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From 'Sailor Moon' to sexual politics: Anime meets academia

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Anime scholar Susan Napier delivers a lecture at Columbia University. Shown here, she discusses dolls of the character Ayanami Rei from the apocalyptic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. (Sarah Brown/CNS)

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Anime scholar Susan Napier delivers a lecture at Columbia University. (Sarah Brown/CNS)

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Anime scholar Susan Napier delivers a lecture at Columbia University. (Sarah Brown/CNS)

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Pam Gossin and Marc Hairston teach a literature class at University of Texas at Dallas about the Japanese art forms of anime and manga. (Courtesy of Marc Hairston)

A man turns into a panda. The women of the world disappear and are replaced by marionettes. A local temple god runs off to try to be a rock musician.

Almost anything can happen in anime, the Japanese art form best known to many Americans for the likes of "Pokemon," "Sailor Moon" and the film "Spirited Away." The medium has its own conventions, from the trope of the giant robot to the magical girlfriend genre. Now, university classes across the country are studying anime and Japanese comics, known as manga.

While the first forms of anime to reach mainstream U.S. audiences were children’s cartoons and animations filled with sex and violence, the industry has grown in the United States to include a far more varied selection. With directors like Hayao Miyazaki leading the way, the medium is considered a legitimate subject of academic study.

The classes attract students to literary studies by drawing from a medium that has already captured their interest, professors say. Studying anime and manga challenges students to change the way they approach literature and American culture.

“I still have to explain that this is really interesting stuff,” said Susan Napier of Tufts University, who paved the way for academic analysis of anime with her book in 2001, "Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke." The book, which Napier updated in 2005, was the first critical look at the medium by an American author.

“A lot of my colleagues felt that it was silly, superficial pop culture trash,” she said.

She said American academics have become more receptive to studies of anime and manga. This semester, she is teaching a course on anime auteurs. The first issue of the academic journal Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and the Fan Arts came out last fall.

When two professors at the University of Texas at Dallas designed a class on the subject for this spring, so many students signed up that they had to find a larger room. The class, taught by Pam Gossin, a literature professor, and Marc Hairston, a space physicist, drew 130 students.

Many of the students do not have a literature background but signed up for the class because they were already interested in science fiction anime or manga, Hairston said.

“It’s amazing how much better students will do if they’re interested in the subject matter,” said Hairston, who first taught anime as a guest lecturer in a literature course Gossin was teaching in 1999.

He said his first exposure to anime came in the 1960s, when animated television shows like "Speed Racer" were imported from Japan. The type of animation resurfaced in the United States in the 1980s, he said, but did not really take off until VCRs made the videos widely available in the 1990s.

While anime in Japan has long dealt with a wide variety of subjects, the first types to reach the United States were children’s cartoons and shows with violence and pornography, Hairston said. The early introduction of these types of anime to an American audience led to a perception that all Japanese comics were about sex and violence, he said.

“We got kind of the wide parts of the spectrum first, which wasn’t really right,” Gossin said.

As the audience for anime in the United States grew, a wider range of Japanese cartoons and comics were imported. Manga, the comic books which in Japan preceded anime, became a rapidly growing part of the American publishing industry. Gossin said university classes have selected the best of anime and manga and helped legitimize the medium as a serious way of telling stories.

Brad Bardwell, a sophomore at the University of Texas and a student in the course, said he grew up watching Disney cartoons but saw anime like "Dragon Ball Z" in middle school. Later, he saw what directors like Miyazaki could do with the form.

“I do love the classic books, but there are some anime that are so good ... they’re literature in themselves,” he said. He enjoys the complexity of many of the characters and stories in anime, he said.

Gossin first incorporated anime into a class eight years ago when she invited Hairston to speak in a class she was teaching on nature in literature. He had told her that the environmentalist themes of the anime film "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" dovetailed perfectly with the themes of her course, and Gossin came to appreciate the director, Miyazaki, as a master storyteller and became interested in the study of anime and manga.

At the time, Gossin and Hairston knew of no other university classes incorporating the Japanese art forms. Now, the cartoons are studied in literature classes from Boston to California. Gender studies professor Sara Cooper at California State University, Chico, uses anime to discuss with students the ways different cultures approach gender and sexuality.

Demand for the classes often comes from students who have little interest in traditional literature but enjoy the science fiction themes of many anime and manga series.

“They aren’t sitting at home reading 'Paradise Lost,' but they are reading 'Ghost in the Shell,'” a popular science fiction manga, Gossin said. Anime and manga can also provide a window to traditional Western literature, she added. The character Nausicaa appears originally in Homer’s "Odyssey."

“It shows that the cross-cultural currents have really been flowing in both directions,” she said.

Apart from the “hard core fans” who make up about half of the class this semester, many students in the class have little experience with the unfamiliar medium of manga, Gossin said. People who are very good at reading books have to learn a new way to read that incorporates the visual images, she said. Even picking up the book, which starts from what Western readers would consider the back, can be disruptive.

“It’s actually a good thing that they’re feeling uncomfortable,” she said. Reading in a new way allows students to let go of old habits and explore new ways of looking at a text. “Hey, pretend this is a big box of crayons and learn to play again,” she said.

E-mail: ssb2130@columbia.edu