Thursday, October 1, 2015

Crazy Thunder Road: A Critical Review with Spoilers

The spoilers start pretty much immediately.

My favourite poster for the film, though I don't exactly think it accurately portrays it's contents.
Any time someone mentions the words “Japanese”, “bikers”, “1980’s”, “Japan”, “movie”, and “Sogo Ishii” in the same sentence I get excited and have to watch whatever it is they’re talking about. Indeed, I tried my hardest to watch this film, but alas it’s one of those rare pieces that no one, not even those rapidly disappearing fabulous hipster/niche video stores seems to have. In any case I finally got my hands on it and with subtitles to boot and it was pretty good.

Sogo Ishii’s Crazy Thunder Road (CTR) seems pretty crazy. On the surface it’s about a bike gang in Japan in the “near future” (circa 1980), which breaks up because its boss wants to settle down with his best girl. The gang splinters into two factions. There’s a bunch of other bike gangs which make a union/confederacy of bike gangs and one of the two factions doesn’t like the union/confederacy so they try to fight everyone. But then these militant ultra-nationalists dressed like imperial army soldiers come and try to teach the upstart faction the values of being “real” Japanese manly men and self-control and all that. And then the boss of the faction becomes a loose-cannon and gets all this cool armor and stuff and fights everyone with guns and things. The battle leaves him seemingly mortally wounded and he rides off into the sunset on his bike to face an unknown future (I still don’t think I “spoiled” this movie; don’t you just want to see it more now?)

Now, when I watch films that have ridiculous story-lines and characters, yet reference numerous social issues, angst, frustration and politics like CTR I tend to rather quickly assume it’s meant to be an allegory for something rather than merely an insane foray into absurdity. I learned in school that you can and often should read into everything (within reason, I mean there is only so much time in the day) because just about any piece of material culture will have significant traces of the environment in which it was produced — it’s how things become “of the time” so to speak (like mullets and terrible mustaches became of the mid 1980’s in North America).

Certainly CTR works on its own as an amusing and action filled bit of bike-gang themed malarkey from Japan, but even Japanese malarkey comes from somewhere. I think the key to understanding this movie is to take a look at what was happening in Japan between the late 1970’s early 80’s as that’s when the film was produced and eventually released.

The league/union/conglomerate of bike gangs holding one of Jin's team hostage.
In 1976 Japan signed a friendship agreement with Australia. Okay. . .  

In 1977 Megumi Yakota was kidnapped by North Korea and there was a U.S. military plane crash in Yokohama. Furthermore, the Fukuda doctrine, named after former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), became a big part of Japanese foreign policy. It essentially stated that Japan would never become a military power and that they would do their best to get along with rest of Asia, all peachy-like. I think we’re getting somewhere here. . .

In 1978 Japan signed a treaty of “peace and friendship” with China which is very significant because if you know anything about modern Japanese history, you’ll know Japan did some pretty nasty things in China before and during WWII (and that’s putting it lightly — like saying the holocaust was “pretty awful”). There was also a fairly devastating earthquake.

1979 was a bit more eventful in the realm of politics. There was a general election and Fukuda’s successor was chosen as the LDP was once again voted in and Masayoshi Ohira took office marking the ninth consecutive win for the LDP in a span of twenty years. In other news, the fifth G7 summit was held in Tokyo and mysteriously a Boeing 707 jet disappeared over Japanese waters. In 1980 Sogo Ishii released Crazy Thunder Road.

Jin with a "bag of drugs" being recruited by the nationalists.
What was the point of all those seemingly random bits of history? Well if we combine some of these and mix them together with a pinch of historical context and a nominal dose of critical inquiry we can tell that Japan seemed to be wrestling with their militant past, perhaps trying to make amends with the countries they had tried to colonize prior to the war. One can imagine as well that by 1980 there were still a fairly large number of veterans who had fought in or people who had at least lived through WWII who would have grown up in a very different Japan than the youth of the liberally dominated (as far as politics were concerned) 70’s and 80’s. It was also likely this generation that made up the majority of the politicians at that time. Another tidbit was that in the 70’s and 80’s Japanese cultural commentators and academics were doing their utmost to promote Japanese culture locally and abroad through a body of literature often called nihonjinron (which translates roughly to “theories about the Japanese”). These works boasted a number of sub-genres and covered various topics as history, culture — both traditional and contemporary, the arts — visual, performant etc., environmentalism and civics to, just to name a few.

Of course we also can’t forget that the 70’s and 80’s saw unprecedented growth in the Japanese economy, the effects of which can even be felt in the pop-culture of the United States, manifested in such notable movies as Bladerunner and Diehard.

One can infer from the above bits of history that what Japan was really wrestling with at this point in time was most likely national identity. It had gone from being the “modern” colonial force in Asia, to war-torn poverty and after years of development, was able to once more sit at the “leaders of international business” table. Japan was sitting pretty. However, in order to attract foreign investors, tourism, and all that great stuff, Japanese policymakers had to craft a new identity — one that was far removed from the fascist, militant and xenophobic Japanese empire leading up to and during the war-years. What took place then was a struggle to both come to terms with the past and/or bury it, which many individuals attempted to do in various creative ways (nihonjinron was one of those ways). I believe it is this struggle of identity that Crazy Thunder Road is attempting to represent. However, with this film, Sogo Ishii is not so much advocating one identity over the other, but instead illustrating the plight of the Japanese subject caught in between.

Jin and his boys being trained up.
The main character Jin, played by Tatsuo Yamada is a discontented youth. He is frustrated with his boss’s decision to disband his gang for what many would describe as a more stable and benign life with his girlfriend — soon to be wife. His boss wishes to settle down for a life that is generally considered to be ideal, safe, and even smart. Jin’s boss explains to his former gang that other bike gangs in the area are coming together to form a league of sorts and that if they wish to continue being bikers, they should join up. However, Jin sees this as a cowardly act and instead opts to take the other members of the gang who share his views and make an independent splinter group. This group carries on wreaking havoc on other bike gangs until they eventually come up against “the league” and at that point it’s three against . . . well a lot.

Going out on a limb you could say that “the league” could represent “modern liberal Japan” or at least the “new” identity of it. A place where people are expected to act as individuals within a larger communal framework, which might’ve been thought to be a stark contrast from the unity and uniformity of the imperial age. The bike gangs in the league are recognized as belonging to specific gangs yet they essentially operate as a conglomerate (there could be a commentary on Japanese business culture in there too!). Unsurprisingly Jin and his friends are utterly defeated by the league but right when it looks like they won’t come out alive these ultranationalists, who had previously approached Jin’s gang to form a truce, show up and volunteer to take the remaining three members of Jin’s gang under their wing to train them up as “proper Japanese men”, military style.

Jin and nationalists get harassed by bikers as they hand out nationalistic flyers.
At this point the bike gang story gets momentarily derailed as Jin and his compatriots are shown attending indoctrination classes, performing military drills complete with uniforms and rifles reminiscent of the imperial army and handing out fliers and yelling nationalist slogans on street corners to passers-by (people still do this in parts of Japan today). This would appear to reference the imperial/militant identity of the past. The militants believe that Japan’s youth have become weak and wayward and the only way to get them “back on track” is fierce discipline and national loyalty through military-style training.

Essentially the duality is a liberally regulated subjectivity vs. a militant nationalist uniformity and Jin and his entourage are stuck in the middle — perhaps representing the modern Japanese subject caught between these two disparate, yet still recognizably “Japanese” identities. Furthermore, the leader of the nationalists ends up having a homosexual relationship with the youngest of Jin’s gang. A comment on the masculine-gendered identity of nationalism and militarism? Certainly seems plausible. In fact gender is a rather interesting element of this film as there is really only one woman in the main cast — the former boss’s wife, who eventually leaves him because, by settling down, he has become vapid and bereft of that motorcycle gangster fire and rebelliousness which attracted her to him in the first place. I feel like there’s some subtext here as well that could be sussed out. At any rate, because of the lack of female presence the story comes across as a kind foolish battle of machismo in which just about everyone loses.

By the end of the film Jin opts to rebel against both groups, taking arms with the help of a strange elderly mechanic and a young child and turns the urban/industrial sprawl, so often framed in the film, into a battle zone. By the end of the film he is mortally wounded, yet has enough strength to climb onto his bike and drive away to whatever future awaits him. By this he manages to keep his own identity intact, and in fact creates a new one. Jin’s driving off into the wilderness could be seen as the emergence of a new subjectivity — one that does not identify with the fascist past nor the purportedly liberal present.

In the end Jin decides to fight everyone with only the help of a bazooka wielding mechanic and a dynamite wielding kid.
Whether or not this was Sogo Ishii’s (A.K.A Gakuryu Ishii’s) intent with his film is rather difficult to discern without speaking to him directly, however, he’s always been something of a rebel in Japanese film and I feel like it goes without saying that his films are open to interpretation and in fact, beg to be interpreted (though I suppose the same could be said about any film). Even if the interpretation I have made here is not exactly what was intended, the socio-political environment in which this film was made is extremely noticeable and must be considered in any such interpretation. What I can say with any certainty that this is commentary. Pretty fun commentary too.

Also, even if you don’t care about all that stuff (you should though), it’s still an interesting film and I think considering all this stuff while watching it just makes it even better. In any case, Crazy Thunder Road is a great absurd gangster flick as well as a wild social commentary of Japan in the 1980’s and certainly worth your time if you are at all interested in Japan. The cinematography is gritty and amateurish with lots of shaky cam and close-ups sometimes giving it a documentary feel. The action is. . . frustrating as well — bullets are fired but often miss, punches are thrown wildly and sporadically but do not make obvious or satisfactory contact. Perhaps this too was intended. The music is also great — featuring vintage Japanese rock. 

Jin rides off into the proverbial sunset.
In any case, you don’t have to be an East Asian Studies specialist like me to enjoy this film. But chances are if you’ve gotten to this point in this post, you’ve already seen it. Anyway, I hope this was interesting for you.  


Monday, July 13, 2015

The Cry of the Self-entitled Expat

Hello Friends!

The following post is on a topic I've been wanting to write about for years and so I have a lot of pent up feelings about this stuff that I’m about to unleash in torrents. I apologise for the massive waterfall of writing that will ensue.

Also, I think it might be prudent to explain that when I say “expats” in this post, I’m referring to people who by their own free will moved to Korea for a prolonged period of time to teach English or try to run a business, because they thought it would be neat, interesting or something new. This excludes refugees or people assigned to work in Korea by their respective governments or international companies etc.   

Tourist map of Itaewon. I refer to it jokingly as "the foreign quarter" or "Toronto/New York town" 
The other day I was reading this article that I found on my Facebook news feed from The Korea Observer about life in South Korea by a certain Laura, no last-name, who identifies as “not a Russian prostitute”. From what I could discern from the article, Laura is an expat and English teacher in South Korea who resides in Seoul’s Itaewon district, essentially the expat Mecca of that city. She has been living in South Korea for ten years and is married to a Korean man. The title of Laura’s article is “Korean Etiquette Equates to mine, mine, mine!” and is a long and searing article denouncing her perceived “selfishness of Korean people” in her everyday life as an expat living and working in South Korea. Laura is sick of the way people push in the subways, sick of how drunken middle-aged men resort to fisticuffs in bars, sick of having to get Korean owned cars towed when they block her from backing out of her own house, and sick of being mistaken as a Russian prostitute when she’s out with her husband (apparently this happens a lot to her). You can read it here. I encourage you to at least glance over it before reading the rest (though I will be using excerpts from it).

While I can certainly understand and empathise with a number of her misgivings, the title of her article is already a gross generalization and immediately reeks of cultural superiority — in other words, its racist. Still, I’m not here to lambaste an article written by someone who refuses to expose even her last name (possibly because she recognizes the problematic stance her own article takes). No, I mean who knows she might have been depressed or particularly frustrated when we she wrote this vehement piece, humans are volatile, whatever. What I’m here to address is just how similar her rant is to myriad other bellyaching sessions I’ve endured from expats during my time in South Korea and out both online and in person in just about equal measure.

During my time in South Korea if I had a dime for every time I’d been surreptitiously nudged by another expat in a bar followed by some quip about how rude Koreans supposedly are I’d be rich. If had a nickel for every time I’d been in a bar frequented by foreigners and offered some juicy nugget of heavily biased criticism of “the people in this country” by some semi-intoxicated non-Korean smoker out front I’d be even richer. Likewise if I had a quarter for every blog post or YouTube video that gets published like this Laura person than I’d be a bloody billionaire. Still to illustrate my problems with these “confessions” I’ll be analysing Laura’s article as a framework.

I've actually had this problem.
The first problem with Laura’s article that I hear all too often from other expats as well is gross-generalization. Laura speaks of Koreans collectively, she makes numerous blanket statements, such gems as “Koreans still do not seem deterred in parking illegally wherever it suits them” or it is sad that the government had to enact a law in order for Koreans to gain some degree of social consciousness” or “My personal theory is that Koreans do not care much about people with whom they have not been formally introduced.” Or better yet:

“As an expat who has lived in Korea for almost 10 years, I can tell you that I used to hope that Koreans would progress as a society in terms of social consciousness and general manners. That change, unfortunately, has yet to fully materialize.” 

These are only a few of the instances in which Koreans are referred to as a faceless, uncivilized collective, as an “other”. At several times in the article Laura recounts stories of rude drunken businessmen or college girls blocking the streets as they walk in gaggles. Never mind that these problems are prevalent in just about any major city on the face of the earth (which leads me to suspect Laura is not originally from a large city herself), to Laura, Koreans are just exceptionally rude and socially unconscious. To this extent her article reads like the diaries of traders and colonialists of the 18th century telling stories of successfully navigating the Strait of Magellan in stormy weather only to encounter “curious savages” with “backward ways”, especially with statements like “Koreans have only just recently become aware of basic hygiene through the events of the MERS crisis.” (Seriously?)

To make this even more problematic she indicates that she is in fact married to a Korean man. She does not make any effort to explain where he fits into this “society of rudeness”, is he the exception? Does he share her views that Korea is a socially stunted nation? She never says, for all we know he could be an expat himself (she says he’s Korean, but what does that actually mean?). Does she believe that being married to a Korean man allows her to make crass and sweeping statements about a complex cultural space and the individuals that reside in it?  

The problem here is that to suggest that Koreans are “doing it wrong” would suggest that “it”, whatever “it” is, is being done right elsewhere. She quotes Japan and America as being better in this respect.

“on a recent visit to Tokyo I discovered that the Japanese, despite having a similar population density, manage to ambulate in a much more organized manner. In fact, in my three-day visit, not once did I find my way blocked. While the Japanese walk on the left, and Americans walk on the right, both methods allow pedestrians to reach their destinations in a time-efficient manner. Why do Koreans not yet grasp this concept? Anyone who has played the daily game of sidewalk zig-zag knows well that much time and energy is wasted trying to navigate the typical Korean street.”      
The proof is in the pudding here. Laura cites Japan as being a good example of order and efficiency in its similarity to America and does not understand why Koreans “have not yet grasped this concept”. 

I admit this is greatly simplifying the problem, but I feel there is an air of truth here.
Laura has spent ten years in Korea and therefore it is possible that she has visited Japan multiple times. However it is evident that she has never lived there. 

From experience I can tell you that urban Japan certainly does have a cleaner image and more orderly society in many respects, but, as many Japanese folks both young and old have confessed to me, this comes at the high cost of individual expression and wide-spread social anxiety and frustration (ever wonder why the suicide rate is so high in Tokyo?) (Incidentally it’s also high in Seoul for many of the same reasons). What is problematic about Laura’s argument here is that she is comparing Seoul, the place she lives in, to Japan, a place she’s only seen in passing, and she’s doing so insofar as it resembles America.

At this point I believe that it is safe to assume that Laura is American herself, though I admit it’s never really safe to assume anything. Still what she is positing here is cultural superiority — America and Japan are similar in that “they’re doing it right”, Korea however, “is doing it wrong”. I’ll admit that at times, walking down the streets of Seoul can be an exercise in twitch reflexes but to posit that it is “the wrong way to be” is condescending and problematic. You’re allowed to not like it, but it is poor form to assume that it is intrinsically wrong. Again echoes of colonial literature and imperialist undertones abound whether she means it or not.

Condescending arguments like these are something I have heard all too often from expats living in Korea while I was over there and it is something I continue to read about in articles such as Laura’s: “Korea is backward”, “they don’t get it”, “they’re stuck in the past”, “they’re nationalists”, “they’re racists”, “they’re too conservative”, “they’re too short-sighted”, “too collectivist”, “too xenophobic”. While many of these are issues that are prevalent and problematic in South Korea which should and likely will change, the way these issues are often expressed by expats forgoes any critical inquiry. Too few times have I witnessed expats seeking reasons for these social phenomena, too few times have I encountered expats attempting to engage Korean society critically and meaningfully, not simply content to point out its “flaws” but actually seeking answers as to why these “flaws” exist in the first place.

So. . . there are a lot of expat memes. I have used them in order to illustrate that I'm not alone  in my frustration.
Laura makes a few references to Korea’s politics and long history showing that she is at least aware that there is in fact a history to be considered. However, many of her references are of things any tourist could read about in a travel brochure, the glorious linguistic exploits of King Seijong the Great of Joseon (credited as being the progenitor of Korean script) is one she mentions specifically. She talks about the conservative Saenuri party, so she knows a thing or two about local politics. For all I know, Laura might be well-versed in Korean history, she may understand perfectly why South Korea is the way it is, but if she does, she opted to omit any such information or critical inquiry in her article, and this is echoed all too often by her contemporaries. What I’m asking here is that, if these issues really bother you so much, is it not perfectly sensible to assume you might feel the need to inquire as to their origins?

Incidentally and speaking of Seijong and Korean language, the way she talks about language is another point of interest for me as I believe it implies that she herself does not speak Korean, at least to the point of being able to hold a conversation. At one point she describes an altercation she witnessed in a bar with her husband:

“after several minutes we sense a marked shift in the mood of these older men. First the swearing commences with notable curses ‘Gae-ssaeki and ship-saekki.’ Then an empty bottle of soju flies across the room.”

I find it interesting that she highlights the swear-words without even a bit of conjecture about what they might’ve been arguing about. Most expats can identify Korean swears as they are usually among the first bits of Korean they pick up. Certainly a drunken altercation would be full of slurring and raised voices making it difficult to discern, but that she speaks of no other part of the altercation leads me to suspect she might have been incapable of understanding it linguistically. This is of course conjecture, Laura might be fluent in Korean, but I’d be quick to wager that the majority of expats echoing her grievances are not. In fact my own experience has been very telling of this reality.

I found this reddit by accident. Look! People drawing direct correlations between learning Korean and their quality of life in Korea! I didn't even have to search that hard!
If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed while talking to expats residing in South Korea, who are most vehment in there criticisms of the country, is that the majority of them, especially those working as English teachers lack proficiency in the Korean language. Now, I understand life is full of obligations, and learning a language, especially Korean is no walk in the park, so I suppose it might be insensitive and unrealistic of me to expect everyone who’s interested in working in a country that does not speak their native language to learn the local dialect. Still, at the very least you should understand the limitations inherent in this choice. While many Koreans, even those who have not studied abroad can speak at least a lick of English, especially the younger generations, most cannot carry a complex conversation about feelings, history, or social grievances in a way that would satisfy them.

All too many expats in Korea that I’ve met are content with speaking their native language, confining the majority of their social pass-times to Itaewon, where you can spend entire evenings in foreign pubs without hearing a lick of the vernacular and only venturing into “Korea proper” when they have to or want to experience “something different”. Thus they succeed in keeping Korea at a “safe distance” even within its own borders! They don’t study Korean, nor have any serious plans to and wonder why they are being marginalized and excluded in the country they have decided to work in.
All this while having the gall to approach me, perhaps imagining me a comrade by virtue of my Anglo-Saxon features (I’m white), and unleashing a torrent of verbal diarrhea about how some “stupid clerk” at a GS25 couldn’t understand what smokes they were asking for by virtue of their shoddy Korean vocabulary which in the five years they’ve spent in the country, can’t seem to make time to improve.

Look, I know Korean is hard, I’ve had my own trials and tribulations studying the language, but if you choose not to learn it while residing in Korea, understand that you are severely crippling yourself. Here’s some perspective. Let’s say you’re from New York and you meet a Korean guy whose been living there for eight years and speaks ten words of English. He constantly complains about how New Yorkers are kind of shitty because they tend to ignore or avoid talking to him (provided they don’t speak Korean themselves, which is most New Yorkers I imagine). What would you think of this guy? You’d probably think that he’s being kind of unreasonable. Maybe you’d like to ask him “how do you expect to meaningfully connect with New Yorkers if you can’t speak English?” Well, in my experience this is essentially what way too many expats in Korea are doing.

It’s just kind of asinine to sit around and complain about how rude, dismissive and exclusionary Koreans are if you don’t speak their bloody language and thus lack the necessary tools that would allow you to interact with them on any meaningful level as individuals (unless they do speak English, I mean a lot of them do, but the majority do not). This stands true for every country in the world that has a dominant language. If you go work in China and you can only talk to small fraction of the population because you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s not the fault of the Chinese people. It’s yours.

Languages aside, if you’re going to spend any extended period of time in another country doing anything at all, and you don’t do any research on that country beforehand, than you’re setting yourself up for hard times ahead. This Laura, seems to be suffering from prolonged culture-shock, ten years of it in fact, which is pretty weird. Albeit there is a huge difference between reading about culture and experiencing it, but considering she’s been leaving there for ten years, I’m kind of surprised she chose to write this article now, which is why I suspect maybe she just had a bad week. Still, maybe I’m not surprised.

I'm actually really glad someone made this meme. Itaewon is, in a lot of respects, the Mos Eisley of Seoul. (I don't hate Itaewon by the way). 
After reading her article I imagine this Laura person as someone who lives out most of her Korean life in Itaewon, once a “camp town” where poor or disenfranchised Korean women would prostitute themselves to American servicemen; now a space in Korea where non-Koreans are the norm and one can easily get a good burger and a pint wherever they go. She does most of her shopping here so if she has a question she can ask in English, her cellphone provider is down the street with service available in flawless English, she drinks in European/American style pubs that line the streets with white waiters and bartenders or at least Korean bartenders who are able to offer service in English. And god forbid, if she has to leave the comfort of Itaewon and venture into Gwanghamun or Jogno for some god-forsaken reason and face the zigzagging motions and loud boisterous cries of those rude Koreans, it’s just going to ruin her day. She’s been living like this for ten years. In my mind, based solely on this article, Laura is the quintessential self-entitled expat, expecting Korea to conform and warp to her needs, an archetype I’ve met way too often in my Korean travels.   

Maybe that’s not who Laura is in real-life, maybe she’s a neat person I’d get along with and maybe has great love for the country she is currently residing in, she’s a decent enough writer at least. But this article paints a picture of someone who has little respect for, understanding of or even interest in the history, culture and people that she finds herself living with. It doesn’t help that she, in no uncertain terms, advocates re-introducing corporal punishment into the Korean school system (I wonder if she feels that America should do the same? Or is it only Korean children that deserve the rod — I’m projecting here). Maybe she wants Korea without the Koreans, in any case, it’s perplexing that she’s endured ten years in this place she doesn’t seem to like all that much. And therein lies the final point I’ll make in this already ridiculously long post.

Many expats, particularly English teachers, have the ability to leave Korea if they so choose. Most expats, or at least the ones in similar situations to Laura, were not pushed to go to Korea because of any cataclysmic event such as poverty, famine or disease, they chose to go there so they could make money or didn’t know what else to do. They go to Korea to fill a demand; to facilitate an industry that itself has roots in imperialism and colonialism. Ever wonder why so many Koreans want to learn English? Easy, cause it’s the language of commerce. Ever wonder why English is the language of commerce? If you don’t know the answer, think about it for a second, there’s a power-balance at work here.    

I feel like there's a lot of truth here.
For the most part, teaching English in Korea is not a bad gig if you can handle the stresses of teaching, and by tying it to colonialism I’m not implying you’re a bad person if you teach English there. Hell, I’m gunning for a South Korean teaching job myself. In most cases you get airfare, accommodation in the form of your own apartment, and a pretty decent paycheque, well over the local poverty line. The cost of living in South Korea is still not too high either if you play your cards right so much of that money is bankable. Language schools are a big business over there so there are usually contracts available in some capacity in the public or private sectors. It’s somewhat lucrative even on the grunt level.

In order to teach legally in South Korea you need at least a bachelor’s degree from a legitimate university (better of course, if it’s in education). That means that you would've had to be able to afford to go to University to begin with meaning that you would likely need to be privileged to some degree. So chances are, you’re in Korea because at some point, you made the conscious choice to go there. Even in 2005, supposedly when Laura started her teaching career, we had the means to research topics like “life in South Korea” with relative ease. Now it’s even easier, so in this case ignorance really is a choice. Therefore, it’s hard for me to buy the assertion that Laura, or people similarly disgruntled about South Korea were simply not able to know what to expect before going to work there. Furthermore, they likely have family back home that they could likely stay with if they chose to jump ship. Laura is supposedly married, so naturally there are some commitments and obligations to be observed, I imagine she loves her husband, still I somehow doubt it took her ten years to realize she wasn't a fan of Koreans.

I’ve said several times in this article that I don’t know Laura. It’s dawned on me that Laura might not even exist, she could be the work of a troll or just an online alias. She might not be the person I imagine at all. However, the culturally insensitive, self-entitled/important expat that treats their chosen country like a playground or cash cow with little respect for local. . . anything, that she represents in this article is real, and as you can see from the length of this post, greatly frustrates me. If your one of these folks that I’ve had the misfortune of meeting on numerous occasions, you have issues and you need to check yourself, that is, unless you like being miserable in foreign countries.

However, I am an optimist and would like to end on a high note. For every stick in the mud that I’ve met I’ve also met inspiring expats who are genuinely interested or at the very least respectful of the culture of their chosen country. They identify that there are problems and choose meaningful discourse and informed activism over resorting to unsubstantiated stereotypes, vitriol and plain racism. Many of my good friends are these sorts of expats, who understand that countries are complicated microcosms that don't all follow the same rules universally. To you folks I raise a glass, keep leading by example, lets show the world that we’re not a bunch of self-entitled pricks. Let's try to make it a little better. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Short Critical Analysis of The Weeaboo

I remember weeaboos. Back in my highschool days they seemed to be everywhere, although that’s probably because I actually had a steak in the Anime community in those days. But then again, that was ten years ago and people didn’t call them weeaboos in those days — merely Japanophiles. Still, in my teenage years I remember being annoyed by these supposedly ardent Japanophiles, who would insert random bits of Japanese language into their sentences and day dream about one day owning and operating a café in Osaka, despite never having worked a job, with their Japanese wife or hubby, despite never having met an actual Japanese person, who would somehow resemble their favourite shojo manga character (look it up) despite never having been to Japan. The following music video by "Filthy Frank" offers a look at how the weeaboo is popularly conceptualized. That someone would dislike weeaboos to the point that they saw fit to compose and perform a song and edit the video for it speaks volumes of the disdain weeaboo's garner. 

In those days, being a teenager who was still “finding myself” I was not well enough equipped with theory and critical analysis or even a strong sense of self identity, to be able to engage my dislike in any meaningful way. Simply put, I didn’t know why I disliked weeaboos, I just knew that something about those folks just didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t help that I was on the cusp of being one and that I so frequently encountered them, watching a fair bit of Anime myself.

Now however, I have spent the last several years of my life studying all about Japan, China and Korea in great detail (I’ve also lived in South Korea for over a year) and am equipped with an honour’s degree in East Asian Studies. Armed with much theoretical discourse, I can finally and properly articulate what it is about weeaboos that I don’t only dislike but what may be empirically problematic about them.

Found this on some image sharing website. Seems that people spend as much energy attempting to differentiate themselves from weeaboos as they do hating them.
I’ve noticed that there are a number of subjective and informal analyses of weeaboos online and while these range from amusing to almost uncomfortably hate-filled, I thought it would be interesting to attempt to use some of the academic theory I learned during my time as an East Asian Studies Specialist undergrad to explain why the weaboo is so widely reviled. Because . . . it’s fun! And also because while a lot of abuse is hurled at these folks, there doesn’t seem to be much effort spent on attempting to understand why these people are so, for lack of a better word, annoying.  

For the purpose of this analysis, the weeaboo shall be defined in the broadest terms:

The term is most often used to denote fanatical fans of Japanese Manga (comics/graphic novels) and Animation, who accept the reality presented in these mediums as an accurate portrayal of the reality of Japanese life. I would argue that it could easily be used to categorize anyone who has a disproportionate interest in a certain aspect of a culture coupled with a stubbornness which allows for cultural tunnel vision. This, I imagine, is why the weeaboo garners so much vitriol in online discourse.

Found this image on Weeaboo memes are not exactly difficult to find.
The weeaboo, often lacking any real experience within the cultural space they are attempting to engage forgo critical inquiry for the fictional representations presented in mass material culture, in this case, anime or manga.

In the realm of acadamia, particularly undergraduate East Asian Studies, the weeaboo tends to be the butt-end of many jokes. Calling a member of the East Asian Studies community a weeaboo is like calling a doctor a quack, or a writer a hack, implying that their body of research is less-than-credible and overly fixated on one topic while totally ignoring the broader complex narratives of the countries in question. This may be because many committed East Asian Studies scholars may have either been weeaboos at one time or another and/or have had the unfortunate experience of having to engage weeaboos in the most mundane of arguments on something that could easily be disproved or answered by glancing at a Wikipedia article or sitting in on a first-year lecture.

Don't know who Haruhi is but another good example of vitriol. 
For example, there are some weeaboos who seem to believe (and will attempt to convince you) that Ninjas still exist in Japan. In EAS we learn that most published contemporary sources on Ninjas (especially those published in English) contain speculative and therefore dubious information at best and that one of the few things we actually do know about Ninjas is their fall from prominence during the reign of Oda Nobunaga in the mid to late 1500’s. I digress . . .    

More to the frustration of East Asian Studies scholars and it would seem, people in general, the weeaboo fixates on the elements of culture, often specifically material-culture, that he or she finds ideal. The weeaboo tends to take these ideal elements and whether consciously or unconsciously treats them as the embodiment of that culture as a whole.

For example a weeaboo may watch an anime — let’s call it Gentlemen’s Flower Café — about a bunch of handsome and sensitive young gentlemen high school students who open a pastel coloured café together in Saitama (which, in this case happens to be a bright and pastel coloured city) and have all sorts of wonderful romantic adventures with their mostly female clientele who also happen to be comprised mostly of students from their same high school. The weeaboo may watch Gentlemen’s Flower Café and believe (or in fact “force” themselves to believe) that in Japan, high school is a time for leisure and romance wherein students are afforded enough time to run their own businesses if they so desired. This is of course despite the fact the in Japan, high school students either often live with their parents and spend much of their time in cram-schools intensely studying (or sleeping) in order to pass demanding University entrance exams or are heavily marginalized “delinquents”. Again I digress. . .      

Found "weeaboo bingo" around numerous websites. Again, I didn't have to look far. (click to enlarge)
By this process the weeaboo views their culture of interest as also being ideal and will defend it vehemently if it comes under criticism whether that criticism is constructive, educated or otherwise. It is the combination of the weeaboo’s fixation on ideal cultural elements combined with his/her’s lack of lived experience within that national space that leads to a shared sense among weeaboos that Japan is somehow the perfect country and can do no wrong. One of the major criticisms I have seen against weeaboos is that they tend to share the unconditional belief that living in Japan is preferable to living outside of it.

Whether or not this is actually true on a quality of life scale, this phenomenon likely occurs because the weeaboo, like everyone else in their country of origin are exposed to the successes and failures of their society on a daily basis. However, as the weeaboo has likely not lived in Japan for any extended period of time they have not yet been exposed to the myriad success and failings of Japanese society and so tend to view the country through rose-tinted glasses. This is frustrating to a lot of people, largely, I imagine, because there is no such thing as a perfect country. Japan, like every other nation it the world is full of things both awesome and awful. Every country is like this. This is not a subjective statement, it is empirical. If you don’t agree you are in denial.

Apparently this is something some weeaboo's actually do.
The other major criticism I have seen brought against weeaboos is their tendency to insert bits of Japanese grammar and vocabulary into otherwise English sentences. In linguistics this is called “code-switching”, only that linguists argue that effective code-switching requires genuine proficiency in both languages. In most cases, the weeaboo lacks genuine proficiency in Japanese, I suspect because this would likely involve real contact with actual natives of Japan potentially putting the weeaboo’s carefully constructed alternative reality at risk of being shattered. As for inserting bits of a language they cannot comprehend well enough to have a basic conversation into their everyday speech. . . I’m baffled and, I imagine, so are the people who must interact with them.

Still, I understand that it is likely this has much to do with a feeling that if one incorporates bits of Japanese into their speech it may bring them closure to Japan or Japaneseness. Of course actually learning the language in earnest would help this to a much greater degree, however, real language acquisition is a long uphill battle that requires much time and discipline and as far as I can tell weeaboos aren’t exactly known to carry these traits. Unless it relates to reading manga or watching anime.

Found this on Pretty much sums it up. Although I guess I'm arguing that you do have the right to "knock that" or at least a number of good reason. Koreaboo is also the name of a pretty good Korean media blog as indicated on this gif.
While initially the term weeaboo was used exclusively for those fetishizing Japanese cultural aspects, in recent years, the online community has seen a rise in number of what some people refer to as the “koreaboo”. The koreaboo is someone who fixates more often on the fantastic quasi-realities of South Korean culture presented in Korean pop music videos, melodramas and variety shows as representative of the reality of life in South Korea. This recent phenomenon has become much more frequent in the wake of the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu which is purported to have hit North America in 2009. Aside from the difference in national space, the behaviour of the koreaboo is very similar to that of the weeaboo, fetishizing elements of South Korean culture that feature most prominently in K-pop videos and Korean melodramas.  

To sum up, weeaboos are annoying because they consume Japanese mass media, fetishize or isolate the elements they find ideal within that piece of media and take it as representative of the contemporary reality of Japan as a whole. This is of course despite that piece of media being heavily dramatized or simply total fantasy. What is especially annoying from the East Asian Studies perspective is that they do this while ignoring myriad credible sources of information easily available in English through electronic or print sources largely written and researched by actual specialists in Japan and abroad.

This is a panel I found on titled Logic of a Weeaboo. The entire strip is available here.
While weeaboos are often shrugged off as being annoying “geeks” with their “heads in the clouds” weeaboos can actually be a serious problem in some cases. In worst case scenarios weeaboodom can embody a kind of orientalism, racism or even a kind of bizarre pro-Japanese ultra-nationalism. The weeaboo may opt to celebrate Japanese “otherness” as opposed to attempting to engage meaningfully with the country and culture, reinforcing the popular orientalist notion that Japan is somehow culturally impenetrable or simply at odds with “the west”. The weeaboo may also opt to associate with people of certain cultural backgrounds or ethnicities over others because they perceive some to be closer to the culture of Japan (Asian-Americans for example). Finally the weeaboo may take to online forums or other such outlets and brazenly lambast or chastise others for their perhaps informed and constructive criticisms on such topics as Japanese foreign policy, historical blemishes, social issues etc. (While this has not happened to me personally, I’ve seen actual evidence of this in the past).            

As an East Asian Studies specialist this is unsettling and also having a weeaboo or a koreaboo attempt to inform me on matters pertaining to North East Asia can be excruciating. I imagine it being similar to a licensed chartered accountant being forced to take field advice from a freshmen who is half-way through their first economics class. There is little they can tell me that I don’t already know, and much of the information is usually heavily biased and not well researched. In any case the information they provide almost certainly does not come from a place of experience or critical thinking.

Another weeaboo inspired comic found on imgur. Read the whole thing here.
However, never fear! If you are afraid that you might be a weeaboo or are concerned that someone you know might be turning into a weeaboo or is one, there are a number of ways you can help them. To help you out I have devised a list, though I must admit, these are not sure-fire:

Alex’s Top Five Ways to Cure the Modern Weeaboo

In my experience weeaboodom is most commonly a product of ignorance and limited exposure to Japanese history and sociology coupled with confidence issues and social anxiety. While things like confidence are most often gained through experience and social anxiety can dissipate through similar means, there a few ways you may be able to help yourself or your weeaboo friend.   

1.   Weeaboos are often open to Japanese media. If you can show them a documentary or some such thing on the trials and tribulations of Japanese life, produced by actual Japanese people, you may start them on the path to reform.

2.      Enroll them in East Asian Studies. As the vice-president of my student union who grew up in Japan and hates weeaboos once said “If you take East Asian Studies it’s impossible to be a weeaboo. You just know too much and there’s no going back.”

3.      Buy them books on Japanese history and society and remind them if they actually care about Japan as much as they profess to, they should do some actual reading about it that extends beyond the odd Wikipedia post, forum poster or manga adaptation.

4.      Get them into Japanese movies that are not exclusively live-action anime adaptations. Everyone loves movies and there are many Japanese films that deal with all manner of interesting subject matter and contain much social commentary.    

5.      Take them to Japan and force them to live there for at least two months or failing that attempt to introduce them to real and diverse people who grew up in Japan (provided that they can handle basic social situations with some degree of finesse).

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that back in high school, 10 years ago now, I was in grave danger of becoming a weeaboo myself. Indeed, I remember envisioning Japan in my adolescent mind as some kind of ultra-modern neon kawaii paradise where there was no poverty and everyone was happy and care-free. The things on this list are what saved me from my own seemingly impending weeabooness. Back then it wasn't until I started doing some serious actual learning about the place that my views became much more balanced and frankly, more healthy. I still have a lot of love for Japan, but I believe that to truly love something you need to accept that it isn’t perfect and has areas in which it can and should improve. Professing to love a country while ignoring its shortcomings is like saying you love a sick friend while refusing to acknowledge that they have a serious yet treatable illness.

So there you have it. I just wrote a 2500 word article on freakin’ weeaboos, proving that you can write a long-winded critical analysis on ANYTHING. More importantly though I feel I have highlighted that even something as seemingly ridiculous and silly as weeaboos are actually relevant to our society despite being the product of a somewhat niche community.  

Originally I wrote this as a sort of satire of academic writing but in writing it I actually realized that I really was making a point. Weeaboodom is actually kind of an interesting problem that is related very much to the Study of East Asia by foreign nationals (like myself). While the weeaboo is denounced as a joke by many and may be seen as an overzealous lover of “the east”, at its core, weeaboodom embodies many of the same orientalist suppositions that lead to discrimination, “othering” and in extreme cases even xenophobic thinking. Egads! 

Anyway, I hope this gave you something for your brains to munch on. Yum yum.

See ya'll next time, when I certainly won't be writing about something relating to Anime.                     

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great White Motoko Kusanagi

Howdie pardners! I wrote this a while back but then got busy with stuff and never posted it. So here it is, the movie actually comes out in two years so there's plenty of time to still be annoyed.

It's been a while since I talked about film and racism in Hollywood in relation to East Asian stuff. . .  so I'm going to do that now.

In this satirical College Humour sketch Nicholas Cage's agent is desperately trying to save Cage from himself to little avail. You can watch the sketch here. It's actually pretty funny.
Some years ago I remember seeing a short video on the popular website College Humor called Nicholas Cage's Agent and it consisted of a frustrated agent pitching movie ideas to a disembodied voice on the phone doing it's best Nicholas Cage impression. The joke is a simple one. The agent suggests that Cage be more selective with his films and keeps pitching more films which get progressively more ridiculous and offensive and Cage signs on for all of them. The short was made at a time when Mr. Cage apparently owed huge sums of money in back taxes (or something like that) and as the story goes, starred in whatever would get him a decent pay check (apparently he's debt free now so I guess it worked). During the sketch the posters for these hypothetical films are displayed behind the agent's desk after he pitches them. The one just before the last and when Cage's agent is at his wits-end, is for a hypothetical film titled "F*ck Asian People". Whether or not this was a stab at Hollywood by the College Humor folks for their all too often white-washed casting choices is not entirely clear, but honestly, at this point I feel that "F*ck Asian People" might as well be one of the many slogans of the Hollywood machine and perhaps North American media in general.

A poster for the 1995 release of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell which is credited as being an early mainstream success for anime in the American market. 
It may not be news to some of you that there is a live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii's 1994 animated cult-classic Ghost in the Shell (itself an adaptation of a popular manga of the same name) in the works and that Scarlett Johansson is to star as the lead. I feel compelled to question the point of making a remake in the first place but then again Hollywood loves remakes so that's no surprise.

In any case, apparently it's now been confirmed that miss Johansson will in fact be playing the lead role of agent Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming film.

Let that sink in for a second. . .

Scarlett Johansson is playing Motoko Kusanagi.

Johansson. . . sounds Nordic to me. . .  Kusanagi. . . well if that's not a Japanese name I dunno what is . . . oh. dammit! Why do they keep doing this?!

I suppose it doesn't help my argument that Anime characters tend to look racially ambiguous. . . but yeah Kusanagi. . . Kusa-frickin-nagi. In kanji that's 草 frickin' . (草薙 素子Kusanagi Motoko)  
So yes, Hollywood has voted yes on white washing Motoko Kusanagi, ostensibly one of the most "Japanese" characters to grace western popular culture. To me this is like getting Leonardo DiCaprio to star in the lead role in Toshiro Mifune's biopic. It's offensive and even more so considering that it's source material, the Ghost in the Shell animated film, is actually more popular in North America than its home country of Japan. No, this is not about adapting an obscure "Japanese classic" for "western audiences", this is about ensuring people will see this film. Therein lies the problem.

Naturally I'm not the only one vexed by this and myriad folks have taken to voicing their disdain or support for the project in droves. The argument for the casting choice I've seen most often used is nothing new. "Well who else is going to to play Kusanagi? Who else has enough star power to carry this film if not Scarlett Johansson?" A fair question perhaps, only that by asking it people are, even perhaps inadvertently admitting that there are currently no actors of East Asian decent working in Hollywood right now with enough star-power to carry the film on their own. Rinko Kikuchi is a name which seems to be popping up here and there and I think that could be an interesting choice but lets face it; casting her in a supporting role in Pacific Rim was risky enough by Hollywood standards and it's safe to say that she was likely not the main draw for most who decided they were going to see that film, she's also not a local which is important to consider for my next point.

Hollywood also has this tendency to tell stories about East Asia, but in most cases only if they can insert a white dude into them as the lead. The Last Samurai, while a fairly solid film, is one of the best examples of this especially given the historical implausibility of it's plot.
The real question we should be asking here is, why aren't there any East-Asian actors with enough star power in North America to carry this film? Let's narrow it down a bit, why aren't there any Asian-American actors with the star power or supposed acting chops who could fill in for Ms. Johansson in this role? Is it because Asian-Americans suck at acting? Yeah, that must be it! Cause Danial Dae Kim was awful in Lost and Grace Park was just so unconvincing as Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii in Battlestar Galactica, and let's not forgot how unpopular Masi Oka's portrayal of Hiro Nakamura was in Heroes am I right? Wrong.

Meditate on this and you shall find the answer. . . which is systemic racism. Unconvinced of the existence of systemic racism? I just provided you with an example. Think you can come up with another reason for the disproportionate lack of A-list Asian-American celebrities in Hollywood that isn't related to systemic racism? You can't. Not one that will satisfy me anyway. . . if I didn't think I was right I wouldn't publicly post my opinions on the internet for all to see.                              

Just one of the many photo comparisons on google images right now.
Now, let me just say that I like Scarlett Johansson, I honestly do. She's a great actress with impressive range and a generally neat person (as far as I know) and I don't blame her for this situation, not entirely anyway. I also think that she could probably pull off a pretty good Motoko Kusanagi. . . that is if we lived in a wonderful world where systemic racism didn't exist and never existed in the first place (could you imagine that!? All films would be like Cloud Atlas and no one would give a sh*t!). As it stands however, no, I don't think Johansson should play this role and it's frustrating and insulting that this hullabaloo-stirring conundrum has even arisen to begin with. But as we all know, Hollywood is an insensitive machine that doesn't give a hoot about your struggle, so they're going to go ahead and make this thing anyway, I just hope they have the decency to change her name to a English one - it doesn't solve the problem at all (and arguably makes things worse) but I personally feel like it would make for slightly smaller middle-finger to Asian-America. *sigh*

I'm not even entirely convinced Rinko Kikuchi would be the best fit for Kusanagi (and she's also not Asian-American) but this makes a lot more sense to me visually than the picture above at any rate and, ya know, film is a visual medium and all.
I would like to conclude by admitting that yes, as a fan of the series I realize that the whole Ghost in the Shell concept allows for characters to be able to switch their consciousnesses (or "ghosts") between bodies and all that neat sci-fi stuff. And yes, this means they could play it off so that Kusanagi had transferred her consciousness into a "shell" that resembled a white woman. You could argue these points validate the casting choice, but then you would be downplaying the fact that Hollywood and American media in general have been white washing Asian characters for decades and that this makes a lot of people sad and frustrated. Ghost in the Shell: The Remake, was a pretty good chance to not do that, but lo' and behold, I suppose my expectations were too high? So yeah, even though I'm a white dude, this stuff pisses me off, because as a human being I get pissed off at things that needlessly anger large portions of the population I co-exist with. Things like this make the world a somewhat less pleasant place to live in. Stop pissing people off Hollywood and start actually getting in touch with the people who consume your products. Tirade over. Food for thought and all that. Next time I'll talk about a book or something.      

Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Anime Is (or Why I Still Prefer Not to Watch English Anime Dubs)

Disclaimer: Before I begin I'd just like to say that this article is not about berating those who watch dubbed anime, or how watching dubbed anime is somehow wrong. It's more a commentary on what I think Anime actually is and cultural production in general. If you like watching anime in English (or whatever your native language happens to be) because it helps you connect with the characters and enjoy the story to a greater degree or you just can't stand subtitles or whatever, than that is a-ok, you do you. I'm merely approaching it from this angle because that's how I came up with the idea for the this post in the first place, by asking "why don't I like watching dubbed anime?" in the shower one time. Anyway. . .

Sailor Moon is a staple of 90's anime if I've ever seen one.
Anyone who did most of their growing up in the 1990's probably remembers when Anime (Japanese animation, Japanese cartoons etc.) started becoming more prevalent in video stores and on North American broadcast television networks. If your are a 90's kid you probably even remember just how bad some of the voice acting was in early translated and English dubbed anime. It might be the trauma of having to at one time suffer through these, at times, hilariously bad, renditions of audible human emotion, but even presently, if I have a choice, I will still choose the original Japanese audio over English dubbed anime any-day.

To be sure English voice acting in anime has come a long way since those early days and has given way to a rather tight-knit community of actors who all specialize in different roles. I'm not attempting to discredit these professionals and my not being able to enjoy English dubs has little to do with the current ability of the voice actors in general. Frankly speaking my command of the Japanese language is very rudimentary, my spoken Japanese is limited to asking for simple directions and my my ability to read and write in Japanese is non-existent, and so if I choose to watch an Anime in Japanese, if the option is there, I must read subtitles. Ergo it is not my understanding of this complex language that leads to choosing the original audio over the English equivalent nor is it some "weeabooesque" loyalty to a language I don't fully understand. It isn't even about some sense of purity. . . well not fully anyway.

Quite a few English voice-actors even have dedicated fan-bases, such as Johnny Yong Bosch, who did pretty a darnned good Akira if I remember correctly. Hey, just cause I'd rather not watch dubs doesn't mean that I can't give credit where credit is due.  
No, the reason I choose to watch anime in Japanese is more about what I believe anime is and what it isn't. I am aware that even as I type this, on message boards the world over there is a raging debate over what makes anime anime, and perhaps I'm treading on thin ice here. A popular idea that I've seen expressed all over the net is that anime is an art or animation style or a blending of the two. Big eyes, small to virtually non-existent noses, pulsating forehead veins, scratching the back of one's head when embarrassed, growing gigantic when getting angry, falling over in surprised frustration, these are all staples of anime aesthetic, that's undeniable, but is it really what makes anime anime?

There are those who would argue yes, but I don't buy it. If I produce a monochromatic, shot-for-shot reproduction of the 7 Samurai in Japan featuring an all Japanese cast, can I call it an Akira Kurosawa movie? Probably not. Aesthetics alone do not make a cultural medium, and that's what anime is, or rather has come to be known as. I'm aware that the word "anime" is simply a Japanification of a the English "animation", but lets be real here, in the popular North American psyche the term "anime" has come to embody so much more than mere "animation that happens to be made in Japan" and that's really what I'm getting at here.

All the anime! (got it form here).
The reason I choose Japanese audio over English for my anime viewing is the same reason I wouldn't watch a Disney Pixar film dubbed into Japanese. Here's an experiment you can try -- watch a excerpt of an English language North American television show with the sound off and then watch another excerpt from a show in some other language from some other country (it really doesn't matter which). One of the things you will likely notice is that when the characters speak, they look and move differently from one cultural space to another. Certainly everyone is different but you will likely notice common traits, certain hand gestures, certain head movements, certain expressions which tend to accompany a certain phrase or mode of speech, and an overall rhythm to this movement, it just looks and feels different.

Animation attempts to be an emulation of real life to a certain degree. Certainly some artists and animators take liberties but at the end of the day, the characters have to be identifiable and if there is dialogue, at one point the artists and animators would've had to think about which language these characters would be using as their native tongue. In the case of Japan that language is most likely Japanese, thus when the characters speak, rhythmically they speak and move as if they were speaking Japanese, like caricatures of Japanese people, because ostensibly that's what they are. Even in works of animation wherein the characters speak gibberish, the animators and artists will likely, perhaps even subconsciously include nuances that come from their native language as an automatic point of reference (take the Swiss show "pingu" for example - a English dubbed pingu would just be awful, though most of the charm does come from the fact that they are indeed speaking gibberish).

Cromartie High School is one example of a dub kind of taking on a life of it's own. The English cast actually delivers their lines much differently than the Japanese cast, greatly altering the characterization of the show. Watching it in either language presents a very different experience, both of which are entertaining. 
Therefore what happens when these characters get dubbed, at least for me, is a disconnect between how the characters are moving and expressing themselves physically, and what they are actually saying. It's cognitive dissonance plain and simple. Naturally animation leaves some leeway especially since "anime" specifically tends to have a lower frame count especially for speech, but still, the motions and rhythm of the character's speech does not facilitate a seamless transition into other-languages even if the animation is altered to some degree - which I'm aware is a trick that is often used. What you get then, despite having well-trained voice talent is stilted and unnatural dialogue at the best of times, and down right bizarre speech patterns at the worst. Again, the actors are not at fault, instead they are constrained by having to forcibly bend and skew their English lines into the movements and mannerisms of a language and culture that is far-removed from their own - simply put, to me even the finest dubs which I admit are watchable, just look "off" somehow.

In most cases this dissonance is jarring and takes me out of the experience, it becomes hard to take the whole thing seriously, especially if the story-line is meant to be taken as such.  This doesn't work nearly as bad with comic anime and in fact adds to the fun in many cases given the off-kilter nature of Japanese comedy (for example one of my favourite anime, Cromartie High School is hilarious in both English and Japanese for very different yet equally funny reasons). But, hey, if you don't have this problem, then good for you, keep on trucking.

I remember the original series of Hellsing having pretty cool English dubs in which the characters were given country specific accents which was a nice touch. 
The crux of my argument however is not that English dubbed Anime sucks or whatever but that cultural production cannot simply be reduced to an aesthetic style. Language and culture are deeply interwoven -- culture produces language and language in-turn produces more culture and visual culture is no exception. To undermine the significance of the Japanese language in the production of anime when discussing what makes anime, anime is to leave out a huge part of that production process. Anime produced in Japan is most likely produced by a team of Japanese people speaking Japanese to one another, writing dialogue in Japanese and animating, and perhaps in some cases even designing characters around this dialogue for ostensibly Japanese audiences. It's what makes anime "Japanese". Ergo "anime" produced outside of the Japanese cultural space, cannot really be considered anime in the traditional sense, which is why I would argue, (get ready for this) that a show like Avatar: the Last Airbender while an excellent show, is NOT anime.

For the record the Avatar argument was not why I wrote this to begin with it just serves as a good example for my argument. I haven't watched all of Avatar but believe me, it's on my bucket list. Avatar borrows its visual style from a number of Japanese anime tropes -- the world and character design, and animation are without a doubt wholly reminiscent of the aesthetic of anime, but you know what? I would not watch Avatar: The Last Airbender in Japanese. Of course I wouldn't! And that's because the show was produced by a team of English North Americans, speaking English, writing English dialogue, with character animation, while reminiscent of anime, designed and timed around the English language for ostensibly English speaking audiences. Avatar doesn't feel "off" the way imported and dubbed anime does because it was designed around the English language -- English is the native language of Avatar.

Avatar the Last Airbender certainly looks like anime but even if I had no idea what anime was and you showed me an episode of Avatar and then. . . I dunno, Digimon or something, I feel like I'd still be able to detect a difference in their style and pacing.  
So then what is Avatar? A mere "cartoon"? Mere child's play!? No, at least not as we North Americans have come to understand the use of the word (i.e. cartoons = shows for kids). But if you ask me, that has more to do with limitations of the "anime as adult cartoons vs. cartoons as shows for children" dichotomy which incidentally is also linguistic. Maybe, Avatar is something more than a mere "cartoon" but it certainly isn't Anime. Here's an idea, maybe we should stop thinking in binary altogether and instead of writing entire blog posts about what is or isn't anime, give shows like avatar an entirely new distinction within the realm of North American animation - why don't we just call it "animation" like the Japanese do? Whatever, that's not my main argument.

To reiterate, English dubbed anime just sounds kind of weird to me. It's in the lines; it's in the way the lines are delivered in relation to the movement of the characters; it's in the off-kilter tone and intonation, the extension of certain syllables that are not usually extended to match mouth or bodily movements that seem more natural in Japanese. It's in the decent yet still somehow awkward translation of Japanese phrases that are so melodramatic they sound inane in English that are somehow more palpable when read. It's the feeling I get when I realize that I've never heard a native speaker of English ever talk like that in real-life -- not even close. And that my friends, is why I, assuming I have a choice in the matter, will almost always choose Japanese audio over English for my Anime viewing pleasure. Thanks and goodnight (assuming you're reading this at night).             

Well that went on much longer than I originally expected and I'm sure I introduced more problems then I solved, but hey, these things really write themselves ya know? In any case, see ya again when I feel like writing something again. Hope that was at least interesting for you, even if you don't agree.