Brian Camp reviews the 1998 book The Anime! Movie Guide by Helen McCarthy, former editor of Anime UK and author of Anime! A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Animation.
Helen McCarthy, former editor of Anime UK and author of Anime! A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Animation (Titan Books, London, 1993), is England's preeminent proponent of Japanese animation. Her most recent book The Anime! Movie Guide serves as a useful companion volume to last year's The Complete Anime Guide: Japanese Animation Film Directory and Resource Guide (reviewed in AWM, July 1997) co-authored by Trish Ledoux, editor of the magazine, Animerica and an equally tireless advocate of anime in the U.S.
McCarthy's book includes information, primarily plot synopses, on dozens of titles not yet officially released in the west, including, where possible, always hard-to-find credit information. As such the book gives the diligent reader a more accurate picture of the scope of Japanese animation than do most English-language sources. McCarthy includes numerous soap operas, teen romances and sports dramas (tennis, softball, soccer) that are unlikely to surface in the west. However, the book's structure is particularly unwieldy for newcomers to anime.
An Awkward Structure
Unlike Ledoux's book, which compiled entries alphabetically for all anime titles released in the U.S., McCarthy's book adopts a chronological structure divided into chapters devoted to each year from 1983 to 1995 inclusive, with each chapter split into alphabetical listings of theatrical and original animation video (OAV) releases. Such a structure requires readers to look up titles they're seeking in a (small-print) index. To locate all the titles in a particular long-running series (e.g. Dirty Pair or Ranma 1/2) one must make frequent trips to the index. People looking for a particular genre or style of anime will have no choice but to read everything. There is no genre index and the genre abbreviations used in the individual entries are confusing.
I normally favor a chronological approach but only when the goal is a broad historical overview to chart changes, improvements, and growth in the field. The encyclopedic approach makes it hard to detect patterns over the years. Ledoux's book at least makes it easy to find individual titles and conveniently places all entries in a particular series in one place. By starting in 1983, the first year of OAV releases, McCarthy leaves out several key animated features from the 1970s and early `80s, including the first four Space Cruiser Yamato features, Galaxy Express 999, Adieu Galaxy Express 999, Phoenix 2772, Toward the Terra, Arcadia of My Youth, Castle Cagliostro, Cyborg 009, the Mobile Suit Gundam features and the first Japanese animated feature released in the U.S., Alakazam the Great. Also, by leaving out television series (more and more of which are being released on video in the U.S.), we don't get entries for the television versions of Ranma 1/2, Mobile Suit Gundam, Patlabor, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Captain Harlock, Dancougar, and the three series that made up the American series, Robotech.
Reviewing the Reviews
While Ledoux had a staff of 15 contributors assisting in the reviews, McCarthy has taken on the Herculean task of reviewing nearly a thousand titles all by her lonesome. Predictably, the quality of the reviews varies wildly. The majority of her entries are primarily synopses. While synopses are helpful, and at times necessary, they need to be accompanied by critique. Unfortunately, McCarthy has the fan writer's crippling predilection for emphasizing plot over stylistic description. I generally want to know what a film looks like, what it's similar to, and what its stylistic trademarks are; only occasionally does McCarthy convey this.
To her credit, McCarthy makes clear which titles she hasn't seen by including a question mark after the star rating or by not including a rating at all. Her admitted lack of knowledge of many of the titles is particularly frustrating. Some entries are simply one or two lines long. In some, she simply says, "I have no information about this title," or she invokes hearsay by declaring, "I haven't seen it but I hear it's the same mixture as before." Also frustrating are cases where I have seen the tapes in question, and need information on them, but she hasn't and includes no information. That said, some of her reviews are quite good. She evidently put a lot of thought into those films she particularly likes, most notably Hayao Miyazaki's films (Nausicäa, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso). She gives informative critiques on a number of other significant titles including The Dagger of Kamui, Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, Project A-Ko, The Tale of Genji, Legend of the Overfiend, Record of Lodoss War, The Weathering Continent, The Cockpit, Legend of Galactic Heroes, and Kishin Corps. She also provides intriguing write-ups on a number of titles I was previously unfamiliar with, including KO Century Beast Warriors, The Sensualist, Mosaica, Run Melos!, Armour Hunter Mellowlink, Ramayana, Coo of the Far Seas and Oz. She also includes Studio Ghibli productions not directed by Miyazaki like, Only Yesterday, I Can Hear the Ocean, Pom Poko, and Whisper of the Heart, making this the first western book to review these wonderful films. However, the reviews of these titles are too short, as are those for a number of other significant titles, including Final Yamato, Harmageddon, Macross: Do You Remember Love?, Mobile Suit Gundam F91, Wicked City, Midnight Eye Goku, Ninja Scroll, Demon City Shinjuku, Cyber City Oedo, Peacock King, Memories, and Big Wars. Creative Credits McCarthy doesn't duplicate Ledoux's effort to connect works by identifying key personnel and their other creative credits. McCarthy, in fact, offers no personnel index. I noted certain names, including writers Yoshiki Tanaka and Noboru Aikawa, popping up repeatedly but would have had to go back over the whole book to compile their credits. I turned to Ledoux's book for a list of their credits, but her index doesn't include the many titles that haven't yet been released in the U.S. Still, The Anime! Movie Guide contains a lot of information not available elsewhere, including synopses of titles that some of us may have in untranslated versions on video, and detailed credit info on other titles. McCarthy's writing style, while informal and chatty at times and highly opinionated at others, should prove very comfortable to hard-core anime fans. She is clearly passionate about the medium and shares many of her readers' biases. Her views on many of the sexually explicit titles are particularly sensible in light of some of the hysterical reactions that occasionally erupt. Overall, despite its flaws, the book is a necessary addition to one's growing anime library. The Anime! Movie Guide, by Helen McCarthy, Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1997. 285 pages, illustrated. ISBN: 0-87951-781-6 (U.S. $17.95 paper). Brian Camp is Program Manager at CUNY-TV, the City University of New York cable TV station. He has written about Japanese animation for Outre Magazine and The Motion Picture Guide and has also written for Film Comment, Film Library Quarterly, Sightlines, The New York Daily News and Asian Cult Cinema.