From Akira to Princess Mononoke? Don't Think So

There is no denying that the Internet entertainment market has changed...so how are four prominent leaders in the field adjusting to the brave new world? Rick DeMott reports.

This is a layman review. In other words, it's written by an interested, non-academic, non-Japanese- speaking anime fan whose knowledge of the medium is patchy at best. Many readers, no doubt, will be in the same position and many, like me, will have looked forward to this book. I think they're likely to be disappointed.

It's not boring. Susan J. Napier throws out a steady barrage of comments, suggestions and speculations, some of which seem plausible, perceptive and thought provoking. Among the book's virtues is that Napier quotes anime professionals and critics in Japan, whose views make fascinating reading. Napier also quotes Western critics whose direct relevance is less clear, at least to a reader unfamiliar with them. For example, in the first pages she quotes a passage from John Treat (author of Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture) on how: 'to worry about the relation of the popular to high or official culture is to think about the perennial problem of value...perennial because value is so exasperatingly mercurial (p4).' Maybe, but it's not clear how this observation advances Napier's discussion, what it entails or 'proves.' There are many sentences like this, including provocative but undeveloped claims on animation. Thus 'animation is a fusion of technology and art, both suggesting in its content and embodying in its form new interfaces between the two' (p11). Much later, we're told, 'The definition of animation is of something that gives movement and life to inert materials...anime gives movement and life to any and all fragments of identity in a world that's insistently unreal' (p238). Too much of the book is given to little-argued statements like this, lending an impression -- fair or not -- of specious vacuity.

But then Napier has trouble with the concrete too. One reason it's hard to trust her is that she gets so much so wrong on the simplest levels. For example, she suggests the sci-fi ghost story Magnetic Rose is a self-contained anime (albeit based on a 'manga anthology'), when it's actually part of the anthology movie Memories. She talks of the 'puzzling and subversive' last TV episode of Evangelion when she means the last two. When Napier moves on to content she fares worse. Her biggest howler is perhaps in discussing Ghost in the Shell, where she asserts Kusanagi is a 'technological creation' with 'no past' (pp106-7). One of the key points of the film is that Kusanagi began life as a human. Similar sloppiness abounds, both in terms of plot mistakes and incorrectly describing what's on screen. There's little sense of what a particular film looks or feels like. For example, neither Napier's descriptions of the opening (p201) or end (p42/48) of Akira are accurate or adequate. Again, she opines 'perhaps the single most lyrical sequence in anime' is the melancholy canal-journey in Ghost, describing it as 'slow-paced,' 'a series of long shots' and 'a brilliant combination of beautiful music and images of crowds, water and rain' (p32). But does that really convey its lyricism to someone who hasn't seen the film? Similarly shallow is her discussion of the TV and film ends of Evangelion (pp101-2, 212-4), where Napier's penchant for abstraction and speculation gives way to a bland synopsis.

Elsewhere there are stunning omissions. Napier spends four pages (pp117-20) on 'shojo culture,' telling us that 'shojo literally means little female' (more conventionally known as girls) and that, 'In the worlds of manga and anime, shojo are everywhere.' She forgets, though, to mention that 'shojo anime' and 'shojo manga' are vast and significant sub-genres within the industries, complete with their own conventions, styles and complex histories. And this is the main problem with the book; there's no context or big picture. It may be 'impossible to sum up the world of Japanese animation' (p235), but surely Napier could go past the narrow selection of U.S. fan-favourites covered here? Despite the book title, she's not confining herself to post-Akira anime, discussing Nausicaa and Barefoot Gen. Nor is she confined to titles widely regarded as masterworks, covering such titles as The Guyver and Oh My Goddess (in favour of, say, Wings of Honneamise). Even if we assume some rationale, her structure feels contrived. One chapter links Akira with Ranma 1/2 because they both involve metamorphosing adolescents. Another four-way epic ties together Nausicaa, Akira, Overfiend and Evangelion as depictions of the apocalypse. One yearns for more pedestrian, old-fashioned analyses along the lines of genre and creator. For example, Beautiful Dreamer and Ghost in the Shell are discussed in separate chapters, when it would have been easy to connect them via their auteur creator, Mamoru Oshii.

In the end Napier, through attempting too much, produces a sub-standard book less informative or accurate than other anime books in English; try The Erotic Anime Movie Guide by Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, or the non-specialist Encyclopaedia of Japanese Pop-Culture by Mark Schilling, which builds a context lacking in Napier. These books make less idiosyncratic connections, and use fewer words like 'othering,' 'liminal' and 'defamiliarise,' but don't leave you frustrated and unconvinced long before the last chapter.

NB: Unlike much other English-language writing on anime (including this review), Napier follows the Japanese convention of putting family name first. Hence the director of Ghost in the Shell is Oshii Mamoru, not Mamoru Oshii, and so on.

Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation by Susan J. Napier. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001. 311 pages. ISBN: 0-312-23862-2 (hardback). ISBN: 0-312-23863-0 (paperback).

Alan Neal resides in the U.K. and is a freelance writer and animation fan, albeit a far more knowledgeable animation fan than he lets on.

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