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.



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.