- The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation
Popular culture has become a major force within Japanese studies in English and other languages over the past two decades, with related courses springing up at universities across North America, for example, and the topic taken up increasingly in scholarly books and journals. Such has been the inspiration of the global popularity of anime, manga, video games, fashion, and other elements of Japanese culture—phenomena now often labeled "Cool Japan" both in Japan and elsewhere. Even after the "Cool Japan" boom has faded, the impact on Japanese Studies in the English language is likely to remain. Yet the emergence of popular culture as an academic subject raises difficult methodological questions, especially because the origins of Japanese Studies reside in the postwar formation of area studies. While the area-specific competencies such as linguistic expertise and a thorough knowledge of historical, cultural, and social contexts will certainly facilitate deeper understanding of popular culture, the limited geographical scope of such skills has the potential to inhibit our grasp of the border-crossing power and global reach of popular culture—the very qualities that make the current boom so interesting. (Recent interest within Asian Studies in issues of border-crossing and in intra-Asian comparative studies will remedy this limitation to some degree.) The amorphous, fluid nature of popular cultural phenomena calls for a flexible approach, and while the interdisciplinary tools available in area studies might seem a good fit at first, an overemphasis on flexibility might invite criticism for its lack of methodological reflection. At this early stage, many of these methodological issues have yet to be resolved.
Thomas Lamarre's The Anime Machine self-consciously responds to these challenges and offers a fundamental rethinking of the study of Japanese animation. While Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), the pioneering work on Japanese animation by Susan J. Napier, had to begin by asking "Why Anime?" Lamarre's book addresses a decade of anime studies as he reexamines the field's methodological assumptions. In his preface, Lamarre argues that discussions of Japanese animation as moving images are underdeveloped in the current scholarship, which instead relies heavily on textual analysis; these efforts—often reduced to retelling the plot and offering metatextual and philosophical speculation and sociological and anthropological readings—are insufficient, he says, to capture the complexity of the anime form. While he chooses formal analysis as a starting point for his discussion, he is not content with simply listing the characteristics of anime. In devising critical reading strategies, Lamarre borrows a page from the history of film studies: he draws on that field's "specificity [End Page 205] thesis," which focuses on the technological characterization of cinema as a distinctive form. While this line of inquiry brings the material aspects of animation back into the discussion, Lamarre also shows that he is well aware of the pitfall of technological determinism. Just as early film studies investigated the impact of the movie camera in establishing a monocular organization of the visual field, Lamarre looks to the animation stand—a device used since the early days of anime production to hold multiple celluloid screens in front of the camera—as a paradigmatic apparatus that has delimited a set of conditions for anime expression. (He calls this set of conditions the anime machine, borrowing from Félix Guattari.) More specifically, by considering anime as a multiplanar image, Lamarre focuses on how its creators developed different visual formulas to represent three dimensions on a single plane. The animation of Miyazaki Hayao, for example, utilizes open compositing, where the relationship between layers is not bound by perspectival calculations but represents the expanse of the landscape through a creative use of layered images.
Lamarre emphasizes that his analysis should not be seen as purely formalist. One of his primary interests is in how anime "thinks technology"—by which he means to indicate "that animation at once works with technology and thinks about technology" (p. xxx; emphasis...