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Professor of Japanese speaks about anime fandom

Carter Rogers

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Published: Monday, February 23, 2009

Updated: Monday, February 23, 2009

Professor Susan Napier

Tien Tien / Tufts Daily

Professor Susan Napier signs a copy of her book on Friday.

    Students and faculty packed Tisch Library’s Hirsch Reading Room on Friday afternoon to hear Professor of Japanese Language and Literature Susan Napier discuss her new book about how Western appreciation of Japanese anime and manga comics resemble past fandom of Japanese art.
    Napier’s book, “From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West” (2007), recounts the growth of Japanese animation in the West.
    “My book is about fandom in a very large extent,” Napier said, “from the people who … in the 19th century were fascinated by Japanese art, religion and poetry all the way to the people in the 21st century that are fascinated by Japanese culture and pop culture.”
    Napier sought to inject more of her passion for Japanese art into her Tisch Library lecture than she had in the past. After delivering a lecture at an anime convention at the University of Chicago last month, she said, she appeared distant from the fans she writes about.
    “Most academics, we’re told not to talk about ourselves very much,” she said. Her Friday talk, she added, was “kind of new, different from anything I’ve done before.”
    Part of the appeal of Japan to Westerners in the 19th century, according to Napier, was what many believed to be Japan’s starkly foreign fantastical qualities.
    “For many Europeans, they saw Japan as an escape from the Industrial Revolution … a pastoral utopia,” Napier said.
    Anime fans, Napier said, find refuge in a culture that diverges from the typical American way of life.
    “They saw it as an alternative to American values,” she said. “They saw American values as materialistic and superficial.”
    Napier pointed out that fandom of Japanese culture is not a new phenomenon.
    “Japan has been a source of fascination for the West for the last 150 years,” she said, citing a painting by Claude Monet, “La Japonaise” (1876), as an early example of how modern anime lovers dress up as their favorite characters at conventions. The work features Monet’s wife wearing a kimono in front of a background of Japanese hand fans.
    Napier discovered her love of fantasy worlds like those often presented in manga and anime while living in Germany at the age of 10.
    Attending German school for a year while not knowing how to speak the language, Napier spent her time engulfed in fantasy literature.
    “My salvation was in three places: the America House, the British library and the American counsel library,” she said. “These all had books; particularly, they had fantasy books … I fell in love with ‘Lord of the Rings’ and T.H. White and C.S. Lewis.”
    Japanese fandom first piqued Napier’s interest while she was writing her third book, which focused on anime. Fans of anime, she said, “were so distinctive … and so eloquent and so interesting.”
    Many of anime’s aesthetic principles pull from older forms of Japanese art, Napier said. She compared paintings by 15th-century Japanese artist Sesshu to scenes from the 1997 Hayao Miyazaki film “Princess Mononoke,” both of which focus on otherworldly images of nature.
    Many Americans note that anime is far more sexualized than American animation, Napier said. This too has its roots in Japanese art. “One of things that people of the 19th century loved was the erotic art of Japan,” she said.
    The turning point for anime’s popularity in the West was the “dark, brutal, exciting, visceral” 1988 Katsuhiro Otomo film “Akira,” according to Napier.
    “It started a whole different way of looking at Japan for the U.S., because all of a sudden people saw that [Japanese animation] had a different side to show us, an apocalyptic side, a side that explored some of our own deepest fears.”
    Napier noted, however, that not all anime is filled with dark themes. Films like those by Miyazaki, which feature the more whimsical qualities of the genre, are better for introducing friends to anime, she joked.
    In her introductory remarks before the talk, Tisch Library Director Jo-Ann Michalak praised Napier’s cross-disciplinary approach to Japanese culture. “Her passion extends across the boundaries of culture, language and geography,” Michalak said in her introductory remarks.
    The lecture took place as part of the Friends of Tufts Libraries Author Talk series. Napier will be featured in the Dean’s Faculty Forum on March 10.