Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop Culture (Dylan)

With the next blog topic including the phrase “become a fan of something,” I guess it was kind of doomed that I would write about science fiction anime.  And of course the logical choice was to pick the anime franchise that was described to me as Japan’s cultural counterpart to Star Trek, Mobile Suit Gundam.
These are a few of the series. No, really, only a few of them.
Mobile Suit Gundam is a massive science fiction anime franchise responsible for creating the “real robot” genre, taking the already-popular trope of giant robots and applying a dose of realism to the concept, moving away from the superhero-style origins of the concept.  The first series, just titled Mobile Suit Gundam, was released in 1979.  Much like the Star Trek original series it’s often compared to, it was a failure in its first run but became a huge hit in syndication, gaining a tremendously successful follow-up in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam eight years later which spawned a massive and ongoing franchise of anime about giant, human-piloted and humanoid robots being used as war machines… and how that’s a bad thing, we swear, stop looking at the cool robot fights.
And once in awhile, you get free stuff, too.
Now, at Beloit College, there’s enough dedicated nerd groups that finding fellow fans of anything nerdy and activities dedicated to them is really quite easy.  At AIU, however, there aren’t any such groups (well, until about a week ago, but it’s very much dominated by international students), and what more informal social gatherings there are amongst students tend not to be the most open to people with low Japanese proficiency, such as myself.  So that made accessing Japanese nerddom something of a challenge, at first, especially since the one class which actually advertised being about this sort of thing not fitting into my schedule.

I can offer what I observed about the Gundam – and more broadly sci-fi anime – fandom in Japan in my first month and a half hear, and then comment on the last couple of weeks, which have been a bit different.

On the surface, there really isn’t much of a difference between the more dedicated aspects of Japanese nerddom and American nerddom.  Japanese nerddom is something that’s pretty visible, but a bit cut off socially, and kind of impenetrable to outsiders, especially with a language barrier.  With the immediate setup video games are the most common outward expression, and while many students here play video games there’s a difference both in choice of games (“casual” party games versus role-playing games and shooters) and in frequency and duration of play.  But if this sounds more like a description of American nerddom five years ago than today, well, that is where things seem to be here, and I get the impression that in very recent years American nerddom has been somewhat more normalized and become much more mainstream than here in Japan.

But I also think that it’s easy to overstate this because there are, as in the U.S. and probably elsewhere, quite a few people who are part of a nerddom somewhere or another who just aren’t as obvious about it.  In the past couple weeks I’ve found that there are a larger number of students who do have nerdier interests but just don’t incorporate this into their primary, outward identity.  However, this remains more common amongst the international students (where it’s proven almost universally true) than the Japanese students (although the language barrier may be influencing this).

The other thing that’s happened in the past couple weeks is that I’ve met and gone on the tours led by the school’s resident nerd professor.  He serves both as something of a welcome committee for international students and as the current incarnation of the nerd gods.  He certainly provides an avenue for encountering more of the material side of Japanese nerddom, if not the personal side.
In the case of the Gundam fandom, the key material are the models and toys produced as tie-ins for the franchise.  Actually, they are both the primary source of income and the primary reason for existing for the franchise.  There’s a large number and great variety in them; ranging from children’s toys to models for dedicated builders.  The one pictured above is one of the antagonist robots (called Mobile Suits), the Hygogg, which is probably my favorite of the villain suits in the franchise, from Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket.  Unlike some other anime fandoms, where cosplay or just t-shirts are popular, these models provide much of the franchise’s material focal point and may be part of why there’s a notable lack of obvious fans for such a successful franchise.

No, really, there's an entire series dedicated to that point.
As a final note, I should explain why I did not use the word “otaku” in this post, even though that is a commonly-used phrase for the anime fandom as a whole.  In Japan, otaku implies an extreme form of nerddom which fits stereotypes of Dungeons and Dragons players in the U.S. as they were 15 years ago, and even has the same connotations of moral panic; it doesn’t seem to quite apply to Japanese nerddom as a whole and since I am still working out the nuances of the term I felt it better to not use it here.

I guess ultimately I’m still cut out of the actual circles of Japanese nerddom, including the Gundam fandom, and so stuck writing about this from an outsider’s perspective.  But we’re two weeks away from a Halloween cosplay parade, we’ll see what comes out of that.


Crystaline Hoover said...

Yes, at KG also, Japanese students don't seem to be very into -- or at least open about -- "nerdier" interests. Did you notice anything new at Halloween?

Here at KG, I noticed some Studio Ghibli and Silent Hill costumes, but most people seemed to be in kind of generic outfits, like Minnie Mouse. Although I wouldn't recognize 99% of anime/video game characters, so my observations probably don't mean that much.

Dylan Hackler said...

Well, I didn't wind up going to the parade, but there was a costume party at school, and there were indeed few Japanese in costumes outside of pop culture.

Christopher Aaron Koerner said...

I feel like I have had a different experience then Crystal has had at KGU. Most Japanese people do not seem to be interested in "nerdy" things, but most of the people I have talked to seem to understand references to anime/manga. I have seen at KGU and other places all sorts of people playing video games. The street pass function on the 3DS shows me that there students who game. So, there are those who have nerdier pursuits. Halloween was the major holiday for learning who is a nerd or not, and I agree that the majority of people are not nerds, but they do exist if you know how to look for them.

On different note. Dyan, how have you been in being involved with Gundam? I have been a fan of Gundams for awhile, and seeing that you discovered Gundam, I am curious of what apects of Gundam that you find enjoyable.

Dylan Hackler said...

More recently I've gotten to know some of the nerdier students a little better, just through people playing things like Mario Kart together (there's several open-use consoles in the dorm lounge here). The exchange has developed slowly but it has developed. There are a lot of students who don't seem to have any "nerdy" interests whatsoever, though, including some who profess a strong dislike for anime & manga.

I actually found myself a fan of much of what is done with the anime - of course the battles are fun, but I've liked a lot of what they've done in terms of setting and story writing. Currently it's been almost entirely through anime (almost finished with Victory Gundam), but those Gunpla are so tempting...