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The Pressures of Being an Anime Academic

Hyouka_-_02_-_Large_02As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I am currently completing my honours thesis about light novels. No, it’s not technically about anime, but as we all know, light novels are more “anime” than anime, so I put myself in the same basket as the anime academics.

It’s not all fun and games being an academic, as anyone who has been through university should know. It’s downright exhausting reading piles of books and articles all day. This is especially the case if you take your work seriously, like I do. Since I’ve been trying connect my thesis to a lot of other disciplines, I read heavily outside my field. But I also routinely feel as if I’m suffocating under all the reading. Sometimes, finding the time to watch anime feels like work. 

I want to talk about some of this pressure that I feel, because it’s a very real issue for me.

First, let’s talk about definitions. The boundary between “work” and “play” is a difficult one to define, especially when it comes to the fuzzy world of fandom. I’ve heard bloggers and critics describe what they do as work even when they’re not being paid. That’s because fandom, at its core, is all about serious play. It’s about getting a more intensified experience out of what you consume. Yes, as much as people like to conceive an arbitrary divide between “fans” and “critics”, critical analysis is simply another form of fandom expression. In terms of who invests the most time and energy into the media they consume, the most ardent fans are often the critics.

I’m particularly conscious of how academia is its own kind of fandom. I mean, think about it. It has an insular culture and there’s a deliberate mixing of study and leisure. One of the most common beliefs of those who work in academia is that everything can be turned into a learning experience. Of course, this attitude is hardly unique to the academy. If learning was such hard work, we wouldn’t learn anything at all. But academics do turn study into a vocation, so they push the idea of learning as a way of life a little further than most.

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As an anime academic, then, fandom is work for me, but on the plus side it also means that work is generally fun for me. I see academia as a way of making the most out of my fandom, and vice versa. But it does create problems when I want to let off steam. If I’m looking for mindless entertainment after a long, hard day, chances are I’m not going to watch anime. Sometimes, I even experience periods of burnout when I don’t want to study or watch anime altogether.

My biggest problem, though, is that I’m probably too ambitious for my own good. As I mentioned at the start of the post, I’ve been trying connect my thesis to a lot of other academic disciplines (including translation studies, communications, media studies, cultural studies, and so on). This has to do with the fact that there is zilch written about light novels in English, which means I have to forge my own path by default. But it also has to do with the fact that I really want to do what little I can to open this particular fandom to nuanced academic criticism. Because of the enormity of the task, I often feel pressured to read more books. Then I get depressed at the thought that I’m no expert in anything I’m writing about. Why should anyone listen to what I say about these topics? I’m just talking out of my rear end most of the time.

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I know this is just my insecurity talking, but I really do put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. That’s when anime stops being fun and starts feeling like work (in the bad way). It happens more regularly than I care to admit. It doesn’t have anything to do with my specific hobbies; it’s just my personality, I think. I turned my hobby into work so that I don’t have to feel guilty about spending so much time on it. But this also means that my entire life revolves around my studies in some way. If I don’t do well at it, then I’m worthless.

You know, I already feel a little better just admitting that I have these feelings. I know that lots of people feel similar pressures and that I’m definitely not alone in this. In truth, I know that I’ll probably do fine, and even if I don’t do well it’s not the end of the world. But sometimes, those irrational feelings take hold of me and I don’t know where to turn. I guess it’s just a sign that I’m human, and like most people I attach lots of importance to seemingly arbitrary things.

It’s okay, though. Whenever I’m depressed about how ignorant I am about most things, I’ll remember my love for that one anime which sparked my youthful curiosity and made me want to take my academics seriously.

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In anime-related news, Gundam: Orphans is still really good. Can’t decide who’s cuter between Kudelia and Atra. Kudelia’s character definitely elevates the writing above the usual mecha fare. It’s great to see an idealist not depicted as a strawman for once.

Noragami has also been great. That Kazuma x Bishamon ship is going strong just like I predicted. Also #ProtectYukine2015. I still don’t understand how he managed to get that powerup, but boy does he deserve it.

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Posted on November 15, 2015, in Editorials and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Seriously, I hate those people that think they are superior just because they consider themselves “critics” as opposed to fans. I agree with you on that, criticism is just another form of fandom expression; it’s about studying and applying your knowledge on what you love.

    • I think that when people call themselves critics in that context, they’re trying to distinguish themselves from the negative stereotypes about fans. For example, Zac from ANN claims that there’s a difference between being a “fan” and being part of the “fandom”: https://twitter.com/ANNZac/status/661210764322013188

      …and he’s right, in that nobody wants to say that they’re one of the “crazy” fans. Otherwise, I don’t think you’ll often see self-described critics claiming they’re not fans.

      The question is whether it’s really all that helpful for people to do this. If we distance ourselves from the so-called “crazies” while failing to acknowledge that our own actions are rooted in similar obsessions, then we’re turning fandoms into ever more insular circlejerks. It’s impossible to speak of THE fandom as if it’s a monolithic community, after all. People cluster in little subcommunities all the time. It’s easier to do this, but it does create fake divides between certain “types” of fans.

      • I also think that’s wrong. I mean, saying you’re a fan but not part of the fandom is just ridicule. I understand what they mean, that they aren’t like other fans. But, fandom is just the group of fans of something, so whoever is a fan is also part of the fandom. And yes, as you said, they don’t realize they’re as obsessed as other fans, the only difference is in the way those obsessions are expressed.

  2. I must say that I enjoy all of your posts a lot, Frog-kun! Don’t worry too much. The path of academic is long and hard, but I think you can do it. I have seen many experts and researchers that managed to use hard work to go far, even if they’re not the smartest. You have a chance to do what you want, do it right.

    And a bit about me. I used to be among the brightest students at college, but I realized that I just didn’t enjoy what I’m learning. I barely study, yet I still had better score than over half of the class. But in the end, I quit and choose another subject to study. I still don’t know where I’m going, but I find peace in my mind. Maybe that’s what really matter. So don’t let sadness eats you up, Froggy!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, my friend! It can be really scary doing something you’re passionate about but not knowing where that’s going to lead. What will I do after my thesis…? I’ve barely given the matter a thought, but one thing I do know is that I’ve never once regretted taking up the subject. I hope you don’t regret the choices you’ve taken either.

      Let’s both work hard and find a way to turn our passions into $$$

  3. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of exposure to new critical ideas from your writing, and I’m quite grateful! You’re a pleasure to read, as well — it’s nice to see that serious topics can still be handled playfully without derailing the message.

    (Atra’s cat-ear hair bugs me on a “does anyone else notice that?” level. Fumitan is clearly best girl [she even has the “-tan” option built in! I jest {a bit}.], though I suppose at that point it’s “best lady.”)

  4. “This has to do with the fact that there is zilch written about light novels in English, which means I have to forge my own path by default. But it also has to do with the fact that I really want to do what little I can to open this particular fandom to nuanced academic criticism.” You have my sympathies. I’m not that familiar with the LN world (although I did enjoy your fan translation of Oregairu), but your situation very much reminds me of the first ventures into academic criticism of (American) science fiction, which as a literary form was originally popular only among a small and socially-marginalized fan base, was often crappily written (in large part a function of poorly-paid authors having to crank out a lot of work in order to make a living), and was evaluated by its fans based on entirely different standards than traditional literary ones.

    Speaking as an outsider, light novels may be recapitulating that path: an increasingly active and engaged fanbase combined with a growing body of work produces intelligent and increasingly competent authors and critics. The authors can build on previous works to create new and interesting works within the tradition, and eventually a subset of them can create works that also have appeal outside the tradition. The critics, armed with a deep knowledge of the genre, can better explain why some works are better than others within the terms set by the genre, and eventually a subset of them can produce criticism that is academically rigorous and compares well with the best criticisms of other genres.

    So, for example, in American science fiction you have someone like Philip K. Dick, who from the perspective of the early 1960s was just an overly-prolific writer of schlocky SF novels. However from the perspective of the 21st century Dick was a major author who said important things about the human condition in new and interesting ways, and is thus worthy of serious and informed academic criticism (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson’s monograph “The Novels of Philip K. Dick”).

    Could something like this happen with light novels? I wouldn’t rule it out–Wataru Watari in particular seems a lot like Dick in his ability to take a big bag of genre conventions and from them shape a work that can touch the heart (to “create a work of art out of trash”, as Robinson wrote of Dick). And if the LN world produces its own Dicks and LeGuins and Ballards (to mention only a few SF writers who’ve received serious critical attention), there will need to be critics who can intelligently explain their virtues and interpret their methods to the wider literary world. I encourage your ambition to be one of those critics, and hope you can look past your current doubts and insecurities–they’re the inevitable byproduct of walking a path that no one has walked before.

    • This is interesting. Aside from the fact that the light novel is not a genre and that the main thing preventing them from being written about in English-language scholarship is the language gap more than anything, I do feel as if I understand how early writers about SF must have felt. For me, the key issue is about framing. How do I frame the thesis to seem clear and relevant to people who don’t know anything about light novels? As a result, I’m choosing not to talk about light novels as literature but more as a springboard to talk about fandom in general. The literary-style criticism will have to come later.

      Could something like this happen with light novels?

      I think that the perception of light novels will only change as more of them are published in English. Another thing that needs to change is the marketing: because they’re aimed almost solely at anime viewers, light novels will always have trouble appealing outside their niche. Of course, LNs are very widely read in Japan (although they have a poor reputation as literature). If a Philip K. Dick-type figure emerges, the impact would mostly be limited to Japan.

      So yes, I see some similarities with SF, but there are also crucial differences that lead me to be far less optimistic about my chances of having a real impact on the LN as an art form.

      • Anime’s situation is interesting. Started out as being influenced by Disney cartoons and comic strip, it manage to become a niche hobby all over the world. In fact, do anime really that niche? They have a large fanbase in Asia, and a not that small ones in the West. Anime has influenced Western film makers back. The problem is the lack of serious critical works and academic research. Just ask Bobduh, you can’t make a living as a anime reviewer. I don’t expect a Roger Ebert-like anime reviewer will appear anytime soon.

        The thing that attract many people to anime is the sheer variety of works and their willingness to create serious, complex stories. I’m a fan of animation, not just anime, but I find Western animation lacking. I hated the comedy ones like South Park and Simpsons. There’re more serious cartoons like Batman TAS, but they’re still very episodics. Pixar films did try to be more complex, but many times they’re still bogged down by the need to be child-friendly. I would argue that most Western fantasy and Sci-fi novels would be better off be adapted as animated works.

      • “Aside from the fact that the light novel is not a genre …” I don’t think SF is a genre either, at least in the same way that (say) American westerns are a genre. The focus in traditional literary SF is on the working out of ideas about technology and society, and not so much “conventional” concerns about narrative, character development, sentence-hbby-sentence literary style, etc. So you have to read and judge them in a different way, which reminds me of your and others’ comments on the “otaku as database animal” thesis in the context of LNs, anime, etc.

        “Of course, LNs are very widely read in Japan (although they have a poor reputation as literature).” I think the term of art here is “subliterary”–also applied in the past to SF.

        “If a Philip K. Dick-type figure emerges, the impact would mostly be limited to Japan.” I think you’re likely right, not so much because of the language issue (this didn’t prevent, e.g., Kafka and Borges from being globally influential), but because of the size and cultural specificity of the “database” (again taking the “database animal” thesis as true). Wider popularity would require wider familiarity with the database elements (maybe driven by wider popularity of anime?) perhaps combined with adaptations that downplay the database elements in favor of more universal concerns (e.g., the second season of the Oregairu anime vs the first?).

        But in any case, good luck!

      • For me, the key issue is about framing. How do I frame the thesis to seem clear and relevant to people who don’t know anything about light novels? As a result, I’m choosing not to talk about light novels as literature but more as a springboard to talk about fandom in general. The literary-style criticism will have to come later. […] my chances of having a real impact on the LN as an art form.

        It may be that your thesis is actually too wide a net. One of the things that legitimized pop culture studies in its current form was the rise of Buffy Studies, where they unashamedly wrote serious research about a single franchise, or even just a single TV show, sometimes excluding its spin-offs, sequel comics, and the original movie. No framing necessary. It was just the sheer quantity of papers written that did the influencing upon academia and the industry. Some of the writing is not that much deeper from the stuff the aniblog community puts out, they just cite their timestamps/episode numbers.

        So in terms of tangible influence on the LN as an art form, in content or perception, it may also just require a quantity of writing taking specific content seriously, published in formal formats. Buffy Studies went so far as to create their own platforms, journals and conferences alike. The meta-studies on fandom itself came after the body of studies on the media content were established. There, too, fandom created its own platforms, like the Organization for Transformative Works. (And let me tell you, the essays written for the OTW’s predecessor were mostly very unimpressive, often fandom-masturbatory.)

        So please, don’t burn yourself out trying to make your thesis the beginning and end of LN studies. Don’t worry about your work being “too small.” You are doing good work.

  5. It’s pretty exciting that you get to dig into a fresh subject for your thesis- how many academics can say that? I wish you luck getting it to the point where you are satisfied with it!

    Also I’ve really been enjoying your pieces on translation, though I haven’t had anything to add.

    Your comments about how much reading you have to do sparked a thought in me. I am not terribly familiar with anime academia, but some of the work I have encountered has been marked by a lack of breadth of knowledge. For instance, the constant search for parallels to WWII in works that don’t necessary support them. Or one grad student who wanted to find elements of Noh and Kabuki storytelling in anime, but only talked about shows that are popular in western fandom, rather than works that best support his argument. But your comments got me thinking that likely the authors of these pieces haven’t had time to really watch anime since freshman or sophomore year, perhaps since highschool.

    So my question for you: are some anime academics too busy being academics to actually study anime? Or was this lack of rigour just a result of the newness of the field in the 00’s?

    • are some anime academics too busy being academics to actually study anime? Or was this lack of rigour just a result of the newness of the field in the 00’s?

      I suspect it has more to do with the latter overall. There’s also the fact that, in the 00s, anime was less accessible, so if you didn’t live in Japan, it was harder to get an accurate grasp of the current trends and what would pass for a representative example. When you only watch the most popular shows that are available to you, you’re going to get a skewed impression of the medium.

      Another thing to take into account is that younger students tend to produce less rigorous work than the more seasoned academics. Perhaps if they had spent enough time “being academics”, they wouldn’t make tenuous connections. Although that said, Susan Napier’s early work falls into similar pitfalls.

      There was a post on Ogiue Maniax a few years back that talks about this problem in some detail: https://ogiuemaniax.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/im-an-anime-scholar-why-should-i-watch-anime/

      I think this tendency has died down over the past few years now that the “anime scholarship boom” is over. These days, many of the people taking up anime studies these days are people who grew up with anime, like myself. This has its own potential pitfalls, to be sure, but at least scholars are more genre literate than they used to be.

  6. Out of all of the blog posts I see out there, Froggy, yours certainly have the most (or at least among the most) though behind them. Speaking from the point of view of another student completing tertiary studies (though i’m not writing a thesis, admittedly), I completely understand the feeling you mention, the feeling of “man, this is -ridiculous-, why would anyone be interested in this? why would I even write it?!” because I experience it all the time.

    But having experienced that feeling and also being involved in the same fandom circles I can say that your “academic” blog posts make a whole lot of sense whenever I read them. If anyone were going to pioneer the academic field of light novels or other Japanese media, i’ve got a lot of confidence in what you’re going to come up with, so my two cents is that you just need to continue what you’ve been doing, because it’s been working pretty well so far from a consumer’s point of view.

    Basically, good luck and keep up the good work!

    On another note, though, I can imagine that the level of analysis you need to subject media to might impact your enjoyment of those during your break times. Because my writing and reviews often come from simply watching and recording what stands out to me on a single pass I don’t feel my blogging has affected the shows I like or dislike. But how about you? Do you feel that your thesis work has changes which LN or anime series you like or dislike? In what way? You’ve already mentioned that you often don’t feel like watching anything at all in your downtime, which is fair when you’re consuming that media for work purposes, but I want to know about specific changes in taste. Also, do you feel that by consuming media for work you are missing out on entertainment value for those media?

    • Thank you for the encouragement! As for your questions…

      Do you feel that your thesis work has changes which LN or anime series you like or dislike?

      This is a really hard question to answer, because I think that taste depends on a lot of different factors. Sometimes, even simple things like being busy a lot changes your taste because then you’re more likely to watch something that’s not so mentally taxing. I change my opinions all the time about things.

      I guess you’re asking about how my tastes have changed over the long/medium-term, though. I think I appreciate shows with ambitious ideas better now, but whether this has to do with blogging or just generally growing older is hard to say. Blogging might encourage me to sit down and analyse certain ideas, but since I tend not to write about things I don’t enjoy, I wouldn’t peg it as a major influence. More like it reinforces attitudes I picked up elsewhere.

      Honestly speaking, hanging around the community of anime bloggers probably has a bigger influence on my taste than the act of writing itself. I hope that makes sense.

      Now to get to more specific changes in my taste:

      I flipflop on my opinions about ecchi and harems all the time. Some days I’m really into it, other times I feel quite mortified by all the crappy writing. This applies to a lot of LNs as well.

      I appreciate sakuga more than I used to. Sometimes, I can enjoy anime on the basis of cool animation alone.

      I get more annoyed by sexist and homophobic tropes these days.

      I think that shows which feature too much self-aware dialogue are obnoxious.

      I still really like cute anime characters (of both genders), but am less into the whole waifu thing than I used to be.

      Like I said, I don’t know how much this has to do blogging, per se, but there you have it.

      • Fair enough, I agree that it’s difficult to keep track of what exactly has influenced your tastes over time. I think i’d find it just as difficult to differentiate between simple age and just about every other factor as well. The two biggest changes for me over the past few years have been noticing recycled character archetypes/tropes (which simply comes from a greater volume of anime viewing) and also the placement of the bar that decides whether i’ll continue watching a series or not (I don’t think I dropped any series whatsoever during the first year or two I was watching anime 0_o).

        I tend to have pretty solid opinions outside of entertainment media, so it makes sense that my stances on various features of anime haven’t changed too much over time. The topic that stands out to me from your list is the one regarding sexist and homophobic tropes, given the climate of social media these days. I wouldn’t say my opinions have changes there either, though I -have- become a lot more careful when talking round the subject.

        And i’ve never been a fan of self-aware dialogue XD

  7. The pressure is real. I totally get the pressure of not being an expert in anything. I did my thesis on Milton. Really, I just wanted to write about animals and looking glasses but do you know how much literature there is ABOUT Paradise Lost and Milton? Way more than all the things Milton ever wrote. At some point, you just have to say, “Eff this. I may not be an expert in everything but I know and have read enough to say this one thing about this one topic I am genuinely interested in that no one else has really talked about. It’s tough being an academic pioneer but in some ways, it can be liberating, yeah? When you finish, your thesis WILL be the stuff that people turn to for an expert opinion on light novels.

    • At some point, you just have to say, “Eff this. I may not be an expert in everything but I know and have read enough to say this one thing about this one topic I am genuinely interested in that no one else has really talked about.

      QFT.

      Incidentally, one of my professors said the exact same thing when I told her about all the reading I was doing. She said, “At some point, you have to put down the books and just start writing.” It’s good advice.

      Your Milton thesis sounds awesome, by the way :P I hope it included animals and looking glasses somewhere.

  8. You just keep powering on through, Frog-kun, and kick that imposter syndrome to the curb. Even just going by your blog alone, I can see you’re an awesome writer and dedicated to your craft to boot. And hey, if you don’t consider yourself an expert on your chosen topic now, you certainly will be by the time you’re done! That’s what I tried to tell myself a lot when I was writing my PhD thesis anyway, and I got that done so there must be some truth in there somewhere, right? ;)

  9. I (obviously) don’t do near as much as you, but the pressure you’re talking about here is definitely relatable—trying to hold down a full-time job and make my anime fan experience creative and productive (not just passive and consumeristic) can be really difficult and there are frequently times when I’m like, “Maybe I should just…stop for a little bit.” Very little of the anime writing I’m doing is something I’ve made formal commitments to, the rest of it is all just self-imposed (to stave off existential panic??).

    So, yeah, I guess that all I really want to say is that I think these feelings you’re having are a pretty normal part of working in the fandom biz—and that you’re not alone in having them. It’s a huge credit to you that you’re willing and able to voice them like this; it gives the rest of us the assurance that we’re likewise not crazy.

    It’s a genuine pleasure and an honor to be doing critical work on Japanese pop culture alongside you. I consider you both a friend and a colleague, and I sincerely look forward to the work that you’ll be putting out in the future. It’s inspirational to know you’re out there, trying to improve your craft. I need to ganbare, too! ^_^

    • Man, Bless, you write like a machine. I don’t think I could ever catch up to you :P Your dedication and passion are things I find really inspiring!

      But yeah, I get what you mean that it can be exhausting. If you ever feel that pressure, take a break or write about something else! I find that it can be really invigorating to write about something completely unrelated to your usual interests.

      And likewise, you’re a friend and colleague to me as well, and I look forward to your next posts as well. Particularly the Hyouka ones~

  10. Good luck with your thesis mate, and take care of yourself! I know mental health can be quite a big problem in academia so if the pressure is too great make sure you talk to someone :-)

    Do you have much time at the moment to do your own kinda thing, where you don’t have to think hard? When I feel stressed about studies I often turn to sport or music, which often really helps get me out of those mindsets where nothing seems to be going right.

    • Funny story, mate. I’ve gotten hooked on solitaire. It’s true. I’ll sit there half-watching the cricket playing solitaire on my tablet. It’s soooooo mindless but so good.

      Thanks for the encouragement and advice, Alex!

  11. I am not an Academic (not yet anyway), but

    “This has to do with the fact that there is zilch written about light novels in English, which means I have to forge my own path by default.”
    ….
    “Then I get depressed at the thought that I’m no expert in anything I’m writing about. Why should anyone listen to what I say about these topics? I’m just talking out of my rear end most of the time.”

    If there is nothing out there and you know more than the average joe, you are probably already the expert. So don’t worry or something!

    (Also by being at the forefront, you are probably opening yourself up to criticism, but that is probably a good thing as it means will be studying this stuff!)

    So, have faith, good frog.

  12. Hmm… Frankly, it’s your choice to spend so much time on anime academic, but you said that you want to direct the attention to LN, right? But then, is blog the right platform for such a thesis? I mean, it could be lost in the depth of the net pretty easily.The chance would be better if you can publish it onto some opinion websites (I came across some, but I just can’t remember. A bit like Kotaku, but more professional, I think.)

  13. I do wonder if you might prove a little ahead of your time. While some examination of the light novel market is certainly due, the mainstay of the western literature world — and academia for sure — feels like it’s going to look down upon the Japanese LN universe. I’m curious on how your professors and colleagues are reacting to all this?

    Nevertheless, when overwhelmed, just remember: true brilliance always pioneer new fields where few dare tread. Forging new viewpoints and asking untouched questions is what sets up an aspiring sage from the mundane cog.

    By the way: it’s not just academia, every serious vocation values the experience of non-stop learning, whether you’re a mechanic trying to stay up to date with hybrid engines or an administrator learning the newer philosophy of governing a modern society. Just check out the nonstop flow of articles LinkedIn pumps out and you see how vital continuous learning and improvement is to careers =P

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