Clubbed to Death and Con-fused

By Nomad (Lord of the Dance) Otto

Man is a political (city-dwelling) animal, at least according to Aristotle, who also thought that the brain was the body’s radiator and there are natural born slaves, so it’s probably good to take him with a grain of salt. However, there is a definite tendency for people to amalgamate into groups, and fandom is no different. But all fandoms are not created equal, and there are pronounced differences between various associations of the unwashed, not only in terms of space (i.e. US vs. overseas) and role (college clubs vs. broader groups), but also there have been a number of pronounced qualitative changes to the scattered lumps of geekery. Since I’m not a historian, nor am I an anthropologist nor sociologist, don’t expect me to look at things in great depth. However, I feel it’s a good idea to give an overview of the societies for the study of modern visual culture, past and present, near and (sort-of) far. To begin with, I’d like to define what I’m looking at, and explain why these things are useful little chunks of humanity to study. Then, I’ll look at the growth and development of US anime club from the late seventies through today. Finally, I’ll take a much broader brush to Japanese fandom, and hopefully clarify some comments that I made a couple of months ago. Afterwards, refreshments will be served and you can buy merchandise at insane markups from our corporate sponsors.

Looking Closely

Part the first: Forebodings

Alright, throughout this review, I’ll refer to two primary terms, a “club” and a “con,” both of which are “gatherings.” A club is basically a smaller gathering of fans on a more or less regular basis. Moreover, the gathering should be structured, rather than unstructured. You and your roommates meeting for a weekly anime watch or even just to hang out and play board games is a club, while bumping into a group of people at the icecream shop and starting a discussion there does not a club make. A Con, on the other hand, is a large gathering of fans that meets more infrequently, but still regularly. Otakon is a con, E3 was a con for a different subgroup of people, Comiket is a con, /a/ is not a con (but it might be a club… see below for details) Perpetual motion is a con (nyuk nyuk nyuk).

Gatherings matter for three primary reasons. First, gatherings act as taste-makers, second, they act as transmission belts, and third, they allow for persistence. Gatherings are taste-makers because they shape the direction of the community, and give exposure, shaping the tastes of at least some parts of the community. An example of this can be found with Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Not to say that they’re bad or somehow less deserving than other stuff, but, when compared to other things released in that time period, Akira especially doesn’t stand up, but, when it first hit the States, it was huge. I’m sure everyone from my old undergrad days knows about Comic Party, Utena, and The Legend of Black Heaven, due to the taste-making function of the club. Taste-making doesn’t guarantee that something will become popular or even well-looked upon, (see Comic Party and LoBH), but it will at least ensure that the show is not forgotten or ignored. Of course, this is the main reason why clubs and cons are encouraged by the people who make money off this shit: we provide free publicity, multiplying the money that they spend on advertising.

A face for the ages

The second reason why clubs are important, and a secondary reason why they’re encouraged by the powers that be is because they act as transmission belts between various levels of fandom, and between fandom and society at large. What this means is that clubs and cons act, at least in part, as both focus groups and symbols. Clubs, to a lesser extent, and cons, to a much greater extent, tell the community want some self-selected set of people, in aggrigate, want and are interested in. Cons and clubs multiply the power of an individual person, for good or for ill. You can see the double-headed nature of this relationship clearly when you look at the big cons in the states, as they both help to determine the direction of the industry, as well as acting as a showcase for all sorts of insane fan weirdness.

Insane fan weirdness

The final reason, and the one nearest to my own blacked heart is that through larger organizations, there is a level of stability and memory retention. Individuals join the subculture all of the time, and leave just as frequently. Moreover, the general skill and knowledge level of fandom as a whole is at least holding steady, if not increasing even while the people who leave tend to be older, while the people entering tend to be younger ( a point I’ll get to later). Gatherings allow for a transfer of skills and knowledge, in addition to money and goods.

I would almost buy this shirt

Part the Second: These United States

America!

Anime fandom here in the states did not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena from Zesus’ head. It has a very clear evolutionary path, and that path explains the that state that things are in today. To be blunt, traditional club structure in the US is dying while fandom in general is expanding. This isn’t to say that there won’t be traditional clubs in the future, but, their role and influence is going to be, and is being, very sharply checked.

Anime fandom is an outgrowth of SF fandom, which grew from the structure of pulp SF mags and stories. Since the mags had national circulation, but appealed only to a small group of people within each geographic community, there was a tendency towards lone, isolated fans, or small groups of individuals banding together, forming small organizations that were the fore-runners of modern anime clubs. These fans and clubs communicated by post, and, very quickly, there became a desire to gather together the far-flung branches of the fan family, forming the beginnings of modern cons. We see this pattern repeated frequently in the states, with pulp fans, then trekkies, then D&D’ers and wargamers, and so-on. Of course, there’s a great deal of spill-over between the groups, which, along with the similar methods of distribution, explains explains the common systems developed by these groups.

It is out of this milieu that US anime fandom grew, which explains in part the club and con system. However, the distribution methods of anime pre-1998ish were completely different from SF fandom. At this point, I’m going to sound like a fogey, but, back when I was first getting into fandom, if you wanted to watch a show, you had two options: 1) hope the local video store had something other than pr0n and sailor moon or 2) belong to an established anime club. This is because back before Dvds and digisubs, you had very little subbing going on, so, if you watched a show, you either watched it raw, from a bootleg tape, with a script from your favorite BBS, or you actually traded fansub tapes with other clubs. Though the mail. I’m not kidding. If you were a lone fan, you were SOL for getting anything reasonably recent, because you had nothing to trade, unless you happened to speak japanese and owned a fair chunk of recording equipment and had a friend in Hawaii (Hawaii was generally the place from which raw bootlegs would enter the states, back in VHS days).

Early anime fan hunting for fansubs

This meant that clubs were very strongly developed, and generally consisted of college students on up. This meant that average club membership at the larger universities was (relatively speaking) huge. Like, 120 people. If you’re at all familiar with other clubs (like, say, the D&D group at a larger university), you’ll realize that this is an absolutely staggering figure. Of course, this influenced the structure of the clubs, and moved them from being focused around discussion and interaction to showing. The clubs existed for the sake of showing stuff to as large an audience as they could. Of course, the three important functions discussed in section 1) were present, but they were very much overshadowed by the need to act as the vector by which the members got their weekly shows.

With the huge presence of anime clubs, it was no surprise that gatherings of clubs, i.e. cons, became very firmly entrenched, with two big ones happening on either coast, AX and Otakon. All was sunshine and lollipops. Oh, and drama. I forgot to mention the drama. Whenever three or more people are gathered, there will be some amount of drama, and when you have a large number of fans all within a single structure, you end up with a non-trivial amount of vitamin D (The D stands for DRAMA). The larger the gathering, the more you get. This is one of the main reasons why most fan gatherings are fairly small, because, taken on the whole, we’re not easy people to get along with. However, with the overriding necessity of banding together to, you know, actually watch stuff, folks sort of closed ranks a dealt with it.

More Drama than these guys, for sure

The problem with this arrangement became apparent when digi-subs hit the community. Digi-subs bloated the fanbase, greatly expanding the popular appeal of anime and the attendance at cons, but cut clubs off at the knees. Without their primary advantage over isolated viewing, since now people can watch things more quickly and easily through their computer, anime clubs have steadily lost ground. Another symptom of this growth is the steady drop in the average age of con-attendees. Before, it was inconcievable for a teenager to have much access to anime, since it was generally the province of college clubs, but now you’re seeing a long more older teens, and even younger teens showing up at cons. This, of course, begs the question of why people without much of a vested interested the club and con system should bother showing up for an event that is half of the above system, along with the question of how they know about cons in the first place. A question which I’m not really going to get into, other than saying that I wouldn’t be super happy about allowing a 13 year old kid of mine to show up at a con. Srsly.

I would posit that what’s going on is the death of the old style of club and the replacement of it by a new set of clubs, which are not defined so much by physical location as by a state of mind and discourse, i.e. internet community. At least, in part. The big reason why I’m not as open to the idea is that the internet doesn’t really fit the basic definition that I laid out for a club. It’s not a group of people who meet on a regular basis. However, various parts of it fufill the three major roles I outlined for a club. It serves to make taste, as a transmission belt, and to allow for persistence. What’s going on here? I don’t know, and if you have a better idea than me, chime in.

Wave of the Future or Pornographic Sinkhole?

Part the Third: Diff’rent Strokes

This section is, lamentably, much shorter than the prior sections, mostly because I know very little about fan-culture in other places. There are a number of reasons for this, foremost among them is the fact that I have no real exposure to the culture directly. I have, at best, second and third hand reports from friends and allies, along with some amount of media exposure, but, that doesn’t really add up to much. Anyway, enough winge-ing, let’s see some stuff!

Japan:

So, you’d figure that Japan would have a pretty well-developed fan culture, and you’d be right. The one of the big differences between our culture and theirs, as I have asserted before, is the question of subculture vs. counterculture. A subculture is something you do in your free time. You can belong to a subculture and hold a decent job with prospects for advancement in the normal world. A counterculture is something that becomes your life. Japan didn’t really have the SF-geek tradition pre-war, like we had in the states, while, post-war, there was a pretty big boom in that shaz.  Moreover, Japanese work-culture is a lot less tolerant of individual idiosyncrasies. So, with relatively shallow roots and less tolerence, it’s not suprising that there’s been a bit of friction between us weirdos and the mundanes.

The problem sort of came to a head in the late eighties and ninties, just when the Japanese economic miracle was turning into a normal economy. Of course, this resulted in a major recession, which, combined with the tolerence for old people to keep working, meant that there weren’t a lot of positions open for newly minted college kids (the common phrase used is that the old men are “blocking the door”). Historically, this is fertile ground for the development of a counter-culture: relative affluence, meaning that there’s a lot of money to go towards various non-essentials, and a poor economy, meaning that there is a lot of surplus labor, or, to put it more crudely, surplus people. In the US, we got the hippies, who sort of spiraled off from Rock Culture. Japan is getting Neets and Otaku, who sort of spiral off of anime.

I doubt the Hippies would go for this sort of thing

Since they don’t really have places in the workforce, there’s not a tendency to moderate group behavior in order to get jobs, and, moreover, they can’t really use the common social metrics for success, because no-one is really getting anywhere. So, they invent their own, and take a sharp corner off of Subculture Pkwy. onto Counterculture Dr. At least, that’s my theory. The main observable here is that, in general, Otaku have a really bad rep (mostly deserved). Relations have been getting better as the economy improves, just like how hippies gave way to yippies, gave way to yuppies.

Otaku who end up going to college generally become part of the club/con model, with one sharp difference from the model here. Here, cons have a dealer’s room. There, cons ARE the dealer’s room. There’s a much more commercial focus to the large events. On the other hand, the clubs tend to be a little more, shall we say, productive, than their US counterparts. Doujin culture is quite strong, and Doujin circles continue to produce things well beyond college, meaning that the club system is somewhat more age-spread than it here in states.

Behold the power of Doujin Culture

UK and Europe:

The person to ask about this would likely be  Daniel, who is likely to have a bit of first hand knowledge about the whole thing. However, from my very limited exposure to stuff in French: Seen Here and from various other second hand sources, the basic club/con model sort of holds true. I have zero real data though, other than to note that Japanisme seems to be pretty popular over in the land that DeGaulle built. I’m actually a fair bit curious if there’s a divide between the algo-zone and the continent about this. If you have information, speak!

Everywhere else:

So, here’s where the really embarrassing part comes in. I have no real idea. I know Taiwan is very Japanese in character, from the reports of Seifer and Wgeneral. That’s about it. I know we have some international readers: would you be so kind as to tell me about where the Club/Con model is the de-facto rule or if things are more decentralized (or, for that matter, centralized) in other places.

That’s about it. In conclusion, I really need to get some actual data so I feel less like I’m talking out of my ass, but that would be actual work, so, instead, SPECULATION AND ANECTODAL EVIDENCE. Oh well. Here’s the traditional payment for struggling through the blocks and blocks of text.


Aren't you inspired to take over Pekopon?

and something for fans of DFC and the netherworld!

6 Responses to “Clubbed to Death and Con-fused”


  1. 1 ZeusIrae July 17, 2008 at 10:48 am

    “I’m actually a fair bit curious if there’s a divide between the algo-zone and the continent about this”

    Probably, continental europe was exposed to anime in the 70s with shows like grendizer(if I remember well the japanese title) known as Goldorak in Europe, in the 80s the TV was flooded by japanese shows aimed for kids(or that european producers thought(wrongly) was aimed at kids…).So the market is older and nostalgia is a significant part of it(as a member of “broadband” generation, I personnaly hate this nostalgia market but that’s another issue).

    Since we all know that UK is the 51st american state, I assume it followed the US pattern which means the market is younger and relatively less develloped.”Relative” is an important qualification because in absolute numbers I think(again if I remember well) the US market is the biggest after japan.

  2. 2 TheBigN July 17, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    I think that the Internet might be a possible evolution on these tight-knit clubs that were present before, since with just a computer and access, you could get everything you might want and be able to share this opinion with more than a group of RL people hanging around in a room/auditorium/what have you. I do think that it does have a negative effect in terms of curtailing full communal experience that seeing fellow fans in the flesh, as well as possibly making it easier for anime fans to be marginalized by keeping things in the virtual realm. But again, it depends on what you’re looking for, and doing things on the Internet tends to be more convienient option.

  3. 3 reversethieves July 22, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Your whole post was very thought provoking and insightful. But for some reason I got caught up with this section:

    Gatherings are taste-makers because they shape the direction of the community, and give exposure, shaping the tastes of at least some parts of the community. An example of this can be found with Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Not to say that they’re bad or somehow less deserving than other stuff, but, when compared to other things released in that time period, Akira especially doesn’t stand up, but, when it first hit the States, it was huge.

    Could you elaborate on what ways you mean Akira doesn’t stand up. Just curious what you meant!

  4. 4 nomadotto August 12, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Reverse: Well, when Akira first hit the states, it was really well regarded, in fact, it was considered part of the “canon” of shows that everyone should watch. In fact, all the way up to the early turn of the century (2001ish) it would be mentioned in the same breath as Eva, Trigun, and GITS as something that everyone who called themselves a fan needed to watch. However, as time has moved on, Akira has been thrown under a bus by the fan community, as it first dropped out of the “canon” and, finally is only remembered because of the “TETSUOOOOOOOOOOO” “KANEDAAAAAAAAAAAAA” screaming contest. That’s what I mean.

  5. 5 agobionvizavy April 23, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…


  1. 1 State of the Fandom « The Animanachronism Trackback on July 16, 2008 at 12:15 pm

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