I’ve been thinking about The Canon for a while. And, no, I’m not a misspelling perv. But I am a recently-graduated English major that had a large amount of books to think about over the course of four years.
Regarding the concept of a canon, I define it as the fundamental works of a type of media (books, movies, etc.), but more specifically those fundamental works with which a reader (viewer, consumer, whatever) may grasp an elementary understanding of how the media (or a subset of the media) operates as media. For example, the Bible is a critical part of the Western canon of literature not just because it remains the leading text of more than one of the world’s major religions, but also because it has a rich history of dissemination around the world, on top of some of the best (and probably influential) narrative structure in world literature. Another example, for film, would be Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. While not the most enjoyable movie, it remains one of the foundational films on which film students build their academic careers.
To transition bluntly, a canon for Japanese animation is difficult to generate. However, the anime fandom — or what we know of it in America — has obsessed over “the best” anime for decades, even if we have no idea what we’re really talking about. There have been books detailing “the major works” of the key Japanese directors and animators of anime — such as Patrick Drazen’s Anime Explosion: The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation (even though I’m not sure why Key: The Metal Idol was ever included) and, less so about the canon but still popular (why?!) amongst academics, Susan Napier’s Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. Even Lawrence Eng, our forefather of academic otaku studies in America, has written about the topic too, with “A Look at the Four Revolutions of Anime.”
I won’t go into much detail about how American fandom, at least contemporary fandom, is relatively ignorant of even the major cultural works of Japanese animation (eg., the hordes who have never watched the original Gundam, given its huge impact not only on otaku but Japanese culture in general — read: Odaiba Gundam; and I won’t even go into the influences that Astro Boy lent to modern robotics). The evidence for the (passive-aggressive?) statement is, of course, the popularity of panels at conventions such as GeekNights‘ Anime You Should See; or, maybe not the popularity, but the lack of hands that immediately fly into the air when Akira is flashed onto the projector screen.
Although I could call it a problem, the fact that many anime fans today (comprised, if you step offline, walk into a convention, and talk to a bunch of random kids, of people that probably saw something quickly online, or also as common, just watched Bleach or Naruto on broadcast television) haven’t seen many fundamental anime, or just anime in general is a product of ordinary Internet-age modes of media consumption. Of course, there are many other problems that contribute, such as the proliferation of the hardcore fandom online instead of dispersed amongst strong physical/geographical communities. But, while I point out that NQ-fans (“not quite fans”) aren’t watching enough anime, not watching anime isn’t the problem.
Instead, the real problem is that the original and pivotal goal of the early American anime fandom has succeeded too well. This goal, plain and simple, was to make anime available to everyone. In the hundreds of newsletters and correspondence that I read in the Fred Patten collection, the ideal of media ubiquity held strong and pushed the dissemination of early fansubs across the United States in the 1980s and 90s, eventually culminating in the creation of the contemporary American anime industry. And, luckily for all those fans that can’t speak Japanese, there’s A LOT of anime available for fans to purchase and view. On top of the industry side, the online fansubbing community has also made thousands of titles readily available for anyone to download and view in the comfort of both their own home and own schedule.
So, what’s the problem? It seems like the anime fandom is thriving, especially with all the rumors that con attendance has been steadily rising since the early 2000s. We have all this anime, so what’s wrong?
Well, frankly, there’s too much anime for any one fan to watch. Yes, where at the point where ubiquity has become a negative trait. The current overpopulated media environment for Japanese animation means that fans don’t know what to watch. Unless they’re particularly well-connected to other fans — which the majority of fans, I would say, are not — we’re facing a situation where people don’t know what constitutes “the good stuff.” The solution seems to be what I have already mentioned: panels, websites, and educated fans that can tell fellow viewers what’s good. But even these representatives of the larger fandom can’t possibly watching everything out there, unless they want to ruin their lives by pulling a Jason Thompson. And the problem isn’t even that there’s too much anime. If we focus solely on television series, anime is bounded by time: 25 minutes per episode (conversely compared to manga, which can be read at relative speeds). The fact that a fair number of series boast more than 50 episodes, or even in some cases more than 100 episodes, means that if we want to live up to the otaku namesake, we have to spend a lot of time indoors in front of a screen.
Talking about a canon for Japanese animation, I wish to avoid speaking about the content of the canon (specific titles that stand out) and instead wish to emphase the construction of the canon. How do we choose what fans need to watch?
From here on out, I must mention that I am stealing an idea. I’ve had a lot of ideas in the past that I’ve never pursued, and I feel like stealing an idea once in a while saves others from feeling guilty that they cannot pursue their own ideas. This idea, then, is credited to Carl Li, over at Ogiue Maniax. Previously, he wrote about A Comprehensive Guide to Essential Episodes, which I would like to borrow for this article to propose a utilitarian venture to save the future of the anime fandom from complete ignorance of anime (worst case scenario: no newer fans have watched anything!). Carl proposes “a guide to… long shows… pointing out the episodes which are considered, while perhaps not “necessary” to the viewing experience, to be the apex of the show. That way, anybody who just wants to sample the show but in a meaningful way (not just watch the first episode or two and be done with it) can do so and fully understand the reasons that show is called a classic.”
I will state right off the bat that my proposal does not solve the problem of fan ignorance (not having watched enough shows, or enough of a show, to talk about them/it critically). However, it approaches a solution to the degree of good enough. I wholeheartedly believe that the future of the fandom relies not on fans having completed X number of shows, but instead depends on current fans continuing conversation between fellow fans and with potential fans. The only way to continue that conversation, then, is to make sure that fans can talk about shows they’ve watched, even if they haven’t watched all of it. As Carl points out in his article, most shows (especially those with hundreds of episodes) are drowning in a sea of filler episodes that attempt to buttress the main narrative (especially when it begins to weaken — a common occurrence in anime).
So let’s get into technical and methodological details. The goal is to gather information by crowdsourcing the anime fan community. Whether this includes 5 or 500 members, I suppose ultimately it doesn’t matter. We could argue about levels of expertise, or attention to detail, or quality assurance; but, in the end, this project just needs to be completed one way or another.
Websites are simple and inexpensive — I can host a domain and FTP. But if we’re going to go beyond a simple Wiki, I’d also need someone (or a few people) with relatively-solid coding experience to whip up a site with user accounts, along the lines of My Anime List (without all of the egotistical wanking). One page per series, with a short (under 100 words) exposition per episode, with a voting module that ranks watchability: Required or Optional. Even if only one person ranks a 100-episode series, if other fans can understand the basics of the narrative and art direction for that series by watching only 15 episodes, then The Project has succeeded.
So, there’s now a Call for Help. Let’s build the Anime Canon Project. If you’re interested in working on this venture, or at least think it’s a good idea, leave a comment at the end of this article, or email me at alexleavitt @ gmail . com. I’ll see what I can do to gauge interest and pursue some sort of operational model.