Interview with Study of Anime’s Charles Dunbar

Ask any aniblogger who the prominent voice in the academic study of anime is, and he or she is likely to respond, “Charles Dunbar.”  Owner of the Study of Anime site, Charles is currently finishing his MA in Anthropology, focusing particularly on the culture of anime conventions.  A popular figure at anime conventions, Charles is presenting a panel at the upcoming AnimeNEXT (June 10-12) convention.  As such, I thought it would be a great time to request an interview with him.  I’m blessed that he responded.

TWWK: Charles, you’ve become an authoritative voice on the academic side of anime and manga, particularly in regards to anthropology and religion.  How did you become interested in focusing on anime in your studies and writing?

Charles: I would hesitate to call myself authoritative, as I have always approached what I do from the angle of “a fan who talks too much and has too much time on his side.” What I do with anime, in regards to anthropology and religion, I’ve done for other things before as well, be it gaming, western television, or whatever strikes my fancy. Applying this to anime on a scale beyond just hanging out with my friends was a recent development for me, but one I made because I felt I had something to say, and wanted to share that. I used to give presentations before the NY Mythology Cafe, usually focused on similar ideas of the afterlife, the Adversary and the like, and decided to try to apply it to anime. This was before I began my project looking into convention life, and it just sort of fit. I’ve also found that attendees and fans at the conventions love to listen and love to contribute, and the dialogues that open up between me and the audience are often more satisfying than the actual presentation. Anime fans are passionate about what they love, and they love to listen to people who are equally as passionate, and it shows.

TWWK: You recently posted a portion of your masters thesis on your site.  This part explains the connection between religious pilgrimages and anime conventions.  How does this fit into your masters thesis as a whole?  What is your thesis all about?

Charles: My thesis is a jumbled mess of ideas revolving around the central tenet that anime conventions, and indeed fandom events, are far reaching and have such powerful appeal because they speak to the collective need humans look for when forming communities. The section I posted was culled from my Lit Review and some conclusions when speaking of how conventions mimic religious events, at least according to some scholars, and I applied what I had seen and experienced myself over the past two years. This idea of the convention as a pilgrimage is nothing new, but in the end I was making the argument that anime conventions are less about anime and more about being part of a collective event, with anime just being either what was available, or the most preferred method of organizing.

My thesis itself, which is entitled “Pilgrimage, Pageantry and Fan Communities” is an ethnographic examination of the attendees at the conventions, with regards to economics, stereotyping, collective culture, cosplay and motivations, and sort of covers a whole wide range of topics that I tried my best to tie together. A lot of it doesn’t seem very special to me, but that might be because I have been living this lifestyle for such a long time that many of the things I covered that my advisor loved were things many congoers taker for granted. There is so much that goes into being a congoing anime fan that I couldn’t possibly record it all, but what I did put into the thesis hopefully captured a good deal of the essence of congoing, and the appeal in it.

TWWK: What is it about religion that interested you enough to study it at the collegiate level?

Charles: I love folklore. I love gods, monsters, heroes and villains. I also have a hard time being strictly empirical in my own outlook. I am a firm believer in the transcendental nature of religion and the psychological aspects of the sacred. I love the diversity, the history, and the allure of participation that adherents to a religious tradition feel. Religion is a powerful force in our own collective experience as humans, and it is something that we need to cherish and understand, rather than just blindly follow or demonize as “quaint” or “outdated.” I am also a person of great spiritual faith. Not in a specific religious ideal, but in the idea of the sacred as a whole. I dislike religious arguments about doctrine and dogma, but I love looking at interactions between faiths, and find personal satisfaction in studying all traditions and seeing what in each appeals to my own spiritual development, and then absorbing it into my own philosophy.

Fortunately, my university was not in the business of teaching theology or tradition as much as it was the anthropological, sociological and psychological nature behind belief and why it is such a powerful force in the human experience. I was exposed to a lot of classical theory, but also a good deal of the culture and history behind the notion of belief, and it allowed me to approach the sacred in a way that was not colored by a specific school of thought.

I’m also curious. And I tend to take classes in what I find personally interesting. Religion I find interesting.

These are the main reasons I studied religion at the collegiate level. It gave me a background in the traditions, the ideas of why people believe and was a wonderful introduction to the sacred history of humanity as a whole.

TWWK: Are you currently working on anything else?  Do have you any future projects or ambitions for the near future?

Charles: Well, now that the fandom study part of my life is drawing to a close, Im preparing to delve full time into my work with the shinigami. I love ghosts, I love syncretism and I love how Japan tweaks with source mythology to create multifaceted, new creatures. The shinigami is one such creature, and I have spent a lot of time looking into them in the past year, and will continue to do so until I’ve managed to craft something comprehensive, or at the very least entertaining.

I’m also preparing to apply to Ph.D programs in the fall, so I can continue my study into the next level of academia. If I choose to remain in anthropology or move into another field is still up in the air, but I’m hoping by fall 2012 to be teaching and researching at another university.

TWWK: You’re seemingly omnipresent on the east-coast con circuit.  How did you get involved in doing con panels?

Charles: I applied. It is seriously that easy. People ask me all the time what I had to do to become a panelist, but as long as a person has a good idea and can craft a compelling panel around it, they can be just as involved in contributing to the fandom as anyone else. I do admit at one point I had the same idea that panelists were special in some way, but in actuality, it’s all about your ideas and your ability to convey them that will determine your future as a panelist.

I had the mythology panel on my computer from when I hosted it at NY Myth Cafe, and I just started submitting it to cons on the off chance they would accept it. I took the time to refine it with audience suggestions and comments, and before long it was packing rooms. But it all started with my just asking to host it at Nekocon and AUSA.

Then, after I had given “Modern Mythology” a few times, I began to notice potential spinoff panels, based on all the information I had gathered and presented. And then they started showing up. “Dead Like Us” was one of the first, and it grew until it spun off panels, and the cycle continues.

As for appearing at all the cons I do (10 in 2010 alone), well that’s a matter of meeting people who recommend cons, researching the con, finding the time and money to attend, and then just applying myself.

TWWK: With your preparation for and presentations at cons, do you get a chance to enjoy the events as well?

Charles: Depends on the con, really. I was at Katsucon for maybe 50 hours in February, I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, and felt it was a full and satisfying experience. Then at Anime Boston in April, I was there for 4 full days and felt like I had never had a chance set foot in the con at all, it went by so fast, a blaze of panels, food and walking. It all comes down to how many panels Im giving, how much downtime I take in the hotel, who is with me, and what I do with the time Im not hosting. Some cons I just host and sleep. Others I take the chance to explore and mingle.

TWWK: Do you have a favorite con?

Charles: I don’t like playing favorites, especially where cons are concerned, because all the ones I attend have such different flavors to them that it would be unfair to choose one as a favorite. But I admit I am partial to Anime Boston, Anime USA and Anime Mid Atlantic. Those three have managed to yield some truly amazing experiences, they are in three different regions of the country, and have given me a lot as both an attendee and a panelist. I started my congoing experiences at Nekocon and Anime Next, so I will always look fondly on them as well.

TWWK: You’re scheduled to speak at AnimeNEXT (June 10-12).  What are you preparing for this con?

Charles: This will be the debut of my Ghost panel, titled “Kowai: Yuurei, Youkai and the Japanese Culture of Fear.” It’s the second panel I’ve spun off “Dead Like Us,” since I gathered a lot of information on ghosts in Japanese mythology and culture. I also have been really enjoying the book “Yokai Attack” by Hiroko Yoda and Mall alt, so it made sense to do a panel around ghosts, monsters and their impact on anime and Japanese culture.

I’m also hosting a panel on studying fandom. After a lot of panels, I often get asked “do you REALLY study anime?” followed soon after by “How?” I decided it would be a good idea to just hold an open forum discussion on how to get involved in fan studies, what disciplines to take in college, what books to read and how to go about taking the path deeper into what the fans love. This is meant strictly as an overview, not an in-depth discussion of fanthropological topics like the panels I was part of at Otakon and Anime Boston, but I hope it answers some of the questions people have.

At ANext I’m also going to give “Con Horror Studies,” a panel I have been known to cohost with Eric Stehmer of Toonzone. It’s a very lighthearted look into some of the crazy stuff that goes down at cons, be it major incidents like “Kat-snow-con 2003” or the fire alarm at last year’s Otakon, and is an open forum where audience members can tell their own outrageous experiences and maybe hear a few more humorous tales.

And finally, my friend Abby and I will be giving “An International Game of Telephone,” which was previous given at Nekocon and Anime Boston. It’s a look into the cross-cultural media trade between the US and Japan since the late 1800s. It had a very good reception at Anime Boston this year, and we expect the attendees at Anime Next to enjoy it as well.

TWWK: A final (fun) question.  Who is your favorite anime/manga character…EVER? 🙂

Charles: I need to choose one? Wow, that is not possible, because there are so many I love for so many reasons.

I suppose my first all time favorite would be Himura Kenshin, as Rurouni Kenshin was the first non-DBZ anime I was ever truly into. I love his penitent story, his lighthearted nature, his sense of humor, his sense of duty and his devotion to his friends.

I also love Duo Maxwell, and have recounted the reasons why on my website and twitter feed more than a few times recently.

I love to make fun of Ikari Shinji, but so does everybody else.

And I suppose my two recent favorites are Heiwajime Shizuo from Durarara and Grell Sutcliffe from Kuroshitsuji. Shizuo because of his extreme reaction to people who tick him off, and Grell because he is essentially a mash up of every single Japanese concept of the outsider since forever. Red hair, transgendered, flamboyant, unreliable, obsessed…if there’s a concept of the outsider, Grell has it, and in droves.


2 thoughts on “Interview with Study of Anime’s Charles Dunbar

  1. Great interview. You asked the best questions and I loved the responses. Can’t wait to see the Charles’ new panels. I’m a huge fan of his presentations.

    1. Well I’m glad the questions were good! They were really questions I wanted to ask after reading Charles’ recent post, so they kind of naturally flowed. Charles, of course, is just interesting, so it makes for a good post! 🙂

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