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.
The 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.
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.