Ian Condry’s research has taken him from underground genba hip-hop nightclubs to Tokyo anime studios, but his interest in Japan was sparked here, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“It was a freshman-year language requirement,” Condry said. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he enrolled in introductory Japanese, never imagining it would shape his professional path. “My professor made the Japanese language a window onto your own language, and foreign thought a window onto your own thought,” Condry said. “That theme has kept coming back to me throughout my career.”
A faculty member at MIT since 2002, Condry is a cultural anthropologist, specializing in media, globalization, social movements, and cultural exchange between the United States and Japan. A government major as an undergraduate, Condry became interested in anthropology after college. Upon graduation, he taught English in Japan, then returned to the United States to work as a researcher for the Washington, D.C., bureau of Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. One of Condry’s tasks was to interview academics for articles. “Academics would know one thing very well,” he said, “and I was struck how that approach gave them a much bigger perspective.” His interviews inspired him to take an evening course in cultural anthropology at American University. Eventually, Condry entered a doctoral program in anthropology at Yale.
The decision took Condry from Washington to New Haven and eventually to Tokyo’s music clubs. Interested in globalization and cross-cultural exchange, Condry began to study Japanese artists’ appropriation of American rap and hip hop music. Then a fringe social and musical movement in Japan, American-style rap was becoming increasingly popular. “I was drawn to hip hop because I wanted to study cultural movements that succeed,” Condry said. Hip hop presented a lesson in how to build a successful social movement. “I hear echoes of the call and response of hip hop in the mic checks of the Occupy movement,” Condry said. “Repeating what others are saying as a group can have a galvanizing effect.”
It galvanized the underground clubs where Condry conducted his research, using the tools of ethnography: observation and immersion. Condry arrived at the music clubs just before midnight, when hip hop artists began their live shows. He would stay until five in the morning when the clubs closed. The next night, he’d do it again. “It was fun for about three weeks,” Condry joked. “Then it became work.” Condry recalls that his best interviews happened between 3 and 4am. “The live show was over and people had already talked with their friends,” he said. “It was then that they’d talk to me.” After building relationships with artists and producers, Condry began to observe recording sessions and studio meetings. He was impressed by the sheer amount of labor that went into cultural production. “Artists would spend hours in the studio,” he said, “at times, repeating a single phrase hundreds of times to make sure it was right.”
Condry published his findings on Japanese hip hop in a series of articles, which culminated in his book Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke University Press, 2006). From there, he turned his attention to Japanese animation – anime. If hip hop travelled from “the U.S. to Japan,” Condry said, “anime goes from Japan to the world.” One of the factors that inspired Condry to look at anime was his classes. “Anime mattered to my students,” he said. In fact, many students enrolled in his classes because of an interest in Japanese popular culture. “That was not true when I was studying Japanese language,” Condry said. “Then, most students were aspiring business people, studying economics.” Condry’s students introduced him to specific anime programs, as well as the practice of translating dialogue for homemade subtitles, or fansubbing. “It blew my mind,” Condry said. “I thought this was going to transform television.”
Like hip hop, anime was a labor-intensive art form. Drawing each frame of film was a herculean task. In his Japanese culture class, Condry asks his students to construct a thirty-second animation at a bare bones three frames per second. “That’s ninety drawings,” he said. The assignment gives students a sense of the amount of work that goes into creating a full-length animated picture.
“Anime takes collaborative creativity,” Condry said. “It takes an army of people.” Because of the level of labor that goes into a finished film, it is difficult for an animated picture to recoup its investment. “It is remarkable it is still being done, given how little money is likely to come out of it,” Condry said. “Anime is sustained by a kind of creative, collective energy.” This energy – the “soul” Condry refers to in the title of his forthcoming book The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Duke University Press, fall 2012) – comes both from animators and from their dedicated fan community. Many studies of animation focus on the technological achievement. Condry took a different approach. “What I saw from the technology side in my research was animators sitting and working, for hours.” For Condry, this shifted the emphasis away from the media form and onto the people that created it. “Media connects people,” Condry said. “Rather than looking from people into the media object, let’s look out from the media object to the people interacting with it.” Anime engenders a collaborative enthusiasm in its fans and producers, inspiring them to spread it from Japan to the world. In a sense, Condry says, “anime is almost more of a platform than a content object, only we don’t think of it that way because it is encompassed within an industry.” Anime provides an interface for people to interact and create a collaborative, social movement.
Condry’s interest in media and social movements has led him to a new project on social media. “The CD no more defines music than Facebook defines social media,” he said. “Rather than thinking in terms of communicative technologies, I prefer looking at how music and social media operate as platforms for collective participation.” Condry hopes to conduct an ethnographic study of “big data,” including companies that mine social media sites. “How do organizations create data that has social value?” he asks. His research will integrate themes from his earlier work, including cross-cultural innovation and social movements. In addition to his future research, Condry is looking forward to CMS’s reorganization and working with the new cohort of graduate students. He will be co-teaching Media Theory and Methods with faculty member Nick Montfort this semester.
“It’s an exciting time at CMS,” Condry says.