Book review

Anime fan communities: Transcultural flows and frictions, by Sandra Annett

Kathryn Hemmann

George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Keywords—America; Animation; Astro Boy; Canada; Cinema; Cowboy Bebop; Hetalia; Japan; Online communities; Online fandom; There She Is!!; Transcultural flow

Hemmann, Kathryn. 2017. Anime Fan Communities: Transcultural Flows and Frictions, by Sandra Annett [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

Sandra Annett. Anime fan communities: Transcultural flows and frictions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, hardcover, $95 (253p) ISBN 978-1137480651; E-textbook, $76 (2471 KB) ASIN B00TR5JPW8.

[1] Sandra Annett's Anime Fan Communities is an exploration of the evolving economies of fans and fannish cultures from the early 20th century through the present, with a special emphasis on representations of the technological mediations of animation. The focus of Annett's work is the theme presented by its subtitle, Transcultural Flows and Frictions, with the "anime fan communities" of the main title providing a more dispersed set of reference points for her discussion. The challenge that Anime Fan Communities presents to scholars of Japanese animation and popular culture lies in the nuances that arise in understandings of fandoms as "transnational," a term that is repeatedly problematized throughout the text. Instead of "transnational," Annett prefers "transcultural," defining a "transcultural fan community" as "a group in which people from many national, cultural, ethnic, gendered, and other personal backgrounds find a sense of connection across difference, engaging with each other through a shared interest" (6).

[2] Anime Fan Communities consists of an introduction, a conclusion, and six chapters that are divided into three parts, structured according to their focus on a specific era of transcultural audience receptions of cinema, television, and online animation. Part 1, "Animation and the Miraculous Cinema," details animation in Japan during the first half of the 20th century and investigates the imperialist drives in both the animation exported from America to Japan and in Japanese wartime animated propaganda. Part 2, "After These Messages: Television Animation in the Age of 'Posts,'" handles the theme of cultural nostalgia in the postwar animation of North America and Japan. Part 3, "Online Conversations across Difference," explores the intersections between animation and online communities in the 21st century.

[3] Chapter 1, "Cartoon Internationale," outlines the interwar animated exchanges between the United States and Japan. Annett demonstrates that, even as early animation (such as the Disney short "The Autograph Hound") encouraged audiences to participate in cinematic fan culture, rising imperialist tensions made it difficult for true transnational cinematic cultures to arise from animation. In this chapter, Annett highlights the Fleischer Brothers' animated Betty Boop short "A Language All My Own," which was produced in America for a Japanese audience. This audience was not merely passive, however, and Japanese cinema critics, artists, and manufacturers were happy to appropriate Betty Boop's kimono-clad likeness for their own agendas.

[4] Chapter 2, "World War Cute," is devoted to an overview of how animated propaganda during the 1940s used the visual stylizations of cuteness to endow portrayals of imperialist expansion with a positive affect, even as these films reveal anxieties regarding multinational communities of "allies" and "citizens." In this chapter, Annett discusses the 1944 Disney film The Three Caballeros, which premiered in Rio de Janeiro as an attempt to foster cross-cultural communication, and director Mitsuyo Seo's Momotarō's Sea Eagles, shown in Japan in 1943 at a crucial moment of the Pacific War. Annett analyzes the figure of the "cute ethnic Other," which was used "to address causes where enmity and friendship were not clear-cut" (66).

[5] Chapter 3, "Kid Vid: Children and Science Fiction TV Fandom," is about the creation of children as an audience for animation in Canada and the United States. Annett begins with a discussion of televised animation programs as a broad genre shaped by limited production budgets, organizational surveillance, and marketing forces directed toward younger viewers. Annett's positionality as someone who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in Canada allows her to incorporate her specific personal experiences into broader academic discussions of television as a medium, especially in relation to theories of cultural odorlessness as a facilitation of the transmission of media across national borders. Just as the 1960s Hanna Barbera cartoon The Jetsons contains scenes and storylines that effectively teach its audience how to integrate themselves into network-sanctioned American television fan cultures, so too did the Canadian broadcasts of the various iterations of Astro Boy during the 1980s teach viewers to look for "educational" messages within the cartoons. "In this way," Annett writes, "changes to the Astro Boy program due to specific Canadian approaches to children's broadcasting can be seen as both removing and adding 'odors,' evoking a set of physical practices, and so different bodies in the act of spectatorship" (104). Although it may be difficult to label localized broadcast practices as postnational, Annett demonstrates that the deliberate construction of child viewers as media consumers is an ongoing project that occurs at multiple levels of media transmission, regardless of time and place.

[6] Chapter 4, "Channel Surfers: Cowboy Bebop's Postnational Fans," overlays a conversation surrounding technology and nostalgia onto the 1998 television anime Cowboy Bebop, which functions as a landmark in contemporary anime fandom cultures in North America, where the show was broadcast on cable television. Annett begins the chapter with a discussion of fandom and affect, which is followed by a brief literature review of work exploring television as a medium for the spread of fandom. The chapter ends with an argument that "Cowboy Bebop…speaks to a tension between anxieties over the lack of genuine connection in mediated, diasporic communication, and continuing desires to generate that crucial affective movement between media technologies, audiences, and contexts" (131). Between the beginning and end of the chapter lies an abbreviated overview of an online survey of self-identified anime fans that Annett conducted in 2010. She loosely connects this survey to a brief history of anime fandom outside of Japan. Both topics would have benefited from a more detailed discussion, and the methodology and results of the survey in particular deserve a lengthier treatment.

[7] Chapter 5, "'Love at First Site,'" stands out as one of the stronger chapters in Anime Fan Communities. This chapter examines the Korean cartoon There She Is!!, which was created using Adobe Flash software by a user called SamBakZa on the Web site Albino Blacksheep, a formerly thriving hub of Internet activity known for hosting Flash cartoons. Annett is concerned with the multicultural and multilingual user base of the site, whose interactions in the comments on the episodes of There She Is!! resulted in various manifestations of the "frictions" accompanying transnational flows. Because the kawaii (cute) stylizations associated with Japanese animation and character design facilitated the message conveyed by the wordless narrative, users from various global territories were able to enjoy and appreciate the cartoon. Although the comments on its message boards were largely written in Korean when the first episode was posted in 2006, by 2010 English had come to dominate the conversation, with Japanese and Spanish also being commonly used. Annett documents the conflict that arose from the multilingual environment, which at times deteriorated into flame wars over issues related to race and nationality, an ironic development given the themes of friendship and tolerance celebrated by There She Is!!. This chapter therefore provides a cogent critical intervention into discussions concerning fandom as a utopian space. The self-contained and accessible nature of "'Love at First Site'" recommends the chapter as a suitable choice of assigned reading for undergraduate classes.

[8] Chapter 6, "World Conflict/World Conference: Axis Powers Hetalia," continues the investigation into the more problematic activities of fandom communities. Using the Hetalia transmedia franchise as a case study, Annett argues that it served as a locus of fan activity that "illustrates the kind of transnational media economies and social ecologies that have developed around the Internet at specific junctures in the first decade of the twenty-first century" (168). Along the way, she considers the question of whether online communities unite people across borders or whether they simply reproduce preexisting societal divisions, such as those that separate different genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and generations. Unfortunately, this question is quickly discarded in favor of an extended literature review concerning a number of disparate topics relating to the consumption of media within Japan. Only in the last few pages does Annett return to Hetalia and its audience, skimming over the controversy the manga and animated Web series created in Korea and among Korean fans, not to mention the objections regarding the problematic portrayals and omissions of certain nationalities, Web pages devoted to critiques of the franchise, and irresponsible behavior by cosplayers at American anime conventions. Knotting these divergent threads together is a focus on fujoshi, female fans who enjoy male/male pairings. Unfortunately, the connections between Japanese fandom cultures, international fandom disputes, and American fandom practices are not as well articulated as perhaps they could be.

[9] The primary weakness of Anime Fan Communities lies in its lack of a clear structure, as the guiding argument of each chapter is not easily discernable in the content that follows the chapter's introduction. While the recurring academic literature review sections demonstrate sound scholarship, their positioning frequently interrupts the flow of the author's presentation of her own work. Furthermore, these theoretical asides are often expanded at the expense of a more comprehensive treatment of the source material under discussion. For example, in the fifth chapter, "'Love at First Site,'" the author dwells on what well-known English-language scholars such as Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills have written on fandom as an abstract construct while neglecting to describe and explain the characteristics of Flash animation or communities like Albino Blacksheep. Annett seems to take it as a given that her reader is familiar with these online phenomena, despite the fact that they are specific moments in the larger history of Internet culture and may be unknown to many readers. Every chapter evinces an uncertainty regarding its objectives, as the author's focus frequently shifts from narrative analysis to ethnographic accounts of fandom activity to broader discussions of transcultural flows, with few signposts helping the reader to navigate the direction of her argument.

[10] One of the most important goals that Fan Studies can achieve as a discipline is to record watershed moments in online cultural history that often pass under the notice of more mainstream analysis. Annett's treatment of Internet-based communities preserves snapshots of many such hotspots of transcultural communication during the 1990s and 2000s, while associating these online societies with earlier precedents of international media exchanges. Anime Fan Communities will be particularly useful for scholars researching the interactions between media, text, and audience at various points in the 20th and 21st centuries. For English-language scholars unfamiliar with fandoms centered around Japanese entertainment properties, Annett's work will serve as a gateway to discourses surrounding diverse patterns of media consumption that have spread from Japan across the globe.