The Soul of Anime

Anime-2What makes anime so popular? The academic Ian Condry answers this question with… memes.

He never actually uses the word “meme”, but when he talks about the “dark energy” of fandom, we can be fairly certain that he is talking about the same processes which turn images, videos and catchphrases into memes. Memes turn viral when they are shared around by people; they transcend geographical borders and even language barriers. They are easily adapted and rewritten to fit different contexts, and they rely on social connections to thrive.

The Soul of Anime (2013) could easily be called The Soul of Memes.

I like this book. It takes a pretty simple idea – that anime is made by people – and applies that to the story of anime’s popular success, both in Japan and overseas. You’d be surprised how few academic books about anime actually talk about the production side of things. The ethnographic studies of various anime studies are easily the best parts of the book. The price is worth it for the chapter on Summer Wars alone.

CopertinaThe Soul of Anime also talks about fans as well as the feedback loop between fans and creators. According to Condry, anime became successful because the fans lapped it all up… which is every media success story ever, so I don’t know what he’s talking about. Indeed, The Soul of Anime doesn’t really have much to say about anime’s success in particular. But since the book doesn’t draw many comparisons to other creative industries, it makes anime’s success seem more unique than it really is, which is kind of ironic since Condry was actively trying to debunk all those ethnocentric theories about the appeal of anime. You know the kind of bullshit I’m talking about – like anime is appealing because of its “unique” art style or deep storylines compared to those shallow Western cartoons or whatever.

It’s a nice theory, but Condry’s argument about “social energy” influencing anime production would have been stronger if he had a) drawn meaningful comparisons to other creative industries beyond the occasional references to Western animators; and b) made the links between fandom and industry more explicit. For example, he could easily have written a chapter about the informal networking that happens at big fan gatherings like Comiket. Lots of famous artists found industry connections through doujinshi, including CLAMP and Shirow Masamune, and the fact that Condry did not mention this at all feels like a lost opportunity. He could also have gone into more detail defining what “social energy” is supposed to be to begin with. I’ve read the book cover to cover and I still don’t know what the soul of anime is.

Could this be the soul of anime?
Could this be the soul of anime?

The best chapter is called “Dark Energy”, which is about fansubbing. Being a fan translator myself, I am far from a neutral observer on this matter, but I think that Condry does a really good job describing all the major issues in an even-handed manner, like “Are fansubs ethical?”, “What do anime studios think about fansubs?” and “Do they hurt or help the market?” Much like he does throughout the entire book, Condry plays it safe and says that there are no easy answers to these questions, but he does point out that there were similar polarising debates about the VCR and that the media industries will have to adapt to the changing needs of the consumer. This is precisely the “social energy” that Condry is talking about in action.

More importantly, this is also the only chapter where Condry discusses fan creations in any depth. As we know, fan creations occupy a rocky position in the eyes of the law. Generally speaking, creators of derivative works are supposed to seek permission from the Copyright holder. But the vast majority of fan works are not authorised, which means they’re driven underground and, in the case of fan translation, are virtually indistinguishable from piracy. This is one of the big reasons why using economic theories to explain media success will only ever get you half the story.

In fact, if you really want to understand creative work at all, you need to acknowledge that it’s practically never an individual pursuit, and that many people who contribute to a work have no legal ownership over it. Copyright, then, diverts our attention away from the actual dynamics of creative work. Condry wants to shift our attention back towards collective creativity, and for that I applaud him. More media scholars need to do this. But he needs to dig deeper. (For further reading, check out The Informal Media Economy (2015) by Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas.)

The worst chapter is “Love Revolution”, which is about moe subculture. This chapter feels tacked on and doesn’t really add much to the overall discussion. Condry just regurgitates all the notable theories about otaku masculinity, which would be a very fascinating chapter in a different book. Condry does get close to giving his own spin on the subject when he says that “arguably, it is the urge to make public displays within a community  of peers who care that makes the moe phenomenon significant.” (pg. 201) But he doesn’t elaborate on this idea of a moe community, nor does he make any mention of how anime creators respond to hardcore otaku. This is another lost opportunity.

In the end, The Soul of Anime is a book that sets up a fascinating framework for understanding the social contexts behind anime, but doesn’t follow through on all its ideas. In some ways, this is to be expected. By focusing on the dynamics of the industry itself, this book breaks new ground, and I expect subsequent work in the field will fill in some of the more glaring gaps. It’s still a good book for anyone who is interested in the production side of anime. (Did you know that Condry voiced one of the extras in episode 11 of the Studio Gonzo anime Red Garden?) But if you’re looking for some meaty theorising about fandom and media, you’d probably find this book a bit frustrating.











Let me finish this post with some brief thoughts about the social dynamics of anime production. At the start of this post, I compared anime to internet memes. You see, in our daily lives we’re bombarded with so much information and things to consume, often in the form of soundbites. I think that “fandom” is a way of coping with the memefication of things. If nothing around you seems to have meaning, you make your own meaning. Out of the swathes of media products at your disposal, you select the few things you want to put your energy into, and you focus on those things. This is one of the reasons why anime, like so many other things, can inspire such intense self-identification.

So perhaps the soul of anime lies in the memes that strike a chord with you… or, you might say, the fantastic memes.




  1. Your review sold me on trying this book, but do you have any recommendations for a more theoretical work on anime/anime fandom, other than Otaku – Japan’s Database Animals or Beautiful Fighting Girls?

  2. > or, you might say, the fantastic memes.

    Froggy….. (I suppose you can draw something out of the fact that you wrote a very nice review of this book here, and yet the thing I focused on most was a bad joke at the end.)

  3. “… collective creativity… self-identification…”

    Two sides of the same coin.

    A bit discourse: Correct me if I’m wrong, but does the former in any way could hurt the author?

    Till this day, I still haven’t really understand what us fans have really pay back to anime artists and their works? We set up the trends and thresholds for they to work in. We encourage them materialistically and spiritually by buying their works. We are, recently, even become benefactors because of fundraising.

    But does our “creativity” really does good? You said yourself that “If nothing around you seems to have meaning, you make your own meaning.” Who made the meaning lost in the first place? Us (of course, I’m leaving out the matter of mass media and 24/24 connection), by making our own meaning (meme is twisted, where ever you see from.)

    • does the former in any way could hurt the author?

      Depends what you mean by “hurt”. Care to elaborate?

      Who made the meaning lost in the first place? Us

      When I said “If nothing around you seems to have meaning, you make your own meaning,” the key word is “seems”. Humans have always made their own meanings out of what they observe. The difference these days is how we choose to communicate those meanings. Instead of reading messages that have a beginning, middle and end, we hear them in soundbites. For instance, instead of reading a book from beginning to end, you read blog posts in whatever order you like. Because communication is becoming so much less linear, it seems as if meaning is being lost.

      In reality, what happens is that we find new ways to make meanings. We pick and choose information that fits into our pre-established worldviews. We still tell stories with a beginning, middle and end. For better or worse, humans are stuck with their creativity.

      I’m not sure that’s really addressing what you wrote in your comment, though.

  4. Couldn’t this be applied to any modern popular media and not just anime? From the success of the Marvel movie franchise to hit HBO series to big webcomic titles, they all build upon the momentum of its fandom. And movies certainly spark just as many memes as anime, just for a different audience.

    • Exactly. There’s nothing particularly unique about anime’s success. It would’ve been nice if Condry emphasised that. At the same time, it is still quite rare for anime to get attention in academic circles, while there has been plenty written already about fandom from a Western perspective. It’s good to get specific about how anime fandom works because it helps contribute to our general understanding of how media franchises become popular. So a book like this isn’t a waste of time, even if it feels incomplete.

  5. Memefication is a real word, right? If not, you get dibs on it once it’s Oxford English Dictionary official.

    I agree with the idea that creative pursuit is a collective endeavor rather than a solo one, especially since it applies so well with fanfiction. High-profile authors may want to monopolize their characters and ban fans from playing with them but you can’t ban fanplay anymore you can make readers to read your book the way you want them to. Every reading experience is going to be different and every person who interacts or responds to your art is going to do it in interesting and new ways.

  6. >like anime is appealing because of its “unique” art style
    It’s not? One of the primary reason i like anme is because of the art style.

    • Sure, anime art is unique, just like other forms of animation. I don’t doubt that. While I’m sure that many fans would say that’s one of their reasons for liking anime, that’s only scratching the surface of their fandom, though. Since “appeal” is so subjective, saying something like “people like X because of Y” doesn’t explain how X becomes a big trend. So while it isn’t wrong to say that anime is appealing because of its art style, it’s only one side of the story. Hope that explains what I mean.

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