Although anime has its origin in Japan, Japanese sociologist, Dr Yoshitaka Mōri, argues that anime can be understood as a transnational cultural product welding together Japanese, Korean and Chinese histories. Mōri shows how some sub-genres within anime are tremendously popular in overseas markets, while others have yet to find a strong international audience. Continue reading Anime as a Transnational Cultural Product
Banksy directs the opening sequence to the 2010 episode of The Simpsons, MoneyBart (Season 22, Episode3).
Arguably the world’s most famous street artists, Banksy storyboarded and directed this opening scene, which I first read about on the Wooster Collective in October 2010 (you see, we don’t get The Simpsons episodes for another 10,000 years after they first air in the USA). The shot opens with one of the show’s recurring symbols, a three-eyed raven, carrying a rat in its beak. The raven is an ominous representation of the seedy side of Springfield, specifically the radioactive waste from Mr Burns’ Nuclear Power Plant polluting the town’s wildlife. The rat is a symbol of anarchy that Banksy often uses in his art and which often signifies his artistic signature.
Banksy’s tag can be seen on the billboard and wall outside Springfield Elementary School. Bart is seen scrawling on the blackboard as he does at the beginning of every episode. He writes ‘I must not write all over the walls’, another tongue-in-cheek reference to Banksy’s graffiti. Following the iconic final frame of the opening credits, where the Simpsons are seated together on the couch, we see a darkly-lit and dingy factory where rows of identical-looking women work on animation frames while a severe-looking man dressed in a military-style uniform watches over them. The women are tired, drab and sullen. A little boy takes one of the frames, dips it into hazardous liquid and hangs it out to dry. We see a pile of bones in the corner.
The camera pans down into a lower level of the factory, where the only colourful objects are rows of Simpsons t-shirts being produced and handled by young children. A chorus of melancholic, religiously-themed music plays in the background, as we see white kittens thrown into a wood-chipper-styled machine. White fur comes out in tuffs on the other side, which a woman stuffs quickly into Bart Simpson plush toys. The cart of toys is guided away by a man and pushed along by a down-trodden panda that is chained to the cart by its neck. Another man seals up boxes labelled ‘The Simpsons’ (using the tongue from a dolphin’s head stuck on stick). Another man packs CD cases, perforating the hole in the centre of the CDs on the tip of an emaciated unicorn’s horn. The unicorn is chained to the wall. It falls to the ground from exhaustion as the 20th Century Fox logo looms large across the screen. The camera pans out as the logo appears on the Simpsons’ TV set and the familiar Simpsons theme music plays in the background, drowning out the gloomy music from the previous scene.
Darkly humorous and thought-provoking, this opening sequence offers a political comment on the nefarious machinations of animation production. The use of women and children denotes the labourers who are exploited in order to create this highly successful show. The panda implies the scene is set in China. The juxtaposition of the enslaved unicorn and the 20th Century logo represents the ugly reality of Hollywood fantasy, as unicorns are a recurring feature of beauty and magic in children’s cartoons.
I see this video as a clever postmodern critique of pop culture, as well as a neo-Marxist comment on the mass production of art. Banksy has reached a level of notoriety and relative success that has contributed to the elevated cultural legitimacy of street art. As far as pop cultural animation institutions go, The Simpsons cannot be surpassed. The Simpsons is the longest running scripted television show, showing in at least 60 countries as of 2002. Over the past 21 years, the show has retained a core audience of dedicated viewers. The show maintains its cultural significance in large part by embedding cult and pop references as well as celebrity appearances into its weekly series. Banksy fits all of these categories. By becoming part of The Simpsons legacy, Banksy manages to simultaneously integrate his personal anti-establishment ethos (a critique of the animation production process) whilst seeding street art into mainstream pop culture.
Intertextuality in The Simpsons
Björn Erlingur Flóki Björnsson argues that The Simpsons’ comedy rests on ‘intertextuality’. This is a narrative form that involves referencing oneself and/or other popular culture and historical texts as part of its comedy. The Simpson’s intertextuality is self-reflexive because it often references its creator (Matt Groening) and the show’s producers, as well as past storylines. For example, in one episode The Simpsons children make reference to Marge’s gambling addiction and Comic Book Guy walks past saying ‘Worst episode ever’.
Björnsson establishes that The Simpsons’ humour rests on the postmodernist concept of pastiche (a form of parody that mimics other works without the satire). The Simpsons superimposes its characters and landscape into other beloved books, iconic films, significant historical events, and other cultural forms of art. The Simpsons achieves pastiche by using celebrities to do voiceovers and by incorporating the likeness of characters, sets and plots from other cult texts.
Björnsson uses the episode Bart of Darkness as an example of pastiche. The title of this episode is an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, and the plot is similar to Hitchcock’s film Rear Window (in which Bart is forced to stay indoors with a broken leg, consequently spying on his neighbours and possibly witnessing a murder). This episode also uses many of the same camera angles from Hitcock’s film.
The Simpsons has referenced several cartoons such as Family Guy, Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, The Road Runner Show, The Jetsons and Yogi Bear. The Simpsons has also emulated the period scenery and visual styles of films such as Tron; the classic plays The Odyssey and Henry VIII; renowned films such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as The Shining. Björnsson writes:
The Simpsons is easily able to represent its borrowed works’ visual styles by taking full advantage of the medium of animation. The endlessly mutable forms of animation allows The Simpsons to mimic particular settings, moods, lighting techniques and camera angles with accuracy, and incorporate it into their story in any way they please. This distinguishes The Simpsons from live-action television shows employing similar intertextual techniques: its possibilities of representation are seemingly infinite.
I use the clip above as an example of intertexuality. The clip comes from The Simpsons’ first Treehouse of Horror special. This episode uses pastiche to represent Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven in its entirety, yet with a Simpsons spin. Christopher Maligec argues that Poe’s poem is influenced by a Greek style of poetry known as a ‘love elegy’ (paraclausithyron) used to convey a lover’s ‘sorrow, helplessness, and self-pitying despair…’. Poe’s poem has been referenced in countless popular culture media. (Also see my Raven posts.) The Raven is used as a narrative trope to evoke despair and anguish. Ravens and other corvids are used to establish an ominous sense of gloom in many films and TV shows, but in animation, they have also been used as a comedic device to frustrate hapless characters. In The Simpsons version, the raven reflects both an omen of despair and a trickster persona.
In this pastiche production, Homer plays the haunted man reminiscing over his lost love, Lenore (personified by Marge in a portrait hanging on Homer’s wall). Bart plays his tormentor, the raven. The Simpsons brings Poe’s masterful words into the realm of popular culture by having James Earl Jones recite the poem. Jones has one of the most recognisable voices in English-language popular culture (having voiced Darth Vadar in the original Star Wars trilogy, Episodes IV-VI). The Simpsons have regularly referenced Star Wars, so Jones’ appearance is a reference within a reference. Moreover, this retelling of Poe’s story also references The Simpsons’ own mythology by having Bart-the-raven jovially bringing the narrator/Homer to anger, which is a recurring source of comedy on the show.
It is specifically the medium of animation that makes possible the translation of Poe’s narrative of love and loss into a self-referencing story for a new audience.
Video: The Simpsons use of parody to tell Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
A common misconception about anime cartoons amongst uninitiated audiences in majority-English-speaking countries is that anime characters are drawn to look ‘White’ rather than ‘Asian’. First of all, neither of terms are factual fixed categories – they are social constructions. That is, the meaning attached to race, whether ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and so on, and the groups classified under these labels, change from one society to another, depending upon culture, time and place.
In an excellent exploration of the social construction of race in popular culture, sociologist Julian Abagond shows that Japanese animators do not, in fact, draw anime characters to personify their aspiration to be ‘white’. Instead, these characters reflect the animators’ own cultural biases – which is that Japanese people are the prototype model of the ’default human being’. Continue reading Anime and the Social Construction of Race
Continuing with my exploration of the Sociology of Animation, I focus on one of the world’s most famous animated rabbits: Bugs Bunny.
Sociologists have noted that the legacy of Bugs Bunny is twofold. On the one hand, like aspects of the Mickey Mouse/Disney franchise that has been infamously linked to war propaganda of its time, some Bugs Bunny cartoons produced at the height of World War II in the mid-1940s can now be read as racist. Some of these cartoons produced negative and offensive stereotypes of Japanese people, as Sociological Images has pointed out.
In the clip above you can see is one of my favourite moments on The Simpsons:
Skinner: Oh, come on, Edna – we both know these children have no future!
…Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.
Sociologists Stephen Scanlan and Seth Feinberg argue that studying cartoons can help sociology students apply ‘their sociological imagination to the observation of everyday life’. Though they use The Simpsons as a case study, their observations have relevance to the broader study of animation as a ‘pedagogical practice’ (the theories, methods and principles of teaching and learning). Continue reading Sociology of Animation
Ever had cabin fever? Here’s what it looks like on Rocko’s Modern Life.
Rocko was not one of the most convincing Australian characters produced by Hollywood, but still – I loved this show so much. Whenever I’m in trouble I find myself wondering: ’Where are you Really, Really Big Man’?
In Queertoons, sociologist Jeffery P. Dennis argues that Rocko’s Modern Life was just one of many 1990s cartoons that depicted same-sex desire. I do not agree with his analysis, because I think Rocko and Heifer were depicted as simply good friends, but let’s have a read regardless: Continue reading Sociology of Animation: Rocko’s Modern Life