Late as always since research ended up getting in the way, but I finally finished writing these up! :)
Note: Just a warning, but this post ended up being much longer than anticipated by the time I was done with it.
I’ve attended anime cons for a while, but since I was spending the summer at Caltech doing research, I sort of realized at the last minute that Anime Expo (AX) was just a (not so) short train ride away. And so I bought some tickets and headed on down to AX! I only managed to make it for two days (July 4-5, Fri-Sat) out of 4, but on the whole I felt like I got a lot out of the experience. I managed to attend most of the panels I felt were interesting, ranging from a more academic discussion on fandom to Q&A sessions with several Japanese guests (sadly, I missed seeing Eir Aoi in concert because I got my tickets so late), and also managed to explore a decent chunk of the dealer room and artist alley.
Most importantly, however, I got a chance to meet up with Appropriant! We spent a good portion of Saturday together (he also had a kickass Danbo cosplay) and also got a chance to watch the first two episodes of Terror in Resonance together at the Funimation world premiere!
And watch as the first episode cut to a “File is corrupted.” screen three times before the Funimation people got it working properly. Good times.
Anyways, as with my commentary on Anime Boston (AB) earlier this year, I’ve tried to write up my notes (because I’m weird and take notes like that) and summarize my thoughts about the convention. This originally started as a sort of a “stream of consciousness” thing working off notes I jotted down on my iPhone, but ended up getting very heavily edited by Rebecca so that it was actually readable. :) [Thanks Rebecca!]
AX has a very different vibe from AB. On the one hand, I sort of wasn’t ready for how huge this convention would be. Maybe it was just that everyone was packed into one central convention center rather than distributed across other buildings (as with AB), but it definitely felt pretty packed, regardless of the numbers. Because it was so packed, the AX event staff were incredibly organized and very strict with the rules. But I can understand – with lots of big names and rabid fans involved, preventing people from cutting in line or something similar becomes a pretty big concern.
On the other hand, I actually felt like there was actually a real difference in terms of what the main draws of the convention were. Compared to AB, AX pulls in a lot more guests and a lot more industry representatives, and many of the panels and events represented that. As a result, the convention felt a lot more…corporate? I mean, it’s definitely a fan con, don’t get me wrong. But I felt like the amount of fans running panels and events was much higher in AB compared to AX. Still, AX was a lot of fun, and I would definitely want to head back at some point in the future.
In spite of the more corporate feel to the panels, I actually really enjoyed them. Maybe it was just the timing and/or panels I was in, but the overall questions by fans to the Japanese guests seemed to be pretty good ones. I mean, most of them were generic and a good portion could have been answered with short google queries, but most were legitimate questions. I did notice, however, that a good majority of the questions concerned inspirations and references for X character or X event, with most fans asking questions to augment their “obscure, premium-content not-available-anywhere-else” type knowledge for generally meaningless things. So, overall, lots of focus on this “obscure knowledge within subculture grants prestige” type thing. I mean, I dunno – maybe its just because I’m (currently) interested in more general features about what makes a person “tick”, rather than simply some obscure knowledge trivia, that makes me less taken with this type of thing. Still, it was an interesting thing to notice, and tends to confirm the idea that fans in general are more of the “Mahouka” detail-oriented type. But more on that in a bit.
One of the great things about AX as opposed to AB was that I actually got to hang out with not-my-immediate-RL-only friends. It was actually awesome meeting up with another aniblogger – it still amazes me just how cool it is that online connections and relationships can spill over into real life like that. And it makes my experience blogging that much more special :).
Right. So, I forget what exactly was on which day, but these should mostly be Friday/Saturday events since that’s when I attended the most stuff.
First up, I ended up having some time to drop in on the first of these “Q&A/meet people from Japan” sort of events. Because most of his events were all too early in the morning and transportation from Caltech to the La convention center was a good 1-1.5 hours, I wasn’t able to attend any of Otsuka Eiji‘s (a well-known manga critic and otaku cultural scholar) panels. Instead, I ended up dropping by one of the first event after I arrived, namely a Q&A panel with Tanaka Eiko of Studio 4C.
The good first half of the panel was a montage of her (and 4C’s) past work, which was a bit disappointing but nice for someone like me who actually hasn’t seen much of their stuff. From what I saw, it seems like 4C has a history of collaborating on projects with colleagues outside of Japan, as well as a history of doing some pretty interesting stuff. Eiko seemed like a pretty cool person, but I didn’t have the chance to stick around for more than a few questions (almost all of which concerned either art style and Tekkonkinkreet) and so didn’t get too much out of this event outside of “now I have a face to put to a name” type of thing.
A History of Visual Novels
The reason I ducked out early of the Eiko panel was to actually attend this one on the history of visual novels. It ended up being very interesting, but less so because the panel had very interesting material and more because of the ways in which the panelist (a fan researcher) presented it…which was not very well. So of course I spent a large portion of the panel thinking about critiques and the like, which ended up being pretty intellectually stimulating0.
Anyways, most of my thoughts about how the panel ended up getting presented ended up coalescing into a broader narrative about fans (and fan research) in general. Since there’s no better place to post such a thing than here, I just decided to throw down most of these thoughts in this post. This’ll get into some opinions I’ve formed about how fans often tend to interact with media and each other, so let’s just get down into it.
Fandom, Prestige, and Perceived Investment
When doing research of any type, there’s sort of three main questions to ask:
- What am I researching?
- How do I research this?
- Why am I researching this?
In general, you really only need to answer (2) (how do I carry out these tasks to do other relevant things) in order to do “research”, and in general it’s actually the process of figuring out (1) (what is the bigger picture here) and (3) (why is the bigger picture – and my piece in it – is actually important and/or cool) that makes a good researcher, academic or not. Researching something is generally cool (in my TOTALLY UNBIASED opinion), but if you can’t really convince me that it’s worth listening to it’s hard for me to remain interested, regardless of how cool the subject matter actually is. While there’s absolutely no problem with answering (3) as “because it’s FUCKING AWESOME“, or being upfront that the motivation is really abstract/esoteric, the most important thing is that you understand at least some semblance of the context surrounding your research (or at least are upfront about not really giving a shit).
As I said above, you don’t need to either know (or care about) the bigger picture or the motivation to do something. It is extremely useful, however, when you want to interpret your findings correctly. And it’s here where I see a lot of fan research really hit a wall. To see the reason why though, let’s first talk about “fandom” more generally.
Fandom, like most other communities, is not a completely equal playing field. Most importantly, in many fandoms, there is a pecking order. What determines the pecking order is generally pretty simple: whoever is the most “hardcore” fan gets the most respect.
But what does it mean to be hardcore? Generally, it means that you possess a lot of knowledge, goods, etc. – some type of “exclusive good” – around whatever it is the fandom centers around. It could be Doctor Who, anime, video games, comic books, etc. These generally grant respect within the fandom because it shows that you’ve invested a lot of time in the area.
This is actually what I think is the most crucial aspect of prestige within fandom. By themselves, none of these processes of accruing what some scholars call “subcultural capital” mean very much. If the goal was simply to master esoteric knowledge, one could easily try and just go through wiki entries, memorize them, and earn people’s respect that way. But, as I’m sure you know, just the idea of doing that just seems, well, wrong on a kind of fundamental level, and would more than likely not earn you the same type of respect as someone who learned it all “the hard way” by participating and putting effort into the fan goods. In fact, you’d probably be called a phony and get shunned. While using such methods to supplement pre-existing knowledge or interests is fine, using them as a full substitute for them is not.
But why does putting in more effort concerning something that often has no practical application garner this type of respect? I’m not really sure, other than giving an answer that reads a lot like a tautology. Maybe it has something to do with the types of things I discussed in the comments of my geekdom as simulated ethnicity post. Maybe it’s an extension of respecting people for effort (i.e. “experience”) more generally, just ramped up to the next level. Either way, I think this equivalence – where telegraphed past and present investment is more or less equated to prestige within the fandom – is actually is a fundamental aspect of what makes fandom, well, fandom. The more time you’ve put in to being a fan, the “better” fan you are.
Now, the question comes down to how can you distinguish between the “true” fans (who have done all the work) and the “poser” fans (who have tried to “cheat”). Or, to put it another way, for two fans who’ve invested similar amounts of time, which one really loves the material vs. which one just likes it. The best answer I’ve come up with is:
- To place a lot of emphasis on specific details relevant to the fandom that are difficult to access in just some wiki summary form, and
- Making sure that interactions with other fans emphasize the participatory aspect.
Both of these essentially are ways to ensure you’ve actually, for example, watched the relevant anime series rather than just reading a couple quick summaries online (no matter how saucy). Because these are really the only way to ensure that perceived investment is closely related to actual investment.
Anyways, to make a long story short, I think this is the culture that tends to encourage the rabid attention to detail. (I’m not going to get into anything related to postmodernism, the Internet, or technology here – that’s another minefield.)
Fans and Research
Anyways, the point is that fandom essentially trains you to buy into a system where you really care about getting every single specific details and you get them right without giving a shit about why. In fact, lots of fandoms actually end up really pounding home this last point: the perceived uselessness of this investment for things outside the fandom is exactly what gives much of this investment value. As a result, most hardcore fans (like, say, otaku) are actually really good at doing detail-oriented research – constructing timelines, collecting facts, etc. – especially if the process involves a bunch of busy-work. In fact, the more painstaking the job, the more likely that a fan will actually do it and do it correctly!
Which actually means I’ve just argued fans are actually great at doing research. Which they are…as long as this research is essentially just adding elements to a database and/or superficially ordering them. However, once it comes to framing the context for why the research collected is valuable, what purpose it serves, and how we should be approaching it (i.e. interpretation), most fans are at a complete loss because they’ve never really considered that question to be valuable: they’ve done the work because they think it’s cool, and trying to justify why is not only a non-issue, but in fact actively looked down upon.
Back to Visual Novels
Anyways, that long digression above actually has a point here, because this panel essentially was a perfect example of this type of thing: a fan who had done a lot of work collecting and grouping data without giving much thought to why it was a useful project.
Now onto the actual panel:
In order to set up the background for visual novels, the panelist introduced the idea of narrative art, or art which has the primary function of telling a story as opposed to, just being appreciated for its aesthetic value. He then divided the art of storytelling into four main functions: books, film, television, and comics. At that point I could tell it was going to be bad, mainly because film and television don’t have too many differences in terms of how we experience them – they’re both shot with cameras and are in pretty much the same format/style. The biggest difference between the two is how we consume them: in what environment, under what conditions, and in what form. And, since films are no longer confined to “the big screen” anymore, the difference in terms of how exactly you experience them (i.e. the concept of absolute directorial pacing and a well-defined time frame with which a film is experienced) has changed a lot.
You can also think about it in terms of serialized publications from books in the Victorian era or old Buddhist wall scrolls from Japan. There are so many interesting possibilities here, all of which weren’t included because he wasn’t thinking about his research in the sense of a broader picture. His underlying point – that each medium is better at doing some things than others – eventually gets lost in his meandering arguments. I understand that television shows give you a better chance to get to know the characters because they take longer and whatnot (which was his main point distinguishing television from film). But if time or length was the only prerequisite for a good story, then something like Ender’s Game has no right to be as successful (and as good) as it is.
Anyways, following this grouping, the panelist goes on to explain why all these categories are different, most of which are summarized here. Or, at least, until he hits the comic books section, where the discussion suddenly gets much more abstract about art and media in general. Sadly, this abstraction was essentially a long set of paraphrased arguments from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Alan Moore. And while both are great sources and good collections of arguments, you probably should at least do a little work to try and make these arguments more specific to your medium of interest rather than just using them straight up.
After this, the panelist asks a question: why hasn’t the art of storytelling evolved much since the advent of film? He argues that most of the things that have come out since have often been attempts at getting media onto other platforms: digital books and comics, etc. However, he doesn’t really answer this question, and instead discards most of the progress that has been made on this front with things like Homestuck (which has a huge fandom and is legitimately innovative). He also completely dismisses stories told across multiple media platforms like the Halo franchise or the expanded Star Wars universe.
So, instead of using the panelists framework to discuss this issue (which are discussed in the link above), I’ll actually try to frame the issue in my own words because I feel there’s some real promise in this material. VNs are a unique medium that hasn’t gotten a lot of scholarly attention in the West (that I’m aware of) in this vein, and so a proper framing of why/how they relate to other media should prove really insightful. I can’t promise I’ll do it perfectly, but hopefully this’ll at least be a little bit better than splitting things into little groups and trying to categorize them (which I’ve also been guilty of doing this in the past).
Storytelling and the Art of “Thinking Motion”
First, let’s start very broadly. Storytelling is an art, and one that stretches the confines of any type of boundary imposed upon it. Everyone can tell a story. Sometimes they tell stories because we let them, and sometimes they tell stories because we want them to. In all cases, storytelling is a fluid art that involves both the real and the abstract, and is as much about the reader/listener/viewer/whatever-er as it is about the storyteller.
That said, the medium in which you choose to tell a story is important. To frame things specifically in the context of visuals, there is a wide spectrum of choices. Gestures during an oration or a play, interesting wordplay or font choices within a book, and the camera angles during a film all are aspects that try and make use of our ability to see things to achieve cool effects.
In them, we tend to see a basic progression involving how heavily they use visuals as opposed to relying on our imagination. Within books, for instance, we aren’t really able to see any the action. In movies, we can see all of it. And in orations, plays, and other types of storytelling, we’re somewhere in-between, asked to supplement the things we see with what we think we should see.
Going along with this line of thinking, we notice two things. First, there generally is an apparent trade-off between added visuals and the imaginative component (or, at least, the imaginative component often gets focused elsewhere). Second, most of these seem to have a clear divide in terms of the ways we see motion: either we do (film, theater, speakers), or we don’t (books, photography). This is where comic books come in.
Comic books, manga, and other forms of “static” art occupy the portion of this spectrum where you have images without continuous motion. Instead, motion is displaced throughout the comic, shunted from frame to frame via the divisions between panels often referred to as “the gutter“. Since this is now where the reader is asked to do most of the heavy-lifting with his/her imagination, this is actually the most important part about comics. Comics manage to occupy a space in storytelling between static and continuous by shifting motion to the space between the frames.
Or, in other words, comics think motion spatially.
There is a second point, however, that must not be neglected about comics, which is that while the motion itself is left to the mind of the reader, the actual places the motion must go are fixed. They are grounded by keyframes, which serve to anchor the reader’s imagination. The reader connects the dots, while the author makes sure the dots are in all the right places.
Finally, because comics are all spatial, they also end up using words as text rather than as sound. As a result, they end up competing for space within the keyframes, because both the grounding for the story-as-image and the story-as-text end up being (equally) important. As a result, trying to divide up the text and put it, for example, below the panels doesn’t really work, because now you’ve broken that continuity.
However, this means an entire possibility has been left unexplored: how about thinking motion temporally? What stops you from leaving your storytelling medium as a bunch of static images that anchor motion (and the imagination) between them in time rather than space? It’d be the same concept, but leave room for a wide variety of possibilities, such as the ability to use much more text to tell a story (which can be superimposed and removed on top of the same series of images) and the ability to superimpose images on top of each other to create much smaller gestures by contrast to create some sense of layering, or added realism, etc.
And with that, VNs instantly fit right in as an innovative and interesting medium worthy of study in their own right.
In the end, I will gladly admit this is definitely a much more academic framing of the issue (focused on trying to tease out exactly how visual novels fit into the grander scheme of storytelling and art) than most people probably care about. However, there are a wide variety of places to attack this from, including a cultural one (studying otaku, fandom, the Japanese entertainment industry), technology (computers, the Internet), history (in terms of how VNs permeate anime adaptations), etc. You could even use them as a contrast for the American comic book industry and the rise of more “comic book” style indie games (or even the appearance of this Dead Space one). Or even with respect to “limited animation”, which is the main animation techniques used by most TV anime studios. Any of them work. But if you try and claim that VNs are “narrative art” and “hold their own” against other well-established genres, you have to at least do something other than “VNs are unique and a special genre because they’re great and awesome and Jun Maeda and psychology” (which is pretty close to a direct quote) since then you just end up circle-jerking really hard and not really getting anywhere.
Anyways, I guess that’s me sort of venting my frustration at a badly run panel, which didn’t offer too much information besides fleshing out what is described in these news articles. Regardless of the quality of the panel though, I still respect Alex Mui (the panelist) a lot for all the work he has clearly put in to this project, since once we got to the actual “here’s the history of VNs” he had his shit much more together. And he seemed like a very nice guy :).
One cool thing I did learn though was that the VN format ended up, as you would anticipate from the framing above, encouraging very interesting narrative structures that played with its ability to, as I put it, “think motion temporally”, via games like Higurashi (time loops), Clannad (non-linear storylines/routes), and Saya no Uta (superposition of images), among others (e.g., Steins;Gate, Little Busters!).
It also really flourished when it came to combining a lot more text with images (because the two no longer compete for space in an exclusively spatial sense): VNs absolutely dominate word counts when comparing longest stories.
tl;dr: Fans can be weird, framing is important, and visual novels occupy a very interesting narrative niche because they “think” about motion between fixed keyframes in time (like anime or movies) rather than in space (like comic books/manga do).
What are your opinions on visual novels, both in terms of the overall format as well as general content? Have any favorites that do some of the cool things I talk about here?