ANIME: from Akira to Princess Mononoke
(Palgrave, 316 pages, $16.95, paperback; 2000.)
Randy M. Dannenfelser notes:
When I 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
given Professor Susan J. Napier's book
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
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
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
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
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