The Anime Machine

Title: The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation
Author: Thomas Lamarre
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 385

If Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for undergraduates, Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine is an entry-level textbook on Japanese animation for graduate students. The prerequisite for being able to fully appreciate this study is a firm foundation in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cinema theory. Lamarre plays hard and fast with specialist terminology, and he doesn’t wait for the reader to catch up. Nevertheless, The Anime Machine is a brilliant text that will hopefully revolutionize the study of animation, Japanese or otherwise.

Lamarre’s essential argument in The Anime Machine is that, in order to understand Japanese animation, one needs to understand what animation is and how it works before starting to talk about its cultural and social aspects. His main point seems to be that Japanese animation is characterized by non-Cartesian perspectivism, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s “flat,” or that it lacks the illusion of depth. This feature of “limited animation” is engendered by the limited budgets of many animation studios in Japan, whose personnel have nevertheless managed to turn financial constraints into an art form. Lamarre is not shy about embracing a strongly auteuristic view of animation, identifying the work helmed by directors like Miyazaki Hayao and Anno Hideaki as conscientious statements of personal worldview through the use of the various idiosyncrasies of limited animation.

The first work that Lamarre examines in depth is Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. After explaining the technology used to create layers, or “planes,” in traditional cel animation, Lamarre argues that Miyazaki subverts conventions used to depict depth (and also speed and movement) in order to present his audience with a more humanistic view of history and the environment. He then moves to the work of Studio Gainax, specifically Nadia of the Blue Waters and Neon Genesis Evangelion, to emphasize his point while also discussing affective character design and the implications of limited character animation. The text then turns to otaku theory via a summary of the work of Azuma Hiroki and finds its summarizing points in the confluence of girl, machine, audience, and “the cinematic apparatus” in the animated series based on CLAMP’s hyper-popular manga Chobits.

I am oversimplifying a great deal. Lamarre’s chapters are incredibly wide ranging in their themes and contents. One issue he carries through his entire discussion is that of the relationship between female characters and technological ideals in anime. An astute reader will notice that, although he blatantly contradicts himself at certain points over the course of the book, his observations are extremely interesting and almost completely removed from the clichéd repetitions of the vast majority of scholarship on the subject. In fact, without clearly delineating (and thus limiting the scope of) each topic, Lamarre manages to hit most of the major issues in the academic discussion of Japanese animation.

I like this book. I like it a lot. I had the opportunity to read it with a group of extremely intelligent undergraduates while taking a class on Japanese animation this past spring, however, and my impression was that the undergraduates hated it, aggressively and venomously. One person, an advanced student of philosophy, insisted that Thomas Lamarre is French and that this book is a translation, which is to say that Lamarre is a deliberately opaque writer and that the language of The Anime Machine is needlessly difficult to follow. Another person, a student of film theory and a practicing filmmaker, constructed an entire visual presentation arguing that Lamarre’s claims of non-Cartesianism, at least as they relate to Laputa, are completely unfounded.

I would have to agree that Lamarre’s language and system of references are quite dense. For example, when Lamarre argues in his introduction that the technology used to create animation influences the type of animation that is created, he phrases his statements in sentences like this:

The animetic interval (already implicit in the layering of images prior to the animation stand) became the site of a rationalization, instrumentalization, or technologization of the multiplanar image, allowing animators to harness or channel the force of the moving image in distinctly animetic ways.

It becomes increasingly clear what Lamarre means by such terms as “animetic interval,” and “multiplanar image” as the reader progresses through the book, but the use of phrases like “cinematic apparatus” (a technically appropriate but somewhat misleading way of referring to the function of the “camera” in animation) can be confusing and alienating to readers not wholly familiar with recent avant-garde film theory (this would include myself). Moreover, anyone with anything less than a sterling classical education is going to find him or herself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to clarify the meaning of the Carteisan subject and Heidegger’s views on High Humanism.

Despite this, I have read worse writers than Lamarre, and I didn’t find The Anime Machine particularly challenging as far as academic studies go. I am writing this review because I recently ran into a friend of mine who had gone to this year’s Otakon and found herself attending a panel on “Anime in Academia.” She said that one of the panelists had highly recommended Lamarre’s book to a room full of teenage fans, and the two of us had a bit of a laugh. This is not to say that The Anime Machine isn’t full of insights and wonderful ideas and solutions and problems and great leads on further research, but rather that a casual, nonacademic fan might find it extremely frustrating. So I therefore give this book a million gold stars and thumbs up and non-rotten tomatoes, but also a very serious caveat emptor warning for non-academics.

As long as I’m writing about academic studies of anime and manga, I would like to link to an excellent series of posts (which begins here) about desire, love, and rape in the classic manga The Rose of Versailles that credits the intelligence of its reader and makes interesting observations without becoming entangled in the morass of academic jargon. If you’re looking for good essays about Japanese popular culture, The Lobster Dance is a great place to start.

8 thoughts on “The Anime Machine

  1. Well, that’s a shame. At the beginning of this post, I thought, “oh? a book on anime for graduate students? just what I’ve been looking for.” or something to that effect.

    But then you got me with that “prerequisite in philosophy, psychoanalytic theory and cinema studies.”

    I have no patience for people who are deliberately opaque in their word choice and sentence structure… I’m looking for a book that will open up the field to me – someone with minimal background in theory, but otherwise a grad student level intellect, interest, whatever. Lamarre does not seem to be it. Maybe I should start skimming issues of Mechademia. I wonder if UH has a subscription.

      1. I like Mechademia! The submission word count is fairly low, which means that the essayists have to get to the point of their argument, and quick – and I appreciate that. Of the four volumes that are out right now, the second one (which focuses on gender) is the best! The third one (which handles the theme of post-humanism) is really good too. The first volume, not so much, BUT! It has an article by Lamarre that is essentially the summary of the main point of The Anime Machine, except much more accessible. I dunno, Lamarre isn’t so bad; I just wouldn’t recommend that particular study to a high school student for pleasure reading.

        There is this anthology called Japanese Visual Culture, edited by Mark W. Macwilliams, that has some really good essays in it. It also has some really bad essays, but they’re at least bad for interesting reasons (and not just lame). Maybe, if your library has that book, it might be better than the first volume of Mechademia….

  2. Ooooo, thank you for the plug and the praise!

    This book sounds fascinating! I was in media/film studies (I really had my hands in every department in arts and humanities!) as part of my undergrad major. The quote seems dense, but I think I would enjoy the book.

    After all, it’s not Derrida spouting off about philosophy, it’s the practical application of theory to a work. Pure theory leaves me cold, but I love it if it’s connected to an event, medium, or work. (Like in James Hevia’s English Lessons. Brilliant work.)

    1. I think you would totally enjoy the book too~! Lamarre’s analysis of Miyazaki’s Famous Flying Shōjo is really interesting. And he has a whole chapter about gender and the visual depiction of eyes in Chobits. The margins of my copy of the book are filled with stars and hearts and happy faces… Because I am secretly sixteen years old?

      I was thinking, in my infinite hate of Gender Trouble, about writing a review of Ayako Kano’s Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan, which is like Gender Trouble, except a practical application of the theory and thus, as you say, much more awesome.

      I should totally read English Lessons at some point. I always wanted to, but no one ever recommended it so highly. I should really try harder to get out of my academic field every once in awhile…

      1. Cool, I will check both of them out (Kano and Lamarre) when I get a chance.

        I loved English Lessons and I had nothing in the way of modern Chinese history before reading. However, I’m fascinated by how colonialism functioned/s, and this is a really great one for China and Britain’s relationship. Hevia is really good at describing visuals and scenes, too.

        (Totally off topic, but if you want a break from theory and want some “fun” American history, I like Zeitz’s Flapper and Larson’s Devil in the White City. No theory; great storytelling. I feel like I lose academic cred for liking these books, but I wouldn’t cite them, so it’s okay, right? Right?)

        Speaking of which and since you teach, do you have any recs for a basic Japanese history book (an overview, perhaps) for my friend who is totally new to Japan? The ones I read in the 90s are woefully out of date, I fear…

      2. Oh man, does WordPress not like stacking comments. Sorry.

        The best history book I have read is Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan. It starts a bit late, but… You can just make up the rest?

        Also, the book we use at my school at teach “Introduction to Japanese Civilization” is Paul Varley’s Japanese Culture, which reads a bit like a history textbook. Except slightly more interesting.

        But honestly, the book I would recommend to someone who knows very little about Japanese history and wants to start learning without actually reading a textbook is William LaFleur’s Liquid Life. It’s relatively short, it’s extremely well written, it’s based on rock-solid research, it’s centered around an interesting topic, and it teaches you a whole lot of background information in a painless and unobtrusive way. The number of academics from completely unrelated fields who cite this book has always surprised me – but it really shouldn’t. It’s a great book.

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