- Interpreting Anime by Christopher Bolton
Christopher Bolton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 322 pp.
Christopher Bolton’s work with the team of editors responsible for Mechademia, the journal that helped launch anime from fan culture to an academic field of study, elevated my hopes for his new book Interpreting Anime. For the most part, Bolton meets expectations. Bolton’s book is written with a professor’s optimism that everyone can and should learn how to interpret and evaluate Japanese anime. Similar to critic Paul Wells’s seven “deep structures” used to analyze animation as a genre (71), Bolton combines close readings, knowledge of Japanese art and culture, and various inventive schools of critical theory to analyze nine anime films. Bolton does so in six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. His basic assumption is that all anime texts oscillate between immersive and distancing effects that work on the viewer/reader. Each chapter focuses on one anime text except for chapter 6, which looks at many incarnations of the Blood: The Last Vampire franchise.
Chapter 1, an examination of Akira (1989), employs postmodern theories and political analysis to read this foundational text. Bolton argues that “Japanese culture is not a stable, definable, or locatable thing that can explain why anime is the way it is” (24). He sees a “wide range of discourses” (24) that allow “our readings of anime [to] constitute our idea of Japan” (24). The clear influence of Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs (1970) is first implied and then directly acknowledged. Bolton next utilizes director interviews and histories to further his argument. He illustrates that Otomo Katsuhiro’s personal history, growing up during the late 1960s protest and demonstration era, led the auteur to employ “popular culture to help make sense of an otherwise baffling reality” (33). Bolton demonstrates that Akira, a text that often confuses Western viewers, is best understood by knowing both the manga and the anime text in dialogue with each other. Embracing confusion as an idea, Bolton sees Akira as a text about political contradictions that is a “skeptical deconstruction of expression itself” (40).
Chapters 2 and 3 examine Oshii Mamoru’s work, from the relatively obscure Patlabor 2 (1993) to the hugely influential Ghost in the Shell (1995). Chapter 2 employs Vivian Sobchack’s ideas on phenomenology, where camera, projector, and viewer are organs of expression and perception that allow film to imitate and simulate “both the unified cinematic body and its electronic dissolution” (86). Bolton marries Sobchack with Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about the hyperreal as the proper approach to Patlabor. Though this is a nominally successful approach, chapter 3 is both better and the most persuasive chapter in Interpreting Anime. Here, Bolton employs knowledge of classical Japanese puppet theater in his examination of Ghost in the Shell, sidestepping the sexism-versus-feminism debate about Kusanagi to combine Japanese culture with critical theory, [End Page 100] applying Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto to examine the human (“orga”) versus technology (“mecha”) debate. Using cultural theory, Bolton persuades us that “treating Kusanagi as a living subject misses the ways her body will always fall inside quotation marks; she is a virtual or performed subject that is real, unreal, and hyperreal from the outset” (104).
Chapter 4 is also strong as it inventively applies otaku fans’ concerns with the Buddhist concept of the “third eye,” leading critics and viewers to the kind of self-conscious viewing Bolton believes anime requires. This approach works best with the film 3x3 Eyes (1996), which features a protagonist who transforms into a supernatural figure who sports her own third eye. Bolton’s critical analysis complicates earlier claims for the film as part of the “magical girlfriend” genre that employs the binary of passive girl versus powerful goddess. This earlier category made it easy to show how otaku were strictly male fans with obsessive interests and fictional desires. Bolton’s approach argues that otaku are not singularly gendered and “not simply immersed in the fiction but are able to view it at a distance” (151).
Chapter 5 examines Kon Satoshi’s Millennium Actress (2001) using theories ranging from Lacan’s symbolic...