Reviewby Mikhail Koulikov, Aug 23rd 2003
Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! Of Japanese Animation
Patrick Drazen; Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press
In one way or another, Japanese animation has now been a feature on the Western cultural and media landscape for close to forty years. Throughout this period, though, writing on anime, especially as far as full-length books are concerned, has been sorely lacking. Dr. Antonia Levi's Samurai From Outer Space and Dr. Susan Napier's Anime From Akira to Mononoke have approached Japanese animation from an academic standpoint, while books by the likes of Gilles Poitras and Helen McCarthy have taken a much more fan-centered approach. Patrick Drazen's Anime Explosion: The What? Why? & Wow of Japanese Animation attempts to tread a path somewhere between these two extremes. As per the introduction, it sets out to be a “guide for the uninitiated,” and at least according to the blurb on the back, Drazen, who holds a master's degree and has lectured on popular culture in academic settings, but is himself very much a fan, would appear to be an ideal author for such a project. However, the size of this volume – 369 pages - and range of titles mentioned, from the very first anime out there to the fairly recent ones like Love Hina, Jubei-chan and Metropolis, means that it will first and foremost be of interest to those who are already fairly familiar with anime.
Anime Explosion! is composed of two broad parts, a short introduction that positions writing on anime in the general framework of media and cultural criticism, and an afterword on the “future of anime,” and the role of the reader/fan in this future. The bulk of the book, though, is contained in the first of the broad parts, which is entitled “Interpreting Anime.”
First of all, it sets out to do just that, by placing anime, both in Japan and in America, in a cultural and chronological context – to define what anime is, what it is not, and more important, how it differs from American cartoons in general and TV-based American entertainment in particular. The rest of this first part seeks to address in a number of individual chapters “themes” – by which Drazen appears to mean both concepts: bushido and “shojodo” (“the way of the teenage girl”), cliches and conventions, the uniqueness of anime as a Japanese medium; and thematic elements – among others, violence/war and its effects; nudity and nakedness; reincarnation; gender, (homo)sexuality, attraction and love. In each chapter, a number of titles are mentioned, even if only in passing, perhaps with the effect of showing that anime can in fact address as many themes as one wishes it to. The individual chapters, however, almost never refer to or expand on each other; each single one can be read as an individual article, rather than as an integral part of a larger work. Drazen attempts to trace the conflict between satisfying one's ego and fulfilling social obligations through all of the themes and thematic elements he mentions, in fact as the underlying conflict of the Japanese mind as a whole, but he is crippled by being far too frequently distracted. Extensive references to American popular culture, retellings of Japanese legends and tidbits of history, and listings of anime titles all combine for an information overload effect. The “what?” and “why?” of the title are devalued for the sake of the of the “wow!”
The second half of the book consists of what appear to be more in-depth looks at individual “films and directors.” A glance at the table of contents shows some chapter headings are nothing more than the names of particular series or films, while others present what are, in effect, thesis statements. The range of titles covered is fairly broad – from older films like Windaria and Castle of Cagliostro to the brand-name – and familiar – Sailor Moon, Escaflowne, and Evangelion franchises, with some less-known but equally important ones (Giant Robo, Please Save My Earth) in the middle. The only really common thread is that all of the films and series featured in this section are commercially available in English.
A closer look at the actual individual chapters reveals they are essentially of three types. Some do in fact present self-contained studies of particular themes or concepts: Wings of Honneamise as an animated reinterpretation of the Tora-san series of live action movies, which feature a stereotyped traveling salesman, forty-eight of which were produced 1969 and 1996, Key the Metal Idol as “meta-anime: an animated film about animated films.” The rest of these chapters then serve to establish and support the point made. Others lean more heavily in the direction of what are, in effect, plot summaries, “Cliff's Notes”-like overviews of films and series intermixed with intriguing points that are made but not developed further. For example, Drazen mentions, in passing, the connection between the closing two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the various troubles and catastrophes that affected Japan throughout the mid-1990's: the bursting of the economic bubble, the Kobe earthquake, Aum Shinrikyo's activity, culminating with the poison-gas attack on the Tokyo Subway. This point can alone be the subject of a chapter if not a full book, but for whatever reason, the opportunity is ignored. Chapters of the third type focus not specifically on films but on the individuals behind them: Mamoru Oshii, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Satoshi Tajiri. These mini-studies are interesting, but the information presented is rarely unique. Ultimately, the two greatest problems with this section of the book are a lack of consistency between chapters and the question of their length. The two-hour Wings of Honneamise, the 26-episode TV series Revolutionary Girl Utena and the entire Studio Ghibli oeuvre are covered in neary the same number of pages each. At best, this will prompt the reader to discover more writing on the subject, or to form a critical opinion of his or her own; at worst, though, it will simply leave one with a distinct feeling of being tempted and then left unfulfilled.
The overall format of this volume is also somewhat confusing; it can't quite decide what kind of voice it wants to adopt. There are plenty of notes in the wide margins of the pages, but those are a confusing mix of bibliographical citations, Internet links, things the author wants to say outside the flow of the main text, and nods to information resources like websites and magazines where much of the information presented was originally found. The language falls somewhere in between that of a popular non-fiction work and a scholarly volume, though occasionally, the tone is downright chatty, directly addressing the reader. Ultimately, this book is neither an anime “primer” nor a serious academic monograph in the field of cultural or film/media studies, but unfortunately, there is no comfortable middle ground between the two poles, not for a full-length work. As a collection of articles and thoughts, Anime Explosion! works quite well indeed. Expecting an authoritative work on the medium as a whole, though, would be expecting too much. Whether the breadth and width of Japanese animation can even ever be adequately addressed by a single work is another question entirely, and very much a valid one, too.
+ Packed with information, valid points, and intelligent opinions