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MIT student blogger Allan K. '17

Out There by Allan K. '17

kicking off spring break with some Chinese food, some anime, and some media studies

One of my favorite classes this year is CMS.100 — Introduction to Media Studies, taught by Ian Condry. He’s a cultural anthropologist; his latest book, The Soul of Anime, examines the notion of “collaborative creativity” in the context of Japanese anime production and propagation through worldwide fan communities. The idea is, people tend to think of media as having one or a small group of “authors” or “creators”; we associate Spirited Away with Hayao Miyazaki, Harry Potter with J. K. Rowling, Portal with Valve, Beyoncé with Beyoncé. But it’s actually the case that creative production is an intensively collaborative process, whether that means long meetings with production staff to determine the feel and atmosphere of a new film or the wide variety of fan-produced content ranging from fanart to fan fiction to fan-mixed anime music videos (AMVs) to cosplay. From the professional producers all the way down to the fans, there’s a creative energy that drives and develops the “universe” of a media phenomenon–as Condry calls it, the “soul” of anime.

This is one of my favorite classes because–let’s face it–media is everywhere, through Facebook and TV shows and every web site and textbook and advertisement pasted on the side of a bus. Having a dedicated 5+ hours/week to really grapple with topics like how advertising is changing in the 21st century (two words: big data), how fan culture and fan production works for no good economic reason, why and how viral content goes viral, and so on–it really changes the way you go about your life. I’ve found myself wondering more about how targeted advertising is placed on my Facebook, or how exactly Twitch Plays Pokemon managed to develop not only a following of millions but also a cultish religion, or how Github has enabled remixing and spoofing of 2048 into expressions of everything from doge derps to college rivalries. And since media is everywhere, this class also means I get to write papers on pretty much whatever I’m interested in–my first paper was a five-page essay about how Valve has empowered amateur fan production in Team Fortress 2.

Another reason this is is one of my favorite classes is that we get to go to events for free. The CMS department sponsored me and a few classmates to go to Anime Boston this weekend to attend my professor’s panel talk with the esteemed Dai Sato, anime screenwriter for Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and Samurai Champloo (which is an anime about hip-hop and samurai). Professor Condry, being fluent in Japanese, translated for Sato as Sato talked about how he became a screenwriter and his philosophy of writing.

One thing Sato said about writing stuck with me: “If you want to be a writer, you have to write–but it also helps if you have another skill to draw from and incorporate into your writing.” For Sato, that other skill was music and songwriting; he described writing lyrics as a process of matching words to a rhythm, which he uses as inspiration for writing the dialogue in his scripts. Anime and music are also similar in that they’re constrained by time–a 3 minute song, a 30-minute anime episode–and there is a challenge to managing that time in the best way possible. Finally, Sato draws from music to create the atmosphere and feel of an anime; for instance, his work for Eureka 7 is heavily influenced by techno music, and Cowboy Bebop has a distinct jazz flavor.

Another thread of discussion focused on Sato’s current work with a series called Space Dandy. Space Dandy is heavily influenced by the 1970s and 1980s (though it’s set in the future, characters still use boom boxes, cassette tapes, and computers with punch cards). The 70s and 80s were also what some describe as a “golden age” for anime–series like Gundam and Lupin III gained global popularity and gave anime an unprecedented and very unexpected worldwide audience. Sato commented that like fashion, like music, anime seems to have a 20 or 30-year cycle; but since anime only made it big in the 1970s and 80s, the industry is only now going back and drawing inspiration and influence from that original golden-age work. Space Dandy also seeks to challenge the increasing trend of moe anime, so-called “cute little girl anime.” As Sato said, with moe it’s now often true that you don’t really need a story; just the feel and the atmosphere. Space Dandy is attempting to push back a little by exploring deeper topics and taking the artistic style in a more mature direction.

After the panel, our group wandered through the Artists’ Alley and the Dealers’ Room, where all sorts of artists and craftspeople were selling their wares. Prints of everything from Elsa from Frozen to Sherlock slash pairings, plush My Little Pony beanies, bookmarks, postcards, t-shirts everywhere. It was a veritable visual explosion of colors and fandoms mixing together. Couple in the cosplayers, and you get quite a scene; picture Data from Star Trek: TNG browsing through the Rise of the Guardians prints with Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time while a whole group dressed as Batman villains gets asked for a photograph by somebody dressed as Loki. That’s another thing–everyone is ridiculously nice. The people on the down escalators reach over to their neighbors on the up escalators for high-fives as they pass each other, and every few minutes you can hear somebody saying “you look so pretty!” or “that costume looks badass! nice job!” to somebody else. The sense of fan community is really apparent–it’s one thing to read about collaborative creativity in my professor’s book, but it’s quite another to actually attend a con and see what the fandom is like in-person.

We wrapped up the night by heading to Chinatown and sitting down for some good old scallion pancakes and fried rice and Chinese broccoli for dinner, stopping by a bakery for roll cake and egg tarts afterwards. Boston is beautiful at night, doubly so when you’re with friends, and triply so when you and your friends are in full cosplay. Sure, you get some odd looks–but you also get compliments. One of my friends was in a blond wig (dressed as Kise from Kuroko no Basuke) and got stopped multiple times by people saying how pretty her hair was. I was thankfully in a less noticeable outfit, as I’d updated my Princess Luna costume from Halloween with the help of a sewing machine I recently began learning to use. The MIT Maker culture is thriving, and it doesn’t just refer to making robots and hacking together webapps. Clothes count too!

So that kicks off spring break–I’ll probably be in lab all week with the Design/Build/Fly team as competition day approaches on the weekend of April 11-13. I can’t say much yet–for competition’s sake, the airplane’s design is a closely guarded secret–but expect blog posts about it soon :)