November 27, 2020

Conversations with Dr. Thomas Lamarre

"One of the things I noticed when I started doing more research on anime is that Japanese series never pass through giant cinema—they go through television, creating this much more interactive, viewer-oriented experience."

"One of the things I noticed when I started doing more research on anime is that Japanese series never pass through giant cinema—they go through television, creating this much more interactive, viewer-oriented experience."

Courtesy of Thomas Lamarre

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thomas Lamarre is a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at UChicago. He’s also the James McGill Professor Emeritus of Japanese Media Studies at McGill University, has taught “Yokai Media” and “Ecology and Media” at UChicago, and will be teaching “Japanese Animation: The Making of a Global Media” next quarter.  

Audrey Scott: Let’s get started by talking about the course you’re teaching next quarter – “Japanese Animation: The Making of a Global Media.” What can students expect from it, and what are you most excited about? 

Dr. Thomas Lamarre: I think it’s always an interesting course to teach because students come in with different expectations. Obviously, there are students who have grown up with manga and anime and are totally into it, and then there are students who are just curious. They don’t know much about manga or anime; they’re trying to figure out what it's all about, and it’s like opening up a whole new world. The goal of the course is not just to address narrow fandom—like, I like this manga or this anime—but to give students a sense of how huge both the culture and industry of Japanese animation [are]: It’s up to [several hundred] series a year. 

AS: What is the scale of revenue that brings in—with tourism, merchandising, the revenue from the media itself? How big of an industry is this? 

TL: It’s huge—the Japanese government was restructuring its economy and realized that the entertainment industries in Japan were much bigger than any traditional industrial modes. But what’s interesting about it when compared with the U.S. is that the industry is very decentralized—there are a lot of different studios and the aim is not massive recapitalization. Most of these studios are not trying to make a ton of money—the profit models are very different—they’re just trying to make enough money to continue doing what they like to do. So I think that’s why it has such a huge fandom—the level at which things are pitched is not just a money-grab. 

AS: Is the difference in profit margins and philosophies of creation what separates it from American animation and other American entertainment industries? 

TL: It’s hard to make huge generalizations, but one of the things I noticed when I started doing more research on anime is that Japanese series never pass through giant cinema—they go through television, creating this much more interactive, viewer-oriented experience. In the United States context, the first analogy that comes to mind is the Marvel [Cinematic] Universe. The [Marvel Cinematic Universe] is really diverse when it comes to the base media—it started with comics, TV series, but then they tried to mix cinema into this huge prestige blockbuster model. In Japan, it’s about streaming, watching something on your own, making things yourself; the vibe is different. 

AS: On that note, how does anime play into Japan’s cultural presentation? 

TL: The government wants to harness anime and manga and games and fashion under the umbrella of a “cool Japan” and national branding. The actual animation studios, though, refused government funding and won’t participate. They have no interest in that kind of national publicity. There’s a standoff between the way creators see what they do, and the way the Japanese government wants to mobilize it. 

AS: What led you to your field of study? 

TL: It’s actually in a University of Chicago–related way. I was a grad student at the University, and one of my supervisors was an anthropologist [who studied] mass-culture anthropology. This was when mass-culture workshops were just starting up in Chicago. Then, when I went to Japan, I was super interested in popular culture. I gathered tons of material, and then I started teaching anime and manga at McGill University in 1992. It was interesting—most students were like, “What are you doing to us? Why are you making us watch this?” And 10 years later, it was just accepted as a global cultural form. 

AS: Why do you think anime has seen such a massive surge in popularity? 

TL: I think in the first wave, it was about narrative and world-building. Most American television is based on stand-alone episodes, so it took a long time for U.S. television other than soap operas to have ongoing stories. It was literally, like, every week you get an episode and that’s it. Everything in the US was designed so someone could tune in, watch an episode, and be satisfied. Japanese anime was really different because you had to watch them all—you couldn’t miss an episode. It was often 26 episodes, 52 episodes, hundreds of episodes… and I think it appealed to people who were really looking for storytelling. Then once people got the taste of that, the US market tried to copy it, obviously - they wanted to do the same thing.  

AS: What did the timeframe on that look like? 

TL: The big switch was Pokémon. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, there’s this surge with Pokémon. [Pokémon: The First Movie], I think, was one of the highest-selling animated movies ever. It just swept the world! No one could figure out what it was—there were lots of panic all over the world, like, what is this thing? All the kids were eating it up, and then it was discovered that the biggest Pokémon fans were college-aged kids. That’s still true. People go through their life, they phase in and out of Pokémon. You may like it at five, or 12, but most people go back to it when they’re in college. 

AS: What goes into anime that makes it this escape for people globally? Like with Pokémon, people go back to it throughout their lives—is there just something about it that makes it easy to come back to?  

TL: I think people have really different answers on that—why do these things become so popular? I think a part of it is the kinds of conflicts and value problems it creates feel really close to people. Although Pokémon feels like a tournament form—you’re just battling with Pokémon back and forth—when you look at fan worlds, people really understand that there are values at stake. They’re drawn into these conflicts of values in ways that feel really appropriate to their life. It’s fun, it’s fast, it feels right, and it speaks to people. Like Pokémon Go, it can go into the streets for the same reasons.  

AS: To many foreigners, anime can be a sort of gateway to broader Japanese culture: Is this a flawed approach, or does it foray nicely into the aforementioned cultural images? 

TL: It’s always interesting that so many people get interested in Japan through manga and anime, but I think it’s a bit hit or miss—people could love American movies and not want to live in the U.S., right? It could go either way. Japanese entertainment now is global enough that there are different kinds of audiences. People that love Shonen Jump stuff, like Naruto and those kinds of things, which are great. You can have an interest in Naruto and have no other interest in anime, or Japan for that matter. It’s true, though, that at least in Japan studies there are very few people that don’t like manga and anime. 

AS: It seems like it was the reverse for you—you had an interest in Japan studies, and then developed an academic interest in manga and anime. 

TL: Before I went to Japan, I wasn’t that aware of manga and anime. I think that in Francophone culture, there’s a lot more cultural space given to comics, so I did grow up reading those. I didn’t have a barrier against comics per se, but when I actually went to Japan and saw what was going on, I thought, “Oh my God, this is amazing! Why does no one write on this and talk about it?” It was like this amazing, blossoming pop-culture phenomenon that was not on anyone’s radar. So it’s true, it was being in Japan, and being in Japan under really weird circumstances: I lived in the dormitory of a corporation, and it was all men between 18 and 31 - there was just a flood of manga. That became what you talked about, and we sat in front of the TV every week and we watched Dragon Ball. That was our community thing. It also became clear that it was an inescapable part of the culture. 

AS: I read a few of your essays, and my favorite was your draft for “Paratopia: Anime and the Aims of Education.” You point out that school clubs in anime, such as the volleyball team in Haikyu!! and the anime production club in Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, further a basic aim of education. What other functions do these specialized clubs we see all across manga and anime serve? 

TL: That’s precisely the question that got me interested in it. There was a point where the school clubs took off, and the numbers proliferated like crazy: again, late ’90s or early 2000s. When you look at the situation in Japan, that’s the generation known as “relaxed education.” But relaxed education was very strange, and it was repealed almost as quickly as it was enacted. That got me thinking, “What’s going on in the educational spaces in Japan? What are these school clubs, what are they telling us about education?” It’s also interesting because, in the clubs that you mentioned, they’re way over the top. They’re not real high school clubs. In fact, in this season of anime, there’s another paranormal club, another strange sports club.… There’s just so many of them! When you start to look at the way in which Japanese schools are organized, and then this promise of relaxed education that was never realized, it creates a new space where these possibilities can be explored. You see in these shows—particularly the culture clubs—students that educate themselves. They don’t reject school, but you see school in the background, in its regulations. They build this parallel world. It’s not a utopia, it’s not trying to develop this whole autonomous space full of ideals, it’s trying to figure out a way to live in the Japanese school system and get something out of it.  

AS: UChicago is a parallel of what you discussed in “Paratopia”: a rigorous education and exam system, with a vibrant array of student organizations! In your experience at UChicago, what RSO most deserves its own anime or manga? 

TL: Oh, that’s interesting! I mean, given the pattern in Japan, there should probably be three, right? So I feel like the anime club itself should have its own meta anime. Like they should make an anime about how they make…anime. And that’s it. And they get lost in it and disappear. That’s one usual trope. But then there should be a paranormal club, there should be a paranormal investigation. I guess that would be your job?  

AS: Oh goodness! I guess I have to make the paranormal investigation club now? 

TL: Well, if you do journalism—because that’s usually how it starts—people want to do weird journalism. 

AS: Ah, I see! So I need to get my members and my first episode.  

TL: Exactly! I definitely think journalism should have its own anime. And the last one should be sort of a club of people who don’t want to do a club. I’m not sure which club that would be, but it would have to be the club that is really just about being together and not having an activity. 

AS: So maybe it should just be the quad then? 

TL: Yeah, maybe the quad should have an anime, yeah! That could be interesting - well, in anime, you could have a quad club, like the goal of the club is to meet at the quad every day. 

AS: Now I want to see a quad club! Also a UChicago question, what is one anime you think every UChicago student should watch?  

TL: Oh my gosh, that’s such a hard question. People always ask me, “What’s your favorite anime?” With [several hundred] series a year, it’s really hard to decide why I would recommend one thing over another. I’ll go out on a limb and say Maquia because I think people should watch this particular artist [Mari Okada]. There’s not very many women animators in Japan. There are more women writers, and some women animators, one woman [Naoko Yamada] did A Silent Voice—one of the first woman directors who really has a following. There’s another woman director who did something called Maquia, and it was embarrassing, because it was a really good film, but she was the writer and director and she didn’t get a mention on any list of top anime of the year. It’s very clear in the industry that she was excluded because she’s a woman, and because she writes about mother-daughter relations in ways that are very uncomfortable. I would say, to be true to the University of Chicago spirit, and watch the thing that is ignored but worth watching, I would say Maquia

AS: What do you consider to be a part of an art canon of anime?  

TL: There are a few works like that, and I always think of two of them that are tremendously influential but people don’t see very much. One is called Birth, an OVA [original video animation] from the early ’80s. It’s helmed by a guy who really is an animator [Yoshinori Kanada]—he’s not really good with story or anything, but his manner of doing animation is copied by everybody. He did another film in the ’90s called Down Load: Namu Amida Butsu wa Ai no Uta. Those are good, strange, not really well-known titles that I think people should watch for the art.  

AS: Have there been any external factors—be they cultural, political, or economic—that have prompted a drastic change in the artistic or storytelling aspects of anime? 

TL: I would say it’s really changed simply because it’s so diverse, and part of what keeps changing it and making it interesting is that fanwork is so central to it. In the ’90s, which is the so-called “Lost Decade” in Japan, it became really clear that the amateur works in manga were more interesting than the mainstream works. So the industry started going out to amateur clubs and scouting people to become artists for their manga, or just stealing their ideas. I would say that really pushed the politics, so when you get into what’s been coming out in the last few years, it’s changed the form so much because these more industrial forms cannot do anything without thinking of the fanbase. It’s become more of a fan-led media, through fanfiction, amateur games, amateur manga, and that’s really interesting.