Book review

Mechademia Vol. 6: User enhanced, edited by Frenchy Lunning

Samantha Close

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Anime; Audience; Gender; Manga; Theory

Close, Samantha. 2013. Mechademia Vol. 6: User Enhanced, edited by Frenchy Lunning [book review]. In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0421.

Frenchy Lunning, ed., Mechademia Vol. 6: User enhanced. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, paperback, $24.95 (319p) ISBN 978-0-8166-7734-4.

[1] Editor Frenchy Lunning's Mechademia series takes a provocative and insightful look at manga and anime. The volumes showcase traditional and nontraditional academic work produced by scholars and artists in the United States, Canada, Japan, and beyond. After receiving an overwhelming response to their call for work on fans and fan practices, the editorial team extended this discussion over the most recent two issues of the series. User Enhanced, the sixth Mechademia volume, investigates the transformation of fans from consumers to users of Japanese popular culture.

[2] The topic, both here and in volume 5, Fanthropologies (2010), makes the work of immediate general interest to fan studies scholars, particularly those whose work relates to Japan. Given the specific focus of User Enhanced on creative fan practices, however, there is a surprising lack of emphasis on fan-created works as such. Some essays, such as Kumiko Saito's comparison of Japanese boys' love manga dōjinshi and English slash fan fiction, do discuss fan-created texts, but most interrogate practices associated with fans, such as costume play (cosplay), as depicted in official texts, or discourses, such as letter writing, that add to text worlds but are usually not creative in the same sense as fan fiction or fan-created videos. One result of this selection decision is that fan engagement is largely framed as an add-on—an enhancement to the official texts rather than as significant in its own right. In the introduction, Thomas Lamarre notes that User Enhanced takes a critical look at the transforming relationship between fans and media worlds with a special emphasis on economic and political considerations as "the user enhanced…straddles the dynamics of 'value added' and 'user empowered'" (xv). This is an important investigation, but it places primary importance on the new status of the source text rather than that of the audience.

[3] A major theme across the 18 contributions is the importance of building a theoretical framework that can support working with nontraditional objects, such as transmedia narrative worlds or a text bounded by a particular character's media presence rather than by a narrative. In "Beyond Domesticating Animal Love," Christine Marran looks at fan desire as a social force in the discourse around Tama-chan, a bearded seal that left the ocean for a well-publicized stay in various Japanese rivers. Choosing a source discourse of news reports, letters, popular memorials, and other actions one might associate with a popular zoo animal rather than a fictional character suggests nonfictional media fandoms as a unique area of interest for fan studies. Marran challenges traditional understandings of fans as a discrete, often marginalized group by showing Tama-chan's fans to be drawn from and emblematic of mainstream Japanese society. Her conclusion that the fannish love for Tama-chan encouraged Japanese people to reconsider the relationship of humans with nature, rather than simply to consume Tama-chan as a cute object by putting him in a zoo, also speaks to debates in critical animal theory about how to recognize and respect animals' autonomy while still living with them. Miri Nakamura translates the foreword and first chapter of Gō Itō's groundbreaking Tezuka Is Dead, in which Itō makes a strong case for the importance of adapting formal analysis methods to multiplatform texts. Itō argues that auteur-style analysis misrepresents the relationship between contemporary manga and its audience. He instead develops a framework based on manga's formal elements and manga reading practices that could be a helpful approach for scholars working with a variety of source texts.

[4] User Enhanced deals mostly with material in Japanese cultural contexts, but there is clearly attention to a wider scholarly audience. The essay titles presume a certain familiarity with terms like shōjo (girls), but many pieces come with informative footnotes or clear summaries to guide a reader unfamiliar with ganguro fashion or NEETs. Matthew Penney, for example, does thick historical and primary-source research into the situation of Japanese youth in "Exploited and Mobilized: Poverty and Work in Contemporary Manga." Penney contrasts common governmental critiques of poor Japanese youth as abandoning their responsibilities to society and choosing poverty out of laziness with the way poor, working-class youth are depicted in manga texts. Penney argues that contemporary depictions of poor youth in manga illustrate the actual hardships in their lives, in contrast to earlier rosy depictions following the official line, and treats the reading public of manga as a force to be mobilized for social change. Cathy Sell is one of the only writers to consider explicitly the non-Japanese fans of Japanese popular media, an important group for the English-language Mechademia series. In "Manga Translation and Interculture," Sell performs a contextually aware analysis of both translated manga volumes and original non-Japanese manga. She highlights the creative process of these non-Japanese fans in developing their own interculture rather than parasitically imitating Japanese culture.

[5] Kumiko Saito's "Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women's Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan" and James Welker's "Flower Tribes and Female Desire: Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga" both analyze slashlike practices associated with boys' love—discourses likely to seem initially familiar to many fan studies scholars, particularly in this special volume of Transformative Works and Cultures focusing on boys' love. This pair of essays performs an enlightening defamiliarization by analyzing the configuration of these slashlike practices in two Japanese cultural contexts. Saito highlights the ambiguous blending together of the commercial manga market and that for fan-made slash manga (boys' love dōjinshi), both of which are commonly sold in commercial bookstores. Although her comparison with English-language slash is hampered by a limited conception of those works, Saito's conclusion that boys' love dōjinshi often serves conservative functions for its female readership is an important reminder that active reading and fan creation is not necessarily politically liberating. Welker performs a close reading of Barazoku and other magazines aimed at gay male Japanese readers that feature letters from and even special features for female readers. He challenges the oft-heard denial that any connection exists between homosexuals and boys' love manga by investigating the complex and contradictory reading processes of these magazines' female fans.

[6] Another prominent theme across the essays is femininity and fannish engagement by women. Besides the essays considering female fans of male-male romance already mentioned, Frenchy Lunning's own contribution, "Under the Ruffles: Shōjo and the Morphology of Power," takes a highly theoretical look at currents of power and abjection in "girly" visual culture as it develops under patriarchy. Lunning argues that the paradox of denying any meaning and substance to cute, girly culture while recognizing that it utterly dominates the commercial media realm signifies the reentry of the feminine into the Japanese public sphere. Brian Bergstrom considers similar themes in a close look at the actual text and social context of Lolita fandom as conceived by a male author in "Girliness Next to Godliness: Lolita Fandom as Sacred Criminality in the Novels of Takemoto Novala." By privileging the present moment and continually returning to girlishness rather than marching onward toward womanhood, Bergstrom reads the shōjo as a figure of queer rebellion. Both of these essays, particularly Bergstrom's, clearly connect to fan studies by considering fan practices of costuming, reading, and purchasing supplementary goods. They also speak to debates in queer theory through analyzing ideas of drag and antifuturity, refusing to define the present by what it can contribute to the future. Aden Evens destabilizes a stereotypical conception of first-person shooter gamers as male in his essay "The Logic of Digital Gaming." Evens fleshes out a way of understanding interaction with media beyond the analysis of differing representations. He argues that the arbitrary relationship between objects in virtual and physical worlds means that scholars should analyze the player's process of learning how to play, and not necessarily the content that features on screen.

[7] User Enhanced's traditional essays are broken up into four main sections: "Countering Domestication," which considers the sociopolitical implications of fannish practice; "Commodity-Life," which considers fannish engagement via formal analysis; "Desiring Economies," which works to conceptualize desiring and wanting as practices; and "Untimely Effects," which analyzes interacting with texts as a process that occurs over time. Looking at the introduction and overall essay organization, it's clear that the volume wants to be more critical of the idea of "user-enhanced" than most of the essays actually are. Thus some of the essays, such as Yoshikuni Igarashi's "Tsuge Yoshiharu and Postwar Japan: Travel, Memory, and Nostalgia," feel less connected to the volume's theme—this despite Igarashi's persuasive close reading of Yoshiharu's biography and manga works. A running tension exists between the extensive research into how fans engage with media worlds showcased in many essays and suggestions, often placed in conclusions, of the importance of political change and not forgetting to engage with the so-called real world. The relationship between media and concrete worlds is considered most extensively in Shinji Miyadai's essay "Transformation of Semantics in the History of Japanese Subcultures since 1992," translated by Shion Kono. Although the deep engagement with histories of fan culture in Japan might be challenging for a reader without a basic knowledge of these histories, Miyadai uses a systems theory approach to understanding and describing fan activity that is far different from those commonly seen in English-language scholarship. This approach considers changes in how individuals understand the relationship between themselves and their media texts to cause major shifts in society as a whole. Miyadai takes seriously common paradoxes of fan stereotypes, such as the image of "sexual naïfs whose literacy lies in pornography," by connecting them to other social phenomena and arguing that fans evidence changes in Japanese society as a whole (231). He develops many useful conceptual frames in this endeavor, such as the distinction between living in fictional worlds as though they were reality and living in the real world as though it were a game, and ultimately argues that the physical and virtual worlds have become functionally indistinguishable.

[8] The essays in the "Commodity-Life" section, as well as other essays that engage in deep analysis of a particular work, develop the fascinating question of how to understand, as Lamarre explains it, "user-enhanced commodity-worlds from the angle of the commodity itself" (xi). These include two new installments of work continuing from earlier Mechademia volumes, Thomas Lamarre's "Speciesism" and Livia Monnet's "Anatomy of Permutational Desire." Monnet offers a theoretically subtle reading of Mamoru Oshii's film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence that might interest anyone working on fan doll practices or nontraditional methods of political engagement. By combining these two discourses, Monnet argues that permutational bodies, like dolls or cyborgs, are the building ground for a powerful in-between state of "complicit critique." Through inhabiting a technological doll body, one can critique contemporary political and technological systems while being embedded inside them. In "Speciesism," Lamarre analyzes the formal properties of animation in a way that links to critical animality theory. He particularly considers the emergence of cuteness as a phenomenon with sociomilitary reverberations. This emphasis on cuteness and the relation of animal characters to human viewers and societies continues with Emily Raine's "The Sacrificial Economy of Cuteness in Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space." Her close reading of the film considers the question of how to theorize affective relationships between viewers and texts in the contemporary information economy. Hirohito Miyamoto's essay "How Characters Stand Out" (translated by Lamarre) develops a way of formally understanding a text as a character rather than as a bounded narrative work that will be intriguing and helpful for fan studies, where fans often organize around a particular character more than around the work as a whole.

[9] Notable in this volume are the pieces of nontraditional academic work included in the "Photo Play" and "Torendo" (trend) sections that make great use of photographs and visual storytelling. Both of these pieces complement the themes of engagement with femininity seen elsewhere in the volume. Rio Saitō's photographs of "Fancy" fashion and cosplay events capture dramatically evocative and tender moments, although I wished for more contextualization and discussion than is possible in the short introductory segment by Lunning. Lisa Blauersouth's essay in the "Torendo" section, "Wherein the Author Documents Her Experience as a Porcelain Doll," is a personally inflected but broadly considered account of the author and her partner's experiences as Lolita. Yuka Kanno's essay "Implicational Spectatorship: Hara Setsuko and the Queer Joke" is grounded in visual studies and traditional academia but also connects well with these pieces by experimenting with writing about her own fannish subject position as an "Ozuphile" watching classic 1940s to 1960s Japanese cinema in a more contemporary moment. All of this work makes me excited about the future of nontraditional academic writing, and I am hopeful that later volumes will continue and expand on the cross-influences of and conversation between the traditional and nontraditional pieces seen here.

[10] User Enhanced provides a solid set of essays that raises provocative questions about and suggests subtle theoretical frameworks for fan engagement with Japanese popular culture. This volume highlights the benefits of bringing diverse work together: excellent translations of Japanese-language scholarship, nontraditional academic writing, and the inclusion of pieces by scholars at various stages of their career. The remarkable incorporation of visual material into the volume (13 of 18 pieces include illustrations, charts, or graphs) not only helps orient readers unfamiliar with the Japanese primary texts discussed, but also allows writers to think outside the box in making their arguments. As just one example, Sell includes to-scale figures explaining her point about textual influence and anticipated audiences via the literal size of manga volumes and DVD cases.

[11] Although User Enhanced is not primarily focused on boys' love, the deep looks it takes at how fans engage with the whole spectrum of Japanese popular culture makes it relevant to the readers of this boys' love special issue, even beyond the essays by Saito and Welker on this topic. This is particularly true for the focus on shōjo fans, arguably the other best-known and most influential mode for female fans organizing around Japanese popular culture. Although the essays are not consistently strong and the critical viewpoint on its stated topic sometimes feels more rhetorical than analytical, User Enhanced is a valuable addition to the field of fan studies.



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