Brent Newhall takes anime seriously. In fact, he is trying to raise money on Kickstarter to host the Otaku Brain Trust Convention, a convention intended to study anime in an academic matter. Newhall hopes to raise $5375 for the convention set for February 19-21, 2016 in Leesburg, Virginia, USA. The funding period ends on July 16. Some of the panelists’ work to be presented include The Work of Hideaki Anno, Harry Potter vs. Spike Spiegel: Comparing Mythic Tropes in Japan and the West, among others. Visit the Kickstarter page here if you want to attend the convention or if you are just interested in raising funds for the cause.
Newhall was kind enough to discuss his passion for anime, the reasons he thinks it should be seriously studied, and why he is a renaissance man.
When did you first become interested in anime?
My favorite as a kid was Voltron: Defender of Universe. I didn’t know it was anime at the time. Then the ScyFy channel stared showing the Festival of Anime in mid 90s. When I was about 20 years old, I bought my first anime series, Tenchi Muyo volume 1 box set, just before I got my wisdom teeth pulled. I quickly finished that and thought, “I have to buy more of this stuff.”
When did you first start viewing anime as potential scholarly material?
Six or seven years ago. I’ve been going to Otakon (in Baltimore) since 2001 on and off. After attending panels and hearing how they analyzed anime, I thought, ‘I can do that.’
What distinguishes an important, academic, or analysis-worthy anime from a standard run of the mill anime?
I think almost anything can be studied. It depends what you’re trying to analyze. Even One Piece or Naruto can be studied, because you’re analyzing how it is told as a media. At the very least, you can study basically any work as an adaptation (many anime are adapted rom manga or light novels). However, the shows aimed at younger kids don’t have much to analyze. Shows for adults definitely tackle more political or social themes.
What do you hope to ultimately accomplish at the Otaku Brain Trust Convention?
(1) I want to provide a regularly repeating forum, where people who write and analyze these things can meet up with fans. (2) I also want to provide a platform for those panelists to get their materials out to the world. A lot of this content is usually presented at 10 p.m. at some convention somewhere with no video camera. It’s done and it happened, but one ever knows about it. At the Otaku Brain Trust, I want to record the panels and release them afterwards.
Have you presented on anime academically before at conferences?
I’ve been doing it at Otakon for years; I presented at Katscon and Anime USA a couple of times. One topic I talk about is called “A Brief History of Anime.” It details how anime has evolved in the 20th and 21st century. Another one is on obscure anime and why some of these shows are still interesting.
Do you hope the Otaku Brain Trust can become a yearly event?
Yes. I’ve traveled around to conferences, and it’s hard to be willing to spend money to fly out somewhere to do one or two panels. Travel costs can be significant.
Do you have a favorite anime?
I do not have a favorite. Just as there are so many different anime to analyze for so many different reasons, there are so many different shows to like for so many different reasons. Techi Muyo definitely got me into anime; it hits me on multiple levels. For a while, Serial Experiments Lain is what I would call my favorite anime; it has so many different layers to it.
Approximately how many anime series have you seen?
Including not completed, 800.
When you’re not watching or studying anime, what do you do?
Everything. I have a wall of manga to read, four 3D printers, a drone, and my Google Glass. I love doing techy stuff. I also program, I like to cook and garden; I’m something of a renaissance man.
Have you noticed more people beginning to see anime as serious work opposed to just seeing it as entertainment?
In general, yes. I think with the help of things like Mechademia (a scholarly journal about anime and manga), it’s got many people talking about it. We’re seeing more fan panels at conventions dealing with subjects that are not at the most obvious level. Five to ten years ago, panels were having discussions about why Evangelion is dark. The conversation goes deeper now.
Why do you think anime should be seriously studied?
I think so many things can be seriously studied. There’s such a wide variety of anime out there that targets so any demographics. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in post-modern anime works that critique anime on some level, such as Madoka Magica, Fractale, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. These shows analyze why anime is the way it is. That is certainly a rich vein for mining.
There is also lots of material for discussion that help to shine a light on and analyze the differences between Japanese and American culture. For example, in Ghost in the Shell, Section 9 is a reference to a samurai group in the 1860’s. That is something Americans would probably not understand.
How do you convince people that anime can be scholarly-worthy and get them to see beyond the industry’s stereotypes of super violence and over-sexualization?
Part of that is choice of material, because we can analyze shows that are not violent or sexual. A perfect example is Miyazaki’s work. In general, you can’t convince anyone of anything. But you can at least provide a voice. It’s about looking past content on the surface, such as violence or panty shots, to see the themes, elements and deeper veins to mine.
Is there a good starting point for newcomers looking to study anime as academic material?
Ghost in the Shell, because every show in the series has some socio-political message; there is always something deeper going on. Also, it’s close enough to modern times to have relevant ties to what were dealing with now.
Do you have a favorite anime director?
Akitaro Diachi. I love his works because he executes a specific premise and he always treats it seriously. For example, in Kodocha, he deals with bullying in an elementary setting, dealing with divorce, and other aspects of childhood life. He will execute the project and find interesting things in a premise, no matter what.
What anime do you enjoy talking about most?
Gundam, partially because there’s not enough spoken about it. Now and Then, Here and There is another one, if you can find someone else who’s watched it. I also enjoy bringing Evangelion down a peg. A lot of people think it’s the most original thing ever. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a remarkable achievement, but it is useful to explain why and how it was made, and show people how to put anime like that in context.
It’s useful to understand all anime in context.
Cowboy Bebop is fun as well, particularly because it is a very Western show.
How do you avoid burnout in watching so much anime?
Stop watching just new anime. I’ll watch something recent, then from 2000s, 90s, and 80s. I’ll try to take something away from those given eras at a certain time. If you understand why the trends exist in a certain era of anime, you can be more comfortable and see why the patterns are there. You have the advantage of history, so you don’t have to filter and churn through everything yourself; that’s been done for you.
Anything else you want to say about the Otaku Anime Brain Trust Convention?
We’re trying to get as much interest as possible and make the convention available to everyone. If you can’t make it, pledge so we can get the videos out there. The reality in financing a convention is there are a lot of fixed costs.
We’re fans too. We’re doing this on the most shoestring budget so that you guys can be part of this as well.