dark Horse) had their small catalogs available. When I came back, there were rows and rows of manga in Borders. Just a couple of years earlier, it seemed like manga still met with no more than derision from most Western critics and readers of seriously intended comics. Now the numbers forced at least some of them to take another look.

This third moment puzzles me. In a way, nothing had changed except the translation: Tokyopop began issuing unflipped versions. It made sense for their slipshod adaptations, fast and cheap, and came with clever positioning. All of a sudden, manga was “authentic.” I’ve never bought the idea, and it doesn’t satisfy me as an explanation of the sudden rise in popularity. The numbers are just numbers, leaving out the free advertising that came with increased anime programming on basic cable, as well as upgrades in piracy technology. BitTorrent, for example, had been around since 2001, but came into widespread use around that time. More importantly, social networks like LiveJournal allowed for more personal connections. Before you had to have the unique blend of stubbornness and self-loathing required by message boards, which always have been a kind of shouting match. Now you could just throw your love affair with manga X out there and watch as like-minded fans came to the table. This human energy strikes me as the most important factor. For whatever the reason, the right conditions all came together at that time.

The fourth moment is the glut. In 2000, you could name the people and companies working to bring manga to the West on one hand, maybe two. Now keeping up with just the English-language commentators has become a full-time job. A few of the writers, like Jason Thompson, Xavier Guilbert and the chaps at Same Hat! Same Hat!, deserve careful reading. Most of the rest barely need a skim. Which is not necessarily a criticism   if you have 3,000 people writing about the same book, what are the odds most of them will say the same things?

What happens instead is that they say the same thing in different places. There is no one essential place to read about manga in English. Instead, the trickle of information from 30-plus years ago became a healthy flow. Then, as with everything in the current age, the forces behind it pool into isolated spots. Each one hosts a dialogue or a tribal area or even an intellectual prison; each speaks to a particular subjectivity. One could tip the pen to Postmodernism, were that movement not first passé and second ironic. Manga and its fans have favored bald emotions, putting them closer to New Sincerity, or the Reconstructivists, or whatever the movement after pomo ends up being called. It seems less like forward progress through the history of ideas than an atomization.

From Genshiken Official Book, translated by Satsuki Yamashita; ©2008 Kio Shimoku.

This mirrors Japan now. One of the main reasons it still makes sense to pay Japan the attention it, as a country long stagnant in politics and economy, no longer deserves, is that it offers a model for contemporary life. What has long been a comfortable place to live has taken to extremes, as with, say, the hikikomori, broken students who avoid the outside world entirely. In some ways Japan seems like a Petri dish for the extremes of urban alienation. And it produces fascinating subcultures. A city like Tokyo has a place for everything as long as it stays where it belongs and doesn’t ruffle any feathers. I find some of the most interesting artists working now speak to some small niche in a minor key. Previously, it was the grand narratives from hugely popular artists. These works addressed a time when worldwide conflict was a living memory and everyone felt its effects. Then Japan became middle-class and fantasies replaced a comfortable, mildly unsatisfying life. Now, everyone’s frittering away in their own individual holes on their own individual things. So group life becomes termite life and each subculture gets its own voice.

We’re a far cry from one or two books on manga, or a clutch of copied scripts. The problem becomes what to do with all this information, how to gather and know it all. I have no particular answer, just an observation borrowed from art critic Midori Matsui. In her book Micropop, she speaks of the present moment as a time when we all reassemble what we’re given by the culture around us into new, wholly personal meanings. I tend to agree, with an emphasis on just how fragmented all that information is. Comics as a form possess an inherent advantage over others for representing that fragmentation by virtue of their hybrid nature. They also offer a chance for synthesis on a formal level. Whether artists use them in this manner or just as boxes for jokes is another thing entirely. At the very least, anyone engaged with the form in the last 10 or so years has had a chance to brush against a non-Western view. I continue to hope for some novel synthesis, a truly creative mixing of the varied influences from these countries. Manga’s spread in the West is not like a handful of choice novels or movies making the leap   I can’t think of a comparable spread of one country’s pop into another’s. I suspect it’s temporary, as history tends to swing. At some point information about far-off places will again become hard to come by. For now, though, the noise is not in my only UHF channel, but all around. It’s kind of nice.

Be Sociable, Share!


3 Responses to “TCJ 300: Lost in Translation”

  1. Nice to see I wasn’t the only kid addicted to Star Blazers way back when.

  2. […] maids show up. Akemi looks at the roots of Sailor Moon at Myth and Manga. Bill Randall writes about the proliferation of manga in the U.S. at The Comics Journal. And Christopher Mautner’s review of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, also […]

  3. […] maids show up. Akemi looks at the roots of Sailor Moon at Myth and Manga. Bill Randall writes about the proliferation of manga in the U.S. at The Comics Journal. And Christopher Mautner’s review of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, also […]