Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.4, July 1997
The Complete Anime Guidebook
Book review by Brian Camp
Serious fans of Japanese animation have generally had difficulty finding sufficient written information and critical evaluation to help them seek out titles to match their particular tastes. Fans of the anime noir style, for instance, exemplified by the darkly atmospheric imagery and high-tech urban crime stories created by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, Cyber City Oedo), have no convenient way, other than scanning the often misleading text on the video box, to identify similarly styled efforts available in video stores. Such films as Crying Freeman, The Professional: Golgo 13, Suikoden-Demon Century, and the newly released Black Jack and Peacock King would be missed. As would be the films on the underground fan circuit like Kawajiri's unreleased Midnight Eye Goku and such recent hits in Japan as X: The Movie and the made-for-video BioHunter and Psycho Diver.
While there are slick publications aimed at the anime audience, as well as dozens of Internet web sites, the writing in these venues is too often wedded to the style of the fan press, with an emphasis on plot synopses, character descriptions and the reviewer's own intractable opinions. A particular work's artistic style or place in animation history is often overlooked. Certainly, such well-illustrated magazines as Animerica and Protoculture Addicts work hard to keep stateside anime fans informed of new releases, both here and in Japan, and include some fine staff writers. However, they lack the in-depth commentary necessary to help the more rigorous fans sort out this vast field. Animerica is particularly loaded with information and features, but only occasionally in some of the short reviews do we find anything in the way of genuine criticism ("analysis of qualities and evaluation of comparative worth; especially, the definition and judgment of literary or artistic work," as defined in Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary.)
The new revised, updated and expanded second edition of The Complete Anime Guide: Japanese Animation Film Directory and Resource Guide, by Trish Ledoux (editor of Animerica) and Doug Ranney, meets a significant part of the audience's need for greater information. Functioning primarily as a consumer guide, its bulk is devoted to a section of short reviews and synopses of over 1000 titles currently available on video in the U.S. These reviews offer a great deal of valuable information to those fans willing to scour them for clues to other titles they might enjoy. Some of the reviews are very well written, either very perceptive about the works (Arcadia of My Youth, Ghost in the Shell, GoShogun: The Time Etranger, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Patlabor 2) or very informative (Blue Seed, Lupin III, Macross Plus, The Professional: Golgo 13, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Wings of Honneamise) but, since they are unsigned, one can only guess as to which of the four contributing editors and 11 contributors has the most insight. A particularly helpful feature of this section is the emphasis on creative personnel, including director, animation director, character designer, mecha designer, production designer and composer; many of whom are listed in the reviews with cross references in parentheses to their additional credits. Another valuable feature is the citation of manga (comic book) sources where applicable and an indication of the manga's availability in the U.S.
The reviews, in fact, constitute the one major expansion of the book's initial 1995 edition. In the earlier volume, the capsule entries for each title were simply short synopses. There was some compensation in the 1995 version, however, in a nine-page section entitled "Thumbnail Synopses of Selected Shows" with longer reviews of 71 titles divided into ten genres like Action-Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction, Adults Only, Cyberpunk, and so on. Some of these reviews are repeated in the new edition and those that aren't repeated are often superior to their counterparts in the new book.
The other two text chapters in the first edition are repeated in the second with some new material reflecting new releases. "Animated Television Series" offers descriptions of every Japanese animated TV series to be broadcast on U.S. television from Astro Boy (1963) to Samurai Pizza Cats (1996). While highly informative, this section takes up far too much space that could have been better appropriated to an updated "Thumbnail Synopses," or "Best of Anime" section or even a historical overview. Many of these series may not be of much interest to true anime fans, because of the poor dubbing and extensive re-editing so many of them underwent.
The second text chapter "Anime Genres" singles out four genres unique to Japanese animation, defined by the author of this section, Trish Ledoux, as "the four most exciting, least-easily-achievable-in-live-action genres: cyberpunk, giant robots, the anime noir thriller, and the romantic `love' comedy" (author's emphasis). "Cyberpunk" focuses on futuristic crime titles such as Akira, Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell, Bubblegum Crisis and Dominion Tank Police. "Giant Robots" offers a handful of "mecha-themed" titles, such as Kishin Corps, Armored Trooper Votoms, Gunbuster, and, of course, Giant Robo. "Anime noir" serves up the expected Kawajiri titles, Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, and Ninja Scroll, and is then stretched to include such horror/occult titles as Devilman, Ogre Slayer, Vampire Hunter D, and Vampire Princess Miyu. Finally, "Romantic Comedy" highlights three popular series based on the manga of Rumiko Takahashi, Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura (Lum), and Maison Ikkoku, along with Project A-ko, Tenchi Muyo!, Kimagure Orange Road, and Oh My Goddess!.
Genre is a crucial issue in any discussion of anime since popular genres tend to fuel anime production, rather than famous characters, innovative animators, or other marketable elements. Ledoux's approach offers a convenient, if arbitrary, grouping which lacks a basic understanding of genre. Cyberpunk is described rather broadly as "stories showcasing the cutting edge of science and technology set in the distant-yet-closer-than-we-think world of tomorrow." Horror may in fact be anime's equivalent of noir, but more for reasons of style than for Ledoux's questionable citation of the horror titles' "unmistakable noir heroes, who exist in a world of hostile forces in which only they can provide salvation." Her approach omits other significant anime genres, particularly that of space science fiction which put Japanese animation on the map in the first place. While it is certainly achievable in live action (witness: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Japan's own Message from Space,), rarely have stories of space voyages, interplanetary conflict and civil war been told so intricately and extensively as in such animated series as Space Cruiser Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Macross, and such films as Phoenix 2772, Toward the Terra, and Lensman.
Aside from the review section and the chapters on television and genre, the book offers some additional features that are particularly welcome. Foremost is the foreword by Noboru Ishiguro, a director associated with such series as Space Cruiser Yamato and Macross. This gives readers a chance to hear a Japanese artist's appreciation of his American fans and tribute to the American popular culture that nourished his own, as well as his assessment of his country's animation product.
There is also a detailed history of anime fandom in the U.S. from 1961 until 1992, compiled by Fred Patten, the book's chief editor and seminal figure in this history. In the back of the book, in addition to lists of anime web sites, fan clubs, magazines, and video distributors, there is an index of artistic personnel, so one can cross-check an artist's credits. A random check of several important names, however, revealed three artists (Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Gisaburo Sugii, Shotaro Ishinomori) whose credits, as included in the review section, were incomplete; hopefully, this will be corrected in a future edition.
The book briefly addresses the issues of sex and violence, but only to defend anime from a bad reputation arising from Legend of the Overfiend (Urotsukidoji) and its ilk. It gently sidesteps the whole "tentacle porn" genre in a footnote: "Perhaps in a future edition of this book, we'll treat Urotsuki Doji and its legions of drooling idiot imitators as a separate genre, but for now, if you'll pardon the expression, once you've seen one giant demonic phallus destroying Tokyo, you've seen them all." Even in the reviews of the X-rated titles (a rating imposed by the book's contributors and not by a ratings board), the reviewers avoid explicit discussion of the sexual content in the videos. I fully understand the authors' caution, but I think it would have been helpful to differentiate more clearly those titles with genuine erotic content from those with gratuitous sexual violence.
Despite the minor quibbles over genre and sex, the book stands out as an invaluable compendium of current information about legally available anime, with some very useful reviews and consumer guidance. Still, there remains a need for a detailed historical overview designed to include anime not released in the U.S., as well as a continuing critical study of these films by commentators with a stronger grasp of American, Japanese and animation film history and aesthetics.
The Complete Anime Guide: Japanese Animation Film Directory & Resource Guide, Second Edition by Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney, edited by Fred Patten. Issaquah, WA: Tiger Mountain Press, 1997. $19.95; ISBN: 0-9649542-5-7
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.
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