Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.2, May 1997
Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation.
Book review by Fred Patten
The publisher's press release says, "Samurai from Outer Space is the first book-length discussion of the suddenly terrifically popular genre of Japanese animation." That is misleading. In fact, the book itself cites and highly recommends the earlier The Complete Anime Guide. But the Guide concentrates on individual anime titles, with a title-by-title history of the growth of anime in America from 1963 to the present. Where Samurai from Outer Space breaks new ground is that it is the first detailed discussion of the popular-culture sociology of anime.
Author Antonia Levy is a former resident of Japan who is a specialist in its culture, with a doctorate in Japanese history. She has taught Japanese history at American colleges, and has actively participated in their campus anime fan clubs. She is interested in anime in its own right, but is also fascinated by the reasons for its enthusiastic acceptance, despite a general American ignorance of the cultural background needed to fully understand the stories. Samurai from Outer Space is primarily an analysis of this phenomenon.
The book is skillfully written to appeal to both the anime neophyte and the knowledgeable fan. Levy's introduction notes the spreading popularity of anime. "National video franchises like Blockbuster Video devote an entire section to anime even in small rural towns, and the number of their offerings is growing fast. . . . Almost every college campus has at least a small anime club. Over four hundred of them maintain elaborate home pages on the World Wide Web." The reason, she quotes its fans, is that, "anime's charm lies in its unpredictability, its off-beat weirdness that makes you stop and think about things you never even noticed before."
The main text analyzes and explains these weirdnesses in broad categories. Chapter Two, "Disney in a Kimono," covers the differences in general movie and TV cartoon-art styling between American and Japanese animation. Why Japanese cartoon characters have such big eyes. Why they have pastel-colored hair or otherwise "don't look Japanese." The importance of the fact that Japanese animation evolved from dramatic theater and literature, rather than from the comedic as in America. "In content and style, anime also draws heavily on Japanese literary traditions. This is particularly telling in anime television series. Unlike American TV which is episodic and fairly static in terms of character development, anime created for Japanese television are serial and draw as much of their appeal from character development as from plot. . . . the serial nature of television dramas . . . allow it ample time to expand on character development. This also gives anime its distinctive moral ambiguity. Since human beings change over time, it's only natural that some villains will reform and become heroes, while some heroes will turn out to have feet of clay." In other words, one of the main facets of anime's appeal is that much of it is action-adventure soap opera. Is it really news to anyone in America that soap operas can be very popular?
"Why do anime characters have such big eyes?" and other such mysteries are explained in Levi's book. Image from Tenchi Muyo, © 1993 A.I.C./Pioneer LDC, Inc.
Gods and Demons
Chapters Three ("Other Gods, Other Demons") and Four ("Other Heroes, Other Villains") discuss the influences in anime of Oriental concepts of religion and mythology, and cultural attitudes toward heroics and villainy (which is subtly different from right and wrong). Many of the aliens and monsters in anime science-fiction adventures are thinly-disguised, well-known (in Japan) gods and demons. The Oriental traditions of divinity are closer to the Norse or Greek pantheons, with many gods who embody humanity's personality flaws and often quarrel among each other. The Japanese are also accustomed to a society in which the government and the privileged classes have traditionally been indifferent to or contemptuous of the masses. This is why anime heroes usually pledge themselves to abstract ideals such as loyalty and self-sacrifice rather than to a divinity or to an individual leader. "Losing and therefore gaining nothing confirms the hero's altruism and renders his or her sacrifice all the more tragic. As a result, it is quite possible to portray a young kamikaze pilot as a hero without necessarily endorsing the agenda of the Japanese fascists. Indeed, almost all Japanese portrayals of the war include very unflattering depictions of the leadership." There are comparisons between the use of such themes in anime titles and in popular American movies and TV series such as Star Trek to illustrate the subtle differences.
Other chapters examine robots and similar science-fictional mecha, attitudes towards death (including the differences between honorable and dishonorable suicide), and the portrayal of women in leading roles as either heroines or femmes fatale. A final chapter cites examples of how influences from anime are beginning to show up in American comic books, TV and movies, as proof that anime is having an impact. "Trading comic books and cartoons may not be what educators had in mind when they argued in favor of multiculturalism. But it's a beginning and it's not a bad beginning at that." The book concludes with three appendices: one of addresses of anime specialty magazines, shops, and anime fan conventions; one of recommended readings of books on anime and on Japanese popular culture; and a glossary of anime terms. There is also a detailed index.
Samurai from Outer Space is excellent as both a primer on anime for those who are just being introduced to it, and as an explanation of the background to Japanese cultural stereotypes (such as those Big Eyes) for the fans who are fascinated by their exotic aspects and want to know their significance. The only problems are in small errors related to specific titles. Levi says that the first anime to appear on American TV was Astro Boy in 1964, when it actually premiered in 1963. A couple of minor titles are consistently misspelled. The color plates are beautiful but notably pixillated, as though printed from enlarged color faxes or "video screen captures" rather than from clear film transparencies. A book with so few flaws is close to perfect.
Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation. by Antonia Levy. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1996. 169 pages, illustrated. Trade paperback, $18.95; ISBN: 0-8126-9332-9.
Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He currently writes a regular anime column for Animation Magazine.
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