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Anime and Academia: Interview with Marc Hairston on pedagogy and Nausicaa

by: G.B. Hiranuma
AnimeCraze

 

Marc Hairston, a pioneer in the world of anime and pedagogy, recently co-taught the first American college course where Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa Perfect Collection Volume One was chosen by professors as a required text book. His vast knowledge of anime and manga along with his enthusiasm for the subject have enabled him to introduce many students to Miyazaki and the world of Japanese animation. Here he talks about his class and shares some of his insight into how anime figures into the future of academia.

GH: I wanted to know if you could give me some background about what you are doing with Nausicaa.

MH: First off, I'm not an English professor - I am a space physicist, I work at the University of Texas at Dallas. I am a researcher, but I found out about one of the professors there in the Arts and Humanities program, Dr. Pam Gossin who was teaching a course called "Natural Wonders." Now, the background on this course is that this is a junior level arts and humanities literature course where the students are taught formal critical analysis. This is where they learn to take a text: a book, a novel or poem whatever and analyze it - critically look at it, take it apart, understand it and all this. In the past this had been one of the most boring and most hated of all the required courses for the literary studies majors. So what UTD decided to do was try a method where they would let the professors teach the course and let each of them pick a topic and choose books on that subject to use in the course, the idea was that the professor's enthusiasm for the subject matter would transfer to the students and the students would get interested in this. In general this method seems to be more popular with the students. So this past year she taught a course on the subject of "What is the Nature of Nature." Basically, it was looking the natural world throught he works of writers like Loren Eiseley, John McPhee, Henry David Thoreau, Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawkins, etc. I told her about the movie, Nausicaa because its central theme is all about the relationships between humans and nature and asked if she'd be interested in seeing it. She said, "yes," so I loaned her a copy and when I stopped by her office the next week she asked, "Can I use this for class next semester?" - I said, "Sure!" - so I started talking to her and explained to her that there was also the manga [the Viz graphic novels] that went along with it and that she might want to use it. I lent her the first volume which has essentially the part of the Nausicaa manga that's in the movie - although in a different form obviously... she read it and said, "This would be great!" So she and I started working together to do the course. So I achieved one of my lifelong dreams - I got to teach a college English course! The class was a 15 week course, she had 2 sections of the class and each section met for about 3 hours each week.

GH: I understand that you were the first professors to include Nausicaa as a required text for an American college course.

MH: Other classes had used the manga but those were always independent studies courses where the students chose the texts they wanted to use. There were also a few Japanese cultural studies courses where they showed the film, but didn't read the manga. This was the first case where the professor chose to use the manga. We did find out, talking to people in Japan, that Nausicaa had been used in Japanese college courses, but we were the first American college course to use Nausicaa.

GH: You told me earlier that you had some difficulties with the bookstore, what is the story behind this?

MH: I have to tell you the best story in all of this - how we almost did not get the book. The original editions that Viz had put out followed the Japanese editions and were printed in 7 volumes, those editions are not all still in print. Now they have reprinted the entire series in a four volume "Perfect Collection." We had to be sure that the bookstore didn't go off and try to get the original volume one instead of the "Perfect Collection" volume one and then come back the week before class and say, "Oh, that's out of print, we can't get that" - so she specifically gave them the ISBN book number for PC vol. 1 so they couldn't make a mistake. All of this was all back in October when she was having to order the textbooks for the spring semester. In December, during finals, she called to check on the progress of the book order and when she asked for the woman she had dealt with she was told, "Oh, she doesn't work with us anymore." So Pam asked, "Well, didn't anyone take over my order?" Apparently not, none of the books had been ordered, so Pam was not happy with the bookstore in the first place because of this. Finally, a week before the classes started in January, all of the books for her class were in, no problems, except Nausicaa. So that week one of the students who is going to take the course goes over there [to the bookstore] and she happens to notice this problem. As luck would have it, she knew the bookstore manager so she goes back to his office to ask him where the book is. He's upset and says "Dr. Gossin was very adamant that we had to get that book for her class. I put in that order for her and look at what they sent me," - he points at a box filled with copies of Nausicaa PC vol.1 that is about to be shipped back to the headquarters and says, "I keep ordering this book and they keep sending me comic books." So the student said, "No, that's what she wants" and he says, "No, no, this is a comic book" and she says, "No, no, she really wants that". In the end she convinced him to put them out on the shelf - but they almost got shipped back because it was so unusual. The bookstore people were used to fat calculus books and obscure short story collections from university presses and they're thinking "wait a minute, this isn't a college text book, this is a comic book, you're not supposed to have this."

GH: What was the student response to having a 'comic book' for a text?

MH: I only went to the first week of class in the Thursday afternoon section, and no one really had any reaction one way or the other. If there were any negative reactions they probably didn't say anything since I was sitting there. But a student I know that was taking the Wednesday night section of the class told me that they were a little bit more skeptical and vocal about it. Several of them said things like, "Why do we have a comic book as a required book? How are we supposed to analyze and write a paper about a comic book?" - Again, none of them knew anything about anime or manga other than Speed Racer and one of them had seen Akira. To give you a little bit of background on the class, we had the usual 18 to 23 year old college students. But UT-Dallas is also a commuter college and has a lot of returning students - students in their late 20s and older who are coming back to finish their degrees or take degrees they didn't have a chance to do when they were younger. So the class had a broad range of ages, about half of them in their 18 - 23 range and then others going all the way from mid-twenties up to the 50s. So it was a very interesting mix of people - not your typical college class, but again, none of them had any real experience with anime. So this was sort of a personal experiment for me. We all know the reactions of the fans to Miyazaki's anime; I wanted to know how mainstream people who are not predisposed to like anime would react to the film and manga. Would it appeal to them or would they think it was too juvenile?

So it ended up that we had about 2 1/2 weeks where I taught the course. We were supposed to spend the first week of class (3 hours) talking about the manga and I have to say it was a challenge. I talked to them basically about the ways that manga had taken off in Japan and have not in the US. I talked to them about the ideas about why anglo people look at manga and anime and think that the characters look anglo, but at the same time Asians look at them and think that they look Asian. I told them the history about Osamu Tezuka and the rise in manga and anime in Japan. The basic references I used for this were Frederik Schodt's two books: Manga Manga and Dreamland Japan and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics which is a very serious scholarly comic book about comic books. And then I introduced Miyazaki to them - told them about his history and showed them clips from several of his movies and told them about the fact that the manga of Nausicaa was originally done as a serial for the Japanese animation magazine Animage and that it took him 13 years to do the entire saga. He had to keep taking time off from the manga to do his films. His Japanese fans were very patient. When he started he had been doing tv anime for over 15 years and he wanted to do a pure manga. So one of the conditions he placed on Animage was that he would do the manga only if they agreed that it wouldn't be made into an anime later on. They said, "yes," but within a few issues it was clear Nausicaa was very popular with the readers. So the publishers of Animage came to him and said "this is very popular, will you reconsider and let us make a movie out of this?" Originally he said, "No" but then he changed his mind and said "Ok, I'll let you do it if you let me be the director." I explained to the class that this is why the manga and the movie diverge, because he was writing the manga so the story would continue onward. But obviously he couldn't do this for the movie, so he had to rewrite the storyline so it would have an ending.

GH: What was the content of the class discussions like?

MH: Pam led the discussion about this part. They talked about the story itself so far, you know, what did they notice about this part, doing the analysis and whatnot. I did a lecture part to give them the history of manga and anime and Miyazaki so they have some context to understand what they're seeing and reading. While I was doing the lecture part I was passing around manga magazines from Japan and right in the middle of it I have one student just burst out loud and said, "Are these available in English? Where can I get these?" I told them to go to Planet Anime here in Dallas, or your local comic book stores, or Borders usually has a good selection of translated manga books from Viz and other publishers. That was a big kick - I was afraid they weren't going to like this, it was too different from what they were used to. But they were actually getting into this - by the time the lecture was finished they were thrilled with the book, they were all very interested in it.

Their personal reactions to reading Nausicaa were interesting. They said things like "I thought that I could just knock this whole book out out in half an hour - but it took me hours to go through this!" "This is hard to read, I had to keep looking back to review what was going on." One of my favorite comments was from a student who was a 40-something housewife who was said she had trouble reading it because her 14 year old son kept stealing it from her to read! And of course, most of them wanted to know where they could get the books for the rest of the story.

GH: How did the showing of the movie go?

MH: The first week of class was just the lectures and discussions I've just told you about and the second week of class was when we showed them the movie version. The movie itself is just under 2 hours, so that took up most of the class so after we took our break and came back we had only 30 minutes left to wrap up everything. Of course we couldn't do it in 30 minutes which is why it ran over to the next week. What we did manage to do in that 30 minutes was talk a little bit about the movie itself and how the movie was different from the manga. I referred them to a website I had done where I have a table which goes through doing a point by point comparison of the movie and the manga showing where they were different. I talked a bit about how Miyazaki ended the manga version of the story. I didn't want to give them too many spoilers about how the manga ended. I said, "You know, this goes on for 3 more books after what you've seen here in the movie, and there is a lot more that happens. So I showed them a few scenes from the later volumes of the manga. Now, in the movie the god soldier comes alive and then dies off, but that never happens in the first PC volume of the manga. Instead later on in the final PC volume the god soldier is finally activated, but it is Nausicaa that it picks as its master. He calls her "mother" and then asks her who she wants him to destroy. This is a recurring motif in the manga, situations where Nausicaa is given powers she does not want and essentially being told, "You have the power, now you must make these hard decisions." As I said, I didn't go all the way to the end, I didn't want to give them all the spoilers, but I did point out to them that the ultimate dilemma with Nausicaa is that after she's gotten all the way to the outskirts of the Crypts of Shuwa, she learns that everything in her world has been artificially engineered by the ancient human to survive in their polluted world. Their purpose is to cleanse the world of the poisons, and then die off so the ancient life forms held in suspension in the Crypt can reappear and retake the world. Nausicaa's biology and the biology of all her world are not able to live in the world of clean air and clean water. This is the ultimate decision she has to make: which "natural" world will be allowed to live? After she's fought so hard to preserve this natural world, this natural world turns out to be an artificial world -will she side with an artificially natural world that's trying to purify the world even if it ultimately means her and humanitity's death? Or will she go along with the hibernating humans who want the old natural order restored, the old order that caused the pollution and destruction in the first place? And, of course these are the themes that Miyazaki comes back to later in Mononoke [Hime] - she has to choose the future of the world when neither path is a good one, but she has to make the choice anyway. Basically, these are a lot of the same themes that Pam was covering in all these other books in the class, all these other writings about nature and the choices we as people have make about how we deal with nature.

The other part about that second week that I want to tell you about was the reaction of the students during the film. As we got towards the end of the movie, the climax where Nausicaa tries to stop the Ohmu stampade, in each class of about 15 - 30 people, most of them started sniffling. Now, you know, they're a bunch of cool, detached, grown-up worldly college students types, they're doing their best not to give away any indication to the rest of the class that this movie is getting to them. But you know, there was a lot of sniffling going on in that dark room there.

GH: Did you use any other Miyazaki works in the class?

MH: I came in and showed them Miyazaki's music video[On Your Mark, by Chage and Asaka] during the first part of the class the week after they saw Nausicaa. I chose this one because the theme of humans' effect on nature appears again and also because one of the characters in there looks like Nausicaa, the angel in the video. It's a short (about 6 minutes) animation, but it packs a lot of stuff into the short time. The basic storyline shows a future where, because of a technological catastrophe, a nuclear meltdown and such, people are forced to live in futuristic underground cities with their skyscrapers - much like the geo front from [Neon Genesis] Evangelion and all that, and cannot return to the outside "natural" world which has become dangerous to them (much like the toxic forest/wastelands in Nausicaa). The big rust-colored metal sturcture in the video is a "coffin" for a nuclear power plant, much like Chernobyl. In fact, Chernobyl was what inspired Miyazaki here. He had read an article about how, now that all the people had left, the town near the plant was reverting back to a natural state, even though the area was still highly contaminated from the radioactive fallout from the plant's meltdown. The story in the video is that this angel came from somewhere out in the outside world and they don't know what to make of her. Is she a genetic mutant caused by the radiation? Is she a real supernatural being? She was captured by the religious cult who see her as a divine creature. The government wants her for study, so the police raid the cult to capture her and take her off like in the film E.T.. Two of the police officers who are in in the raid get upset about this and decide that they are going to rescue her and free her. So that's what the whole music video is, the exciting chase as they rescue her and take her back to the outside world and then release her. She flies away and she looks very suspiciously like Nausicaa. So we showed it to the class and I explained that this music video was the first thing Miyazaki did after he completed the final installment of the Nausicaa manga. He had been working on the manga off and on for 12 years now and he finally got to the point that he said, "I have to end this, I have to end this thing," so he forced himself to bring the manga to a conclusion. So this is the very first thing that he turned his creative energies on afterwards and what happens? Nausicaa pops up in it! What's going on here?

Now this is just my personal interpretation, not everyone agrees with this, but my personal interpretation is that On Your Mark is Miyazaki's symbolic freeing of his character Nausicaa. Like Prospero at the end of Shakespeare's Tempest where he breaks his wand and says, "O.K. my magic powers are done and I am freeing Ariel, the magical creature that I made, you're now free to go." This video is in effect Miyazaki saying to Nausicaa, "I've put you through 13 years of two hundred different kinds of hell in that manga and now you're free and go fly away back to the blue sky to become the perfect bird girl that you were always meant to be." In the end, he's basically saying "I'm through with this, this is it. I've now got Nausicaa completely out of my system." Anyway the students liked it , they liked the fact that it was a music video, they liked the fact that it is a very exciting little piece of film and the imagery in it.

GH: So did the students have to write anything about Nausicaa?

MH: At the end of the course Pam had the students write a 10 page paper for their final project. She told them that although Nausicaa was required reading for the class - and she would like people to write papers on Nausicaa, that it wasn't required. She had a whole bunch of other books - 10 other books - they could choose from, but it still ended up that about two-thirds of the students decided they wanted to do their papers on Nausicaa. They had to do in-class presentations so I went back the last week of class to hear these presentations.

GH: What were the papers like?

MH: As with all college papers, as Pam says, they ranged from C to A+, but she and I were both very pleasantly suprised at how high a percentage of the students wanted to do theirs on Nausicaa, especially after they started out being so resistant to the idea of having to read a book like this for class. "How am I supposed to do a serious English paper on a comic book?" We had everything from people doing comparisons of Nausicaa with Disney's Pocahontas to detailed analisis of the religious imagery in the film. We hope to put them online someday, but I don't know if we will ever do that since we've only gotten one of them back with permission to put it on the web. Meanwhile I am currently writing up all of my lecture notes into an actual formal presentation with some of the images I showed the class. When that gets finished later this summer, that will go online with links to it from Nausicaa.Net.

GH: Did you have communication with other faculty about this?

MH: Not really, it was basically just Pam and myself. I don't know how much she talked to other English professors. There is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Susan Napier, who is a professor of Japanese studies there and has written the only piece about Nausicaa we've found in the academic literature. She's currently working on a scholarly book about Miyazaki and anime. Ultimately Pam and I hope to have her as a guest speaker next year at UT-Dallas. We'll see if that works out.

GH: Do you think that the American academic community is ready to engage anime as a serious topic?

MH: I think it is, again, we're just one example, but you are starting to see it show up in various places. I did find that there was at least one other course that had been taught that was similar to ours that used the Ghost in the Shell manga as a required text book. Its not so much whether its taken seriously by academia, its whether they even know about it in the first place. Again, this is something that is trickling up from popular culture into academics, and the professors are only now starting to discover the stuff even exists. I do know that the president of the UT Dallas anime club did a paper on Nausicaa for an introductory literature course where the students could choose what book or film they wanted to do their paper on. So he told this professor about Nausicaa and did his paper on it. The professor wasn't very impressed with it which surprised me since he has a history of using contemporary American and British fantasy novels in some of the classes he teaches, so I would have thought he was more open to this. Maybe he just didn't like the student's paper? But mostly I think that anime is still a bit too new and too unknown for some professors. Give it another 10 or 20 years.

Marc Hairston is a research space physicist at the W. B Hanson Center for Space Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. The course syllabus for "Natural Wonders" can be viewed at: http://www.utdallas.edu/~psgossin/s99ah3300.html. Dr. Hairston's lecture can be found at http://utd500.utdallas.edu/~hairston/ah3300.html

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