Review

by Mikhail Koulikov, Nov 20th 2008

From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Eyes of the West

Susan J. Napier; New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Description:
From Impressionism to Anime
Seven years after her "Anime from Akira to Mononoke", Japanese culture scholar Susan Napier shifts her gaze from what anime is to why viewers outside Japan become anime fans. Her newest book looks at the history of anime fandom in America, the stated and implied reasons behind many of the activities that go on at anime conventions, and the ways fans justify their own attraction to anime as an art form and medium. Napier's main argument is that since ever since the middle of the 19th century, Japan has had a significant effect on Western popular culture, and anime fandom is just the latest expression of this trend.
Review:

When then-University of Texas professor Susan Napier's Anime From Akira to Mononoke came out, in 2000, it wasn't the first English-language book on anime, but it was the first written by a relatively well-known author, and brought out by a major publisher. Even regardless of the book's content, it got noticed. And the content, too, was nothing if not ambitious: in her broad survey, Napier tried to propose the three "modes" (apocalyptic, festival, and elegiac) that most anime could fall under. But Anime From Akira to Mononoke was also remarkable because it wasn't until the book's appendix that Napier shifted her gaze from anime itself, and to the American viewers and fans of anime. Of course, seventeen pages could be nothing more than a brief survey, but it was obvious that she is interested in the question of why anime attracts audiences as much as she is in figuring out just what “anime” is.

Since 2000, Napier has embraced her status as the unofficial leader in the emerging anime and manga studies community wholeheartedly. She left the University of Texas for the presumably greener slopes of the Northeast, and is now a professor at Tufts University, just outside Boston. She is also a frequent speaker at academic conferences, and has not rested on her laurels, with close to a dozen more articles on various aspects of anime that have been published in different journals. And she won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed her to actually travel to Japan and conduct original research. The end product of all of this this is her second book that deals with anime, and the first major English volume that promises an in-depth look at the world of American anime fandom.

Whatever her current interest, Napier's background is in Japanese literature and culture. And the first thing to keep in mind about From Impressionism to Anime is that beyond the introduction, anime itself is not even mentioned until a full 120 pages in, more half half-way through the book. These first 120 pages, though, contain the crux of Napier's argument that how American fans approach anime in the 2000's is actually not all too different from the wave of fascination with Japanese culture that spread throughout Western Europe in the 1870's. She does an excellent job of applying contemporary terms like “cosplay” to historical examples, like paintings of European women in supposedly Japanese poses and clothing, in particular, Monet's 1876 La Japonaise, and the late-19th-century fad for Japanese home décor items. She then traces how Japan has been represented in Western popular culture through the 1950's, the Reagan years, and finally, the cyberpunk aesthetic. These first chapters are excellent cultural history…but their relevance to anime fans is still strained at best.

The second, more anime-centric part of the book is composed of several distinct parts. One chapter is basically a history of anime and anime fandom in the U.S., complete with a "composite portrait" of three typical fans, including an older long-time fan of science fiction who moved into anime naturally, a female high-school senior, and a Manhattan fifteen-year-old. Another is a case study of the Miyazaki Mailing List. And a third, perhaps the most theoretical in the entire volume, looks at the sociology of anime conventions and typical convention activities. The conclusions she draws, for example, that "fandom is a form of resistance to the disappointing outer world," or that cosplay "has a sense of liberation and empowerment" may sound obvious if you stop and think about them – but that is a pretty big if. And she clearly has taken the time to, well, stop and think.

To wrap up, she attempts to ask the question of what exactly is the appeal of both anime, being an anime fan, and being a self-proclaimed member of anime fandom as a group. "What do the fans find in anime that they do not find in the dominant popular culture of Hollywood and other products of American society?" Napier asks, and to no surprise, finds a complex answer. Some fans are attracted to just how different anime is from American media, others, to how universal anime's themes (especially in the medium of animation) are, and others still, simply to the idea of being able to find a medium and culture that they can “buy into” and make their own.

All of these chapters are built largely around the results of surveys Napier has been conducting with anime fans, as well as with such people as Meri Davis of the A-Kon anime convention and Tran Nguyen, the founder of manga publisher DramaQueen. Of course, on the one hand, an interview allows for a great deal of access to an individuals views; on the other, that is exactly the problem. The people she talks to may very well not be representative of the whole of American anime fans, and clearly, she does not look at, for example, casual anime fans, or those who for whatever reason abandon fandom.

Especially compared to her previous book, From Impressionism to Anime is relatively light on obscure references and academic jargon, although Napier clearly knows enough to, for example, name-check Henry Jenkins when making any kind of argument about fandom. And she is certainly interested in linking her study with some of the broader themes that are now becoming prominent in media studies, like concepts of 'soft power' and 'cultural capital.' Nonetheless, it is a lot more accessible to the non-specialist than a lot of the other recent writings on anime, while at the same time definitely striking a clear-headed, serious tone. To an anime fan, not much of what she finds is going to be particularly novel, although it may certainly be interesting to realize that just as you the fan wonder about the reasons fandom exists as it does, scholars at universities around the U.S. are asking the same exact question. For someone who is not very familiar with the world of anime fans, though, Napier's analysis is a very good introduction. And the link that she does build between Western reception of Japanese culture in the second half of the 19th century and the emergence of anime and manga fandom in the last decades of the 20th is an argument that is both unique and well-supported by her study.

Incidentally, the actual "packaging" for this book, which utilizes a cover designed around a photo of an Inuyasha cosplayer pulled (probably two minutes before a deadline) from fansview.com is entirely unfortunate. It should not be taken as any indication of the book's actual contents.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A-

+ Makes interesting but logical assertions about the reasons behind the popularity of anime in America. Claims and inferences are well supported by both specific examples and references.
Those expecting either more focus on anime fans, or some sort of overarching theory will be disappointed. Too much reliance on interviews raises issues of ignoring other viewpoints.

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