By Melissa A. Brzycki and Stephanie Montgomery
In April 2016, Paramount Pictures released a photo of Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi for the new live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, based on the Japanese manga series of the same name (Kōkaku Kidōtai). A heated discussion of race and the Hollywood whitewashing of Asian culture ensued across multiple social media platforms throughout pre-production and following the movie’s release in March 2017. For many fans, it felt as though the world of Ghost in the Shell—a cyberpunk futurist landscape of genderbending cyborg bodies—was stripped of its meaning to become a dazzling CGI backdrop for a mundane Hollywood plot. In the process of “translating” this beloved media franchise for an English-speaking audience, something had obviously been lost. As academics with training in East Asian language, culture, and history, we felt we could contribute to discussions like these. The Ghost in the Shell controversy finally motivated us to begin a project that we had been discussing for months: a podcast bridging academia and the mainstream public, which we named East Asia for All.
East Asia for All is a public history podcast that provides thoughtful discussion and context to English-speaking fans of East Asian popular culture. Many of these fans may have a sophisticated knowledge of the particular film, cartoon, or work of literature that has captured their interest, but don’t know as much about the broader landscape of pop culture in East Asia. At East Asia for All, we bring not only our own academic knowledge and training to these conversations, but also frequently have expert guests who lend their own specialized insights. We hope that this level of deep research and discussion will help fans appreciate the nuances and depth of East Asian pop culture and media. In our current moment of intense engagement with online media—dubbed the “podcast renaissance” by some—podcasting has become a media form ideally suited to bringing academic knowledge and frameworks to a broader audience.
In the past, we regarded podcasts as a form of entertainment that was occasionally edifying but which rarely overlapped with our professional and intellectual lives. There are many good podcasts about China, like SupChina’s Sinica Podcast, but for the most part they are solidly non-academic, and focus only on one country. When we came across New Books in East Asian Studies, hosted by Carla Nappi [a #AsiaNow Associate Editor], we started to contemplate the possibility of doing a podcast situated at the boundary between academia and the wider community. Once we began to consider the possibility that we could create a podcast as a part of our academic careers, East Asia for All was born.
We hope that podcasting will enable us to reach a wide audience outside academia, but still allow us to have in-depth, “long-form” discussions. Consumable anywhere, podcasts are also emerging as an important medium for cultural discussions. Their conversational style encourages audience participation, which we further bolster by using social media and posting show notes on our website for listeners who want even more information about each topic. Through the interactive and collaborative medium of podcasting, we sense a novel opportunity to bridge the gap between academic and public discussions, especially for disciplines such as the humanities, whose human-centered approaches lend themselves particularly well to storytelling and personal engagement.
Podcasts are also an important medium for delivering complex, in-depth context in an online environment that is saturated with material to consume. Given that pictures, lists, and video clips are becoming the most easily consumed and shared types of content, and that casual readers rarely make it to the bottom of an article, it can be difficult to communicate rich stories and background information to a popular audience. In this case, podcasts provide a platform for conveying more in-depth ideas and discussions in a format in which people expect to devote considerable time and attention. Many people won’t read all of an article shared on their Facebook feed, but they will listen to an entire episode of Radiolab on their morning commute.
As a part of our daily lives and routines, podcasts are unique in that they often create a “special sense of intimacy.” Audiences listen to the conversations and voices of podcast hosts just like they might an interesting conversation among friends. It’s a form that lends itself to audience interest and interaction. In a moment in which instant information has also had chilling effects on our relationship to “truth” and “facts,” we hope that East Asia for All will contribute to the rich and growing body of rigorously researched, educational internet media for a broad and diverse audience.
So far, we’ve released episodes on Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary and the life and work of Japanese novelist, singer, and political figure Nosaka Akiyuki, as well as a “minisode” on fascism. Tune in soon for our episode on Ghost in the Shell!
You can find episodes of East Asia for All on our website and Soundcloud, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, subscribe to our newsletter, and subscribe on the iTunes Store. Google Play access coming soon!
Melissa Brzycki and Stephanie Montgomery are both Ph.D. candidates in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They’ve lived, traveled, and worked together in China throughout their graduate careers, and share a love for spicy peanuts, binge-watching television, and debating the finer points of China’s 5,000 years of history with taxi drivers.