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ANIME: from Akira to Princess Mononoke

by Susan J Napier

(Palgrave, 316 pages, $16.95, paperback; 2000.)

Randy M. Dannenfelser notes: When I cover scanwas given Professor Susan J. Napier's book Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke for review, I emailed my good friend William D. Prystauk, a collector of anime cel art, to get his opinions and insights into what has become quite a trendy subject among intellectuals. (Of course, I made sure to get him a copy of the book also.) After he'd finished it, we compared our impressions of it -- and of anime in general -- in a series of long-winded emails. The following are highlights from those emails (most of the wind having been removed for your reading comfort):

DANNENFELSER: Susan J. Napier's Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke is an insightful investigation of a fast-growing (in the US) niche of Japanese pop culture as seen through the eyes of a respected American scholar. Yet the feel and flow are quite stiff, almost as if it was written to function as a companion textbook for a course Professor Napier might be teaching on the subject.

PRYSTAUK: It's definitely textbook-like in style and format, if not in size. (It's slightly larger than a pocket-sized paperback book.) But it's still a book that serves as a good foundation for other critical responses to anime. Napier has a strong, well respected background as an expert in Japanese literature and other cultural forms, and she examines how the Japanese interpret their own recent history through the use of anime, either directly (as in Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies -- "September 21, 1945 was the night I died...") or by inference (Princess Mononoke).

RMD: I've noticed that scholars insist on explaining anime, as well as other Japanese cinematic art, by comparing it to American classics, as Napier frequently does in this book. She compares the great Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke to both Blade Runner and Disney's animated version of Tarzan. I know she's trying to create a frame of reference for the non-Japanese reader, but is this a fair way to go about it?

WDP: Yes it is. She's not so much creating a new frame of reference for us as she is extending ours to Japanese culture, and she does it with these familiar reference points. Napier also gives anime literary merit by using devices normally reserved for critical examinations of novels and other print media. By doing so, she invites us to apply these same critical methods to anime (and other non-written art, for that matter) to see if it stands up as a potent as well as a legitimate art form. And we discover that anime certainly does stand up.

RMD: Especially since many older adults in the west still think of anime as Speed Racer and Transformer cartoons, if they even know what anime is at all.

WDP: That's true to a lesser degree, but anime's popularity has spread so much in recent years here in the States that you can't make this claim as a general rule any more. However, you tripped over a major failing of this book. Although she mentioned Speed Racer as being significant to anime's exposure in America, Napier didn't expand upon its extent or impact.

One of my earliest memories as a child was watching "Speed" on TV during breakfast before school. I enjoyed it because it was the only animated show (besides Jonny Quest) that catered to young boys who fantasized about doing extraordinary things. There was a sense of reality and drama that made me think, "Hey, I could do that, too!"

At the time, the quality of US-produced cartoons was on the downslide. I look back at the early versions of Tom & Jerry and marvel over the detail and depth of the art. But even as a grade-schooler, whenever a newer version of Tom & Jerry came on, I'd change the channel. The artwork was flat and overly bright, and it lacked any real definition.

When I was in high school, Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) appeared on the tube. Watching it brought back the thrill of seeing young people engaged in a fascinating dramatic adventure. I was amazed at the look of the show -- the detail of the artwork -- and I became caught up in the stories. Nothing that "deep" was coming from American animation studios.

Napier is hardly concerned with this stage of anime development in the States; although she tips her hat nostalgically to Speed Racer, she doesn't go into what made this series so attractive to American kids. Yet, without it, I'm convinced anime would've taken a longer time to grow and spread over here.

RMD: Did Napier make any other significant omissions?

WDP: First of all, anime differs from Western animation in that there is a portion that delves deep into adult subjects and has a large following within its erotic subgenre. Although Napier devotes a chapter of her book to "The Body in Pornographic Anime", she has selected three films (Wicked City, La Blue Girl and Cutey Honey) specifically to illustrate that there is a common thread in anime pornography of female transformation -- some positive and some negative -- and sexual liberation. Nevertheless, she ignored what some consider as the hardest, heaviest and most perturbing of erotic anime: Cool Devices. Because this series of short stories for adults is concerned primarily with rape, bondage and deviant sexual practices, it runs counter to the scholastic nature of Napier's book and may also be too controversial for it. But a mention of its existence would not have been inappropriate in a scholarly study such as this, especially since, truth be told, anime's sexual side is what attracts many adults to it.

She also failed to mention that the Japanese government censors a large portion of erotic anime before it is shipped overseas. I can only surmise that this is done so that American viewers won't think the Japanese are what conservatives in this country would consider a sexually perverted people.

RMD: So one comes to realize after watching some of the more "intense" pornographic anime that people are alike all over. That said, do you think you fit Napier's "Profile of the Anime Fan"?

WDP: Yes and no. I never like it when scholars try to categorize people. I find it dehumanizing to reduce us to bits of information in a study. And these profiles are too general to even approach 100% accuracy anyway. Sadly, all they ever do is create stereotypes. Besides, she begins the section with disclaimers ("Most of the results are based on University of Texas fans...", "...anime fandom is in a particularly fluid state..."), and then boldly goes on to say that anime fandom is made up mostly of male students (after telling us her survey was primarily of UT students). And, after going through the rest of her data, I concluded that Napier says little more than that most anime fans are "geeks", but she does so in a roundabout way.

But, by isolating one type of anime fan, she leaves other fans out. So someone who is deciding whether to investigate anime further might think, "Maybe this isn't for me because I don't fit in with the group as she describes it -- I'm not a geek." As a result, the chapter became more curious to read than informative; nothing more.

This goes back to allowing the genre to stand on its own. If a story is well done, people will watch it. And, if you think about it, Napier used Japanese films to categorize American fans. Can you imagine trying to categorize the "average" American moviegoer for non-anime films? It would be impossible. Her little survey of University of Texas fans might have been more interesting if she had broadened her pool and then compared her results to those of an equal number of Japanese fans. That said, I don't think her study holds any scientific validity at all, since her sample group was small and comprised mostly people from a specific region of the country.

RMD: Overall, I think she should have altered the book's title and focused on a detailed study of just a few classic anime films. Instead, she seemed to try to analyse the genre by subject rather than by work. What she has done is definitely worthwhile, but it creates as many questions as it answers. Can you imagine if she attempted to cover Disney animation or even Warner Brothers in the same manner, in the space she was given? The scope of anime might just be as vast as that of those two giants, although nowhere near as familiar to American audiences.

WDP: I agree. By the way, I'll drop that new Cowboy Bebop DVD in the mail to you as soon as I'm through with it. Let me know what you think of it.


Review by Randy M Dannenfelser & William D Prystauk.


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