Stark Raving Mad: The Unsuccessful Nuptials of Rave Culture and Anime

Raving and anime – strange bedfellows, right?

Back in 1999, Toshiya Ueno wrote an article called ‘Techno-Orientalism and media-tribalism: On Japanese animation and rave culture[1]’ (Ueno, 1999). This article combines two of my great interests (both academically and experientially): raving and anime. Unfortunately I’m not convinced by the connections.

Yo DJ, spin that shit.

While not setting out to specifically argue for a sameness of the two cultures (his purpose is more to expand upon notions of techno-orientalism and media-tribalism), the paper does draw upon ‘similarities’ between the cultures that I find problematic. Ueno argues that rave culture and anime share ‘progressive’ sexual politics in their similar representations of women and the machine while also sharing similar future alternative politics (Ueno, 1999: 104-105)[2]. While I have argued in the past that rave culture embodies these aforementioned becomings[3], I do not agree that anime does, too. At least not in the same capacity.

Ueno’s first observation is that both rave culture and anime merge the female with the machine (Ueno, 1999: 104). And I agree. However, what I take issue with is the disparate and misrepresented ethics he attempts to coalesce. While the cyborgian woman experiences a loss individuality to the surrounding body of technology (Ueno, 1999: 104) within both cultures, the implications of this hybridization differ.

Rave culture has been associated with forward-thinking sexual politics (Pini, 2006: 373 & Hutson, 2000: 42). At these raves, women are in many ways liberated from the predatory male gaze. They are not so much seen as sexual objects to be ‘picked up’, but rather treated as equals, dancing towards a larger state of being, a state of unity, a site of non-differentiation (Hutson, 2000: 42), or in rave scholar Maria Pini’s terms, a ‘text of sameness’ (Pini, 2006: 370, 375). Men and women become friends, not genders; the erotic act of penetration is withdrawn and replaced by a ‘polymorphous sense of perversity’ as the focus of the raver’s desire (Reynolds, 1994). The dance floor as a site of sexual seduction is reterritorialised as a rave space in which bodies connect and relate in new, liberating ways. But can we really say this is the case with anime? Let’s consider the nature of fan service[4].

Progressive?

Keith Russell is a Design and Communication philosopher who is currently working on a theory of ‘the glimpse.’ In his article, ‘The Glimpse and Fan Service: New Media, New Aesthetics,’ he examines the role the glimpse plays in fan service in anime (Russell, 2008). While I find his exploration of the glimpse fascinating, I am not entirely sold by the characteristics of freedom and liberation he attributes to it. Nonetheless, his paper, along with its shortcomings, provides an ample base for a critique on Ueno’s work. Russell argues that fan service[5] – analogous with the glimpse – is liberating, resistant, reassuring (not dangerous) and not perverse (Russell, 2008: 108, 108, 107, 109, respectively). Of course, some fan service can be innocent: Russell cites Astro Girl’s short skirt offering panty glimpses (Russell, 2008: 109) and I would include a similar moment with Nausicaa in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Miyazaki, 1984). I don’t believe these moments to be overtly sexual. However while they may not be perverse in nature, it is entirely up to the beholder of the gaze, differing from character to character, from audience to audience. And this is my main criticism of Russell’s paper – not his theory, just his paper – while the nature of the glimpse may be all these things above, viewing is a subjective experience, and the vast majority of fan service in anime and manga is intended to be perverse and sexually titillating. So a (contra)distinction needs to be made between the glimpse and fan service, because while they are related, they are not at all the same; cousins twice removed, perhaps.

Russell further argues that fan service occupies an uncontested visual space between desire and satisfaction (Russell, 2008: 108). Yes, maybe so and it is an interesting point, but it does not make fan service any more sanitary or less objectifying. While the glimpse itself in fan service can be celebrated as free, liberating and empowering for the viewer, it simultaneously condemns, at least temporarily, the female figures as eroticized objects, often passive, under the male gaze.

In terms of cyborgian women in anime consider how many texts simultaneously imbue females with cyborgian characteristics while also overtly sexualizing and stereotyping them. (An example of this can be found in Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995), to be discussed later.) So Ueno’s claim that anime and rave culture both provide, in the same capacity, an alternative space for women is slightly shortsighted. And while Russell provides an interesting examination of the glimpse itself, its application to fan service neglects the glimpse’s object. So, with the understanding that there are always going to be exemptions to such a statement, fan service is one factor that undermines anime and manga’s potentially liberal disposition.

Similarly, English professor Carl Silvio explores this ambivalent stance in his article ‘Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell’ (Silvio, 1999). Silvio argues that despite what at first glance seems to be a radical subversion of ‘the power dynamics inherent in dominant structures of gender and sexual difference’, Oshii’s film covertly reinscribes them (Silvio, 1999: 60). This is attributable to the contradictory nature of cyborg politics – it can serve the interests of both liberation and domination (Silvio, 1999: 60). The body can become enhanced and improved – more powerful – but the cyborgian shell also transforms the organic body into something akin to coded information and hence it becomes more vulnerable to social control; becomes alterable and also dispensable (Silvio, 1999: 60). For example, Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell explains how her body and certain classified memories are the property of the government. She is free to leave Section 9 whenever she wants, but she will need to surrender both her shell and large parts of her mind (Oshii, 1995). She can simultaneously be read as enhanced and ‘euphorically powerful’ but also commodified and ‘owned by the networks’ (Bolton, 2002: 730, 733 respectively). Russell’s approach to fan service operates in a similar, but perhaps more obviously, dual fashion, both liberal and conservative depending on which side of the glimpse one falls. So while it may seem, at times, that certain anime are unshackling traditional gender and sexual restraints – through the cyborg, through the glimpse – they also reinforce them and hence cannot transcend the ambivalent to the progressive.

Transgressive cyborg or eroticized object? Or both?

The second of Ueno’s links between rave culture and anime is the promotion of future alternative politics, including a hybridization of the body and technology that explores the potential of cyberfeminism and the cyborg (Ueno, 1999: 104). I agree with Ueno that anime is providing a very active arena for posthuman ethics to be contested and explored (Ueno, 1999: 105) (as I have looked at in my post on child-machine weaponry), however, it is the attitudes towards the posthuman that differs in anime and rave culture; attitudes that Ueno overlooks.

On the one hand, rave culture is ‘body culture’ (Pini, 2006: 375); it puts the body back into music amidst cyborgian surrounds. Electronic dance music (a necessary proponent of rave culture) embraces the cyborg, hence disrupting gender boundaries, renegotiating the body and what a body can do. It is a positive move towards posthuman futures with our bodies and (fluid) genders in tact. On the other hand, anime takes a much more cautionary, even negative stance on the idea of man-machine integration[6]. Just look at cyberpunk texts such as Bubblegum Crisis (OAV) (various, 1987), AD Police (OAV) (various, 1990), Cyber City Oedo 808 (OAV) (Kawajiri, 1990-1991), Angel Cop (OAV) (Itano, 1989), and more recent science fiction anime such as Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001) and SaiKano (Kase, 2002). Once again, anime seldom looks favourably upon a directly integrated man-machine future, preferring a less threatening, less encroaching side-by-side harmony with machines; robots and humans separate and distinct (Kaplan, 2004: 3). So while both rave culture and anime act as sites of posthuman consideration, their outcomes and attitudes are contrary.

Ueno’s article does not aim to marry the two cultures, but in engaging with the two very different fields he does invite criticism. As excited as I was about a possible opening up of an academic space between the two fields, I am not convinced. For me, the prominence of fan service cancels out a general argument for anime as progressive in terms of sexuality and gender, and regarding posthuman politics, the two subcultures simply share different attitudes. But let’s reflect:

Besides this post being a somewhat critical look at one particular paper, it also allowed for some interesting points on the different aspects of fan service, contradictory cyborg politics, and posthuman attitudes within two of my favourite subcultures. I’m thankful for the opportunity to engage these two disparate ends of the pop-cultural spectrum in a single post – I just hope I haven’t stepped on too many academics’ toes in the process. Bring on the rebuttals!

Note: As much as I like to wank on about rave culture and the possibilities it offers the body, I have tried to limit such an analysis and rather keep with the blog’s focus of anime.


[1] To clarify, rave culture here refers to illegal raves, or at least raves operating outside the mainstream scene. Commercial raves and club scenes are not a part of this. There is a particular interest in psy-trance events.

[2] There is also a third similarity where Ueno compares the competitive mimesis or mimetic antagonism between the two cultures (Ueno, 1999: 103) but I don’t contest this.

[3] While not a recognized expert in the field, my honours thesis was on rave culture so I’ve done extensive research in the area. However, my work is not published or peer-reviewed (maybe in the future…) and so I have not referenced it.

[4] I am not pretending that my research into fan service is in any way seminal or comprehensive. I am only drawing off the one article by Keith Russell and injecting it with a lot of my own (and perhaps others’) opinions. Surprisingly, I have not been able to find much scholarship on fan service.

[5] I’ll note here that Russell’s definition of fan service only includes ‘the random and gratuitous display of anticipated gestures common in Manga and Anime. These gestures include such things as panty shots, leg spreads (spread legs) and glimpses of breasts’ (Russell, 2008: 107). I find this limited as I have always understood fan service to more broadly include moments designed to titillate the viewer that serve little plot or thematic purpose. Anything from sexual gratuity to explosions, cool mecha, etc. This definition is largely lifted from anime critic Pete Harcoff over at the now defunct review site, The Anime Critic. Also, fellow blogger ghostlightning shares similar views here and here. I would be interested to hear other people’s understanding of the term fan service. (For this post though, I am just discussing sexual-based fan service.)

[6] It is helpful to distinguish here between cyborgs that can be separated from their machines, i.e. hackers, power suit warriors, etc., to those who are technocorporeal, e.g. Kusanagi in Ghost, Gally in Battle Angel (OAV) (Fukutome & Rintaro, 1993), etc..

About shumbapumba

Would-be intellectual keeping my brain busy. View all posts by shumbapumba

12 responses to “Stark Raving Mad: The Unsuccessful Nuptials of Rave Culture and Anime

  • ghostlightning

    There’s a lot to take in here and I won’t attempt to address all the points I take interest in for now. In the mean time I am reminded of one of the latter editions of Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga wherein he puts out walls and walls of text of philosophical introspection on the nature of being and intelligence (a core exploration among the subjects matter in GitS).

    In these chapters it is notable that Motoko, or the different bodies she controls, ARE AS NAKED AS POSSIBLE.

    I think this runs counter to any appropriation of anime and manga by a progressive feminist reading. But I think I’ve told you this already.

    A different point of consideration to make is how some fans of yuri are females themselves (while not necessary being gay themselves). Is equal opportunity exploitation a mark of progress? I don’t know.

    • shumbapumba

      Yes your comments on my cyborg soldiers post encouraged me to re-evaluate how fan service affects gender depiction in anime. It happened to manifest itself in this post. Thanks for that ;).

      I don’t feel I’m in the position to answer your question, either. It would take a long and cautious answer I imagine and I lack knowledge in that area. An interesting consideration nonetheless. But I’m still quite surprised there has not been more of an academic interest in fan service (at least from what I can find in Enlish scholarship).

      ALSO, I have pictures now! :D I think it makes the content a little more inviting. And thanks again for commenting (I think you’re my number one fan ;)).

  • Yi

    “However while they may not be perverse in nature, it is entirely up to the beholder of the gaze, differing from character to character, from audience to audience.”

    Interesting point. But does whether something is objectifying women have to be depend on the audience?
    I don’t really know.

    • shumbapumba

      It’s kind of a big question, I guess, but the creator can always incline the image/scene in a particular direction, eg tasteful or perverse. The consumer can then choose to accept or reject this disposition. I guess, the audience has the final say, to a degree, but of course the creator is where it starts.

  • afkeroge

    I think that many fans of anime and manga are attracted to the hobby because of the uniqueness that it provides the viewer, as well as just another form of media.

    Fanservice as we know, attracts more viewers. But there are also other ways to increase your niche fanbase other than resorting to today’s repetitive and cheap fanservice. I think that it is now just a part of the culture.

    I’m not very knowledgable about these kinds of things so please forgive me if I said something wrong.

    • shumbapumba

      I agree it is definitely a part of the culture. What I wanted to do was use its established role in the culture to argue against a general reading of anime as progressive. And yes, there is a lot more that could be said about fanservice and the links I posted at the end of my post by ghostlightening are good sources. Thanks for commenting :)

  • Kate

    Hi, love this blog entry, it’s really interesting! I’m writing an essay on women in the British rave scene and I’m just wondering what book you used for your cites on Maria Pini (2006?) Was it Popular Music Studies Reader?! Thanks!

  • Kate

    Thanks so much! That’s awesome. I’m doing my dissertation on women in rave and how they subverted societies gender norms. What was your dissertation title? Did you study in the UK?

    • shumbapumba

      It was a thesis of two components: a script and an exegesis. The thesis as a whole was entitled ‘Rave Culture: Two Perspectives.’ I led with the exegesis, entitled ‘Transcend-dance and the Rave without Organs,’ followed by the script entitled ‘Church of Nonsense’ (which I’m currently trying to get produced). I have emailed you my abstract which deals with the thesis in more depth. I kept the two parts separate, that is I did not refer to one within the other (the script in the exegesis, for example) and linked the two through a script outline that followed the exegesis and preceded the script. I hope to touch up the exegesis and submit it for publication soon. If I’m successful I’ll let you know ;).

      I did touch on the subversions of gender roles, largely through Deleuze and Guattari’s Body-without-Organs and Donna Haraway’s cyborg. There is also some useful empirical research into sexual harassment in the UK club scene out there (I think it’s Chatterton or Hollands that conducted it maybe in ’95??, but I’ll try get the full reference for you when I re-read through my exegesis and notes). I used the data on the club scene to differentiate it from the more progressive rave politics. The Loza reference in my ‘ongoing bibliography’ section may also be of help if you want to look at the cyborg/gender implications through electronic dance music – the crux of rave culture and hence an aspect that cannot be ignored. Anyway, I’ll send you some more stuff after I re-read my notes :). Good luck with it all!

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