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Toward a New Type of Culture

Brian Ruh

. . . in their quest for knowledge of and acquisition of the products of the Japanese animation industry, they have surpassed the daily concerns and cares of ordinary human beings.

Unlike Ian MacKaye says on the first Fugazi album, I am not a patient boy. Which is why, on the release date of the first issue of Newtype magazine, I was out in the city, scouring the newsstand racks. For a week I dragged my patient wife all over Austin, searching for the premiere issue of the English version of Japan's top animation magazine. None of the places that were supposed to have the magazine seemed to be carrying it, and I fumed as I searched book, record, and video stores, upset that I was missing something important. After a week of searching, I finally managed to find a place with a copy, the last one the beleaguered retailer had left.

Perusing the magazine, I came to realize that my obsessive quest for this first issue was not unlike the driving force behind the production of Newtype itself. Rather than being a magazine written for US anime fans by American writers, most of the magazine is a direct translation of its Japanese brother. While there are columns and short features unique to the US Newtype, the majority of the layouts have been translated from Japanese, with little consideration given to understandability by the average reader. The magazine also opens from right to left, in the fashion of most Japanese magazines, although the text on the individual pages flows from left to right.

Such a departure in style and content from the standard magazine seems deliberately designed to confound those who are not in the know. In this way, the American publishers of Newtype are upping the ante for cultural capital within the English-speaking anime fan community. Both the text of the magazine and the process of reading it presuppose a higher than average level of cultural competency as it pertains to the anime fan community.

The original Newtype magazine has been a bastion of anime fandom in Japan for many years, its title having been taken from the epic and groundbreaking animated series Mobile Suit Gundam. In the Gundam storyline, pilots of the giant mechanical robots with psychic powers were called Newtypes. Thus, the magazine takes its name from a new, more highly skilled breed of humanity.

In using the name for an animation magazine, one wonders if this is how anime fans see themselves: in their quest for knowledge of and acquisition of the products of the Japanese animation industry, they have surpassed the daily concerns and cares of ordinary human beings. Their eyes are on the stars and theirs hearts are in the fictionalized worlds about which they can only dream.

It is this seeming dismissal of everyday life and emphasis on obscure knowledge that characterizes the obsessive anime fan. In discussing anime fandom in such terms, I run the risk of misrepresenting both anime fans and fandom itself. There are certainly many people who can be described as fans who do not take their enjoyment of Japanese animation to the levels described herein. An excellent illustration of this is in the film Otaku no Video in which the protagonist is gradually transformed from a normal tennis-playing college student into an anime-obsessed otaku (or geek). The transformation process requires that the main character undergo a rigorous re-education in the films and books that constitute the anime subculture. Without such an education, he would not be able to be a part of this world of fandom; he needs to learn the language of fandom and understand the cultural products in their proper contexts.

Of course, the creators of Otaku no Video were making a comedy, poking fun at the closeted nature of the subculture from which their form of creativity sprung. Despite its satirical nature, the film is an effective indicator of the knowledge needed to participate in the world of anime fandom, both in Japan and abroad. For the sake of being completely accurate, I must note that Otaku no Video was not a film, per se, but rather was released directly to video in two different installments. My statement of such a qualification is necessary for the very reasons mentioned above. In a discussion of anime fandom in a non-fan-oriented venue, I must be able to properly display my familiarity with the materials involved lest my analysis be dismissed because I was not able to display enough cultural competency.

In its own way, the publication of the English-language version of Newtype is contributing to this process of otakuization (becoming an anime-obsessed geek) in the US, with its focus on television shows and films that may never see the light of day outside Japan. The magazine has been criticized by some fans as being "unfocused and irrelevant," and to a certain extent this is true. As a direct translation of the Japanese version, the magazine makes few allowances for the cultural background of the English-language reader. Consequently, many of the show synopses read like a foreign language, even though they are in English. Similarly confusing is the inclusion of a schedule of the animated shows being currently broadcast in Japan; such a schedule makes no practical sense to the average anime fan living outside of Japan.

It seems, therefore, that the purpose of this new version of Newtype is not to provide the reader with useful information. Rather, it is geared toward providing the reader with non-useful information, the kind on which information-hungry fans survive. The magazine is a source of pure information straight to fans who survive on obscure information such as on what channel hack//SIGN airs (which I now know is TV Tokyo.)

The publication of the English-language version of Newtype marks a new point in the relation between Japanese and US popular culture. From Godzilla to Iron Chef, elements of Japanese popular culture have made their way into the American consciousness, and have been changed and adapted by American culture in the process. However, what Newtype is trying to do is to provide a glimpse into a foreign popular culture that even its American devotees may not fully comprehend. It speaks to the foreign audience as if it were a native audience, delivering a confusing mix of information and irrelevancy.

Of course, now I need to scramble to find a copy of the second Newtype issue. In the fan culture race, I must not allow an information gap.

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