Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. Edited by Mark W. MacWilliams. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2008. 368 pages. Hardcover $80.95; softcover $29.95.

A collection inspired by presentations at the 2003 Asian Studies Conference Japan annual meeting, held at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime showcases fourteen essays by scholars trained or based in Japan, the United States, Australia, and Europe. The authors represent fields including comparative literature, modern art, comics, religion, visual culture, East Asian studies, literature, philosophy, popular culture, and linguistics, and their contributions encompass a similarly wide array of topics and approaches.

Editor Mark W. MacWilliams's instructive introduction situates the essays in anime and manga studies, but also contextualizes them within present-day Japanese culture and beyond. Manga and anime, according to MacWilliams, are "a key part of contemporary Japanese visual culture . . . [but also] . . . play an increasingly important role in the global mediascape of electronics and print media that is shaping the collective imaginations, experiences, and feelings of people throughout the world" (MacWilliams, p. 5). MacWilliams also argues that first and foremost manga and anime are products of an "urban, industrial, capitalistic society . . . reproduced and distributed by mechanical and digital reproduction technologies . . . [and] intentionally designed to attract a mass audience"—thus making them "mass art" rather than "ahistoric" popular culture (MacWilliams, p. 6). Finally—in conjunction with Japanese fashion, pop music, and TV dramas—both are central players in Japan's "soft power/soft nationalism," and both have effectively displaced Disney and Americanization as the new "dominant transnational economic and cultural force" (MacWilliams, pp. 15, 13). Lauding his contributors for avoiding the "Orientalist trap" of anointing Japan as the exotic other or of touting Japan and its culture as unique, while nonetheless acknowledging that manga and anime are not "culturally odorless" simply because they have global appeal (MacWilliams, p. 18), MacWilliams concludes his introduction with succinct, informative summaries of the essays, suggesting that they "be read in light of [the] criticisms [of manga and anime studies]" that Jaqueline Berndt raises in the book's closing chapter (MacWilliams, p. 23).

That being the case, I now turn to Jaqueline Berndt's essay, which informatively summarizes manga scholarship in Japanese, maps the evolution of the term manga, and situates manga globally as "one of the three main comic cultures of the world along with American comics and Franco-Belgian bande dessinée" (Berndt, p. 299). The majority of her essay, however, critiques both Western and Japanese manga (and anime) scholarship. She notes, for example, that Western scholars tend to know either manga and Japan/Japanese on the one hand or Western comics on the other hand, but not both; that they uncritically view manga and anime as "mirrors of Japanese culture"; that they "neglect the aesthetic and cultural ambiguity of manga" as well as its historical and cultural hybridity; and that they ascribe manga's international acclaim to the uniqueness of Japanese culture and not to conditions of production, distribution, and consumption (Berndt, p. 296). Berndt also faults Japanese scholarship for tending to overprivilege the story manga and seeking manga's roots in premodern painting. [End Page 445] All should be cognizant of these points and other issues that Berndt raises; in particular, her caution that many studies "emphasize painting while ignoring areas such as literature and the performing arts" in analyzing the genesis of manga is sobering (Berndt, p. 307).

There is much to learn from Berndt's chapter, but her critique of focalized studies (reflecting expertise in only manga or only comics) as perhaps not "diminish[ed in] importance" but requiring "broadening by others" (Berndt, p. 295) is troubling in some respects. Researching a topic from as many angles and with as much information as possible is a good strategy. Nonetheless, a study of more narrow scope can also produce new and important insights that a more broadly based study might obscure or overlook. A good rule of thumb might be giving credit where credit is due and providing space for voices from other locations. After all, knowledge is always already situated in a particular...