SWF 2022: An Interview with Bounthavy Suvilay
She will be involved in the following two panels:
Maybe it’s an identity, maybe it’s a style. People love to throw around the word ‘indie’ as a calling card for cachet, but is there ever a truly ‘independent’ piece of work? We speak to three creators on the churn of cultural production and how the term has become loaded with expectations that can make or break it.
Ticketing: Festival Pass
Think black-and-white storyboards, large, rounded eyes, and characters brimming with emotions. How did the manga style from Japan become the craze of comics lovers around the world, expanding to an infinite number of genres exciting different age and gender groups? And how have artists around the world localised this unique art form to represent their own cultures? Hear from Indonesian comics artist Is Yuniarto, French-British comics scholar, Bounthavy Suvilay, and Singapore artist Sean Lam on why and how global manga artists have rightfully made manga their own.
This panel is made possible with the support of the Embassy of France and is co-presented with the SG Cartoon Resource Hub.
Ticketing: Festival Pass
More details of the programming and ticketing info can be found at www.singaporewritersfestival.com.
Declaration: I am involved in the above two panels too, and I put together the panel on the globalisation of manga style and will be moderating it.
So I decided to do an email interview with Bounthavy and she is kind enough to send her answers below.
1. What is the difference between mainstream video games and independent video games? When both can be blockbusters, are such labels still useful?
After the first consolidation of the video game industry in the 2000s, hobbyists could no longer sell their creations to the public. Back in the 80s, the first video game creators could sell floppy disks for a few bucks in small shops. But after the 2000s, it was impossible to sell a console video game without having a publisher. The indie revival happened around 2008 when Xbox360 and Wii gradually opened their online platform to creators without a publisher. The expansion of new online platforms such as Steam or the AppStore also helps small creators to bypass the publisher.
At that time, the term “indies” referred to these small teams without money and a publisher. They had to be more creative to produce their game and they were aiming for a niche audience. But the early successes encouraged people to become indie creators themselves and the market quickly overflooded. That is why today there are publishers for “indies”. Nowadays, the “indie” label mostly means that the budget is smaller than an AAA game’s budget. And most of the time, the budget is the aesthetics. But neither aesthetics nor budget means you will end up with a good game.
The term “indies” is still relevant because it shapes gamers’ expectations. When they buy an indie game, they hope for a short game made by a small team that tests new things and takes risks.
2. What is the usual setup like for an indie video game studio?
It depends on the budget. Usually, a core team of two or three people hires artists, sound designers and programmers to help them produce their projects. But there are also small studios that rely on work for hire to gain money, which is later invested in their own game. In my books, I present several setups so that people can perceive the vast array of possibilities.
3. You have also written about Dragon Ball and Sports Anime in French. How do manga and anime stack up against video games in terms of popularity in France?
French read less than they play video games, for sure. This trend is obvious in the younger generation. They spend their time on video games, or video platforms watching people playing and commenting on games. Video game is mainstream culture.
But, a lot of video games are based on manga and anime. You can start to explore a fictional world by playing the games then you will be more likely to buy the manga or watch the series on VOD. There is no conflict between video games, manga or anime. These media are complementary, and each proposes a different way to explore the same fictional world.
Nowadays, fictional characters are emancipated from their original media. Most people know Mickey Mouse, even if they have never seen an old Disney movie. Gamers can love Son Goku even if they have not read Dragon Ball.
4. Is manga a style or an art form?
Since English is not my mother tongue, I’m not sure about the meaning of the question. I think that manga, comic books and bande dessinée are media which combine printed texts and images. Each civilization has its way to blend them together. Each artist has his style. There is a separate history for each media.
For an untrained audience, it is impossible to distinguish the style of cubist artists. It is the same situation with manga, comics and bande dessinée. When you don’t know the visual codes, you don’t get what is original or interesting. Manga, comics and bande dessinée result from techniques, traditions and skills. Nowadays, there are more hybrids between them but each local audience still perceives and reads these media differently.
Of course, in reality, people don’t need to understand everything to enjoy a good story or a good visual. If you want some kind of social prestige, you can call it “art”. For me, it is just a good story.
5. What do you think of the globalisation of manga as a style and its localisation?
Manga is not made to be sold all around the world. The story is created by the Japanese for the Japanese. The creators and the audience have a shared culture and that is why they can have an authentic conversation through manga. Since other civilizations don’t share this culture, there might be some friction when the manga is sold outside of Japan. Dragon Ball was perceived as too violent and or child pornography in the 90s in France. In 2017, Crayon Shin-chan was censored in Portugal because parents thought that some scenes were pornographic. Nevertheless, good stories spread. Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan are two very popular series in France and Portugal.
Moreover, good stories spread even if they are perceived as lowbrow or childish. Still, people read and watch them. These stories are effective and they convey something genuine. Of course, some translations in the early 80s tended to erase all the references to Japanese culture to make the manga easier to read by a young audience. But these practices were needed at a time when most French have no clue about what is Japanese, Chinese, Korean and what is not. Nowadays, the young French audience is more used to other cultures.
The main problem with the globalisation of manga style is that foreign creators want to tell the same kind of story as Japanese artists. At first, they used the same visual tricks: speed lines, big eyes, and lots of panels to convey one movement. Then, they try to tell the same shonen action-adventure stories with the same tropes. In a weird way, they create an imitation of a representation of a real event. The result is not a mimesis but a simulacrum.
I think that foreigners should adopt the Japanese way of dealing with foreign civilizations. The Japanese have the expressions Wakon Yosai (Western techniques, Japanese spirit) and Wakon Kansai (Chinese technique, Japanese spirit). Non-Japanese should adopt a similar attitude: use Japanese learnings to express and revive their own culture. They should not simply create a simulacrum of manga. They should learn from manga to engage in a genuine conversation with their audience.
6. How did you end up writing about video games, manga and anime? Is it a viable career? (For those interested to write about pop culture as a job)
I think that I’m stubborn and a bit slow to understand social cues. I didn’t care what people thought about manga when I started to write about them. They might think it’s silly and childish, but I keep on claiming that I love them. After a while, manga suddenly became popular and I could write more about it. I was lucky and I never plan on making a career writing on pop culture. I’m still not making a career writing about video games, manga and anime. I’m just very grateful to be able to publish books on artists I admire.
7. What do you look forward to at SWF? How does the theme of “IF” resonate with you?
The theme of “IF” reminds me of the fierce answer of the ancient Spartans when Philip of Macedon threatened to invade their city. He said, “If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans simply answered “IF”. They were fearless. I hope to be surprised by the conversations at SWF because Singaporeans should be bold and afraid of no one.
8. What food do you want to eat in Singapore?
I love peanut butter, so I’m looking forward to tasting a lot of satay and peanut sauce. I’m also curious about the spicy crab.
9. What do you think of (or know of) the video games scene/industry in Singapore?
I have to confess that I know nothing about the video games industry in Singapore. I know most big developers and publishers have an office in Singapore because it is very convenient to target the Asian Market. I hope I’ll encounter Singaporean creators to learn more about it.
You can read more about Bounthavy here:
And she has written about the British Museum’s Mangasia exhibition (2019) here: