What Makes Transnational Media Tick? Pt II

In high school English, my blessed teacher Dr. JT stressed literary criticism by inspecting the theme and technique of works. Simply, analyzing transnational media lies along these same lines: we must look at the content and casing to discern transnational merit of works.

When analyzing the dizzyingly broad spectrum of all media, content and casing remain rather nebulous concepts. Casing refers to the techniques used in the execution of a piece of art, while content refers to the underpinning theory or underlying theme it communicates. Another way of looking at this duality is that casing is the packaging or production (value) of a work, while its content is the message or moral portrayed. Casings envelop content: in Great Art, casings conduct and reinforce meaning (content), and in lesser works they act as distraction from it, creating dissonance in the cohesion of the work and detracting from the quality of the end product.

Content and casing are of equal import, but both are to be employed concisely and with economy. During the creation and conceptualization phase, if too much emphasis is placed on casing, the final product is formulaic and empty. Case in point: Superman: Man of Steel (2013) which has astronomical production value but no well-developed content. On the other end of the spectrum, any work that is all content with very little attention to casing or execution would be inaccessible and unmarketable to a large audience. Examples of such works remain obscure and are mostly found as crowd-published literary pieces penned by an author who lives in his own head, or video games designed by someone who only cares about their own enjoyment and not the player’s.

Casings are analyzed on an accessibility gradient ranging from overused cliche or trope, through the familiar, then to novel. Genres, structures, styles, and techniques (such as using tropes, well-known archetypal story arcs, or familiar non diegetic music in film) used within a work are more accessible the more familiar they are, and are harder to process if they are newer and unfamiliar.  If one were to assign numerical value along this spectrum, we would see that younger people on average respond more favorably to material found on the novel side of the scale, versus perhaps elderly, who would respond more strongly to more familiar casings and styles of execution, closer to the overused tropic area.

Contents are analyzed on what I have seen as resonance. Law and Order creator Rene Balcer also described this idea as “cultural pressure points” (In a talk at UPenn’s Kelly Writer’s House, October 30th, 2014.) For franchises and larger works of art, people want something they can sink their hearts into. One feels resonance when one empathizes strongly with a character, or a certain story touches one’s heart, or alternatively one experiences catharsis after watching a protagonist (or antagonist) struggle. Great Art is often qualified by the elicitation of this type of emotional response.  Resonance points, then, are traced from historical, political, economic and sociocultural events through population’s experiencing these episodes to nuggets of truth that deal with, comfort through, or explain these matters. Points of resonance echo in the heart of a people.

All this muddled theory makes more sense when applied to actual works. Let’s develop this further looking at two examples of popular American media previously introduced.

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Teen Wolf is housed in a high school genre, using the familiar young adult structure of absent parents and inept teachers. It also utilizes familiar folklore, specifically werewolves and, later, other fantastic anthropomorphic creatures. Its presentation of scenes both real and unreal blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, a common cinematographic ploy. The content of this series touches on several resonance points: In the story, the protagonist is bitten and turned into a werewolf without his consent, and his ability to exert self-control and even self-awareness is brought into question. This resonates with burning issue of consent in our society and popular discourse. The friendship and bonding of individuals who are very different in personality, temper, and background presented in the story resonates with our society in two ways: US society is founded on the idea of integrating and embracing diversity (i.e. the inclusion of differing individuals) and the increasing visibility and importance of found families. With the inclusion of several well-developed female characters, women’s agency resonates in the story. Family is a final resonance point as the role of family in the process of growing up is a recurring theme through the seasons.

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Supernatural operates within some of the same casings: absent or flawed adult role models, folklore becoming real and the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred. Additionally, this show cashes in on brotherhood. The content corresponds to these structures: morality is a large theme inspected as the male protagonists mature, move from reactive to proactive characters, and change their perspective from a black and white idea of good and evil to more shades of gray. Second to morality, another resonance point tapped is the struggle of balancing familial responsibilities with professional ambition. Using gender identity displacement, the tension of traditional versus non-traditional roles is presented especially in season five. The (male) protagonists are confronted by ancient and almost absolutely powerful adversaries, who compel Sam and Dean into proscribed, traditional paths, outright telling them at one point–in a brilliant ripping from Fox News talking heads–to “know your role.” This application of the burning issue of changing gender roles (especially in regards to women’s roles) is a point of resonance for many women from differing countries, making the show relevant to their lives and exportable across those borders.

The most salient works of Great Art marry casing with content. This is difficult when imagining a single audience, but grows trickier when the ingredient of internationalism is included. Internationally popular casings are fleeting and transient, and symbolism varies greatly (in variety and significance) from the East to the West. A look and feel (casing) of a work may be novel one place and overused somewhere else. Content must similarly differ, and we must suss out pervasive and extensive resonance points to be successful across borders.

 

What makes Transnational Media Tick? Pt 1

 

What makes some art transport profitably overseas and others not? This was the subject of a thesis I wrote while studying at Universite Paris VII Diderot: I used comparative analysis to create a list of commonalities of the successes of Edith Piaf and Daft Punk as artists who gained popularity both within France and the USA. These included: being influenced by diverse artists outside of their immediate cultural sphere, maintaining creative rights, ability to connect and maintain relationship with audiences, continuous transformative creativity while maintaining recognizable fundamental identity.  I posited that meeting these criteria would bolster the chance of  success in both countries.  

These qualities were in regards to particularly music and specifically France, but when dealing with the dissection transnational media, larger forces are at play. Japan and America already have a close, strong friendship with a stronger trade relationship between the two. Our positive relations are so strong, even other countries have taken note. Danish-produced webcomic Scandinavia and the World published a one-cell rendition of this mutual love in 2012 entitled “Fangirls.” SatW features the misadventures of humorous characters who are anthropomorphized nations. In this comic, a female Japan and a female America, each toting artifacts and accessories of the other’s culture, exclaim, “Oh my god!!! I’m your biggest fan!!!”

Our love of Japan is so strong it is frequently manifested in our popular culture. Outside of the internment awareness campaign of George Takei, elements of Japanese pop culture are often cultivated, integrated, or alluded to in our film and television media. In this year’s Hannibal, a highly critically acclaimed NBC miniseries featuring Hannibal Lecter and characters from Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, the second season is completely structured after traditional Japanese Kaiseki dinner, with episodes named after course dishes, including Sakizuke, Naka-choko, and Mizumono. American viewers are now aware and curious about this element of Japanese cuisine. Shortly after the season’s premiere, Kaiseki dinners were in high demand, resulting in many societies for the promotion of Japanese culture  and other groups affiliated with Japan to feature them during fundraising banquets.

Another American television series to integrate Japanese culture is the ten-year running Supernatural. It has featured several “monsters” based on Japanese folklore, including Buruburu and okami. Additionally, it has referenced Japanese films like Godzilla vs Mothra and Battle Royale, as well as the recurring mention of hentai by bad-boy protagonist Dean. Additionally, this spring MTV’s Teen Wolf featured a Japanese centric season (3B,) which employed elements of Japanese mythical yōkai creatures, kitsune (fox spirits) and oni (demons).

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Beyond television, American film elevates Japanese culture in increasing frequency by paying homage to Japan’s style and imagination. Pacific Rim (2013) and the Transformers film series (2007-2014) both borrow heavily if not directly from Japanese media. These homegrown pastiches and tributes to Japan edify and proliferate its “cool” public image.
Looking back at Japan’s exportation of media to America, we can break down successful works and franchises, taking them apart and seeing what makes them tick for the two peoples. (Continued in next blog post.)