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.

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.

Chain Mail: Addicted to You

chain-mail

Title: Chain Mail: Addicted to You
Japanese Title: チェーン・メール―ずっとあなたとつながっていたい
Author: Ishizaki Hiroshi (石崎洋司)
Translator: Richard Kim
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages:209

Okay, I’ll admit it: when I came back home from Japan this past summer, I got really into Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I know that many people like to complain about how the books are poorly written, misogynistic, heterocentric, painfully conservative, blah, blah, blah (I’m surprised no one has ever called them “phallogocentric” – that’s my personal favorite). First of all, the Twilight books are not poorly written; anyone who’s actually seen “poorly written” can attest to that fact. Second, I like to turn my feminist switch off when I read sparkly teenage vampire romance novels.

In any case, the Twilight series alerted me to the existence of the American genre of young adult fiction in a way that Harry Potter never did. (I think this is partially because I wouldn’t be caught dead reading “young adult fiction” when I was actually a “young adult,” but kids were a lot cooler seven or eight years ago.) I went to my local Borders and started doing market research, finding that, indeed, young adult fiction is a thriving genre, even though the vast majority of it is absolute crap. Perhaps the only good thing about the sudden popularity of the genre is that manga publishers like Tokyopop have started translating and publishing Japanese light novels.

A light novel is the Japanese equivalent of young adult fiction. These short, middle-school reading level books read like the plot of a manga, are often illustrated by noted manga artists, and are generally serialized like manga. Many popular anime, such as Slayers (スレイヤーズ) and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (涼宮ハルヒの憂鬱) are adaptations of even more popular light novel series. Just as is the case with America, most light novels are absolute crap, and you will find a good selection of these less-than-stellar light novel series in Tokyopop’s catalog. Thankfully, the company has chosen to publish a few good light novels, even if they don’t have brand-name recognition.

One of my favorite offerings from Tokyopop is Ishizaki Hiroshi’s Chain Mail. Ishizaki has penned the text of several manga, most notably Miss Black Witch’s Halloween (黒魔女さんのハロウィーン), but he is also quite famous in Japan as an author of realistic fiction for young women. Although the plot of Chain Mail is somewhat far-fetched, this novel focuses on the development of its characters and their daily life as high school students in Tokyo.

What attracted me to this novel was its narrative structure. The narrative is divided between three narrators: Mai, Sawako, and Mayumi. These three girls, who may or may not know each other in real life, play a game in which they collaborate on a murder-mystery novel via posts made to an online message board on their cell phones (the internet is widely available on Japanese cell phones and has been for years). Thus, the narrative switches between the main story and the story that the girls are writing. Each girl is in charge of a certain character in the online story, and things get interesting when the events that happen to the characters in real life start to mirror the events they write into the story. There is never a hint of anything supernatural, but the blurred identities and real-life mysteries are quite uncanny.

Although only one of the three characters can be called sympathetic, I did feel a great deal of sympathy for each of them. Ishizaki doesn’t pull punches in his characterization and shows each of the three girls at her weakest moments. These three girls, who have been damaged by their families and the pressures forced on them at school, seek real friendship and connection through a cell phone game that had initially been created as a joke. Is the story pathetic? You bet. But it’s also touching and exciting, with lots of Nietzsche and Shibuya thrown in for good measure.

I would highly recommend Chain Mail to anyone interested in young adult literature, contemporary Japanese popular culture, or even Japanese literature in general. It’s a fascinating book, even if it doesn’t have pictures. Other fiction I would recommend from Tokyopop includes the Twelve Kingdoms series (by Ono Fuyumi), Kino’s Journey (by Sigsawa Keiichi) and anything written by Otsuichi, like Calling You or Goth. Tokyopop has recently taken down the “novels” section of its website, which makes me worry that the company doesn’t see a future for them, but I will go ahead and provide a link to their light novel catalog:

Tokyopop Catalog