Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Doujinshi and VAJRA: Thoughts on Originality

I have to confess, this entry was written over a week ago and I've been stalling the actual posting of it. I even considered not posting it at all. I was worried this kind of entry would create unnecessary drama or cause me to be misquoted inappropriately. But then I decided that I might as well just post it because it's my blog and I shouldn't be afraid to be held responsible for my own thoughts, whether people agree with them or not. So here's my slightly overdue post.

It was an article about doujinshi that inspired my thoughts (Wired Magazine's article "Japan, Ink: Inside the Manga Industrial Complex" by Daniel H. Pink). For those who don't know, doujinshi is the Japanese term for fan comics. People who create doujinshi redraw copyrighted characters into original stories and publish the comics for money. The article (which I had to read for a course on manga) was trying to solve the mystery of why these comic artists can essentially "steal" copyrighted characters and designs and profit off of them without a peep or murmur from the police.

I read that article only a few days after being informed by a friend that there was a thread about VAJRA on the Dir en grey Livejournal. I sighed upon seeing the thread, though I knew the day was coming. My first thought was, "old news is old." My second thought was, "oh geez, my blog is being quoted, I'd better keep my mouth shut." My third thought was, "I'm not entirely sure people are seeing the bigger picture." For those who don't know, VAJRA has been accused repeatedly by Western JRock fans of nearly plagiarizing Dir en grey's music. And I agree with those fans. I mean, VAJRA essentially takes portions of Dir en grey songs and rehashes them in a different order or with slightly altered keys. Their vocalist goes so far as to mimic Dir en grey's vocalist onstage, almost to the extent that it seems an impersonation. There's no denying that. But VAJRA continues to profit off of this near-copyright infringement without anyone saying a word.

Are you seeing where this is going?

Yes, you're right, I'm drawing a connection between doujinshi and VAJRA. No, not just VAJRA... Japanese indies in general.

The Wired Magazine article discussed the idea of anmoku no ryokai. This is an unspoken understanding between the creators of doujinshi and the original artists. Both sides know what's going on and intentionally remain silent about it. The article also suggests that the reason for this anmoku no ryokai is the fact that both sides, in the end, profit from each other. The original creator makes the initial profits and lays out the material. The doujinshi artists take that material and uses it to satisfy the hunger of the fans in a way that the original material does not. It doesn't affect the profits of the original creator in any way and works to keep the fan's passions alive. It even allows fans to actively participate in their fandom, since doujinshi artists are, essentially, just fans of the original comic. To maintain this harmless balance, the two sides agree to stay silent. So long as the original artist is quiet and the fan comic artist doesn't go too far, the two can coexist in a somewhat symbiotic relationship with each other.

I think VAJRA can be thought of in much the same way. I find it very hard to believe that the VAJRA fans haven't noticed the plagiarism. They'd have to be bloody deaf. But, as near as I can tell, the Japanese never say a word about it. I'm thinking a bit of anmoku no ryokai is going on here. The idea struck me even while I was in Japan that VAJRA is providing a service that Dir en grey no longer wishes to provide. Dir en grey haven't been indies in almost twelve years. They haven't been visual-kei in about six years (I'm aware of the fact that this is arguable. Let's assume the cut-off point is VULGAR). And, at the risk of saying something extremely horrible, Kyo hasn't performed acts of self-mutilation on stage in about two years (I absolutely do not mean to undermine Kyo's self-mutilation by implying that it's a service to the fans. I do not think Kyo ever performed such acts for the fans and I will be angry if I find myself misquoted. I'm looking at this from the perspective of how some fans might feel about it). What I'm trying to say is that VAJRA provides the JRock community with an indies, visual-kei, bleeding Dir en grey that hasn't existed for quite some time. They're filling a hole in the indies scene that left a fandom hungry for something that's never coming back. So long as VAJRA never officially plagiarizes and continues to provide these services, the major scene won't say a word. In affect, VAJRA is satiating the lower rungs of the JRock community. In return, so long as the major scene is silent, VAJRA can continue to profit.

Now, one thing I've noticed every time the VAJRA issue comes up is that there's a split among Dir en grey fans as to whether or not VAJRA has talent. Some say they do, so it's tragic that they've demeaned themselves in such a way. Others say the band has no talent, or argue that the very act of stealing music is proof of their lack of talent. The Wired Magazine article discussed a particular group of manga creators known collectively as CLAMP. They're some of the most successful manga artists of all time, and yet they got their start in doujinshi. They began as the copyright infringers, and now they are the ones being infringed upon. I think Dir en grey fans often forget that Dir en grey started out much the way CLAMP did... the same way VAJRA did. Dir en grey's very name is, supposedly, derived from the name of a Lareine demo tape. Dir en grey began as nothing more than a Kuroyume cover band. Even after making "original" material, Dir en grey was not above copying. Their song "Unknown... despair... a lost" is a rip-off of a Luna Sea song. For Dir en grey fans to point fingers at VAJRA and say they are incapable of having their own personal talent is to be slightly hypocritical. Dir en grey began as a cover band and eventually blossomed into the incredibly original band they are today. Who's to say a band like VAJRA can't?

So where do I stand on this issue? Well, I saw VAJRA live about nine times in Tokyo, so I suppose my perspective is a little different from most Western fans. You could say that, as someone who saw things from Japan's perspective, I don't think VAJRA is doing anything wrong. However, I'm still American, and I can't completely obliterate the values I was brought up with. In that sense, I would say VAJRA is doing the wrong thing... creatively. As my manga professor was explaining, the Japanese have a different sense of creation than Westerners. Westerners believe that art is something slaved over by a single individual to become something entirely unique and never-before-seen. The Japanese don't agree. Doujinshi is considered original because, although the characters aren't original, the storyline isn't the same. This is applicable to a lot of things the Japanese do as "selective borrowers." For example, they took glam-rock music from the West and tweaked it to create something "original" known as visual-kei. VAJRA is the same idea. Aspects of Dir en grey's work was taken and tweaked into something "original." As a Westerner, I think VAJRA are degrading themselves and I believe they should try their utmost to create something original on their own. However, as someone who has come to understand the Japanese indies scene, I believe VAJRA has done nothing wrong. They're a part of an ongoing cycle that spirals back to Dir en grey and to bands even before them. To point fingers at one band is to point fingers at all of them. You don't have to like the system, but the system is in place and it's generally affective. VAJRA don't have many fans, but they do make some money without getting in trouble. It puts food on their plates and it doesn't hurt Dir en grey, so the lawyers don't say a word. So long as we can abide by anmoku no ryokai, everybody's happy.

While I consider myself absolutely content with Dir en grey at this point in their careers (really, I wouldn't change a thing), I admit that VAJRA might have provided some sort of service that I needed while I was in Japan. Dir en grey was a delicious, five course meal, and VAJRA was the juice I used to wash it down occasionally. Unlike major bands, VAJRA was:

1. Easily accessible

2. Frequently playing

3. Cheap

4. Up-close and personal

5. Willing to punch and kick fans in the face.

Okay, #5 isn't exactly a necessary service but it was funny (oh Eru, what will the band do without you?).

So, I suppose, even in the world of greats like Dir en grey, bands like VAJRA still have a small purpose to fulfill. They might not fulfill everyone's needs and, as is the case for many, they might just piss people off, but they do exist and Japan is quietly okay with that.

So I'm okay with it too.

5 comments:

  1. This is fascinating. I don't follow Dir en grey fandom on LJ anymore, so I didn't even know they were talking about bands copying Dir. But it really is an interesting concept to think about.

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  2. Hi! I found an article about corruption in the visual-kei industry the other day, and I thought that you might find it interesting:

    http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2010/03/01/interview-with-an-ex-visual-kei-record-executive/

    It's a really long article, but it made me think. I'd really like to hear your thoughts on it!

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  3. @naoki_hime: I'm glad you found it interesting! The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that Western and Eastern fans see the situation differently (only some of them, of course, I'm sure some agree on the situation) so I just felt it needed to be presented in a light that LJ isn't always seeing ^_^

    @NeonRaine: Aaaah, yes, the Damage Report. Thank you for posting that, it's a fascinating read for people who never hear any counter arguments to visual-kei. I actually read that article some time last year and it's really fascinating, albeit a bit disturbing. However, I think the article needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are some definite fact discrepancies and biases within the article and I don't think people should take everything it says to be truth. There are parts where I think, "yes, it's most likely just as bad as he says" and parts where I think, "no, that doesn't add up because I've seen too many cases where what he says isn't true." The article is very interesting, but I also think the man being interviewed is focusing on extreme cases sometimes, rather than what the current norm is. So I think it's a really good read, so long as people don't take every single fact to be absolute truth. I also believe the translator/interviewer is not to be entirely believed. He openly admits his motive is to make visual-kei fans sad, so I'm sure he inflated a lot of language or prodded particularly bad stories out of the interviewee. Again, a really interesting article with plenty of truth, but an article that should be examined critically. Thank you very much for bringing the Damage Report up!

    Thanks for your comments, guys! I'd love to hear more from you!

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  4. i loved this article! please write more whenever you get the chance!

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  5. Thank you for writing this. I'm in the group who thinks Vajra has talent, (you need talent to play Dir en grey songs), and is just wasting it doing "covers." Like you said, the people ignoring Unknown...Despair...a Lost are just being silly. Everyone learns how to play music by learning covers. It's sad that Vajra isn't letting their own creativity out, but it's not like they're making millions off of Dir en grey. I would be very interested in hearing some original stuff by them, though. :)

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