Summary of my Ph.D. project as of 10 June 2010
A digital and transnational vehicle: the DVD and the emerging practices in home audiovisual entertainment. The case of the reception of japanese animated TV series in Switzerland.
Despite the word “summary” in the title of this page, this text is still pretty long, so I have decided to make a sort of index, with shortcuts to the section of this presentation. If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, you can restrict yourself to the two first parts, which will already tell you quite a bit about this research project. I have also cited some of the authors and works I’m grounding my research on, but for a more detailed bibliography, please consult these lists of monographs and collections of essays. You can also get access to all the resources I have collected during this research on my Mendeley account.
What is it all about?
This is a short introduction into my subject, with the outline of the original questions that motivated this research, that is, the cause of the success of animes in Europe.
Set of problems
Outline of the issues addressed in this research, concerning mostly the way amateurs of Japanese audiovisual entertainment choose their narratives and the best technological “door” to access them, among the plethora of products that are generated by this industry. The main question underlining this research is that of the position attributed to animes and the DVD in their experience.
Overall frame of research
Description of the main theoretical axis framing this research, that is: globalization, digitization and fragmentation of publics and users. These three trends are shaping the audiovisual entertainment industry and the related practices. In my opinion, the worldwide circulation of animes on DVD represent a good example of these transformations.
This section describes my fieldwork, that is the practical part of my research (in opposition to the theoretical part, outlined in the first sections), which takes place into two steps: the first one on the Web, collecting comments by users and publics, and in face-to-face, during interviews, with both people from the publics and DVD publishers, and observation-participation in conventions and other gatherings.
Originally, this project stemed from a questioning about the success of Japanese animated TV series or “animes” in Europe, especially in France and Italy. How come stories, peppered with sociocultural references so entranched in Japanese modern society, and mainly aimed at a Japanese audience, were able to cause such a keen interest in our part of the world? Besides, I was also wondering how these series were able to regain some importance on the European markets at the end of the 1990′s, despite the violent controversies their success with children and teenages during the 1970′s-1980′s had generated in the political, sociological and educational circles, even leading to their censorship and sometimes altogether withdrawal from TV programs. Of course, nowadays animes aren’t broadcasted on general-interest TV channels anymore, but they have been able to carve themselves niches on special interest or digital stations (for example, Cartoon Network or Manga, from the French AB Group) or on private channels (for example: RTLII and Tele 5 in Germany). But mostly, they have benefitted from the widespread adoption of digital technologies. Nowadays, DVDs are the main official vehicles for animes circulating internationally, while VCDs often serve as pirate vectors and the Internet provides a decentralized, legal or illegal, network of worldwide circulation. If, in my opinion, the so-called “Albator Generation” (Albator is the French naturalization of Harlock or Herlock from Uchu Kaizoku Kyaputen Harokku – キャプテンハーロック), that is those who grew up with TV programs scheduling animes in the 1980′s, did play a significant role in this come-back, at least in Latine Europe, I believe that “delivery technologies” and ” distribution channels” also had an important part in this phenomenon. Indeed, animes didn’t arrive on our TV screen on their own, as if by miracle. Their import in Europe resulted from decisions taken by actors of the audiovisual entertainment industry, which were based on a mix of financial, technical, cultural and even political stakes.
The expression “delivery technology” is to be understood as refering to objects conveying inprinted (writing, photo, drawing, engraving, painting) or recorded content (sound, images, video). The book, for example, is a delivery technology made from paper sheets, bound together by a cover and which are printed with text, along sometimes with pictures. The audio cassette is composed of a plastic box protecting a magnetic tape, on which is recorded music or any other types of sound. The DVD is therefore a delivery technology based on an optical disc, on which digital video data are stored. The distinction I make between the material base, such as the paper sheet, the magnetic tape or the optical disc, and the object or the product such as the book, the audio tape, or the DVD, stems from the fact that the same material base can be used for different delivery technologies. Thus, an audio CD is also made of an optical disc, but slightly different in its making from that used for the DVD. The magnetic tape is used for both audio and video cassettes, but it isn’t identical in both cases. The paper sheet can serve to create books, newspapers or a magazines, all of which are different products. What I call distribution channels refers to digital networks (Internet, digital terrestrial TV, satellite TV) through which contents are sent upon request to a receiving terminal (computer, television set, mobile phone or any other devices, such as PDA). Analog hertzian TV is considered as a broadcaster, that is, a station that emits a continuous signal, sent by waves which are spread by relays and cought by antennas set up on houses.
In order to understand the success of animes in Europe, it is important to take into account two elements: on the one hand, there are the various publics of such TV series, and on the other one, there are the multiple means by which they are conveyed in our part of the world, as well as the commercial entities involved in those flux of contents.
In using the term “public” for TV series, I’m not referring to the audience, which is essentially a marketing concept. The main difference between the “public” and the “audience”, at least in socio-anthropology, is that the former is made of people capable of expressing themselves about themselves and whose statements can be collected (interview, informal discussions, Web fora, etc.), while the latter defines a statistical aggregate of anonymous individuals, categorized according to their tastes, which is determined in function of their socio-demographic status. The public points to a virtual community imagined by people as a group of other people, often unknown to them, with whom they believe they share the same preferences. A public can come in the open as such, like the fans, but also refuse to assume it, as those teenagers who appreciate “shojo” series (animes aimed at a female teenage audience), but refuse to acknowledge it, putting forwards other pretexts to justify their behavior. A public is therefore a virtual, geographically spread, group, which can include people from a variety of social backgrounds, who identify with specific contents for multiple reasons (D. Dayan, in Serge Proulx, 1998:175-191 ).
These variations in the liking of these series stem not only from differences in audiovisual entertainment-related practices, but also from personal tastes. People don’t conceive their leisure time in the same way and thus, don’t give the same place to these media products. Part of their preferences are determined by their eduction, the norms of their social environment (relatives, friends, colleagues, school mates), the comments made by opinion leaders, etc. But there are also other more personal factors of decision, such as a specific way to relax from everyday hurdles, a particular liking for a genre or a narrative format, the emotional identification with it, etc. In theory, it is stated that one decides to associate with a specific public after a sort of introspective negotiation between social expectations one imagines that one has to fulfill vis-à-vis the family and society at large, and one’s own preferences. In other words, everyone of us is constantly weighting the pro and con of what constitutes a socially legitimate practice so as to avoid collective disapproval from those with whom we are living. In brief, we all try to avoid criticism and jeering.
This weighting of interests doesn’t concern only content, but also the technological basis as well as the apparatus that give access to them. Practice, conceived of as an implementation of socially defined rules, determines the type of tools used and how they are used. This means that the choice to follow an anime on DVD or through a streaming channel on the Web, on one’s computer or using a DVD player connected to a Home Cinema system, doesn’t result only from purely financial concerns, but also from those of socialization, time constraints, audiovisual quality, material comfort, etc. Thus, contrary to a widespread and common idea, the material condition of viewing aren’t insignificant. Of course, episode 1 of Naruto remains episode 1 of Naruto, whether one downloads it from the Internet, buys it on DVD or VCD, or yet watches it as it is broadcasted on TV. But the experience itself isn’t exactly the same. Besides the advantages and shortcomings of these various means of access to this same episode, which are important to some, one also has to take into account the various types of uses associated with these technologies. For example, the computer still being, in most case, the main terminal of access to Internet, the viewing of downloaded animes, whether from a legal or illegal source, will take place while sitting at one’s desk in one’s home office or workspace. On the other hand, the TV set in the living room (and it is still there, despite its conquering other rooms) is located in a place frequented by the other members of the household. This means that the person watching such anime on TV expose herself to disapproving comments, if not outright jeers from her direct social surrounding, except, of course, if she lives on her own. Moreover, in the case the anime is broadcasted on a TV channel, the viewer is dependent on the station’s schedule.
Taking this technical aspect of anime reception into account leads to the emergence of the figure of what sociology calls the “user”. The user is defined by technical concerns related to the availability of the required apparatus and necessary command of it. In other words, in each viewer, there is a user (D. Boullier, in André Vitalis, 1994: 63-74). In the same way that the former is concerned with the type of public he associates with (So-and-So loves Dragon Ball – like millions of other people – while so-and-so doesn’t understand how so many people can waste their time with such a foolish program.), the latter will also boast the use of particular means of access to audiovisual content for their exceptional quality of rendering or their speed of downloading (Cheers for state-of-the-art Home Cinema!). For some, whom one can label as technophile, the used technologies are almost as important as the choice of content. In other word, for great content, one must have appropriate means of access and audiovisual rendering. These persons are therefore ready to spend significant amounts of money in order to be always up-to-date and considerable time to learn how to manipulate these apparatus, if not tinkering with them. Others see things differently. For them, the most important is to keep up to date with the series or films, as it is officially released, often at the other end of the world, meaning that it could take months if not years before it comes into one’s country. The audiovisual quality and comfort of viewing are totally insignificant aspects of their experience. They want it now and in the original language, no matter that there aren’t yet even subtitles. Between these two extremes, lies a whole continuum of practices, according as much to esthetic and technologic preferences as to ways of life and social backgrounds. What I’d like to do is to study these varying practices centered around the fictions releases by the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry, between choice of contents and choice of technical apparatus.
But my set of problems doesn’t stop here, as one can’t ignore the huge techno-commercial developments at work within the audiovisual entertainment industry since the 1960′s, which has accelerated by great leaps under the impetus of digitization. Indeed, to make things more complicated – yes, it is possible! – one has to take into account the so-called “transmedia” strategies, that is the derivation of a multiplicity of products made from an initial narrative universe, and spanning all material bases and media technologies available, which can then fill up every corner of one’s life if one doesn’t pay attention (Henry Jenkins, 2006). Concretely, if one goes back to our previous example, Naruto, this business model is demonstrated through the transformation of the initial manga into an animated TV series (animes), animation films for theater releases, direct-to-video animations (OAV), video games, but also collectible game cards, figurines, without reckoning the whole spectrum of merchandising, such as audio CDs gathering the theme songs and music from the various audiovisual versions, and the almost infinite list of daily goodies, from the mug to the pillow case, the computer screen saver, posters, clothes, etc. If one takes a closer look at the various practices by those who indulge in the narrative world of Naruto, one realizes that some only know the anime as it was broadcasted on Western channels such as Cartoon Network (which censored it quite heavily, I heard), while others are only interested in the manga, either translated or in Japanese, others are contend with collecting the game cards, and yet others, who have simply turned away from TV, but spend a lot more times in front of a computer, with their hands on joysticks or keyboards, only know the young ninja through the video games. Of course, one shouldn’t forget either the fans that are investing themselves more thoroughly in the “Narutoverse”, experimenting it through its multiple incarnations in anime, manga, video games, and so on. It would be foolish of me to try tackling all alone this diversity of possible experiences, which is also why I have decided to restrict myself to one of them: that of animes. It then comes down to asking the question of the position held by anime, which distinguishes itself from the other derived products by its narrative format, serialization, and a specific mode of expression, animation, as well as its many technological and institutional ways to be conveyed around the world: initially broadcasted on Japanese TV, then possibly on TV channels in other countries, but most of the time distributed directly on video delivery technologies such as the VCD and the DVD, or through electronic channels, like the Internet, whether on illegal P2P sites or on legal VoD sites. In other words, I’d like to better understand how the publics, who are confronted with such plethora of forms, formats, products and means of access, conceive of animes, especially with respect to the manga version, and what role the DVD plays in their experience of these animated TV series.
One reason I’m particularly interested in the DVD stems from its capacity to combine with many different types of terminals in various viewing contexts. You’ll tell me that the Internet is also colonizing progressively every and all corners of our lives. However, the DVD is particular in that it demonstrates characteristics from the world of television, cinema as well as the Web and video (Aaron Barlow, 2004; James Bennett & Tom Brown, 2008). I’m thus assuming that the DVD has been acting as a sort of precursor of audiovisual entertainment into the coming all-digital era, and this since way before the time when access to Internet became widespread and mainly, before it became used as an infrastructure of transmission for films, TV series and other type of video products. This transition is sustained by a renewal in the relationships between producers/publishers and their publics, as well as a transformation in their audiovisual entertainment practices. The widespread adoption of the DVD and its avatars in the industrialized world has resulted in the combination of two types of practices that used to be totally separated, videophilia and cinephilia, into something that I have termed “videocinephilia”. Videophilia is defined as the habit to collect bits of TV flux (recording of TV shows and fictions) and movies, edited for the video market, so as to preserve them outside institutional control and to organize a customized follow-up of these contents. Cinephilia is characterized by an in-depth knowledge of cinema as an art and its codes as a form of expression as well as the regular movie-going in theaters, and the constitution of a personal movie archives in order to collect the filmography of a particular director or to accumulate the references of a specific genre. Videocinephilia takes place through knowledgeable collection of audiovisual contents, based on the DVD and its para-texts (“bonus” or additional contents), so as to garner not only masterpieces and beautiful editions, but also audiovisual archives, encyclopedic references and moments that were particularly appreciated, outside the control of the industry.
My dissertation project lies therefore at the crossroad between issues of audiovisual content assessment, in aesthetic and narrative terms, and those of the technical context of reception available to people and their capacity to master these apparatus. I’d like to understand under which conditions people become part of the anime publics, most particularly in a social environment where “cartoons” are still considered a minor, if not outright cheap, entertainment, especially if it is made for TV and comes from Japan, as well as essentially aimed at children audiences. Moreover as TV programs continue to be considered pure industrial productions, that is without any intrinsic quality, it can therefore appears a bit strange to collect them on video delivery technologies. Indeed, why collect soulless and artless massively produced contents, which are any way not made to last, but only to be consumed on the instant? In this view, I’d like to understand the place attributed by anime publics to the DVD, among the multiple existing means of viewing.
For practical reasons, I’m forced to limit the scope of this research to Swiss publics, since I don’t have either the time or the money to build up international corpus. This would take me to many travels for which I simply don’t have the financial means, without reckoning with the huge amount of data to analyze that would be generated, which would be too big for one person. However this doesn’t mean that these restrictions decrease the relevancy of this work. Indeed, Switzerland is a particular market, in that it heavily relies on the productions by its neighboring countries for pretty much all its audiovisual entertainment. There are no Switzerland-based manga or anime publishers, which means that Swiss are exposed to the same series as their German, French and Italian counterparts, aside of the other international venues provided by the Internet, which makes it possible for the real fans to get what they want from pretty much anywhere in the world. This situation underlines another important aspect of the DVD impact on the audiovisual entertainment industry: contrary to the VHS tapes, which were usually edited for national markets (and Switzerland could thus import several editions in the same language, but from different countries), DVD’s are adapted to culturo-linguistic area and distributed according to DRM format zones. In other word, one company can provide one single edition for several countries, since a DVD can contain several audio tracks and different subtitles. This is how a few DVD editors specializing in animes are covering most of Western Europe. Switzerland and its three markets following its linguistic divisions offer a sort of small scale model of this logic.
The initial questioning that motivated this work has led me to look at three large topics which make the basis of this research. The main challenge here was to articulate them in a theoretical and coherent scheme for the investigation of the set of problems I have just outlined.
The first issue I encountered was globalization, that is the transformation of the space-time relationship, which has been going on for several centuries now and become apparent in all area constitutive of our societies: politically, through always more intense interaction between nation-states, especially within supranational organizations (UN, IMF, EU, ASEAN, etc.); economically thanks to the increasing vertical and horizontal integration of whole industrial sectors into huge corporations extending their activities throughout the world; and technologically, through the development of transportation and communication networks linking together the continents, so as to reduce as much as possible the time necessary to cover the distances between poles of exchanges (David Held & Anthony McGrew, 2003). This process is also revealed at the psychological and social level in people’s increasing awareness of belonging to what is commonly called the “humanity-world” and to a “planet-world”. This all-encompassing vision of the world is particularly demonstrated in ecological discourses, which constantly evoke everyone’s belonging to a bigger whole called humanity, transcending cultural, social and national differences, and an image of planet Earth as the sole shelter for humanity, portrayed like a big vessel floating in an infinitely big space (Roland Robertson, 1992). This is naturally an element to be taken into account in order to understand how intellectual productions, such as novels, movies, TV series, etc. can have a successful career far from home and in multiple contexts of reception.
Digitization is another essential element of this research, since animes have enormously benefited from the widespread adoption of this distribution code. The common view tends to consider the digital revolution as an ineluctable fact, a reality determining henceforth the direction taken by industrialized societies. However, if one takes a closer look at its history, one realizes that this technological predominance results from not only technical, but also and mostly political and social logics. For a number of researchers, it is intimately linked to globalization, not just as a factor, but also as a direct consequence of this process going back to the Enlightenment, if not earlier yet (Armand Mattelart, 2008). In a context of worldwide trade and economic competition, the need for ever faster and efficient exchange and communication networks was felt already in the 18th century, as illustrate some flights of lyricism from many intellectuals and ingeneers of that time about steam machines, the first telegraphs and the development of the mass printing industry. Moreover, stemming from the development of important economic sectors, like the computer industry, but also and mainly, telecommunications and distant mediation (television, radio-broadcasting, cinema), the widespread adoption of digital tools is in line with a long series of technological attempts to solve an ancient problem, going back to the begining of the industrial resolution. This problem is the conciliation between mass standardization, required for cheap large scale productions, and adaptation of these products to the specific tastes of the thousands, millions if not billions of anonymous individuals making up these masses. As Edgar Morin explains very well (in his book L’esprit du temps (1962, 2008), [The Zeitgeist] which I strongly recommend), the industry has always oscillated between strategies of stratification, consisting in customizing products according to specific ways of life attributed to various national and socio-professional profiles, and the strategy of the catch-all net, targeting the smallest common denomiator between all these categories. Digitization promised, from its inception, to provide a cheap means to reconcile both. De-materialization of contents, that is their transformation into packages of 1 and 0, leads to the dissociation between the communication codes (image, writing, sound, moving images, video) and their usual material basis (paper, reel and magnetic tapes for the 20th century), and by extension their freeing from the pre-existing public and private circuits of distribution. In other words, digitization of content turns them into what some researchers are calling “utterances”, that is bits and parts of intellectual productions, which can be disassembled and re-assembled at will, since they are all reduced to one encryption code, the binary code, which makes it possible to produce an infinite numbers of variations of the same initial model (Louise Merzeau, 2007).
This almost naturally leads me to the third axis of this dissertation: audience fragmentation, or to be accurate, the fragmentation of publics and users. Indeed, one of the paradoxical side-effect of the widespread adoption of digital tools has been the acceleration of a process already at work within the media industry since the 1960′s and which has been echoing a deep social trend: the increasing autonomy of the person. This increased personal autonomy is demonstrated in the discourses that have been encouraging individualism in all its forms since the 1950′s: accountability towards oneself and the other, the obligation to achieve one’s own potential, the need for a personal life project, etc. In order for people to be able to match this ideal of the individual as the sole master of his destiny after God, they must be equiped with customized tools that fit best their way of life and knowledge. This is valid not only in the professional arena, but also when it comes to “lighter” activities, such as leisure, especially audiovisual entertainment. This necessity to satisfay always more refined and numerous socio-demographic profiles has resulted in the multiplication of media supplies and platforms of access to these services. Jean-Louis Missika, a French sociologist who has been observing the evolution of television for years (he has been particularly noted for his excellent La folle du logis: la télévision dans les sociétés démocratiques (1983) [The household madwoman: Television in democratic societies] and of La fin de la Télévision (2006) [The end of Television], on which I’m relying here) talks of de-mediation, to refer to the major transformations in the media industries to which these policies of dividing up markets have led.
De-mediation is particularly demonstrated in the new configuration of power relationships between the diverse media-related industrial sectors. The broadcasters-publishers, especially TV stations, have found themselves increasingly at the mercy of distribution network operators and large telecommunication corporations. Henceforth, these multinational companies are able to deliver directly to consumers contents adapted to the expectations which are more or less accurately attributed to them, anywhere in the world and on any digital devices (J.-L. Missika, 2006: 63-64). The new “Graal” after which everyone is now hunting is conceived of as the product that can satisfy both aesthetic tastes and all technical uses, while respecting the economic interests of the producers. In other words, it is all about finding ways to meet the expectations of a multiplicity of niche markets, which put end to end, still make up a significant mass, spanning dozen of countries, with products based on standardized technologies and contents, but sufficiently flexible to be easily adapted to many different reception contexts and production constraints, especially the anguishing issue of intellectual property. In this sociotechnique and economic framework, the DVD appears like the publishers’ response to these deep changes, which are reflected in the evolution of the practices related to audiovisual entertainment. The DVD is indeed located at the crossroad of these three axis shaping the present audiviovisual entertainment industry, embodying the logic of transnationalism, content digitization and the recombination of fragmented audiences, spread worldwide. Made up of a digital disc, a very flexible material basis, making it possible to offer products adapted to local settings starting with a standard model, it serves as an excellent vehicle to convey contents across national, cultural and technological borders. Thanks to its digital nature, it can store several linguistic or editorial versions of the same product (dubbing or subbing, directors’ cut, theater or TV release, censored version, etc.) and audiovisual formats matching the capacities of various types of players, screens and audio systems.
Although DVD represents probably the last material avatar of video delivery technologies, along with the blu-ray, its high definition formats, it is still in line with an ancient tradition of collection, a practice strongly entrenched among some publics, especially the videophiles and cinephiles. If the VHS tape allowed amateurs to build video archives or private movie collections, the DVD is the material support by excellence for the conservation of TV series and for putting together real private audiovisual archives. Thanks to its physical format, close to that of books, the DVDs easily found their place on shelves along other collectible delivery technologies, such as CD’s. (Derek Kompare, 2006)
At last, the DVD results from a long sociotechnical history related to audiovisual entertainment, characterized by a non-linear evolution of practices. Initially public and collective (cinema, theater, concerts), it then also became private (record player, radio, TV, audio tape player, hi-fi) and lately more and more personal (mobile devices). The DVD embodies this logic of always more domestic if not individualized entertainment. If cinema theaters and other forms of public performances haven’t died out, the household has become the main space for audiovisual entertainment. Paradoxically, there has been a trend, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, to reproduce at home the high quality technical conditions of the public contexts, which stimulated the emergence of a record industry, along with the production of the required apparatus for playing the content stored on these electronic delivery technologies (Aaron Barlow, 2004). In this view, the DVD has been at the heart of the Home Cinema apparatus and has stimulated its widespread adoption by households. Promising an audiovisual immersion experience similar to that offered in a movie theaters, the new flat screens and higher quality digital audio sound, which make up the Home Cinema, have developed in response to changes in the way both cinema and TV contents are received. In this technical configuration, the TV screen has progressively decreased in depth to become a mere surface of display, always wider and flatter, and the audiovisual contents are always more treated on an equal footing when they are edited for the video market. This is demonstrated by the particular care DVD publishers take in the presentation of both films and TV series, which are increasingly expected to be made in ways that fully take advantages of the technical potentialities of the modern apparatus with respect to audiovisual quality. These practices have favored a certain breaking of the traditional relationships between viewers and TV stations. Thanks to DVD editions, series are escaping from their status as a regular TV appointment to become long list of collectible episodes on a material basis, making them available to their owners at their will.
And animes? Well, in my opinion, animes make a particularly good example of the way these three axis (globalization, digitization and audience fragmentation) are articulated to shape the present audiovisual entertainment industries. Moreover, they highlight the role played by Japanese corporation in this process. On the one hand, the success of animes, as well as other Japanese productions like mangas, animation films and video games, show that globalization doesn’t depend only on some large Western economic centres. Tokyo also plays a signficiant role in what some authors, like Koichi Iwabuchi (2002), call multipolar globalization, that is globalization fed by several industrial poles of technological and cultural development. This situation is built on the basis of a pre-existing web of historical relationships, usually completely in favor of the West. Iwabuchi prefers to talk of “transnationalism” rather than of globalization, as not only national borders weren’t suppressed by the new networks of exchanges and their accelaration, but, on the contrary, some nation-state prerogatives have been reinforced these last two decades. The term “transnationalism” takes more into account the capacities by the industries and their products to get through very real barriers, whether they be national, sociocultural or technologic. On the other hand, as I said earlier, a content can’t travel without a material vehicle or channel, and so it is also for animes. Well, the least one can say is that, for the last 50 years, japanese engineering has had a significant share in the development of the technologies that allow for the worldwide circulations of audiovisual products. It has especially contributed to the phenomenon of electronic miniaturization, especially in the field of portable devices, such as transistor radio (Sony), transistor television sets (Toshiba), recordable VHS tapes (Sony, JVC-Matsushita), the Walkman (Sony), the video games consoles (Nintendo, Sega), optical disc or CD as well as its computer derivative, the CD-ROM (partnership Sony-Philips, in both case), the DVD (Philips, Sony, Toshiba, Time Warner), DVD-R (Pioneer), HD-DVD (Toshiba), blu-ray (Sony), etc.
Finally, Anne Allison (2006), a North-American anthropologist who has been observing for more than 10 years the reception of series like Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh in the USA, believes that the success of these narrative universes produced by the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry lies in what she calls polymorphous perversity. The word “perversity” here is to be taken in its original Latin etymology (pervertere), that is to turn around or distort, while the adjective “polymorphous” refers to the multiplicity of shapes that an entity can adopt. This expression concerns therefore the capacity of these fictions to change their material forms, while remaining identifiable, so that they can go through pretty much any physical, sociocultural or technological barriers. This particular feature is combined with another underlying element of the recent technocultural Japanese history, which she refers to as techno-animism. Techno-animism stems from the transposition of a belief in the existence of spirits embodied in our physical world to the field of technological development, an obsession of Japan since its defeat in 1945 (A. Allison, 2006: 10-13). This worldview means that, like stones, trees or rivers, a computer, a TV-set or a mobile phones can be inhabited by a conscience coming from another spiritual realm. In the same way, characters and their stories remain virtual entities until they become incarnated in material forms, such as the printed pages of a manga magazine or album, the celluloid reels of animes or animation films, the video game optical discs or cartridges, or even merchandising products, such as figurines, plush, plastic miniatures, etc. Although the Japanese industry doesn’t hold the monopoly of merchandizing, franchising and transmedia strategies, however, it has pushed this logic of multiplication much further than the other industrial actors, by making it almost systematic for all of its successful products. Digitization stimulated this phenomenon by facilitating the crossing of these “spirits” from one digital embodiment to the other. The Japanese industry feeds this frantic and constant renewing of fictions, material platforms and, of course, the fragmentation of publics and users. Naruto, which I have already cited several times, represent one of the most spectacular example of this kind of transmedia and material ubiquity, as it is now possible to fill every corner of one’s daily life with products stemming from this universe. One can therefore to consider that this double cultural and technological projection of Japan into the matrix of worldwide interactions has greatly contributed to the recent development of “Japanese cool”, as it puts forwards the image of a pacified country, steadfastly integrated in the global modernity, in stark contrast with its recent colonial and brutal past in Asia and the Pacific.
In order to better understand how publics of the fictional universes produced by the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry posit themselves with respect to their multiple embodiments, I will have to analyze their perceptions of this industry, its products and the media platforms used as well as their assessment of the work performed by DVD publishers. In more socio-anthroplogical terms, I’ll have to analyze the discourses generated by members of the publics of animes concerning their practices and the technologies they are using. As said earlier, the notion of “public” isn’t the same as that of “audience”. People become publics on a voluntary and self-conscious basis, while the audience is mostly built from statistical data, which serve to customize programs to meet what is perceived as that audience’s demand. This means that the public doesn’t exist before a content is produced, or rather, it remains virtual until it becomes manifest, either through discourses (for example, discussions in fora about this or that anime), or even in physical gatherings, such as animes and mangas conventions. In analyzing the discourses held by people calling themselves amateurs, even fans of animes, I’d like to understand these people’s motivations and how they have come to integrate animes in their leisure, or even into other aspects of their lives.
My research takes place over two fieldworks. First, on the Web, where I’m collecting comments left by customers on webpages of anime DVDs sold by electronic wares shops (Amazon, FNAC, CEDE.ch, WOG.ch), anime DVD shops (Manga Discount, Animeversand), or critics posted on DVD assessment websites (Excessif.com, DVDToile, Sci-Fi universe, DVD-Shop.ch, DigitalDVD.de), anime DVD assessment websites (DVDAnime.net, Anime auf DVD) and anime rating websites (Animeka, Anime-Kun, Anisearch.de). This first phase serves as an overall exploration of the discourses expressed over animes and animes DVDs by different publics: the customers themselves, opinion leaders on rating websites and anime publics (that is, who talk only of the anime, independently of its media platform). The idea is to collect their statements, which haven’t been influenced by the presence of the scholar (Alexis Blanchet, 2004). Of course, most don’t come from Swiss consumers and anonymity makes it impossible anyway to identify the real origin of these people, and that is also why the second phase is important, that is interviews with people from the anime publics living in Switzerland. It will be semi-directed interviews, with members of associations, which specialize in Japanese audiovisual entertainment. These discussions should allow me to compare their discourses with those coming from the Web.
Tha analysis of these interviews are to be completed with data collected during observation-participant undertaken at conventions (Japan Impact, Polymanga et JapAniManga Night, en Suisse, Japan Expo, en France) or during private reunions with association members, such as afternoons devoted to a specific universe or simply gathering around a BBQ.
Considering my hypothesis, that is the emergence of practices which one can label as videocinephilia, I’ll look more into the following types of discourses:
Comparison between the various incarnations of a same universe;
This concerns the “door” through which people prefer to enter a universe. In other words, do they prefer the manga version or the anime or the video game? Which place do they give to the anime versions? What are their expectations with respect to this specific narrative format?
Comparison between the various vehicle for the worldwide circulation of animes;
>Since animes can circulate on various types of platforms, I’d like to see which ones are preferred with respect to technical and economic issues by these publics. Have they seen the anime on TV? In which conditions do they prefere watching a download or a DVD edition? These questions and others should give me an insight as to the position of the DVD in the decisions taken by users for the viewing of animes.
Comparison between the various DVD editions of the same anime.
Some animes are the object of several DVD editions, often the first one being a simple unitary edition, while the next ones are made of season boxes and finally, of integral boxes. Among these categories, there are also distinction of quality identified by such label as “Collector”, “Premium”, “DeLuxe”, etc. Anime publics produce all kind of discourses assessing the work of the DVD publishers concerning the sound tracks, the dubbing and subbing, the quality of sound and images, the richness of “bonus” or additional contents, of material supplements (booklets, etc.), the usability of the interface, etc.
Thanks to the discourse analysis along these three axis, I’m hoping to offer a description of some aspect of the practices such as they are elaborated in the framework of anime reception in Switzerland. It is before all a qualitative analysis, which doesn’t pretend to give an exhaustive and complete image of all the anime publics in Switzerland. The main bias introduced by the limited number of person interviewed is obvious: they are mostly fans, or at least, people for whom animes, mangas and the whole of Japanese audiovisual entertainment are important elements of their leisure, if they are not their main hobbies. Still, this restriction doesn’t invalidate completely a larger scope of my research, as audiovisual entertainment industries are actually strongly encouraging the kind of personal investment in these universes that characterizes fans or at least strong amateurs of animes. In other words, as Henry Jenkins (2007), who has studied these industries for decades, recently pointed out, some elements of fan practices are progressively becoming “mainstream”. Among these practices, one can mention the demand for a deeper immersion into the universe thanks to a much higher audiovisual quality, with always more interactive technologies.
Besides, the industry also participate in the construction of publics, as they also imagine the nature of the consumers they are trying to reach. In the framework of my dissertation, there is an important middleman between the European anime publics (including the Swiss, then) and the producers based in Japan: the European DVD publishers. They play a key role in the import of anime in our countries, not only by identifying the series that are susceptible to be successful, but also by defining their adaptation and presentation to meet the criteria attributed to the targeted markets. I therefore also would like to describe the way they imagine their publics. I hope to be able to interview some of the people working for companies like Kaze, Beez and Dybex. The idea is to put these discourses face to face with those collected among anime publics and to see to on what point they actually match or, on the contrary, diverge completely.