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.