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  • Anime Explosion: The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation
  • John F. Barber
Anime Explosion: The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation by Patrick Drazen. Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A., 2003. 382 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 1-880656-72-8.

The popular culture cachet of Japanese animation, or "anime," both entertains and confounds its audience and observers; it is at once familiar and strange. Its themes are both broad—war and peace, love and death, the history of the past and the potential of the far future—and specific—history, horror, humor, reincarnation, religion, sex, spirituality, sports, technology, nature, advice to the lovelorn, respect for the elderly, the way of the warrior and the way of the teenage girl.

As with each new addition of literature or art form to popular culture, one is inspired to ask questions. What are the origins of anime? What does anime represent? Why does anime look and feel so different from our own animated films? And what are we supposed to make of this social expression that has, like a viral meme, seemingly jumped from Japanese culture to our own?

A new book by Patrick Drazen may help provide answers to these questions. Anime Explosion: The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation is an authoritative and engaging reference that can help fans, viewers and observers of anime sort out the details and learn how anime effectively reflects Japanese cultural life, both historical and contemporary, on many levels.

At the outset, Drazen notes that anime, as a visual narrative media, was inspired by manga (Japanese comics) and other forms of cartoon caricaturing dating back to the 6th century as well as by the invention and early development of movies and animation in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

Anime is not, however, restricted by the age and subject matter constraints often imposed on Western animated stories. Additionally, where the audience for Western animation is primarily children, anime is viewed and enjoyed by men and women of all ages.

Nor is anime dependent on Western animated films for its look and feel. According to Drazen, anime often reflects high creative values, shows great attention to artistic detail, utilizes the latest production technology, and draws attention to itself through its sophistication. In contrast, until recently, familiar Western animations have seemed similar to newspaper cartoons: simplistic, lacking in details, childish.

As for what it represents, Drazen argues that anime was developed and is still utilized as a methodology for internal cultural communication, a way to reinforce Japanese cultural myths and preferred modes of social behavior. The fact that anime was never developed, originally, for export adds now to the confusion suffered over specific references and markers sharply fixed in one culture being translated to another. Because of, or despite, these differences, anime is both popular and lucrative outside Japan, and Drazen posits anime as quite capable of communicating essential truths from the Japanese culture to other cultures. Anime Explosion is, then, a primer of these essential truths, providing, as its title promises, the what, the why and the wow.

Drazen divides his book into two parts. The first focuses on major Japanese cultural themes portrayed in anime, and Drazen examines each theme as a carefully balanced combination of old and new Japanese culture. The second part of the book examines several classic anime: Wings of Honneamise, Sailor Moon and Ghost in the Shell. In each of these examples, the notion of "classic" is not based on popularity but rather the extent to which the respective anime reflects Japanese life and attitudes. Drazen's discussion of the pertinent heroes, monsters, storylines and cultural insider jokes provides background and context for better understanding the translation of these stories from one culture to another.

The reward of Anime Explosion is threefold. First, readers understand that anime is a communications medium or art form that intends to speak to an audience about certain [End Page 402] aspects of Japanese culture. Second, rather than being a forecast for massive change within Japanese culture, it is more useful to say that anime serves to reinforce Japanese cultural myths and preferred modes of behavior. Third, we can learn from...


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