- Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building
With the beginning of the twenty-first century’s second decade, anime studies entered a new phase. The need to justify the study of Japanese animation is much less emphasized, nor do we find as many general overviews. Instead, those of us interested in anime increasingly encounter books that offer specific perspectives for looking at the medium, such as Thomas Lamarre’s recent, technologically oriented The Anime Machine, or books on specific directors such as Andrew Osmond’s book on Satoshi Kon.1 Tze-Yue [End Page 447] Hu’s book, Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building, offers us yet another perspective, that of Japanese animation in relation to its specific historical context and to the culture of its Asian neighbors. This new perspective is a welcome addition to anime studies, not least because it is written by a Chinese scholar with a Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong who consciously takes pains to overcome the general (if not surprising) tendency of Western scholars to see anime almost exclusively in comparison to a European or U.S. context.
The rather vague overall structure of the book is what Hu refers to as “frames.” These can be taken as the literal frames or cels of traditional hand-drawn animation or, as Hu refers to them, “the literal technical issues presented in the frames.” Hu does include some analysis of individual directors’ visual styles and deals with some general technical issues in animation. But “frames” also refers to the larger cultural “frames of reference” that encompass anime and other forms of animation. Although this approach was somewhat helpful as an overview, the book’s chapters can be read and appreciated without too much emphasis on this perspective.
Roughly chronological, the chapters vary widely in terms of subject matter and each one could easily stand alone. Chapters 1 and 2, for example, on the “Origins of the Japanese Art of Animating” and “Cultural Thought, Expressing the Self and Image-Making,” are attempts to find the precursors of anime in Japanese premodern culture. To some extent, Hu offers the usual suspects that many other books on anime also cite—emakimono, ukiyo-e, and the visual nature of kanji, to name the most obvious—but she brings up some more provocative possible ancestors as well. These range from the nō, kyogen, and kabuki to fusuma (sliding doors) and “Shinto and the Supernatural.” This section includes discussion of the philosophy of Motoori Norinaga and Nishida Kitarō. As Hu herself acknowledges, these latter sections take her into the “murky waters of politics, history and philosophy” (p. 57), and at times her hypotheses seem rather unsubstantiated, but I genuinely enjoyed the ambitiousness and thought-provoking quality of these ideas. At the very least, they should make an excellent springboard for discussion in a course on Japanese culture.
The next chapter, “Development of Japanese Animation Up to the End of the Second World War,” is less speculative and more informative. It includes an extremely interesting discussion of a wartime Chinese animated film, Princess Iron Fan, which was not only very popular in China but was also highly influential among contemporary Japanese animators. Even more valuable is Hu’s discussion of the famous Japanese wartime animated Momotarō films and their far lesser-known precursors such as the 1930 antiwar film Entotsuya Pero. I assigned this chapter to the students in my animation course who appreciated its role in filling in some of the gaps in the history of Japanese animation. [End Page 448]
Similarly, the next chapter, “Postwar Japanese Animation Development and Toei Animation Studio,” helps to fill in the blanks in another period of preboom anime history. The chapter touches on Tezuka Osamu’s iconic place in developing television animation and includes tantalizing information about the animation industry under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). But its richest contribution is a description of the making of the first full-length Japanese animated film...