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.