For a volume on origins, a volume that simultaneously enacts and questions the search for fixed starting points, perhaps it is appropriate to start with the beginnings of Mechademia itself. The annual process of building each of these volumes sometimes feels like a construction montage from a mecha anime: from the blueprint of the call for papers the framework rises, then the body slowly takes form as individual essays are machined, polished, and bolted on. Finally we throw the power, the various moving parts mesh with one another, and the machine stirs to life.
After nine iterations, this annual process has become familiar. But in fall 2003, when Frenchy Lunning pitched her idea for an academic journal about manga and anime to me and some other attendees at the third Schoolgirls and Mobile Suits conference, the idea seemed as improbable as it was exciting—the academic equivalent of a giant walking robot. At that time there were a number of good books on anime and manga for general audiences, but the first academic volumes on these topics were just beginning to appear. 1 So I was both delighted and surprised when plans for the series went forward and Mechademia 1 appeared just three years later, an invitational volume that included articles by members of the editorial board and other critics who were writing about anime and manga at the time. Subtitled Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga, it was a snapshot of an academic field that was just then getting off the ground.
Since then Mechademia has published something in the neighborhood of a million words, and comparing that first volume with this one, it is [End Page xi] striking how much the field has expanded. Mechademia 9 contains contributions by senior and junior scholars not only from North America and Japan but also from Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and the variety of fields and methodologies represented extends from literary and media studies to art history, anthropology, folklore, and musicology. Target texts and media include not only mainstream Japanese manga and anime but alternative Japanese animation, video games, nineteenth-century novels and newspapers, television programming, devotional art, Buddhist sculpture, tourism, and Hollywood film, while several metacritical articles analyze popular culture criticism itself.
But while the range and variety of approaches and perspectives are continually expanding, one could say that the question critics have asked about popular media like anime and manga has largely remained constant and in some sense conservative: “where does it come from?” If the first, incomplete answer is Japan, then the question inevitably becomes “where in the Japanese historical or cultural context (or the global one) do we find the origin of anime or manga’s particular qualities?” It is easy to respond to this question with reductive generalizations about Japanese culture—to explain these media with various essentialized theories of Japaneseness. But the more interesting answers let these media challenge our present understanding of what Japan is, or lead us to understand the extent to which “Japan” is in fact an idea produced by anime, manga, and other texts, rather than the reverse.
Another version of this query about the origins of anime or manga asks the question from the perspective of media: what other media is anime related to (and is it a medium at all, or a genre of animation, or something in between)? This provokes us to ask in turn what tools we can use to read these texts. Can we analyze manga with the methods of film criticism? Can the plot of an anime be interpreted in the same way as the plot of a novel? Again, the most interesting answers point to the complexity of these media origins, leading us to think about the effects and meanings anime and manga can produce that no other medium can precisely duplicate, and the ways we must adapt existing critical modes in order to read these new kinds of texts.
All the essays in this volume start from these kinds of intuitive questions about the origins of Japanese popular culture and media, but none arrive at simple answers. They invoke a wide range of theoretical work to think...