Monday, December 15, 2014

About Student Papers and Anime

With apologies once again for the delay--this one imposed by end-of-semester work...

One of my undergraduate literature students from the spring has been working with me to revise and refine the conference paper I had his class write. It is flattering in itself, as having students continue to work on projects after their classes are done is a rarity and a mark of appreciation. But it is more validating that that alone, as the student's paper has been accepted for presentation in one of the Papers by Undergraduates panels at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies. And it is of interest to the Society generally, as the student's paper is one explicitly concerned with the kinds of things the Society does; it examines the appropriation of a medieval source in a contemporary popular culture medium--in this case, an anime series. I do not want to tread upon my student's work by giving much specific detail, but I can note that the series he is examining is not the only one which deploys the medieval as generally understood (some discussion of which is here). I can note that I wonder along with him why that would be the case.

That anime makes use of the Western medieval is evident in a number of series; my own viewing leads me to recall Berserk, particularly, as well as some parts of Hellsing and even of Rurouni Kenshin. Cruciform swords and Gothic plate appear, as well as courts of kings and queens, mercenary bands, and the cut-stone castles familiar from history and legend instead of or, at least, in addition to katana and o-yoroi, daimyo and ronin, and shiro and kyuden. Some series even go so far as to deploy the occasional bits of language from the Western medieval, making for a somewhat jarring intrusion into the prevailing Japanese-language dialogue from time to time but marking the series in which they appear as partaking abundantly of the Western medieval.

Japan has a long feudal history of its own to deploy, however, and one that begs for reconsideration or further consideration of what is meant by "medieval." It is as heavily romanticized as the Western Middle Ages and indeed often identified as a parallel; samurai and chivalric knights largely run in tandem, as both are bound (nominally) by stringent codes of honor and fealty to military service in the name of their lord. Both exist as disparate states unified by shared language (Japanese among the samurai, Latin and perhaps French among the chivalric knights) and a centralized religious structure (veneration of the Emperor as the descendant of the Sun Goddess among the samurai, the Catholic Church among the chivalric knights). That anime--a distinctly Japanese cultural product--would partake as frequently of the Western medieval as it does thus makes sense, as the parallels lend themselves to deployment, as well as making less sense, as the parallels are not necessary. (The same is true of Western depictions of samurai culture; the parallels invite such treatments even as they would seem to argue against their necessity.)

A number of reasons for the deployment come to mind. One of them is one my student is pursuing in his own paper, so I shall set it aside so as not to tread upon him--although, for the record, I think his idea is a good one, and I look forward to addressing it more fully after he presents his paper. Another, though, seems to work in much the same way as Said's concept of Orientalism. To a Japanese audience, the Western Middle Ages is Other (although the correspondence is not entirely exact due to historical circumstances and what amounts to ongoing colonialist practice), therefore exotic to some degree and attractive therefore. At the same time, there are sufficient parallels in play to permit easy access into that exotic Other--or at least romanticized versions of it. Anime deployment of Western medieval imagery thus simultaneously facilitates Coleridgean willingness to suspend disbelief for its audience by maintaining a Tolkienian inner consistency of reality; it permits the creation of a "foreign" world that is unusual enough to allow for the uncanny while remaining accessible enough to viewers that they can immerse themselves in the narrative.

Yet another might be in the relative artistic freedom the deployment permits. A work that draws from its expected audience's history and culture subjects itself to critique based upon the perceived in/accuracy of that drawing, as appears even in several comments presented in this blog (those which treat "historical authenticity" and "Game of Thrones" are particularly relevant). Unlike those posed earlier in this webspace, though, many of the comments arguing about the in/accuracy will come from those who are perhaps trained otherwise than in the histories they would purport to discuss authoritatively, based upon what they were taught--not always by the best--or what they have "researched"--again, not always from the best sources. While artists are not obliged to consider the comments of their audiences, those who will seek to earn livings from their art are, and handling such comments can be tiresome. Drawing from the history and culture of another group than the expected primary audience, though, reduces the problem substantially; the audience will likely include far fewer who consider themselves experts on the history and culture deployed, and they are more likely to be able to demonstrate actual expertise than the armchair commentators common in other circumstances. While concerns of cultural appropriation can arise (albeit to a lesser degree than might otherwise be the case, given the explicit attempts at spreading Western--specifically United States mainstream--culture that have been and are still being made; it is hard to argue that culture is stolen by a populace when it is being shoved down that populace's collective throat), they occur far less frequently than those which assail works for their inaccuracies. Artists working with other cultures than those of their anticipated audiences thus have more room to take license--which suggests itself as a good reason for anime to make use of Western medieval constructions in its own storytelling.

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