- From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West
From Impressionism to Anime represents a further development of the ideas Susan Napier has written about in two well-known and frequently cited books on fantasy in Japan, The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature [End Page 120] and Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle.1 This current book combines her interests in literature, film (anime especially), the fantastic in general, and Japan and modernity with the added themes of globalization and Western fan culture. It is a spirited attempt to bring together all these areas in one sustained analysis, an effort she herself admits recalls Oscar Wilde's quotation: "The whole of Japan is pure invention."2 That is, it is not that Japan as a modern nation-state does not exist but that Japan as imagined by many in the West does not exist, just as Tibet as Shangri-la does not. This book is, then, an attempt to analyze the cultural history of the creative imaginings inspired in the West by Japan and its aesthetic products since the state opened its doors to the outside (meaning Western) world in 1853. To this end, the book's chapters cover Japonisme from Claude Monet to Vincent van Gogh; collecting; Japan as utopia and dystopia in the U.S. imagination; Japanese women as sexual objects; the fantasy explosion of the 1990s; anime fan conventions in the United States; the issues of cultural identification and Orientalism and the problem of "soft power"; and the question of sacred space. In short—although she does not state this—Napier is constructing, in the Foucauldian sense, a genealogy of ideas.3
In her introduction, Napier notes that the theme of the book could be summed up as being about the "mutuality, dialogue, knowledge and . . . sympathy" (p. 8) that can exist at a global level, and it is for this reason that she might deny the reference to Michel Foucault. She is trying to understand the relationship between "fans" of Japan in the West, from Monet to anime audiences, not in terms of discourse or a hegemonic knowledge but more as "soft power"—that ubiquitous and, as she also notes, "ambiguous" (pp. 18–19) term now frequently used to discuss Japan's cultural exports. She does not ignore Orientalism as posited by Edward Said4 but prefers to challenge his concept of "the monolithic hegemonizing discourse whose only aim" is to shore up the cultural domination of the West by suggesting that we think instead of terms such as "heterogeneous," "multivalent," and "subversive" (p. 9). This is an important effort: despite much theorizing in the last decade about how global flows move in many directions, we have few clear examples of how this occurs, although Japan—along with France, but for different reasons—has long seemed to me the obvious society to turn to for an analytical example.
The case of Japan, however, raises many problems. The use of the term [End Page 121] "soft power" points to some of the issues. While the term was developed to describe how it might be possible to not have the most economic or political power within the current global hierarchy and yet still exert a seemingly disproportionate influence on global culture, it does raise questions. Can power ever be soft? Are cultural products powerful? And if so, how are they powerful? What do they change? This equation of power and cultural dominance is far too simplistic, argues Napier, who suggests that we should be thinking in terms of "complexity" (p. 9). I do wonder, however, if the term "influence" would not better portray the series of relationships she is describing.
Global culture consists not just of American corporate products and culture but also of products identified with France (food, film, fashion, theory), Britain (film, television, music), and Germany (technology, classical music), among others. The case of Japan is unusual because...