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The first generation of books on Japanese popular visual culture, from Frederik Schodt's 1983 “Manga! Manga!” to Susan Napier's 2001 “Anime from Akira to Mononoke” have, for all of their differences, shared one trait. They approach the entirety of the anime and manga media, and it is no surprise that, since by the very virtue of the original concept, books like these are forced to make sweeping generalizations, for every point they make, dozens of counterpoints, exceptions, and alternative arguments can be presented. A sign of mature analysis in any field is analysis that is focused. In history, this may mean writing on a specific time period, or a specific event; in literary criticism, this would be writing on a specific author or book. In the growing field of critical studies of Japanese animation, the equivalent is a book that would focus on a single title, or, at least, a single director. The first such book, Helen McCarthy's “Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation”, appeared several years ago and another book on Miyazaki is due out in the next year or so. But at the same time, many would argue that Miyazaki and his films are an anomaly, in fact, that the films he makes are not “anime,” except in the broadest possible sense of the term. This is why “Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii” is such a welcome addition to this field.
Brian Ruh received an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Purdue University, went on to complete a master's in Asian Cultures and Languages at the University of Texas at Austin, and is now a doctoral candidate at Indiana University. At UTA, he worked closely with Dr. Napier, and was a teaching assistant for one of the courses on anime she teaches. Himself an anime fan, Ruh focused on two of Oshii's films in his master's thesis, and then combined his connections with an interest in scholarly approaches to Japanese animation in general to pitch the idea of a full-length study of Oshii's works to the academic publisher Palgrave Macmillan. Due in part to the very warm critical reception of Napier's volume also published by Palgrave, his pitch was successful, and now, over two years later, the product is before us.
In just under 200 pages, Ruh sets out to present a “primer” for the works of Oshii, whom, in the book's very first sentence, he calls “a filmmaker who exemplifies the breadth and complexities of modern Japanese cinema like no other.” The volume opens with the expected argument for why it is that the author has chosen to focus on Oshii, as opposed to any other major anime director. The same chapter then goes on to discuss Oshii's biography, and overview some of the major “themes and images” present in his films – an eclectic list that includes ruins, animals, military hardware, religion, and surveillance. The body of the book consists of seven chapters on specific titles Oshii worked on, from Urusei Yatsura, through Angel's Egg, Patlabor, and Ghost in the Shell, and concluding with the 2000 live-action feature Avalon. Four of the chapters focus on single works, two on multi-title properties (Oshii was involved with some but not all of the projects in the Urusei Yatsura and Patlabor franchises), and one bundles together Jin-Roh and Blood: The Last Vampire, both of which Oshii worked on but did not direct. The chapters are arranged chronologically, and Oshii's “minor” works, such as the OVA Dallos and two live-action films, are addressed within the relevant pages. Each chapter, in turn, consists of a general discussion of the title or titles, with an emphasis on the technical and business aspects of its creation, a listing of character, a synopsis, and a longer “commentary and analysis” section. The ninth and final chapter is almost a self-contained essay comparing Oshii to Miyazaki, although it also briefly discusses his recent and forthcoming live-action and animated projects. In addition, the book includes a complete Oshii flexography and sixteen pages of color illustrations.
The author's background is in the humanities, and he relies on it wholeheartedly to present what is, essentially, a multidisciplinary and highly accessible overview of several major anime titles, from the well-known (Ghost in the Shell) to the thoroughly obscure (Twilight Q2: Labyrinth Objects File538). His analyses are essentially close readings that discuss both plot points, themes, and specific elements. Some of the topics he focuses on include example the mythological underpinnings of Jin-Roh, uses of Biblical reference in the second Patlabor film, nakedness and sexuality in Ghost in the Shell, and the way the image and idea of labyrinths is used in Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer. When appropriate – but definitely in moderation – Ruh brings in specific sources. These include both writings on Japanese animation in general and analyses of specific titles, especially Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, and broader writings on topics like the uses of Arthurian imagery in science fiction (in reference to Avalon) and Mary Douglas' concept of “ideological pollution” (which he uses to discuss Beautiful Dreamer). However, he stays away from overloading the chapters with either endnotes and references or specialized terminology, and does not presuppose a familiarity with literary criticism to nearly the degree that Napier does. And although his analyses tend to focus on the content of the texts being analyzed, rather than on their technical qualities as either anime, animation, or cinema, one extremely strong point is that Ruh never forgets that anime is inherently commercial. Accordingly, each chapter also discusses the specific ways a given title was created, the role of the studio that worked on it, and that of other staff members. This kind of analysis is frequently missing from writings on anime, and a discussion of how Jin-Roh the final product differed from Oshii's original vision for it – and why – is very much appreciated. On the other hand, one thing that very much isn't appreciated are the character lists and synopses that take up as much as a half of the book. These – invaluable as they may be to a student two hours away from having to hand in a paper – give the book somewhat of a flavor of a Cliff's Notes-style reference brochure. This volume is presumably meant to be a companion to Oshii's films, not a replacement for them, so the purpose of the synopses remains unclear – unless, of course, they are merely padding to drive the overall length of the work to the point where it can be comfortably sold.
Notwithstanding this, “Stray Dog of Anime” is a very solid discussion of both a major anime director and several major anime titles, some of which have never been analyzed critically before. As is the case with all books on film studies, some movie fans will invariably go “what's the point, movies are made to be watched, not analyzed.” For those who want something more, though –whether they are longtime fans of Oshii's works, or have only seen one or two of his films – this is an excellent resource. In fact, much as Oshii himself is more than merely an anime director, this book holds its own very well indeed when compared to discussions of the major modern cinema directors in general.
Overall : A-
+ Thorough discussion of one of anime's most well-known directors that is elaborate without being too specialized. Neither speaks down to its audience nor expects an unrealistic level of familiarity with either the source material or academic language.
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