Megamix: The Japanese Contents Industries and Post-Fordism

Lukács, Gabriella.  Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan.  Durham: Duke University Press.  2010.  Publisher’s page.

Prough, Jennifer S.  Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.  2011.  Publisher’s page.

Steinberg, Marc.  Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  2012.  Publisher’s Page.


Lately, it seems I’ve been up to my ears in cultural anthropology-leaning analyses of the so-called “contents industries” (aka the culture industries), so I thought I’d try my hand at writing a digest post in which I try to tie a few of these ideas together in my own words.  In many ways, this is a follow-up post to my post on Anne Allison’s book, especially considering that Gabriella Lukács and Jennifer S. Prough were both Allison’s students at Duke.  Hopefully it won’t just being a post three times the normal length (if I’ve even been consistent enough to have a “normal”), but let’s find out!  Each of these books takes a unique angle on Japanese media culture and the study of it, but at their heart, they’re all concerned with the central question of, “What does post-Fordism mean for mass media in Japan?”  I’ll try to bounce their answers off one-another below.

On a certain level, the “in Japan” part of that question above is a little extraneous for all three of these authors, as each approaches the topic from the side of critical theory, that is to say, in a way that pushes their analyses away from the specificity of Japan and toward something more like late capitalism itself.  That said, I think each book does a good job with engaging the socio-historical specificities of the Japanese case, and at no point does it seem as though they’re claiming cultural circumstances aren’t important to their analyses.  Instead, late capitalism becomes the starting conditions from which the specific phenomena of trendy dramas (Lukács), contemporary shojo manga magazines (Prough), and the practice of the media mix (Steinberg) emerge.  In that sense, they all generally strike the kind of balance between “theory” and “concreteness” that I hope to in my own work.  A lot of the usual suspects come out in each (I’m really never going to get away from Jenkins, am I?), and they’re all being used to point toward a postmodern political economy based on affective relationality between micro-segmented consumer populations and the media  contents they consume, instantiated across a variety of material permutations (manga, anime, toys, music, magazines, etc).

It’s also interesting that these three books all rely on basically the same corporate anthropology + case study content analysis framework.  I was actually kind of surprised to find that Steinberg HADN’T done his PhD under Anne Allison, given how closely the structure of the books lined up.  Then again, maybe “theoretical argument and case study” isn’t that unique a structure, but still.  And the case study works like a sugar coating on a medicine pill, making the denser theoretical sections easier to contextualize and understand.  I originally read both Lukács’s and Prough’s books in undergrad (when they were hot off the presses!), and I remember thinking at the time that they just seemed to be books stating the obvious.  Like, no duh TV drama watchers are watching them for the pretty tarento that are acting in them, rather than for the story, and no duh those tarento become intermedial texts themselves through appearances on variety shows and other programs.  Of course shojo manga magazines are structured in such a way as to engender a feeling of intimacy, and of course those readers would then become the seed bed for new artists.  Lukács and Prough lay out their readings of the structural and corporate elements of these industries so plainly that it actually works to obscure the theoretical depth they have behind it if you’re not paying attention.  (Steinberg does the same thing, incidentally, though his penchant for taking up the language as well as the content of, say, Deleuze makes it really obvious when we’re in “theory mode.”)

So are all these books making the same argument about different objects?  Not exactly, I think, since it feels as though each complicates the readings of the others.  When you put them together, though, you get a really compelling picture of the contemporary Japanese mediascape.  Let’s start with Steinberg’s concern with the “character.”  This is one of the key concepts on which he chooses to press with his analysis of Tetsuwan Atomu.  In sum, we might gloss his book by saying that a character is a dynamic force of relationality, one that stitches together multiple material incarnations (as manga character, anime character, toy character) through what Steinberg calls its “dynamic immobility.”  This, as best I can tell, is a quality by which a still image is felt as lively, even if (like Astro Boy) its “animation” is composed largely of still shots.  The feeling that the still character could burst to life at any moment is what Steinberg claims allows the character to move freely from media form to media form.  It’s important to remember, though, that the character is neither an abstract pattern of information (a “message” in the information studies sense), nor any specific material configuration, but the force that allows every configuration to be connected to one-another while being understood as similar.  He calls this a “media commodity,” and I’d be really curious to push more on how that differs from the “image commodity,” but I digress.

When we connect this to Lukács’s book, we begin to wonder just how far “character” stretches.  Her description of tarento, after all, has them hopping from venue to venue (now a talk-show guest, now a singer, now a drama star), and yet still being consumed as themselves as tarento.  So are tarento characters?  This would seem to undercut the importance Steinberg places on “dynamic immobility,” as tarento are living, breathing, fluidly moving people rather than graphic illustrations.  Perhaps their status as real people simply serves as a limit to the amount their “character” can be folded out into diverse media?  Does the organic body present a material horizon beyond which the image of the tarento cannot be legibly multiplied?  To push a bit farther into territory closer to home for me, what about fictional characters nevertheless filmed in live action, yet still present in a proliferation of media forms like Godzilla?  Are the demands of tokusatsu films such that Godzilla, too, becomes dynamically immobile?  Such are the challenges Lukács throws up against Steinberg.  Steinberg’s historicization of the media mix, meanwhile, pushes back on Lukács’s own timeline for the tarento system’s emergence, which she places in the 80s.  Did live action TV simply ignore what anime was doing with its characters until the TV market started to erode?  Did nobody think to mediatize their tarento as “characters” had been mediatized for 20-odd years?

Enter Prough, who brings her own set of questions.  Her book looks at the elements of intimacy only hinted at in the other two books.  Through the structuring of shojo manga magazines, she argues, young readers are interpellated not only as members of an imagined community of readers but also as best friends with the magazine itself, its authors/artists, and its editors.  The magazine-level analysis is something that feels missing in Steinberg’s take on the Tetsuwan Atomu manga (and something I think would be fascinating to look at), and while Lukács might be talking about audiences generally older than those Prough is examining, we might nevertheless ask whether reading shojo manga magazines as girls primed the largely female viewership of trendy dramas for the kinds of televisual intimacy Lukács describes (and, more intriguingly, whether there’s any connection between the reader-to-artist pipeline Prough describes manga magazines employing and the freelance-based writing staff Lukács says producers use because they’re “closer to the fans”).  I think Prough gets closest to the consumers’ side of things out of all three authors, though all of them are more concerned with looking the other way, from the corporate perspective.  Whether this is because the corporations provide more legible, delimited archives than the indeterminate mass of consumers, or whether it’s just a methodological predilection of the authors is unclear.

And then of course is the big question nobody asked: what about the internet?  I usually shy away from “the internet changed everything”-style hot takes, but my understanding is that, especially for the “traditional mass media” industries covered here, changing dynamics of access and participation brought about by the wide-scale emergence of the internet has had a major impact on the corporate actors studied by each author.  Lukács and Prough both include nods toward this fact, but these come as end chapters about manga and dramas abroad, and feel mostly tacked on.  Steinberg, meanwhile, chooses to avoid the internet altogether.  While intimate imagined communities of like-minded consumers seem like a nice idea, once they can actually (anonymously) talk to each other on 2Channel and Twitter, things get ugly quickly.  Then again, some of the most fertile ground for fan creativity (i.e. remediating the character image in new ways the corporate creators hadn’t imagined) is of course the internet.  Does the internet fundamentally change what these three books are saying about the nature of the character, post-Fordist cultural consumption, and mediatic intimacy?  Maybe not, but I’d like to hear more either way.

Well sure enough, this post has ended up being about three times as long as a normal one-book post.  Maybe some kind of surplus value was created by the intertextual format?  Hopefully so, but either way, let me know in the comments if you’re so inclined!


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