An Ardent Anime Anthropologist: Our Interview with Charles Dunbar

Posted by Linda Yau on May 9, 2011 in Fandom, Hobbies and Collections |

A Study of Anime

Recently I was at Anime Boston, and met an interesting cosplayer with a rich in potassium banana. I also definitely attended panels hosted by this person of interest. Meet Charles Dunbar aka Anime Antropologiest of Study of Anime. From the time I have met him to now, his panels at conventions will pack rooms. This is a scholar that has made my appreciation toward anime more interesting and academic in a sense that is away from the college environment. I hope to see more of this man speak, so I happened to be able to conduct an email interview with him.


What was your first anime title? Was it the same as your first manga title? How about your first science fiction series?

Well, Voltron notwithstanding (since it was heavily edited for US television, to the point where it was nothing like Golion), I got into anime through Dragonball Z. Late 1990s and no cable, that was it for me-wake up early, watch DBZ once and then watch DBZ again in Spanish a few hours later. Repeat. Not that I minded, DBZ was amazing at the time, and all I really needed. Also, unlike Voltron, I was aware that DBZ was Japanese, and that held enormous sway with me. I made a conscious decision to follow DBZ, whereas with Voltron, I watched it because it was there and looked interesting.

For manga, I technically started with MixxZine in the late 90s, which would eventually lead me to watch Magic Knights Rayearth, and acquire all the volumes of Parasyte. But for dedicated title, it was Rurouni Kenshin. I bought most of the series in Japanese at Kinokuniya, tried to self-translate, then bought them all again in English when they were available.

As for science fiction, I was a Trekkie through and through. I was very into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager (never Deep Space 9, didn’t care for it at the time). I dabbled in Babylon 5, particularly the episodes with Walter Koenig, but it was Trek that held my attention the best, and probably fro the longest time (1994-2001).


What is your opinion of  how a good anime/manga/science fiction title? Any favorites or recommendations?

Right now, when it comes to science fiction, I’m all about Doctor Who, and have been for a few years. I love how the series isn’t buttonholed into a single genre really-it can be adventure, suspense, romance, comedy, even horror, occasionally at the same time. Plus the reboot has had some very charismatic Doctors and vastly improved production values.

For anime, I am almost done with Monster by Naoki Urasawa. It’s easily one of the best shows I’ve seen, mostly because it is so suspenseful, and the characters feel so very real, even when they are meant to be exaggerations or idealizations of something. The show is also extremely faithful to the manga, so if time is an issue, the manga fits the bill perfectly.

I will also admit I enjoy Black Butler. I’m a sucker for period pieces, especially Victorian ones, and I can’t deny the appeal of Grell Sutcliffe. He is one exaggeration worth indulging in.

What has been your reason for studying anime as a scholarly subject?

Part of me started studying anime because I wanted to see if I could. I have enjoyed the medium for over a decade now, and I started looking at it through the lens of my own field, and recorded what I was finding. I love research, I love looking at outside cultures and I love history, three things that anime has in abundance, so it made sense to do it. The other reason is tied directly into why I give panels. I learned a lot, so I want to pass it on. And people want to listen. They want to discover new things as well, and they contribute to my work as much as I bring myself. Use the word “symbiotic” if you will, but for me, anime scholarship is collective, and I find that fans are often extremely knowledgeable, so bring on the discussions.

hayao miyazaki works

Of the panels that you have given, has there been a panel that has been an ongoing favorite for you?

I’m extremely partial to both “Dead Like Us” and “Castles, Forests and Bath Houses.” Unlike “Modern Mythology,” which I admit started as a massive, freeform discussion session, its two spin-offs required me to do a lot of reading and analysis. “Dead Like Us” especially, as for that panel I had to formulate my own conclusions look for the tie-ins with mythology, folklore and sacred experience. Unlike my other panels, the ideas presented in it are largely mine, so I am constantly looking to improve on them as I learn more. “Castles…” is my homage to Miyazaki, I love the reaction the crowd gives me, and I generally have the most fun giving that one. A lot of people know very little about Miyazaki-the-man, so showing them his own words and describing the continuity of his films often increases the respect fans have for him.

Of the conventions that you have been to, which has been your favorite convention to go on an annual basics?

Anime Boston is my hands-down favorite con. For me, it’s the perfect mix of size, location, activities and fans. I’m also partial to Anime USA, as it feels like a scaled down Boston event, with a lot of the same aesthetics. Anime Mid Atlantic has also become a personal favorite, as I always manage to find myself there every year. But I really enjoy the relaxing atmosphere and the family vibe that it gives off. That said, I really do enjoy every con I go to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go.

What part of the convention do you happen to enjoy the most?

Just being there is usually enough for me. Back when I first started attending, I would make sure to attend the Anime Music Video screening, spend at least an hour in a video room, see at least one panel and spend all my money in the Dealer’s Room. As time went on, I gradually started going for the more social aspects like wandering the halls, room parties and chance encounters. These days, most cons for me are spent preparing, running, and recovering from panels. But I always appreciate the random happenstance that goes on, like meeting new people and making new friends.

In terms of comparing fans between science fiction conventions or anime conventions, are there any familiarities or differences?

This is a very tricky question, mostly because of the difference in dynamic between fans. There are generational aspects, fandom aspects, personal aspects that set different types of fans apart, and there really is no “universal” anything when comparing specific conventions. Back when I started congoing, all I had were science fiction conventions, where anime was an often marginalized part of it. The last time I attended the con I started with (SUNY Stonybrook’s ICON), I was surprised how much anime was present there, despite the fact that it still bills itself as a science fiction based event.

Then I look at how science fiction has made inroads into anime, and the feel is very different. Anime fans are usually more accepting, more social and more willing to experiment with other fandoms. There are any number of reasons why, but I think Daryl Surat (Anime World Order podcaster) put it best when he said that, at least for a lot of anime fans, anime is a secondary fandom, and anime fans can look fondly on the other fandoms they are a part of. I’d go further with saying that for attendees, they’re more interested with participating in the experience of fandom in general than being fans of any one thing, hence why they appear to be more accepting that the sometimes “closed” science fiction fandoms. Fandom itself is a powerful force, and it is extremely appealing, much like the feeling of being in love.

But, differences aside, fandom conventions still all share the same main aesthetics: community, creativity, devotion and consumption, which drive the act of fandom itself. WIthout community, there would be no reason for fans to interact. Without creativity, there would be no fan content, and thereby limited ways for fans to contribute and derive fulfillment from their fandom. And without devotion there would be nothing to be a fan of, nor any reason to buy merchandise and mementos. Be it anime or science fiction events, these aspects of fandom are universal and are the driving force behind why fans as essentially fans.

Which type of fandom do you most identify yourself as.

I don’t think I can say I identify with any specific fandom. Ive been into science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, anime, gaming in all its forms, fan fiction writing, alternate universe stuff, historical re-enactment, sometimes all at the same time, so I can’t really say I belong to any specific media-centric fandom. Probably like a lot of fans, I love being part of the fandom experience as a whole, and I love being able to partake of multiple mediums for which to belong, and being able to collect experiences, stories and knowledge from each group. I’m also very big into pursuits like folklore, anthropology, religion, social science and other disciplines with the same devotion I have for my media fandoms (especially with folklore and sacred culture- that’s the biggest single devotion/driving force I possess).

So I don’t think I can say I identify with any specific fandom at all, I just love fandom in general.


How do you feel about how the trend of anime and manga going?

I admit, I don’t follow the industry, really at all. I get my anime the same way I did years ago, from personal recommendations. People tell me I should look at something, and I do. Its how I found Durarara (and, consequently, how I insist everyone else needs to watch it NOW!) and Summer Wars, and now I’m slowly watching Eden of the East and Baccano. I don’t try to keep up with the new releases, because that would be impossible, and I don’t have the time. The same rules apply to manga, as I have a few titles I collect regularly, and then I just wait for something new to discover.

I am aware of a lot of the controversies involving fansubs, online streaming, creative control, user content and the like, but that falls outside of my own frame of mind and study, so I tend to just listen to what others say, but it impacts me very little. I get my anime from a lot of sources (mostly Hulu now), and I would hate to see declines in new series. But I doubt that will ever happen. Things might diminish, but anime will always be there. And if it ever just disappeared, I could finally get time to tackle my immense backlog of DVDs that I’ve acquired since 2002.

Do you picture yourself as a anime fan/fan boy, ten years from now?

Well, normally I would say I don’t see myself being into anime fandom in 10 years, because I rarely have stuck with a single fandom for that long, but I’ve already logged over a decade in anime fandom and I’m still not “over the hump,” so I can say in a decade I’ll still be looking at anime and enjoying it for what it is. Nothing else is set in stone, though. While I did my MA thesis on anime fandom, I’ve already shelved that part of my life and don’t plan to return anytime soon (I’m focusing on, ta-da, folklore and sacred symbolism in anime now), and I’m still looking into a myriad of other things. I tend to be driven by what is interesting me at the time, so I often find myself jumping all over the place as new things cross my radar.

I think in 10 years I’ll be the same person I fundamentally am now. Anime will still be a part of my life, but so will all sorts of other things, blending together and feeding off each other until they have transformed into something huge and malleable, much like everything else in my life. It’s a little ADHD, definitely, but in the end its fun, and I can never say I get bored.

…….With that I actually do know that Charles will be at Anime Next as the next convention on my rader, and he has some more conventions this year. So hopefully if you are going to be at an East coast Anime convention, you will be able to hear Mr. Charles Dunbar speak at one of his panels, and discover as I have that he makes panels as interesting as a charismatic speaker should.

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