The Other Women’s Lib

Title: The Other Women’s Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women’s Fiction
Author: Julia C. Bullock
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Pages: 200

Sometimes I will hear someone describe an academic text with disdain, calling it “accessible” as if that were a terrible, embarrassing thing. This bothers me. Psychoanalytical, literary, political, and cultural theory are wonderful tools, but the texts from which this theory is drawn are often very difficult to read. Furthermore, academia has reached a point in its cycle of production at which it is simply not enough to have read the original sources of theory; one must also read all of the lenses through which they have been interpreted over the past thirty to forty years. As a result, even one strain of theoretical thought is often difficult to master. And yet, some scholars expect their readers to know everything about the specific theory that informs their work. They thus go about using specialist terms without explanation, throwing theorists’ names around metonymically, and not bothering to orient their reader to their underlying system of assumptions. I believe this is unreasonable, if only because some of us have not been alive for the requisite number of years it takes to read and study all the books (if such a thing is even possible).

I don’t mean to suggest that all academics write like this. In fact, I believe most professors are far more interested in communicating ideas than they are in hoarding them within the confines of the ivory tower. Julia Bullock’s literary study The Other Women’s Lib is a perfect example, I think, of how an “accessible” academic text can convey both the pleasures of the authors whose works are examined and the pleasures of the methods used to examine them.

In The Other Women’s Lib, Professor Bullock handles three postwar writers: Kōno Taeko, Takahashi Takako, and Kurahashi Yumiko. Each of these three writers is fairly canonized in the tradition of Japanese literary studies, with numerous dissertations and anthologized essays celebrating their work. Bullock’s book-length study is important because it has the courage to focus on these three female writers alone without feeling the need to include chapters on some of the more prominent male figures of the Japanese literary world, thus carrying on the torch sparked by classics like Victoria Vernon’s Daughters of the Moon and the fantastic essay collection The Woman’s Hand.

Instead of dividing the book into three sections focusing on each of the three authors, Bullock has categorized her chapters thematically. Each of these five chapters deals with an important issue relevant to the work of all of the authors. For example, how were they received by the literary establishment? How did they incorporate the concept of the male gaze into their writing? Do their stories reflect an ingrained misogyny, or do they instead reproduce misogyny in order to challenge it? How do these authors narrate the female body? How do they characterize the relationships between women? Throughout these chapters, Bullock draws on the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault (the internalized gaze), Susan Gubar (feminist misogyny), and Luce Irigaray (the creation of discursive sexual difference). Bullock does not merely throw about concepts like panopticism, however; she explains her terms and their contexts and fleshes them out with well-chosen quotes before explaining exactly how they apply to the stories and novels she analyzes.

The first chapter of the book, “Party Crashers and Poison Pens,” places these themes and writers into their geographical and historical context, namely, Japan in the sixties and seventies. These decades were an era of high economic growth and the cradle of gender ideologies that many people have now come to regard as “traditional;” i.e., the man goes out into the world and fights the good fight as a corporate warrior, while the woman stays at home and takes care of the children. The chapter introduces these ideologies and their political implications, explains their social and economic context, and then touches on the male-dominated literary scene before then demonstrating how certain proto-feminist women writers crashed the party with dark, violent, and absurdist fiction. Bullock describes the literature that emerged during this period as “the other women’s lib,” a nuanced and intensely critical evaluation of contemporary gender roles and economic ideologies. Even if a reader has no interest in the particular writers in question, this chapter alone is worth reading for its excellent summary of an exciting literary movement and the dynamic and explosive time period that served as its background.

That being said, Kōno, Takahashi, and Kurahashi are all fantastic writers who have been well served by their English translations, which appear in collections like Toddler-Hunting, Lonely Woman, and The Woman with the Flying Head. Their North American equivalents would be authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. In other words, they are authors who are worth reading and worth reading about. It is my hope that The Other Women’s Lib will encourage the popularity of these three Japanese authors in English-speaking teaching and translation communities. If nothing else, it is extraordinarily satisfying for me to put Professor Bullock’s book on my shelf next to all of the literary studies of Kyōka, Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Murakami.

To anyone interested in the topic of gender in Japanese literature, I might also recommend the title Girl Reading Girl in Japan, which was edited by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley and published in late 2010 by Routledge. Unlike Bad Girls of Japan, Girl Reading Girl in Japan is intended for a more specialist audience, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially for someone interested in the burgeoning field of shōjo studies. The book is a collection of conference papers, with each paper being about ten to twelve pages of essay and another one or two pages of footnotes. The ten conference papers are accompanied by an editors’ introduction, a genealogical essay introducing three major Japanese players in the field of shōjo studies (Honda Masuko, Yagawa Sumiko, and Kawasaki Kenko), and then two translated essays. Taken together, these collected writings demonstrate what has happened in Western scholarship relating to shōjo in the past ten years and provide an excellent introduction to the body of Japanese scholarship. Girl Reading Girl in Japan brings the topics discussed in The Other Women’s Lib into the present day through essays on subjects ranging from Murakami Haruki to Kanehara Hitomi to the portrayal of rape in Harry Potter dōjinshi. The essays are intelligent, the topics are fun, and the book is very easy to browse through. I only wish Routledge would release it in paperback…

Bad Girls of Japan

Title: Bad Girls of Japan
Editors: Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 222

Every once in awhile I will demand, in my ignorance, why no one has published an article about some facet of Japanese culture that really deserves an article. It usually turns out that, in fact, someone has published an article; and, occasionally, it turns out that all of the articles I have ever wanted to read have been published in one book. My most recent of such discoveries is Bad Girls of Japan, which was published in hardcover in 2005 and paperback in 2007. Why hadn’t I read it before this past weekend? That’s a good question. Perhaps I had thought to myself, what do I care about Abe Sada or Yoshiya Nobuko? Perhaps I had thought to myself, how academically rigorous can a short collection of twelve-to-fifteen page essays actually be? Did I mention that I can be extremely ignorant sometimes?

Bad Girls of Japan is a compilation of eleven short articles (plus a separate introduction, conclusion, and bibliography) about, as the title suggests, Japanese bad girls, with “bad” meaning “defying mainstream notions of proper female conduct” and “girl” being a term of female empowerment, apparently. Rebecca Copeland begins the collection with an essay about the demonic women of Japanese folklore, such as the yamamba, or carnivorous mountain witch, and the jilted lover turned giant snake monster from the Dōjō-ji myth that has come down to us by way of a famous Nō play. Other essay topics include geisha, Meiji schoolgirls, kogal, and shopping mavens like Nakamura Usagi – as well as the aforementioned Abe Sada (whose erotic escapades were sensationalized by films like In the Realm of the Senses) and Yoshiya Nobuko (whose Hana monogatari – flower tales – more or less established the shōjo narrative style).

In short, Bad Girls of Japan is all about women who have become the vortexes generating major cultural currents in modern and contemporary Japan. As such, it reads like an alternate cultural history informed by various academic focuses and disciplines. Since the essays are short, each writer has been forced to say the most important things about her topic in the most efficient way possible, but none of these essays sacrifices theoretical nuance (or footnotes). Furthermore, in a book designed to upset common ideas concerning Japanese culture, it is appropriate that none of the essays makes any sort of culturally essentializing overgeneralizations, either.

Because of its essay length and broad range of topics, Bad Girls of Japan does feel a bit like an introductory textbook, but it’s a very intelligent textbook, and the excellent editing ensures that it’s easy to read, as well. As a result, I think this essay collection is one of the rare academic books that will appeal to non-academics, and it would be an excellent choice of reading material for someone who doesn’t know very much about Japan but wants to learn more. I especially recommend this book to pop culture fans interested in moving beyond archetypes and stereotypes. It’s a quick, fun read, and it paints a lively and vivid picture of the past one hundred years of Japanese cultural history. To respond to my own initial doubts concerning this book, then, one should care about women like Abe Sada and Yoshiya Nobuko not merely because they were interesting people who told interesting stories, but also because of what their stories reveal about Japan and its relation to the rest of the world as it made its way through the twentieth century.

By the way, that hypothetical essay I always wanted to read about sex in josei manga is in here too, and I think Gretchen Jones does a great job of addressing the possibility of female pleasure and agency lurking within all the graphic rape. I just wish her chapter were longer, which I suppose is something I could say about everything in the book…

Permitted and Prohibited Desires

Title: Permitted and Prohibited Desires:
Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan

Author: Anne Allison
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication Year: 1996
Pages: 213

I am not a fan of theory. To be perfectly honest, I find the vast majority of it, from Barthes to Foucault to Kristeva to Butler, very difficult to read. The ideas are interesting, certainly, but the contexts often feel dated, and the language is occasionally impenetrable. I suppose this is an occupational hazard, though, as specific terminology is needed to express certain ideas, and the names of theorists are useful as metonymic signifiers of certain strains of thought. Also, although pure theory can sometimes come across as bogwash, its application to more textually grounded studies helps to both deepen and widen the scope of the topic, making something like pornographic manga, for example, relevant to the non-specialist.

In Permitted and Prohibited Desires, anthropologist Anne Allison applies gender and cinema theory to adult manga, arguing that its pornographic elements attest more to the weakness of men than they do to the exploitation of women. Allison reacts against the position of feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who argues that pornography is always misogynistic, and Catherine MacKinnon, who treats pornography as both a reflection and cause of gender inequality, in order to argue for a more nuanced view of how gender functions within pornography, which restricts male social and sexual roles perhaps even more than it restricts those of women.

In the erotic manga that Allison discusses, women are indeed penetrated, gazed upon, and reduced to a spectacle against their will, but men are often absent or unnecessary. Allison demonstrates that the male position of dominance is undermined by the fact that the man is often unable to obtain consent from the woman, as well as by the fact that his genitals are never directly shown but instead replaced with inanimate substitutes like baseball bats and soda bottles. Many scenarios do not feature men at all but leave a woman or pair of women to their own autonomous devices. When the two sexes are paired, however, the display of aggressive female desire often leaves the man impotent, thus driving him to lash out violently at his partner. In other words, the pornographic manga that Allison discusses betrays a strong stake in maintaining a fiction of male domination. It also goes out of its way to construct a clear opposition between male and female sexual identities. Although the man’s position as aggressor and voyeur is meant to empower him, the necessity of his resort to violence suggests that his gaze is not as powerful as it might seem.

Allison does not challenge the notion that the Japanese social order is inherently phallocentric, but she argues that its economic and organizational structures put an enormous burden on men. She sees the brutalized women of pornographic manga as representing real women – such as the potential sexual partners who make themselves unavailable to the reader, or the wives and mothers who are perceived as single-handedly managing a household in which men have become irrelevant. However, these fictional women also stand in for other things that chain males to patriarchal societal expectations, such as entrance exams and companies that require infinite hours of overtime. Allison states that the relatively open acceptance of erotic manga, which are published so as to be easily consumed during a commute, functions as a pressure release valve that allows men to indulge in superficially subversive fantasies before then returning to their primary roles as workers. Pornographic manga thus provide an escape for men, but the escape is only temporary and belies numerous fears of male impotence and powerlessness.

Fun stuff, right? Actually, oddly enough, it is. Allison writes in a very accessible style; and, when she refers to critical literature to make her argument, she draws out and pinpoints exactly what she is referring to. She will never merely cite the Freudian understanding of castration anxiety but rather delve into it in detail, explaining how it differs from a Lacanian understanding and how both understandings relate to the manga narrative in question. As a result, I feel like I learned a lot from Permitted and Prohibited Desires that had nothing to do with manga or Japan. Also, for readers who might not be familiar with the visual conventions of Japanese pornography, the book is filled with well-chosen illustrations that are sufficiently not safe for work. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

But don’t let me fool you into thinking that discussions of erotic cartoons, adult manga, and censorship laws are all this book has to offer. Sandwiched between chapters on fictional fantasy women are two essays on Japanese motherhood that had previously been published elsewhere to great acclaim. According to the book’s introduction, these two chapters, “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs” and “Producing Mothers,” are based on Allison’s own experience as a mother of two young children while doing research in Japan. Although the purpose of these two chapters is to show how women are almost coerced into becoming good mothers by school regulations concerning everything from uniforms and homework to the prepared lunches children must bring to school with them, the author’s descriptions of her own hardships and surprises are fairly entertaining as stories in and of themselves. These chapters are aptly illustrated with images from Japanese magazines that showcase the obentō lunchboxes that constitute such a large symbolic portion of the relationship between mother and child in Japan. Allison ties these two chapters into the larger theme of the book with a highly relevant discussion of mother-son incest fantasies, which she uses to show how both parties are bound to state ideology even in pornography.

Although Allison’s application of psychoanalytic theory to erotic manga reveals many aspects of the psychology of the male reader, it neglects to take into account the position of female readers, either of pornography marketed towards men or of josei manga, which can be equally pornographic. Allison’s study of pornographic manga is highly useful in its analysis of how women are constructed in narratives written by men and for men, but I feel that work still needs to be done on how women are characterized in narratives written by and for women. Also, Permitted and Prohibited Desires discusses real women primarily in the context of “traditionally” accepted roles like housewife and caregiver. Allison succeeds in showing how these roles have been fetishized by Japanese media and educational superstructures, but she also risks the perpetuation of this fetishization by arguing that it is only through their mothers that men in Japan are able to enter into adulthood. The roles of women as sexual objects and as mothers are given primacy in Permitted and Prohibited Desires, but obviously these roles are far from the only roles occupied by both real and fictional women in Japan. Nevertheless, I feel that this book serves as an excellent foundation for the study of female characters in manga, and it can be easily supplemented by the numerous works that have followed in its wake – one of the most recent being the newest issue of the U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, which collects a handful of essays on shōjo manga written by Japanese academics.

Before I wrap up, I must admit that I am writing this review partially in response to the recently published essay collection Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives edited by Toni Johnson-Woods. The essays in this book cover a wide range of topics, but they are less analytical than descriptive, explaining manga to an audience that has presumably never seen or read one before. The book also succumbs to one of my personal pet peeves, the italicization of Japanese words that have become common in America, such as anime, manga, shōjo, and shōnen. This stylistic decision is disconcerting not only because the introduction attempts to argue that manga are a truly global phenomenon (using evidence like a picture of a section of bookshelves clearly labeled “Manga” in a Borders book store), but also because such words are used so frequently in all of the essays. I was hoping that this collection would be to the study of manga what Susan Napier’s Anime is to the study of Japanese animation, but it’s just basic information presented in a somewhat unprofessional manner. That’s a harsh judgment, I know, but my disappointment is commensurate to my expectations. In the end, I still find myself searching for the perfect book about manga, but Permitted and Prohibited Desires will do well enough for now.

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.

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.

Magic as Metaphor in Anime

Title: Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study
Author: Dani Cavallaro
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: McFarland
Pages: 212

When Amazon recommended this book to me, I was really excited. What an interesting topic! I haven’t had good experiences with Dani Cavallaro’s work in the past, however. I felt that her books on the films of Oshii Mamoru (The Cinema of Oshii Mamoru: Fantasy, Technology and Politics, 2006) and Studio Gainax (The Art of Studio Gainax: Experimentation, Style and Innovation at the Leading Edge of Anime, 2009) were somewhat shallow and, to be frank, extraordinarily difficult to read. In these two books, Cavallaro has devoted five or six pages to films and television series to which other scholars have written thirty to forty page articles and chapters. Each of her essays reads like an outline – she skips from topic to topic with no development and little transition, using theoretical and philosophical terms without explaining what they mean in context and without giving examples. In this way, she can cover an exhaustive list of material, but it doesn’t seem like she has much to say. Since its table of contents would suggest that Magic as Metaphor focuses more on broader themes, though, I thought I would at least check it out from my university’s library and give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Magic as Metaphor is unreadable. I found so many things about this book frustrating that I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose I should start with the least damning of my criticisms: Cavallaro discusses an enormous number of titles. Her “Filmography” section at the back of the book lists forty-one primary titles (many of which are simply successive seasons of the same franchise). She’s got roughly seventy other ancillary titles listed, however, just in case the main forty weren’t enough. Even if we focus on the main titles, though, she still has less than 190 pages to talk about thirty or so anime franchises, which equals about six pages devoted to each of them. So yes, there is quite a bit of breadth, and I admire Cavallaro for being able to watch and keep track of so many titles (many of which came out quite recently); but again, it feels like she’s writing only marginally fleshed-out outlines, and the way she jumps from title to title and from concept to concept is disorienting. It’s also almost impossible to ascertain the main point of each chapter, and the way that various anime are included in the various chapters comes off as almost random.

In addition to her shallow discussions and poor structuring, I also feel like Cavallaro isn’t saying anything interesting. Certainly, she will quote key thinkers (like Tzvetan Todorov and Wikipedia) and then quickly move on without explaining what these quotes mean or how they relate to her argument, but most of her discussion is plot summary. Not explication through plot summary, but explanatory text that could be taken from an entertainment journalist’s review of a particular title. Her description of characters and themes often stems from the most simple and most obvious interpretation possible, as if it came off of the back of a DVD box. I am exaggerating, of course, but only a little bit. Certain sentences stand out as being insightful and useful and meaningful, but they are rare and isolated from one another.

The writing itself is terrible, ranging from overly flowery diction (“CLAMP’s passion for ocular impairment”) to purple prose (“whereas Lydia’s expression invariably exudes infinite kindness and compassion, Raven’s holds a malevolent light soaked with unspeakable sadness”) to condescension (“Earl and Fairy makes reference to so bountiful a range of magical entities as to occasionally come across as a concise guide to the spirit world for newbies”). Her paragraphs rarely have topic sentences, and there are no strong conclusions to be found anywhere. She quotes inane movie reviews as if they were scholarship and often uses these idiotic quotes (“Sousuke is ‘one of those adorable anime moppets with large round eyes’ amid ‘many a winsome tummy-poke and nose-wiggle’”) to close paragraphs. Things like this occur so frequently that I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I read. In short, the writing in this book toes the line between journalism and scholarship but, unfortunately, contains none of the pleasures of either.

You may be asking yourself why I read the book if it was so bad. The answer is that I didn’t. I read one chapter (“Magic Bildungsromans”) and then threw the thing against the wall. It may be possible that I picked the worst chapter to read, and it may also be possible that the rest of the book is sheer brilliance, but I highly doubt it. Cavallaro has six other books about anime in print through McFarland, and all of them have been published in the last five years. These do not include the numerous other works she has published on cyberpunk through other publishers in the past five years. Simply put, Cavallaro is a writing machine, and her output indeed reads like it was written by a machine. I have found some of her work, especially Anime and Memory: Aesthetic, Cultural and Thematic Perspectives (2009) to be useful as a guide for viewing recommendations. Otherwise, it’s best to approach her books with caution, and with a library card instead of a credit card.

In all fairness, Cavallaro’s books are more than capable of carrying their weight as reference guides to Japanese animation (as opposed to “critical studies”), but I myself prefer the work of British anime scholar Helen McCarthy, whose books are less pretentious and infinitely more enjoyable to read. They also have more pictures, which is always a good thing where visual media is concerned.

From Impressionism to Anime

From Impressionism to Anime

Title: From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West
Author: Susan Napier
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Palgrave
Pages: 243

Let me start off by listing the obvious flaws of this book. First of all, the cover. It’s terrible. Whose idiot idea was it to take a crappy photo of crappy cosplay, run it through the “Impressionism” filter in Photoshop, and then put it on the cover of a book? According to the back cover, this monstrosity is the work of “Scribe Inc.” Shame on you, Scribe Inc., and shame on you, Palgrave, for letting them get away with it! Second of all, in a book primarily concerned with visual culture, there are surprisingly few illustrations. To be precise, there are ten, and only four of them are in color. This I am going to blame on the author, whose 2005 work Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is also surprisingly under-illustrated (while other Palgrave scholarly publications have no shortage of well placed, high-quality greyscale images). Napier has no excuse for this, especially since the cosplay culture she details so lovingly is all about getting pictures of itself published. Third, Napier’s scope is very broad, but her treatment of her many topics is, perhaps unsurprisingly, shallow. I did not find this to be the case with Anime (despite many critical accusations to the contrary), but I’m disappointed with what I found to be the lack of sustained intellectual rigor in Impressionism.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me be something of a fangirl for a second and say that I love all of Napier’s work, Impressionism included. Napier always manages to choose the most fascinating things to write about, and she always does an excellent job of explaining why her chosen subject matter is interesting and important. Her analysis is apt, penetrating, and lucid, and her work does not suffer from any of the structural weakness found in a great deal of recent academic work – you always know what she’s trying to say, and her way of saying it is both logical and artistic. Although her theoretical background is rock solid (her bibliographies are a bit intimidating), she doesn’t blithely toss around big names and critical jargon. Also, you can tell that, even though she occasionally betrays a bit of light-hearted sarcasm, she has nothing but respect for the topics of her studies.

This attitude of respect is very important for a work like Impressionism, which deals with some strange and, depending on one’s perspective, almost contemptible subject matter. The book is divided into eight chapters (not including the Introduction and Conclusion). The first four chapters each take up a different aspect of the West’s fascination with Japan during the last two centuries. The first chapter covers turn-of-the-century Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, who revolutionized the fine arts with a little inspiration from Japan, or at least the “Japan” of their imaginations. The second chapter goes into famous inter-war Japan enthusiasts such as Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Waley, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The third chapter follows the antics of post-war American writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michel Crichton, and William Gibson, and the fourth chapter is all about how Western men perceive and interact with Japanese women in works like Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha. The last four chapters, which I consider to be the true raison d’être of this book, deal with American anime fandom and all its various manifestations, from anime conventions to cosplay to slash fan fiction. Through all of this, Napier attempts to uncover the source of the West’s long fascination with Japan, all the while making astute references to the global political and economic climates during which this fascination has become manifest.

The first four chapters, while interesting, are, as I said earlier, somewhat shallow. Each topic that Napier covers in these chapters has been written about extensively by other scholars, a fact which she openly acknowledges. Her originality here lies in the fact that she documents what she sees as a trend, although she is cautious about saying that the various moments in the history of what I am going to call “Japan fandom” are directly related. The main point of interest for readers is the work that Napier has done on post-1980 American anime fandom, which is the culmination of many years of interviews and surveys. Mainly speaking through the voices of the fans she has contacted, Napier attempts to explain the appeal of contemporary Japanese popular culture to Americans, often in contrast to American popular culture. Although she offers no strong conclusion, the variety of insights Napier offers are invaluable.

My one real criticism of this study is that, although Napier hints at exposing the power relations underlying fan culture, she never really follows through. In other words, she is mainly concerned with the relation of fans to the world outside fandom (what she calls “the Muggle world”) and doesn’t delve into the hierarchies of power within the in-group of fandom itself. For example, I would have found an analysis of the term “weeaboo” (an American who loves anime so much that he or she wants to become Japanese) to be a pertinent addition to her discussion. Instead, Napier makes American anime fandom seem like something of a utopia; although she mentions the darker side of fandom by quoting scholars who bring up the concept of “fan pathology,” she never directly acknowledges that such a thing might actually exist in her own object of study.

Otherwise, I found From Impressionism to Anime to be a very satisfying read. It’s an excellent cultural study and could double as a perfect introduction to modern and contemporary Japanese history for someone considering pursuing the subject as an undergraduate – or simply as an intelligent, interested individual. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is actually a book you want to read!