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!

The Flash of Capital

The Flash of Capital

Title: The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan
Author: Eric Cazdyn
Publication Year: 2002
Publisher: Duke University Press
Pages: 316

For all of the back-breaking piles of academic books I read, I sure don’t get around to reviewing many. I suppose this is because I spend so much of what passes for my real life writing about them that I don’t have many nice things to say at the end of the day. The Flash of Capital is an exception. Perhaps I feel this way because I was inspired to read every word of the book – and Cazdyn’s book is not easy to read. Interesting and thought-provoking, yes, original, yes, lots of fun, yes, but not easy to read. If you are at all interested in Japan, film, or even Japanese film, though, it’s worth the trouble.

Cazdyn’s basic thesis is that the major trends of Japanese film correspond with the major developments of capitalism in Japan, which is only natural, considering that both movies and modern capitalism came to Japan at roughly the same time. The first five of the six chapters explore these intersections by examining certain key questions of film studies. For example, the second chapter is concerned with film historiography and how the discourses surrounding the Japanese state have shaped the way that critics and scholars have talked and written about film. The fourth chapter discusses how economic development, especially as it has engendered interest in socialism, has affected the agency of the actor. It also touches on the politically utopian and dystopian implications of the professionalism or amateur status of the actor. And the fifth chapter, which focuses on pornography, completely changed the way I think about the meaning of visual representation in film. The sixth chapter takes the various concepts presented in these five chapters and uses them to give new, interesting, and politically significant readings to the canonical films of canonical directors, like Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon, Ozu Yasujirō’s Late Spring, and Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell.

My favorite part of the book, however, was not the theoretical acrobatics or the micro-analysis of non-mainstream films and directors, but rather the information regarding the cultural context surrounding each topic. For example, the first chapter, which concerns the relationship between actors, spectators, and the medium of film, begins with a discussion of kabuki, which is linked to a discussion of the wanted posters for the members of the Aum Shinri-kyō cult (responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks). And the discussion of the pornography industry in Japan in the fifth chapter is beyond fascinating.

Unfortunately, the valuable ideas and information presented by Cazdyn occasionally become mired in the language of post-structuralist theory. Some of his sentences derailed me for days at a time. I will give an example:

The problem, instead, lies in the way Iwasaki works through the problematics, which ultimately betrays (the dialectical implications of) his work’s title and resembles a teleological history more than a relational one, with the telos being the birth of the proletarian film or even a later moment of actually existing socialism.

Excuse me, what? I’m feeling a little stupid and uneducated here. Also, as you might be able to tell from the above passage, Cazdyn is a bit of a Marxist. Although he vehemently denies such an affiliation, his ideology comes on fairly strong at points, such as at the close of the fourth chapter:

What Ogawa’s Sundial Carved by a Thousand Years of Notches (and the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival that it inspired) suggests is that new transnational networks must be built, no matter how unprofessional and utopian, in order to wrest at least some of the power away from the core of brokers whose monopoly on world power grows increasingly consolidated by the day.

To be honest, though, I find Cazdyn’s occasional ideological outbreaks inspiring. Even if they are sometimes uncomfortably Marxist, they make me think that Cazdyn is one of the good guys, and that simply by watching movies and thinking and writing we can make a difference and triumph over the evils of the world. Even if you’re not entirely convinced that this is true, it’s still fun to read The Flash of Capital solely for the thrill of encountering new ideas and tackling big intellectual concepts. And did I mention the awesome chapter on porn? In any case, this book isn’t for the casual reader, but if you think you’re interested, you definitely want to read this book. Go for it.

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.

Origins of Modern Japanese Literature

origins-of-modern-japanese-literature

Tile: Origins of Japanese Literature
Japanese Title: 日本近代文学の起源
Author: Karatani Kōjin (柄谷行人)
Translator: Brett De Barry, et al.
Publication Year: 1993 (America); 1980 (Japan)
Pages: 219

Is this book really an academic work? I wonder. If I had to guess, though, I would have to say no. Origins of Japanese Literature belongs to a genre of non-fiction writing called hyōron in Japan. This sort of writing, while focusing on an academic topic, is more of a discussion than a well-researched argument with a thesis. The writer, generally a professor, draws on his or her vast knowledge of a subject in order to discuss it at length, centering on a few key ideas that other, more scrupulous scholars, can be inspired by.

The chapters in a book of the hyōron genre tend to be only loosely tied together thematically, as they were written over the course of several years in the life of the writer for various occasions. One chapter may have been an afterward to a zenshū (“Collected Works”), one may have been a guest lecture, and another may have actually been written as an academic paper. Footnotes and other references are few and far between, although many texts are quoted at length. As a result, reading a book of hyōron is like sitting down with a professor over a cup of tea in his study and listening to him talk about whatever he finds interesting at the moment. If you share the same interests and know enough about the topic to catch the references, it can be quite an enjoyable experience.

Karatani Kōjin is, for the moment, very interested in Japanese modern literature, or the literature of Japan during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) periods. During the Meiji period especially, Japan underwent the process of modernization at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Along with Western science and technology came modern ideas such as “nation,” “an interior self,” and “literature.” The formation of “literature” is especially interesting to Karatani, because, through literature, we can see the development of so other important elements of modernity.

If Karatani can be said to have a central thesis in this work, it would involve something that he calls “The Discovery of the Landscape,” which is the title of his first chapter. Before the onset of modernization, Japanese artists and poets, such as Buson and Bashō, understood the physical landscape of the natural world to be a reflection of their inner selves, which extended outward indefinitely. In pre-modern literature, for example, there is no distinction made between narration and speech, nor is there any distinction between the voices of different characters. Karatani argues that, during the process of modernization, Japanese artists and writers came to see the physical landscape as something outside of themselves that they could depict objectively and realistically. Other people, in the form of fictional characters, could be treated in the same way. Naturally enough, this discovery of exteriority led to a discovery of interiority, and these two phenomena together worked to create all sorts of modern concepts, such as illness, confession, the child, and literature itself. It’s an interesting argument, even if you don’t happen to agree with it.

For those of you interested in modern Japanese literature, Origins of Japanese Literature reads like a “Greatest Hits” playlist, as Karatani touches on most of the canonical modern authors while delving not so much into their fictional work as into the fragments of literary thought and criticism they left behind. Brett De Barry and her team of translators has done an excellent job of rendering Karatani’s text into polished and enjoyable English, and Ayako Kano in particular has undertaken the grueling task of annotating the text. The translators have helpfully provided a glossary of key figures and movements in the back of the book, and Fredric Jameson has not so helpfully provided an interesting yet characteristically unintelligible foreword at the front.

Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Title: Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan
Editors: Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel
Essays: 12, with an Introduction by the editors
Publication Year: 1999 (America)
Pages: 317

This book, while undeniably academic, is perhaps the most important resource for students of contemporary Japanese literature. Included in this book are twelve essays by prominent scholars on the biggest names in post-war Japanese literature. There are essays on political writers like Ōe Kenzaburō and Nakagami Kenji, feminist writers like Ohba Minako and Takahashi Takako, and contemporary popular writers like Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto. Each of these essays aims to look at the writer as a whole, considering his or her major works and themes, while at the same time attempting to evaluate his or her place in the larger body of modern and postmodern Japanese literature. Every essay is a sound piece of scholarly work, and none of the analyses rely on theory unfamiliar to a college graduate.

Because these essays are so general and yet so rigorous in their approach, I would like to recommend the collection to general readers, as well as specialists, who have cultivated an interest in a particular writer. You won’t be disappointed by what you find. The short introductory essay is also a wonderful introduction to the state of Japanese literature at the turn on the 21st century.

Here is a list of the writers treated by the essays, as well as the authors of the essays themselves. An astute observer (such as myself, haha) will notice that many of the essayists are their subjects’ primary translators, a fact which attests to their close relationship with the authors and their works.

1. Ōe Kenzaburō (Susan Napier)
2. Endō Shūsaku (Van C. Gessel)
3. Hayashi Kyōko (Davinder L. Bhowmick)
4. Ohba Minako (Adrienne Hurley)
5. Takahashi Takako (Mark Williams)
6. Nakagami Kenji (Eve Zimmerman)
7. Kurahashi Yumiko (Atsuko Sakaki)
8. Murakami Haruki (Jay Rubin)
9. Murakami Ryū (Stephen Synder)
10. Shimada Masahiko (Philip Gabriel)
11. Kanai Mieko (Sharalyn Orbaugh)
12. Yoshimoto Banana (Ann Sheif)