Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

Title: Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
Author: Susan J. Napier
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 355

Although I consider myself a literature person, it might be better to call what I do “media studies.” I write papers about books, but I also write more than a few papers about movies, and at least half of the Japanese movies I watch and write about these days are animated. This is something I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be doing when I first entered graduate school. For whatever reason, however, I read the 2005 updated edition of Susan Napier’s book on anime during my first winter break and was so inspired that I decided to start writing about popular media, too.

I had taken a lot from Napier’s two earlier books on literature (Escape from the Wasteland and The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature) as an undergraduate, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to sit down and starting reading Anime. If I had to guess, it probably had something to do with the bad reputation the book had (has?) among anime fans. I didn’t have a particularly strong impression from the chapters on magical girls from the original 2001 edition that I had read as a freshman in college (probably because I was eighteen years old), and several people had said that the book is poorly written, gets plot points wrong, and doesn’t respect anime as a medium.

My experience of reading the book was completely the opposite of the bad rumors I had heard. The first chapter of the book (appropriately titled “Why Anime?”) explains why Japanese animation is amazing and exciting and well worth academic attention, and I feel like it conveys a great deal of appreciation and respect for the medium. Also, I’ve seen my fair share of anime, and I’m a member of the generation that is old enough to have seen most of the works Napier discusses in Anime. Upon re-reading the book this past semester, nothing jumped out at me as overtly incorrect in terms of plot or character summary (but, then again, I have never finished and do not plan to ever finish watching Ranma 1/2, so I am willing to admit that I could be wrong). Finally, I think the writing is wonderful. Napier’s prose is clear, precise, and easily understandable by anyone who has neither a long history of watching anime nor a long history of studying Japan. Her writing is also enjoyable to read, as it is occasionally augmented by clever and poetic turns of phrase and various well-placed rhetorical devices that help her make her argument.

Anime is more or less written as a textbook for university-level students. It covers about two dozen films, television series, and OVA’s, usually focusing on two or three primary works over the course of each 20-25 page chapter. The book is broadly divided into three parts according to what Napier sees as the three essential modes of Japanese animation: the apocalyptic, the carnivalesque, and the elegiac. Woven throughout these modes are the three themes of technology, the body, and history. Chapters have titles like “Ghosts and Machines: The Technological Body,” “The Enchantment of Estrangement: The Shōjo in the World of Miyazaki Hayao,” and “Waiting for the End of the World: Apocalyptic Identity.” Although many of the works she discusses could belong in multiple chapters, I feel that Napier chooses her primary works for each chapter extraordinarily well and uses representative works to make strong arguments about various trends in contemporary Japanese animation.

Is there a danger of occasional overgeneralization? You bet. But so must there be in any entry-level textbook. A casual reader might run the risk of thinking, for example, that all Japanese animated pornography is fantastically grotesque after finishing the chapter “Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Anime” (which discusses such classics as Legend of the Overfiend and La Blue Girl), but Napier is always careful to qualify her argument and choice of texts not only within her main discussion but also in her footnotes, which document the sources from which Napier is drawing her conclusions, alternate texts for consideration, and interpretations that are at odds with her own.

Napier reads animation like a literature scholar would read a book, although her focus, understandably, seems to fall on visual imagery. Her readings of the texts follow two lines: psychoanalytic and socio-historic. Since Anime is targeted at undergraduates, neither line of interpretation is ever allowed to become too esoteric. A standard knowledge of Freudian psychology and basic sociology should suffice for the reader, who runs no danger of being confronted with Lacan’s objet petit a or the superstructures of Frederic Jameson. Nevertheless, Anime is far from mindless, and anime fans looking for extended plot summary followed by commentary, insights provided by interviews with directors, or viewing recommendations would probably best be served elsewhere.

I firmly believe that Anime works very well as an introductory textbook. It’s filled with interesting general ideas, and Napier’s clear language and precise structuring make these ideas easy to understand and debate. You don’t have to take my word for it, though, since there are plenty of other opinions floating around the internet. William Gardner (a scholar of science fiction) is happy that the book doesn’t seem like it’s written for otaku; Adam Arnold (a reviewer on Animefringe) is unhappy that the book doesn’t seem like it’s written for otaku. A reviewer for the Anime News Network claims that the book can be enjoyed as long as one is willing to accept the academic context; a reviewer for Hofstra Papers in Anthropology claims that the book can be enjoyed as long as one accepts that the academic context is not rigorous enough. Wherever you fall along this spectrum, Anime is a fun and inspiring book, and it contains a lovely ten-page bibliography that’s good to browse through for further reading on both the fun end and the serious end of writing on Japanese animation.

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