The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Anime Boobs

I was considering giving this post a more serious title, but “Anime Boobs” seemed to be the most fitting label for a visual essay that I hope will demonstrate that the female torso is fetishized in many animated films and television series from Japan. Since a major goal of much of the early critical work on anime was to show that the animated medium allows for a broad range of content and is just as capable of expressing art and philosophy as it is of being a visualization of juvenile heterosexual male fantasies, an argument that there is still a great deal of heterosexual male wish fulfillment going on might seem a bit reactionary. Still, I think it’s necessary to get some things out in the open, so to speak. Allow me to explain.

On March 6, this video from Kyoto Animation was posted to Youtube:

This is a promotional video for the studio itself, not for an actual anime series (they’ve done these before), but many female fans on Tumblr jumped right in and began enjoying themselves with various fannish activities, such as inventing relationships between the boys, drawing fan art, opening ask blogs, claiming characters for roleplay groups, and so on.

Male fans on Tumblr did not like this. Because of the way that Tumblr works, it’s difficult to link to specific comments and response threads, but some of the comments on the Kotaku write-up of the fandom reaction to the video are representative of the male outrage at this particular female-dominated culture of fandom:

Moist fat fan girls want stupid shit to fantasize about.

Piss off. People like you almost ruined Gundam.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Granted, these comments are tame, and the commenters are adequately called out on their meanness. Deeper within the internet, however, there was genuine outrage, which tended to be accompanied by accusations of reverse sexism (which is a classic derailing tactic, by the way). How dare women subject male bodies to the same sort of erotic gaze that (still, more than forty years after Laura Mulvey’s essay) dominates mainstream media.

To give an example from a discussion I observed:

If this was about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits would you be as benign about it? I bet you’d have a 10 page rant about the male gaze or something.

When someone pointed out that there are in fact a lot of anime “about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits,” the response was:

People say this kind of thing and it makes me want to watch anime, thinking it’s going to be nothing but tits, but every time I do I’m disappointed.

The fact that someone can in good faith state that anime, as a broad category of media, is not filled to bursting with many prominent examples of hyper-exposed cleavage is mind-boggling to me. I don’t want to make any value judgments or grand sweeping pronouncements, but I think discussions of the sexualization and objectification of characters in anime might run more smoothly if everyone can agree that “anime boobs” do in fact exist.

While I was waiting for the comment thread I mentioned above to update, I happened to be watching the thirteenth episode of Cowboy Bebop, which is titled “Jupiter Jazz (Part 2).” This episode takes place on the Jovian moon Callisto, which is apparently very cold. While the male lead, Spike Spiegel, covers his customary blue suit with a big fluffy coat…

Spike Spiegel

…the female lead, Faye Valentine, spends the majority of the episode dressed like this:

02 Faye 1

Faye Valentine 2

Faye Valentine 3

Spike gives her a jacket to put on later, thank goodness. I kept worrying about how cold she must be all throughout the episode.

Another candidate for “Wow, she must be freezing” is the character Neko from the recent anime series K, who spends a disproportionate amount of time completely naked. She’s actually a cat, you see, but sometimes she can take human form. This is how the viewer first sees her…

Neko 1

….and this is her as she playfully scampers around the male protagonist’s apartment:

Neko 2

Here’s Awashima Seri, another character from the same anime whose chest is somehow even more on display, even though she’s fully clothed:

Awashima Seri

Moving back in time, an anime classic that’s all about domestic disturbances of the “I just can’t stop tripping and falling into my housemates’ boobs” variety is Love Hina:

Love Hina

Love Hina is based on a manga by Akamatsu Ken, and it was so popular that the artist apparently had trouble ending it. Once it finally wrapped up, Akamatsu started a new project called Negima!, which had even more boobs to trip and accidentally fall into:

Negima!

The bold text at the top reads: “Is everyone looking at the ocean? Or are they looking at you?”

Even though the story is set in a Japanese version of Hogwarts, in both the manga and the anime versions the young male protagonist and his pretty female students find all sorts of opportunities to go swimming, whether it’s at the pool, the ocean, or a hot springs resort. And where there’s water, there are swimsuits… except when they accidentally come off!

Speaking of anime classics, does anyone remember Tenchi Muyo?

Ryoko Hakubi

How about Slayers?

Naga the White Serpent

There was also a cute two-episode Slayers knock-off OVA called Dragon Half:

Dragon Half

While we’re on the subject of old school OVAs, there was one particularly bodacious forty-minute one-shot inexplicably tiled Plastic Little:

12 Plastic Little

Around the same time there was another OVA on the U.S. market called Mezzo Forte:

Mezzo Forte

Like its spiritual forbearer Kite, Mezzo Forte is all about how prolonged violent sex scenes empower women with no chins to shoot things with huge guns in clumsily choreographed action sequences set to laughably bad background music. Oh anime.

“Girls with guns” is a popular theme in anime. For these types of shows, it tends to help the female protagonists’ mobility if they are wearing very tight clothing that is easily destroyed, as is the case with Canaan:

Canaan

Sometimes a woman doesn’t wield a weapon, however; sometimes her entire body is a weapon. In that case, it helps if she wears even less clothing:

Elfen Lied

The character pictured above, Lucy, is from the show Elfen Lied. After Lucy escapes from her laboratory, she can’t remember anything about herself, so the young man who adopts her calls her “Nyuu,” which is the only sound that she can make. Poor Nyuu doesn’t know anything about the real world; and, in the second episode of the series, she soils herself in the foyer of someone’s house because he hasn’t formally invited her in to use the bathroom yet. (I could make a joke about female empowerment here, but I’ll pass.)

While we’re on the subject of strange female-coded creatures being adopted by young men, the anime DearS is notorious for its portrayal of quasi-slavery. It’s okay, though, because the girls are aliens:

DearS

This isn’t to say that some anime boobs can’t be self-reflexive. Karina Lyle from the show Tiger & Bunny is well aware of how her “feminine assets” are used to market the character she plays on TV, Blue Rose:

Blue Rose

Moreover, it’s not as if female viewers don’t appreciate sexualized depictions of the female form. In the lesbian gag manga Tokyo Love~ Rica ‘tte Kanji!? (which you can read here, if you’d like a preview), there’s a joke about how proclaiming an interest in the notoriously boob-heavy Cutey Honey franchise…

Cutie Honey Flash

…is sort of like a pick-up line between women.

Still, some shows are just ridiculous. Take Battle Vixens, for instance:

Battle Vixens

There’s also Burst Angel

Burst Angel

…and Girls Bravo

Girls Bravo

…and Princess Resurrection:

Princess Resurrection

When the concept from Witchblade, a Western comic book series, was adapted into an anime, the studio apparently decided that the most important feature of its original lead character is her, um, identity as a mother:

Witchblade

Another fun action series is High School of the Dead:

High School of the Dead

Skintight schoolgirl uniforms are obviously the best defense against the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of girls in impractical armor, the female warriors in Sacred Blacksmith must buy their battle gear wholesale, because it’s always getting ripped to shreds:

Sacred Blacksmith

Scrapped Princess is equally bad with female armor…

Pacifica Casull

…as is the .hack// franchise:

Hack

If these titles seem too niche, I should mention that anime boobs also appear in mega-franchises such as Bleach

Orihime

…and One Piece:

Nami

One Piece is full of female character designs like the one pictured above. Maybe it’s just the way that Oda Eiichirō draws. This character design is quite common, however. See also the character Lucy Heartfilia, from Fairy Tail:

Lucy Heartfilia

There are plenty of anime boobs on display in Soul Eater, too:

Soul Eater Death

One of my favorite characters is Blair:

Blair

Blair mostly hangs out at home and invites the male protagonists to enjoy her company:

Bathtime with Blair

Despite not appearing much in the show, Blair is a fan favorite who has a large, dedicated fandom. Another character who is loved across broad swatches of anime fandom is Yoko from Gurren Lagann:

Yoko

Gurren Lagann was animated by Studio Gainax, which is still best known for the alpha and omega of all anime franchises, Neon Genesis Evangelion. As a franchise, Evangelion is often represented by a single character, Ayanami Rei:

Ayanami Rei

If Ayanami is not to your taste, however, Evangelion has other young female characters to appreciate. There’s also Asuka Langley…

Asuka Langley

…and, more recently, Makinami Mari:

Mari Makinami

If Evangelion isn’t artistic and philosophical enough for you, feel free to check out one of the most intellectually mature and thematically complex animated movies of all time…

Ghost in the Shell Movie

There’s also a television series based on the Ghost in the Shell manga. In the TV show, the lead character, Kusanagi Makoto, gets to wear a bit more clothing:

Ghost in the Shell TV Anime

Before I wrap this up, I should mention that interest in anime boobs isn’t limited to a small segment of fandom. In fact, the British publication Neo, which regularly features the work of renowned anime writers such as Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, occasionally puts the boobs right on the cover:

Neo Magazine Issue 92

In conclusion, anime boobs exist. It is entirely possible to watch a wide variety of animated films, television shows, and web shorts from Japan without ever coming across a single skintight outfit or low-cut halter top, but anime boobs are still out there.

I am not trying to say that all anime sexualizes and fetishizes the female form, because that is not true at all. In any given work that does feature anime boobs, it is also not necessarily the case that every female character will be subjected to the same treatment.

I am also not trying to say that all of the female characters displayed above are nothing more than sex objects, because that is not true, not even a little bit. Although I sometimes couldn’t help making fun of character designs and diegetic circumstances that are blatantly ridiculous, I am not trying to say that sexual depictions of female characters are bad or morally wrong or artistically weak, nor am I trying to say that sexualization and fetishization can’t serve multiple narrative and thematic purposes.

I’m obviously not trying to say that real women with real bodies are somehow ridiculous, or that any woman, real or fictional, should be defined by the shape of her body. Don’t even go there.

For the record, I’m also not saying that all male fans of anime are sexist pigs. Regarding the “swim club anime” with which I began this discussion, I read through a few conversations on Reddit in which people were surprisingly self-reflexive about the male objectification in the video in light of the studio’s other projects. (One of my favorite comments was “I’m a guy and I watched that video ten times,” to which another user immediately replied, “Don’t worry bro, we all did.”)

What I am trying to say is that there is a definite pattern of female bodies being sexualized in anime. It doesn’t happen all the time in every anime, but it happens frequently enough in enough prominent titles to be noticeable even to an impartial observer. The sexualization of female and male characters is a tricky issue; but, if we can agree on nothing else, let us simply come to the consensus that “anime boobs” really do exist.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Title: Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Japanese Title: 動物化するポストモダン:オタクから見た日本社会
(Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai)
Author: Azuma Hiroki (東 浩紀)
Translators: Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Pages: 200

Even though I have read Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals twice in translation (as well as once in the original Japanese) over the past two years, I will readily admit that I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand what its author is trying to say. It turns out that the key to my understanding of Otaku was Marc Steinburg’s translation of an essay called “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by a Japanese pop culture ethnographer named Ōtsuka Eiji. Reading this essay was something of an extended eureka moment for me, as Azuma has clearly created his model of narrative consumption as a response to Ōtsuka’s own model.

Ōtsuka’s “World and Variation,” originally published in 1989, is ostensibly about Bikkuriman Chocolates, or, more specifically, about the trading cards packaged with the chocolates. It was because of the trading cards that the chocolates were such a phenomenal hit with children around the time that Ōtsuka was writing, even though the character “Bikkuriman” had no television or manga tie-in products. The secret to Bikkuriman’s success was that, on the back of each trading card, there was a short paragraph of information about the character depicted on the front. If a child collected enough cards, he would gradually be able to piece together a larger story and gain a broader perspective on the Bikkuriman universe.

Out of many small narratives, then, children were able to create a grand narrative. The point of Ōtsuka’s discussion of Bikkuriman Chocolates is that “child consumers were attracted by this grand narrative, and tried to gain further access to it through the continued purchase of chocolates.” In other words, “what is consumed first and foremost, and that which first gives these individual commodities their very value, is the grand narrative or order that they hold in partial form and as their background.” The kids who bought the Bikkuriman Chocolates didn’t care about so much about each individual card as they did about the larger story, the mythology, and the worldview – what Ōtsuka calls the “grand narrative.” Ōtsuka argues that the consumption of anime functions in much the same way. Each episode in the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, for example, is a small narrative. The story of each individual protagonist (such as Char or Amuro) that plays out across the episodes is a small narrative as well. The diagrams and mechanical specs included in many of the toy models of the robots may also be considered small narratives. As these small narratives are accumulated, however, they begin to form the contours of an entire world. Ōtsuka argues that it is this grand narrative that makes long-running series such as Gundam (and, I would add, series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) so popular – and marketable.

According to Ōtsuka’s model of narrative consumption, then, small narratives, while pleasing in and of themselves, also form pieces of a larger narrative. Ōtsuka argues that, while “the general viewing audience” will only follow one strand of small narratives, what characterizes otaku is their interest in the grand narrative. Otaku are characterized by their interest in gathering bits of information “hidden in the background,” putting these bits of information together, and creating their own small narratives based on their understanding of the grand narrative. Such a model of narrative consumption goes a long way towards explaining fan-made narrative products such as fan fiction and dōjinshi, since “if, at the end of the accumulated consumption of small narratives, consumers get their hands on the grand narrative […] they will then be able to freely produce their own small narratives with their own hands.” Therefore, otaku are otaku because they are invested in narrative consumption and reproduction at the level of the grand narrative.

In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki proposes a different model of narrative consumption. The Japanese title of Azuma’s cultural study, Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, is revealing. The first word of this title refers to the concept of “animalization” proposed by Alexandre Kojève in The Roots of Postmodern Politics. This animalization involves the degradation of humans (independent subjects capable of reasoning, directed action, and compassion) into animals (mindless consumers who act on impulses such as hunger and the drive for greater comfort). It is Azuma’s thesis that otaku and, by extension, the society that has spawned them are becoming increasingly animalized. Azuma describes the narrative and cultural consciousness characteristic of otaku through what he calls the database model of narrative consumption.

This database model stands in direct contrast to the model proposed by Ōtuska (which he refers to as the “tree model” in his monograph Monogatari shōhiron). To give another example of how Ōtsuka’s model interprets otaku narrative consumption, the character Ayanami Rei of Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose individual story is merely a part of the larger story, is adored by otaku because, for them, she represents the tragedy, epic scale, and political allusiveness of the entire television/film series. Ayanami Rei is not just a girl in a battle uniform, then; she is Neon Genesis Evangelion itself. To “consume” her is to emotionally insert oneself into the apocalyptic, man-versus-god atmosphere of the larger narrative.

Azuma tweaks this model for understanding symbols and narrative in his database model. While Ōtsuka argues that the grand narratives of shows like Evangelion are given weight by their relevance to real-world grand narratives (such as nation and history), Azuma believes otaku narratives are almost completely removed from those of the real world. In the opening chapter of Otaku, he states, “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background.” Thus, although an otaku might be familiar with Ayanami Rei’s age and bust size, be able to quote her dialog, and expound on the quality of various plastic models made in her likeness, he is not invested any larger worldview or grand narratives that may be encompassed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, the otaku mines the series for information to plug into a mental database that also contains information on similar shows. Because of the absence of the emotional pull of grand narratives, the otaku can substitute one element of his database for another. The light blue hair of a young female character such as Hoshino Ruri from Martian Successor Nadesico or Tsukishima Ruriko from Droplet effectively is the light blue hair of Ayanami Rei. For otaku, grand narratives are nothing compared to the “animalistic” appeal of a character’s cute face or slender waist. Tropes can therefore be transferred from one story and character to another, as can an otaku’s emotional investment.

Azuma claims that, “Compared with the 1980s otaku [on whom Ōtsuka bases his model], those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated.” The otaku of the 1990s thus only consumed fragments, or small narratives. These fragments, which could comfortably fit within the small square boxes of a database, could then be easily cross-referenced with other fragments. Because of the ease of referencing these fragments, distinctions between an original and its copies (either through officially licensed spin-off works or fan works) disintegrated. According to Azuma, there was no longer any need to refer these fragments back to the grand narratives of either the original work or the real world. An otaku could float unanchored through the database he created through his consumption of undifferentiated narratives. And this, argues Azuma, is how the cultural phenomenon of moe was born. For otaku, stories don’t matter – it’s all about the cute girls.

In the first section of Otaku, Azuma explains his model. In the second section, he provides examples of how it works. During these two sections, Azuma’s writing is clear and easy to understand. The third and final section of the book, however, is a bit of a mess. In this section, Azuma gets really excited about the internet in a manner that now seems somewhat naïve; but, in Azuma’s defense, he was writing more than ten years ago. Despite the dated feel of this last section, however, Azuma’s ideas are accessible and make a great deal of sense, even to a reader with no prior experience in postmodern philosophy.

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.

Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.

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.