If there’s one thing I enjoy about pop culture, it’s the idea that it can connect people from different walks of life. Comics, gaming, anime and cosplaying are all part of the same phenomenon. Anime has experienced a huge increase in popularity and it’s writers like Helen McCarthy who’ve championed it as a legitimate field of study. Helen has written 13 books, which have been translated into seven languages, on anime, manga, art and Japanese pop culture. They include 500 Essential Anime Movies, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and Anime! A Beginner’s Guide To Japanese Animation.
I’m pleased to present an interview with Helen about her writing experiences and her connection to pop culture. Read on to find out about what it was like meeting Jonathan Ross in a comic book store and how she braved a snow storm to see her favourite Japanese shrine.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview Helen. It was a pleasure listening to your talks about cosplay and anime at the recent Doki Doki festival in Manchester. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with your work, what’s your approach to writing about anime?
Basically I write the books I write for two reasons: someone waves money at me, or I think this book has to be written but nobody is willing to write it for me. If someone wants to commission a book or article, few writers will say no – but if for some reason I have to, I always try and suggest another writer the publisher can approach.
I wrote my first book because there was no book about anime in English and I wanted one. The book that eventually came out wasn’t the book I wanted to write – that was The Anime Encyclopedia, which was a much harder sell – but it was the book I could persuade someone to publish. Anime: A Beginners’ Guide to Japanese Animation was a slim paperback with a lot less words in in than the index to The Anime Encyclopedia, but it was a starting point.
I always write for an intelligent general reader, and don’t have a particular age group in mind. I try to make the language accessible but fun, and explain as clearly as I can, with the best sources I can identify so people can follow up and read further if they’re interested. Treating your reader and your subject with respect is a basic rule of authorship; I also try to go beyond what my readers might expect and give them something that will surprise or challenge them.
You’ve mentioned you founded your own magazine Anime UK during a time where there were no publications on the subject. What went into the process of setting that up and what opportunities did it lead to?
It was remarkably simple – which is not the same thing as easy. After spending about seven years pitching an anime book to every publisher I could get access to with no success, I got the opportunity to work on the National SF Convention in 2000 and persuaded the committee to give me programme space for 36 hours of anime screenings. That took a while to organise but was a huge success, and my other half Steve Kyte and I set up Anime UK newsletter to keep the fans who met at the convention in touch and spread awareness of anime.
One of those fans was Wil Overton, who worked for a small print and design company. He took the newsletter into work and his boss, Peter Goll, was struck by the style and energy of anime. He asked Wil if we’d consider doing a magazine, and set up Sigma Publishing to publish it. The four of us, with Peter’s secretary Lynn and her teenage daughter Jane helping out in school holidays, were the core team. We planned a quarterly magazine but the response was so good we quickly went bimonthly, then monthly.
It led to a lot of opportunities for many of our contributors. Most were fan writers and artists when they started out, many are now pros, and those who were already pro journalists or artists got a considerable boost to their careers. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then very few people in the UK knew anything about anime. When AKIRA came out in the cinema and on video, the media were scrambling to find experts – i.e anyone who knew anything about this stuff that was alien to them – so we all got the chance to expand our experience. Some of that was positive, some less so, but we made an impact on popular culture in the UK.
Two years after we started the magazine, Titan published my first book on anime. Sometimes you have to go a roundabout way to get where you want to go.
I remember you saying at Doki Doki that it took years of pitching for people to look at your work in a serious light. Are there any experiences that stood out to you during the early days that helped strengthen your resolve?
Just getting doors shut in my face, being patronised – not an unusual experience for any woman, but really annoying in so-called progressive industries like comics, publishing and media. One editor got me in to their office for a meeting, kept me sitting in the reception area for half an hour after the appointed time, then got the receptionist to tell me my pitch wouldn’t make a book as there wasn’t enough interest in anime. If someone tells me something can’t be done, then unless they give me very good reasons I usually try and find a way to do it. If someone says that can’t be done now, I just keep working at it until it can be done.
Some of the experiences that really encouraged me were of the kindness and positivity of people who got what I was trying to do and what anime and Japanese pop culture could be.
When we started Anime UK magazine, we didn’t know anything about distribution, so Wil Overton and I took twenty copies each of our first print run in carrier bags and hiked round comic shops and bookshops in our lunch hours and after work. In those days Jonathan Ross and Paul Gambaccini owned a comic shop called Top Ten Soho Comic Book Store. It was in the same little shop in St. Anne’s Court, Soho, that Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed had occupied ten years earlier. I was a Dark They Were regular before it closed in 1979 and it felt weird, but in a nice way, to be walking in there in 1991 with my own mag to sell. I was showing Anime UK issue 1 to the manager, the amazing Zoe Urchin, when Jonathan Ross was there, and he looked at it, liked it, and said “Take ten of ’em. It’ll sell.”
I think the idea of building your industry from the ground up is inspirational. Did you find that other people started to follow your example of writing about anime and create their own publications?
A lot of people created their own fanzines, many of which were terrific – we had a regular fanzine review in Anime UK magazine and some of the artists and writers who came out of that scene are professionals today. But it was really hard to create your own professional magazine back then. You had to be determined, find a backer able to lose a lot of money, find distribution, and work harder than is entirely rational. Nowadays of course, with the possibility of online publishing and all the tools you can get for free, it’s a bit easier to have a strong online presence and build a profile for yourself.
One of the most interesting things to come out of that build-your-own-fanzine buzz around Anime UK is that two archive resources were set up by AUK readers in that era, the earliest independent archive resources on the British anime industry and fandom. Jonathan Weeks began to publish Animejin as an online infosheet with paper versions for those who didn’t have computer access. (Yes, that’s how long ago it was!) He covered both fan activity and anime releases, and kept it running until 2004. The archives are still online at http://www.animejin.org.uk/. Carlo Bernhardi set up an anime club, Anime Kyo, in his hometown of Leicester and kept a paper archive which he’s gradually putting online as The Anime Nostalgia Facility UK. http://anime-nostalgia-facility.blogspot.com/p/about.html Given how few contemporary sources survive for the pre-broadband era, these are both invaluable to pop culture researchers.
In addition to anime, you’ve also written about cosplaying. What do you think it is about cosplaying that brings people together from different backgrounds?
That you can be anything you can create, that you can transform yourself into whatever you desire. I love the inclusiveness of cosplay – most cosplayers are welcoming and love to share skills. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, beginner, veteran, physically or mentally challenged, whatever your race, gender or culture, cosplayers will welcome and respect you if you do the same for them. Of course there are a few complete arses in cosplay, and some people who use it for other purposes like getting close to vulnerable young women, but you get that everywhere and cosplayers and cosplay events are very protective.
During your presentation on the history of cosplay you compared the culture of America and Japan. Do you think there are any differences in the way each culture approaches cosplay?
I think the actual act of cosplay is essentially the same, it’s how you facilitate it. Some Americans take national pride to extremes, to the level where it’s almost imperialism. It really matters to them that America is the originator and the best at everything.
A number of American sources claim that America invented cosplay and exported it back to Japan in 1984, even though there’s clear evidence for cosplay in Japan documented back to the early 70s, before the term was invented. Triumphalist ownership bullshit is really not useful in scholarly terms, but in this instance that outrageous claim got a number of other scholars trying to track down original sources and actually work with Japanese cosplayers to understand the development and history of the form.
In recent years, cosplay conventions have exploded in popularity. Do you feel that has anything to do with the rise of phenomenon like the Marvel film franchise?
Not specifically, although it’s always useful to have a huge range of characters to inspire different people, who maybe previously haven’t seen themselves as belonging to heroic myth. I think it has more to do with cheap broadband internet access. Anyone who can get onto a computer or a mobile phone can see, contact and learn from other cosplayers all over the world.
In Japan there are even cosplayers who only cosplay at home (because of age, physical difficulties, distance, lack of funds, or shyness,) but they can still be part of the community by posting their cosplay online. So naturally it becomes easier to get people involved in a convention, where in less well connected times your potential convention attendance was restricted by available information and contacts. I imagine it won’t be long before a convention sets up online or Skype judging for competitions, for those who can’t get out.
Do you think cosplaying can be helpful for people who struggle with their mental health?
Sometimes. There was a very moving panel contribution at Doki Doki Anime Fest this year from a cosplayer who had been literally shut in by anxiety, without friends, until he plucked up the courage to go to a comic con, and then got involved in cosplay and transformed his entire life.
But it’s also important to keep clear boundaries between yourself and the characters you cosplay, and for people with certain conditions this might be challenging. Many years ago a good friend of mine had to give up costuming activity altogether because his mental condition made it increasingly hard for him to stop presenting as his character in real life.
People with mental health problems need proper medical support to understand what their condition is and what their risk factors are, which is hard to get in many places. But a supportive group of friends is very helpful and there’s no doubt that cosplayers can be very supportive and accepting.
As Japan holds a special place for you, can you describe some of your favourite experiences in the country?
There are too many to describe. The only way to really experience Japan is to be there. Having said that I’ll pick one from about a decade back – Steve and I arrived in Tokyo in February and it was freezing cold and snowing so hard you could hardly see. I wanted to go out to my favourite shrine in Tokyo, Nezujinja, and we didn’t have much time in our schedule so it had to be the next morning, Sunday. It was still snowing, hadn’t stopped all night.
We tramped out muffled up in scarves, hats, gloves and coats with multiple layers underneath and two pairs of socks each. Steve had to take his gloves off to operate the camera so he insisted I kept mine on – he’d put his back on between shots to unfreeze his fingers. When we arrived the shrine and the grounds were completely empty except for us and a pair of white egrets. The silence was profound, the way it often is in heavy snow, except for one point when another visitor walked under the romon, the gate with statues of warrior-kami, and just avoided a huge snowslide off the roof. It was pure magic.
After a couple of hours Steve’s hands were frozen, so we went back round the corner to a coffee shop and shed snow all over their floor, despite shaking as much as we could off outside.
We had another wonderful moment at, or rather just outside, Nezujinja last spring. We were walking back to the main road from the side street leading to the shrine when we heard that unmistakeable Harley engine sound behind us and turned around to see a guy, maybe in his late 60s or 70s, stylish as anything in faded denim, waistcoat, scarf around his bald head and sunglasses, riding a gorgeous Harley trike – I think it was a TriGlide Ultra Classic though I don’t know Harleys all that well. We both just beamed and gave him a huge thumbs up. He smiled back as he passed. Suburban Tokyo is constantly and delightfully surprising.
For anyone with an interest in anime and cosplay, where would you recommend visiting in Japan?
The two main possibilities I’d suggest are to go to Nagoya for the World Cosplay Summit, where you’ll see astonishing cosplay and enjoy a beautiful city; or of course to go to Tokyo. There are so many fan venues in Tokyo where you can be surrounded by otaku and cosplay culture, although you probably won’t see many people in costume on the streets unless they work for a store or a maid cafe, or unless there’s an event happening. Do your research first, go online and check out events and festivals.
The Japan National Tourist office has a really helpful website where you can do everything from finding out what’s on in a particular city to browsing very detailed accommodation listings in English and choosing where to stay. Tokyo Big Sight, home of Comiket, has a calendar giving all events there for the next six months. The Tokyo tourist office is very helpful.
What publications would you suggest for someone who wants to write about anime and build their reputation?
I won’t suggest any publications because I don’t want any editor to be inundated with pitches from people too lazy to do their own research! It’s not difficult to go online, find an anime website or the website of an anime magazine, and read their submissions policy. If they have a published submissions policy, or don’t say “no submissions”, you can pitch them.
Regardless of the publication you pitch, there are two routes I’d suggest. For both, you need to do some prep.
First, read as much writing on anime as you can, and read it critically. Look at what you like and don’t like and work out why. What excites you most? What kind of stories do you like best – short, long, regular snippets, ongoing series, funny, serious, mostly photos, mostly text, toy reviews, manga/anime reviews, history, cosplay, analysis of directors’ or artists’ careers? What websites or books get the most reactions, reviews and recommendations? This will help you work out what kind of thing you want to write most, and how successful it’s likely to be.
Start your own blog, publish your own writing, and build links with other blogs whose writers you respect. Do your job well, check your facts, don’t just regurgitate the latest thing online – there are hundreds of thousands of people doing that, so find the angle that you really want to pursue and that makes you stand out from the crowd. If your favourite websites and blogs make cross-references to other forms of culture, such as music, history, art, novels or comics, consider whether that would make your writing stronger and easier for a reader to relate to.
Then, start pitching stories to the blogs and magazines you like most or feel are most suited to your style. Tailor your pitches to the publication you’re pitching at. If they never publish anything over 500 words, mostly on current or upcoming anime, don’t dump your 3000 word piece on early Gundam on them. Write a couple of pieces that you think would work for their publication, spellcheck, grammar check and factcheck the shit out of them, and send a short, polite query email attaching them, linking to your blog, and asking if they would be interested in taking some work from you.
Then repeat until you start getting published.
How do you see the future of anime/pop culture literature developing?
It’s difficult to predict because this is a discretionary, disposable-income business. It’s only expanded so much in the past two decades because consumers are richer and communications are cheaper. If the economy changes for the worse, discretionary spending usually takes a hit. So the crystal ball is pretty cloudy on the future. But I’d like to see more books giving proper consideration to anime and manga history, filling in the gaps in the backstory and highlighting the way cultures interact and influence each other, not in an imperialist way but because us clever monkeys love to play with each other’s shiny toys, and to use the ideas that spin off from the process of play to make new, even shinier toys of our own.
Human culture is a treasure for the whole of humanity, one that we can share, enjoy, learn from and build new things with. Our culture is a vast ocean – or if you prefer, a really huge box of the best Lego you can imagine, with all the shapes and all the colours. What we’re here for is to make wonderful new things with it, and to share those wonderful things fairly and with respect for everyone.