- Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
Certain progressions can be marked from Antonia Levi's Samurai from Outer Space in 1996 to Susan Napier's Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation in 2001. While both survey the phenomenon of Japanese animation as consumed in North America, the palpable underdog subcultural context and sense of mission in Levi's earlier work has given way to a confident mainstream appreciation in Napier's, with the term "Japanese animation" replaced in English by the naturalized anime (a-ni-mé, pl. anime). In a fast-moving media phenomenon both were dated as soon as they were published; however, bolstered by the worldwide critical and financial success of Miyazaki Hayao's work, and contemporary with the exposure to youth by the rise of 24/7 cartoon networks and the runaway success of the card game-anime nexus, Napier's Anime finds itself still in the right historical moment. Though the book has limitations in terms of both its own systematicity and its treatment of potentially interesting philosophical themes in anime, it is a reliable and sometimes inspired guide to a new phenomenon that forms an increasingly important default in the background your students bring.
Napier is concerned not so much with accounting for the visual and perceptual properties of anime as with its narrative qualities: "Japanese animation merits serious consideration as a narrative art form and not simply for its arresting visual style. . . . Much of this book will be an investigation into the themes, imagery, and ideas of some of the most memorable anime created over the last two decades" (p. 10). The strengths and weaknesses of this book are nicely summed up here. Concentrating on narrative—a formal property of storytelling transposable across media—allows a broad and well-chosen survey of themes, images, and ideas. However, there is some question as to whether this will allow the reader to satisfy the ambition to "understand what makes anime the distinctive art form it is" (p. 10).
The book is comprised of twelve chapters in four parts. Part 1 is an introduction that argues for the importance of anime and sketches a quasi-Aristotelian method as the basis for Napier's taxonomy. Parts 2-4 cover major thematic divisions that characterize the particular obsessions, power, and drama of anime, and these are particularly well-chosen to reflect not just the relatively palatable work deemed suitable for TV or subtitled for video distribution in the United States but also the anarchic diversity of the phenomenon as it circulates in Japan. Part 2 is on the essential theme of the changeable body and includes discussion of the monstrous adolescent body, pornographic anime, and the cybernetic body, and will allow you to catch up with classic anime like Akira (1988), Ranma 1/2 (TV version, 1990s), and Ghost in the Shell (theater version, 1996). Part 3 is on fantasy and romance as genres and the unusual [End Page 493] space in anime for female leads, and includes discussion of Miyazaki's pastoral work and the comedy TV series Urusei Yatsura (1980s), Oh My Goddess (1980s), and Video Girl Ai (1990s). Part 4 discusses anime that have sought to make a self-conscious contribution to historical debate, including Barefoot Gen (1983) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988), on the bombing of Japanese cities in World War II, and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997), which presents a multicultural picture of Japan's past produced in consultation with Japan's leading ethnologists. Discussions are balanced and entertaining, introducing the major auteurs of the last twenty years (Oshii Mamoru, Otomo Katsuhiro, Takahashi Rumiko, etc.) and creating the sharp impression that the genre of anime is not the same as the American concept of "cartoons."
Though the anime phenomenon raises interesting sociocultural and critical questions about narrative and image culture, it is not immediately certain that there is a philosophical issue to anime. One might seek this philosophical content within the medium itself or in a systematic quality...