Transcultural Fandom: Japanese Fans of HK Stars

A review of Some of Us are Looking at the Stars: Japanese Women, Hong Kong Films, and Transcultural Fandom, by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto.

Lori Hitchcock Morimoto’s dissertation looks at the Japanese female fans of Hong Kong stars from the late 1980s to late 1990s, providing a rich insight into the pre-Internet days of fandom that is often overlooked in current fan studies texts. Utilizing materials such as fan-produced dōjinshi (fanzines), fan letters to popular magazines, film festival programs as well as her own fandom of Hong Kong film stars, Morimoto takes the reader through the notion of pleasure and fan transnational subjectivities that Japanese female fans derive from their fandoms of Hong Kong film stars like Jackie Chan and Leslie Cheung, as well as auteur directors of urban romances like Wong Kar-Wai and Peter Chan.

Morimoto’s perspective also points to a growing interest in the field to bolster fan studies beyond that of its North American and British heritage to include East Asian popular culture texts and how the fandoms of these texts cross cultural – and national – boundaries. The development of media technologies has often been credited with how these texts travel across national borders, but in this case, we are reminded that digital technologies such as the VHS, VCDs and DVDs also play a part in facilitating the cultivation of transcultural fandom. More importantly, Lorimoto argues for the move away from the emphasis on the transnational which tells us little about what attracts and motivates fans to become enamored with certain texts or film stars, to the transcultural, which affords fans more space beyond merely the national or political to reflect and articulate on their own cultural consumption.

In the introduction, Morimoto sets up the scene by remarking on the discomfort with which both mass media and academia consider the figure of the female fan, to the point where there is a lack of discourse which takes female fandoms seriously. As Morimoto argues, female fans “are ‘scandalously visible’, ‘make too much money’, ‘push girlish behaviour to extremes’, possess ‘out-of-control’ bodies, and ‘do what they want to do’” (p. 5). In the East Asian context, the work of Japanese cultural theorist Koichi Iwabuchi is influential, and within the framework of East Asian transcultural fandom, Iwabuchi’s study on Japanese female fandom of Hong Kong stars in the 1990s remains authoritative. Iwabuchi criticised female fans’ “unreflexive, and even deluded consumption of male Hong Kong stars [as] ‘patently mediated’, arising not from authentic engagement with Hong Kong culture, but rather ‘from their desire to prove their modish and sophisticated taste’” (pp. 6-7). Therefore, for Iwabuchi, female fans remain “cultural dupes” who are indiscriminately consuming media products that are transnationally circulated by media conglomerates, often supported by governments who are capitalizing on the influence of “soft power” to promote a specific ideology or an “ideal” culture transnationally. However, Morimoto argues that Iwabuchi’s arguments stem from “his broader research of pan-East Asian media circulation and consumption” (p. 8), and thus, do not offer a near-enough complete view of female fandom practices which is often complex. This is also problematic as (female) fandom is continually divided into “good” and “bad” dichotomy, where the “good” scholarship of fandom is concerned with its “sociopolitical implications” and the “bad” merely with its “affective meanings and pleasures” (p. 11). Morimoto’s own experiences as a fan, her encounters with fan-produced materials and interaction with fellow fans in Japan in the 1990s indicate a more complex fan subjectivity than that suggested by Iwabuchi.

The popularity of Hong Kong stars in Japan has often been attributed to the notion of cultural proximity, where fans find these stars to be more accessible compared to Western ones. This is particularly evident in the way martial arts star Jackie Chan is marketed in Japan, where fans are invited to imagine an imaginary relationship with him through the production of a book Chan supposedly authored which shows his “soft” side, argues Morimoto in Chapter 1. The book “Okurimono walked a fine line between courting fans and seeking to contain their desire” (p. 45). But the mainstream popularity of Chan’s comedic martial arts films, along with kyonshī (Chinese vampire) movies led to the belief that films coming out of Hong Kong are kitschy. This is not necessarily the case for Japanese female fans of Hong Kong cinema and its stars, as Morimoto argues. The decline in cinema spectatorship in the 1980s led to the rise of mini-theaters in Japan, which gave way for other films, such as those that prominently feature Hong Kong’s urban landscape as a place for romance, made popular by films of Wong Kar-Wai, Peter Chan and Fruit Chan. Independent film distributor, Prénom H, for example, aligns Hong Kong cinema with Western art films. The female fans who are attracted to these films are presented as young, professional and urban with high disposable incomes to indulge in their fandoms (such as traveling to Hong Kong or collecting paraphernalia associated with the star), which Morimoto identifies as an “internationalist fandom” (p. 77), enabling the “women a way of talking about their fandom that was immune to outside criticism, and when effectively deployed, cast fans in a vaguely progressive, feminist light. For these women, the Hong Kong they discover circuitously through Hong Kong cinema is…a ‘new self’” (ibid.).

In Chapter 2, Morimoto explores this notion of female fandom further by employing Matt Hills’ work on the transcultural homology. “This homology, he argues, ‘is not imposed by forces of globalisation, even if it may relate to forces and tension of late capitalism’. Rather, Hills suggests that homological structures may interpellate fans across cultures in ways that both operate through and exceed the intentions of media industries” (p. 101). For Japanese female fans of Hong Kong cinema, this is present through a familiarity with transnational industrial practices and cultural proximity, which heightens a sense of recognition and intimacy for fans. Some of the fans that Morimoto featured recall that Japanese stars are often inattentive to their affections, and interactions are always formal as opposed to Hong Kong stars, whose marketing strategies often include a certain sense of “Japanification” through the use of language or dress. The rise of VCD technology and its prominence in the home, Morimoto argues, also abetted the popularity and reach of Hong Kong stars. VHS and VCD rental attract female viewers as they are able to consume their favorite stars and texts within a domestic setting, thus elevating the notion of intimacy. The consumption of Hong Kong films through VCDs also led to these women adopting some Chinese terminology (including nicknames assigned to the stars in Hong Kong by fans and the media), further cementing their fan identities.

This fan identity is also performed through the production of transformative works, “creative works about characters or settings created by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators” such as fanzines or dōjinshi, of which Morimoto goes on to explore in Chapter 3 (p. 154). The dōjinshi is a form of female fan production common in Japan, and its use of language (adopting some Chinese terminology in this case) and geography (Hong Kong) are used to construct a space that reinforces women’s fan subjectivities. In this space, fans make use of their “exhaustive familiarity with the star personae in order to transform [the stars] along more meaningful lines within a fannish context” (p. 166). They are neither Japanese nor Chinese, Morimoto argues, “but exist as an amalgam of both in a potential space where fans can experience an intensified intimacy with them” (ibid.). Morimoto also explores the Japanese fan practice of “okkake (lit. following)…[that] typically translated as ‘star-chasing’, but which in fact encompasses activities ranging from ‘roke’ (film location) pilgrimages to concert attendance to attempts to make actual contact with stars” (pp. 170-171). While these fans are often targets of media campaigns for being excessive, Morimoto argues that “the ways in which both Hong Kong cinema and its stars inhabit the physical Hong Kong make it an ideal locus for okkake activity, fostering not only an imagined, but the appearance of a ‘real’ intimacy with Hong Kong stars” (p. 183). This practice also reinforces an understanding of how fans understand Hong Kong and its ordinary inhabitants.

In the conclusion, Morimoto reflects that her emphasis in this dissertation has overwhelmingly been on Japanese women’s fandom of Hong Kong cinema and its stars, and moving forward, more attention could be directed towards the Japanese and Hong Kong film industries, and how these industries negotiate and engage with (if at all) a pan-Asian regional audience. This is nevertheless an important piece of work that begins to interrogate not only the assumed universality of fan cultural theory popularized by Henry Jenkins, but of Koichi Iwabuchi’s generalized approach to fandom. In short, Iwabuchi’s view on fans overlooks the complexity of the fan subject and the various fan practices, and fan studies that informs the West does not account for the complex cultural and social relationships of the fans and transnational texts. This dissertation is a good starting point for anyone who is interested in the concept of transcultural fandom, where the voice of the fan is acknowledged through Morimoto’s use of fan-produced materials.

Bertha Chin
Independent Scholar, UK
bertha.chin@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Fan-produced fanzines (dōjinshi)
Fan letters
Film festival programmes

Dissertation Information

Indiana University, Indiana. 2011. 236 pp. Primary Advisor: Barbara Klinger.

Image: Wong Kar-wai. Wikimedia Commons.

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