I’m confused, and it’s not just ‘Akira’


It’s Week 3 of semester, and my BCM320 elective has already given me many new experiences: using Twitter on a frequent basis, blogging, live-tweeting, and particularly the concept of ‘autoethnography’. Ellis (2004) and Holman Jones (2005) define autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse… personal experience… in order to understand cultural experience”. I therefore understand the autoethnographic methodology as a cross between an autobiography and an ethnographic study – the researcher participates in some element of a culture, takes ongoing notes of this participation and how it affects them, what they learn from it, etc. and then presents their findings almost as a story rather than a traditional research report – though of course, there’s a wide spectrum between these two extremes.

I’m a creative writing student originally, and I also usually do quite well writing analytical essays, so one would think I’d appreciate a research method that combines creative writing and research. But the feelings I tweeted in the very first lecture of this subject haven’t changed; the idea of autoethnography, of somehow telling an engaging story that is well-researched and analytical makes me feel confused, intimidated, and very, very out of my depth.

Onto the screening of the week, Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 sci-fi anime classic, Akira. Bochner and Ellis (1992) note that autobiographers most often write about ‘epiphanies’, and so I’ll focus on two major epiphanies I experienced throughout my viewing of the film.


“Autoethnographers recognise the innumerable ways personal experience influences the research process” (Ellis et al 2011). I approached Akira as a million things: a writer, a ‘budding Japanologist’, a student, a sci-fi/fantasy fan…

It was approaching Akira as a budding Japanologist (i.e. as a Japanese language major) that allowed the above epiphany: my knowledge of the Japanese language, particularly the honorifics (-san, –kun, –sama), allowed me to inform my classmate of both what the line likely would have been in the original Japanese dialogue, and some of the culture around it, which lead to a shared epiphany: the English line has much less impact than the Japanese one would have.


Secondly, and more personally, I realised while watching Akira that I pay no attention to anime characters from other cultures, even when they are drawn as noticeably different to the Japanese ones. I watched all the characters in Akira as Japanese, despite recognising that the head military character (pictured above) was drawn as African-American – and even though I’d researched the film previously and read that the characters were meant to be from diverse backgrounds. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until a conference scene, which presumably was meant to be several world leaders all meeting together (this movie was really hard to follow, even in English; honestly, I’m not sure…), that I suddenly went “oh, that guy is really, really white – he’s not Japanese. And the soldier guy [who had been well-established as a character long before that] is black!” Perhaps this is because I’ve been exposed, and have grown accustomed, to the idea that Japan is a homogenous culture. In a text that comes from a melting pot like Australia or America, I wouldn’t be surprised to see characters from any background, so accept it readily, whereas in an anime, apparently, it’s so surprising that I ignore it even when it happens!

Akira is well-known as an anime sci-fi classic, and it paved the way for anime and Japanese pop culture to spread to the West – in saying that, it was so much darker than I expected! I wasn’t prepared for it at all, and I needed a good day to recover. So, I recommend it, but be ready for the violence, be ready for the gore, be ready for the darkness and the tragedy, and the overwhelming sense of ‘what’s going on?’
Just be ready.



Bochner, AP & Ellis, C 1992, ‘Personal narrative as a social approach to interpersonal communication’, Communication Theory, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 165-172.

Ellis, C 2004, The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography, AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1, <http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095>

Holman Jones, S 2005, ‘Autoethnography: Making the personal political’, in NK Denzin & YS Lincoln (eds), Handbook of qualitative research, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 763–791.


4 thoughts on “I’m confused, and it’s not just ‘Akira’

  1. Hi Kelsey,

    This writing of yours is an absolute joy to read. There are many interesting points you have made but I was completely drawn to your ethnographic take on the Japanese language and the linguistic gap I found in Akira’s dubbed version. I do not study Japanese, thus it is hard for me to grasp the essence of this language – which plays a vital role in the plot. The translation of foreign language into English might result in loss of information, due to the lack of equivalent verbal expression. There has been an ongoing dispute between subbing and dubbing in anime, whereas both have pros and cons, subtitled animes are more likely to have follow-up explanations than the dubbed. If interested, you can read more about this internet backdraft here https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SubbingVersusDubbing


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Alex! Aww, ‘an absolute joy’? Thank you!
      That second link you posted didn’t work, but I had a look at the first one. And I’ve always sort of known about the dub vs sub wars with anime, but never paid THAT much attention to it – it’s interesting that both cause their own issues re the translation itself (a teacher in another class commented that when dubbing you have to make sure the translation roughly fits the way characters’ mouths move in the original language, and with subtitles you don’t have that, but you still have timing issues etc.).
      Also, I’d NEVER considered the idea that technically all animation is dubbed in the first place! That section was a total revelation, haha. Thanks for the links! 🙂


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