Monday, January 19, 2009


From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation

Updated Edition

by Susan J. Napier

To say Japanese animation, anime, has exploded onto the American mainstream within the past decade is only half true. It ignores the strong, albeit subterranean, influence that anime has exerted upon popular culture since the close of WWII. Anime has been here for a long time, from Saturday morning cartoons like “Speed Racer” to Disney’s appropriation of “Kimba the White Lion” in their mega-blockbuster, “The Lion King.” Anime, in its heady mixture of national and post-national identity, totalizes the feedback loop between Japanese culture and our own.

The history of anime, as well as a history of its reception on the international and American markets, is in some ways a representation of the shifting perimeters in which the world has defined an inclusive, global identity from the fifties onward. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that anime has shed the trappings of a niche market in the past one or two decades and become, from a mass cultural standpoint, an integrated element. Anime has become as non-threatening as Starbucks. Is this an instance of a greater acceptance of “otherness,” or is it a harbinger of a greater homogenization? Despite anime’s partial assimilation within the American market, it has largely continued to resist what Susan Napier calls “…the melting-pot vision of American cultural hegemony…” which Disney and other American properties have propagated around the globe. The insistent popularity of anime bears examination due to its representation of both national and global identities that stand as strong alternatives to an American vision of imperial hegemony. The sheer number of American who consider themselves fans bears some note, as “”anime has increased in popularity to the point where U.S. fans number at least in the hundreds of thousands.” Anime, then, practically demands a wide cultural study. And while Frederik L. Schodt’s “Dreamland Japan” remains a seminal discourse upon Japanese popular media and its American reception, the book’s focus is on manga and not anime. Susan Napier’s book, “Anime,” originally published in 2001, with an updated edition appearing in 2005, offers an incisive discussion upon the medium, and utilizes both clear prose and thoughtful observations informed by literary theory in order to investigate the art form and its cultural ramifications.

Napier privileges animation as the premier postmodern form of the 20th century, due to its “…fusion of technology and art, both suggesting in its content and embodying in its form new interfaces between the two.” Animation, then, is a synthesis that also exists as a non-referential perspective divorced from any obligation toward a fixed source material. This, then, allows animation to exploit its transitive characteristics, “…moving at a rapid- sometimes breakneck- pace and predicated upon an instability of form, animation is both a symptom and a metaphor for a society obsessed with change and spectacle.”

Animation’s pliable membrane allows a flexibility that can incorporate the disparate and diffuse, yet retain its own specificity. While this permeability is characteristic of animation on the whole, Napier argues Japanese animation in particular has nurtured this potential, perhaps owing to the fact “Japan is a country that is traditionally more pictocentric than the cultures of the West, as is exemplified in its use of characters or ideograms, and anime and manga fit easily in a contemporary culture of the visual.” Consider this emphasis on the pictorial in reference to Mishima’s “Confessions of a Mask,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) a book where the image is favored as an agent of psychological and subtextural depth. The image is, of course, important in both Oriental and Occidental aesthetics, yet herein we see it more often represent that which cannot be approximated in words, yet remains in its silent, yet expressive “picture-ness.”

Napier also explores the cultural antecedents of manga and anime in her book, paying particular attention to history within her introduction and then in her conclusion, where she ties Japan’s wish to escape from history to a similar tendency in Western modernism, such as Joyce’s famous quote, that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” She looks back to Japanese history, commenting that “anyone who has seen Hokusai’s astonishing 1824 print, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which depicts a naked woman lying back with two octopuses sucking her genital area and her mouth while their tendrils coil around her body, cannot help but make a connection between that and the notorious “tentacle sex” scenes occurring in some of anime’s more sadistic pornography.” Napier repeatedly returns to the social and political turmoil informing the edgier elements of anime, those that come to us as transgressive, offensive and brutal. Napier does not for the most part pass a moral or aesthetic judgment upon these practices, and instead allows them to simply exist as further interrogative material.

The framework Napier provides for her critical lens is that of three overriding tendencies reoccurring and restructuring themselves across genre lines within all anime. While “…the three modes of apocalypse, festival, and elegy are the most significant ones in anime…it is important to remember that anime is an immensely wide-ranging popular cultural form. Anime mines all aspects of society and culture for its material, not only the most contemporary and transient of trends but also the deeper levels of history, religion, philosophy and politics.” Such an admission of the restrictions of her critical lens is an important one for Napier to make. While her three modes provide a structural lens through which she explores a wide variety of anime, they are also potentially limiting definitions that threaten to obstruct her perspective upon the form and its culture of origin. Let us look deeper at these three modes.

The first, apocalypse “…can range beyond material catastrophe…to include more intimate forms of apocalypse, such as spiritual or even pathological ones.” The second term, festival, is viewed in reference to Bakhtin’s “carnival sense of the world” and involves “the pathos of shifts and changes, of death and renewal.” Napier’s discussion is primarily a conversation upon liminality, as she investigates the body, gender upheaval, national identity and visions of history. The final mode, the elegiac, holds “…implications of loss, grief, and absence…a lyrical sense of mourning often connected with an acute consciousness of a waning traditional culture.” These three modes provide Napier’s base of critique, allowing her to navigate through the broader terrains of the medium.

The potential of animation, as Napier indicates, is its ability to provide an aesthetic medium existing without representational obligations beholden to other art forms. Animation, Napier writes, is a medium independent of film and photography – it is something still strange and brilliant in its newness. A definite distinction exists, though it remains amorphous, between cinema and animation. While the technical difference between what constitutes live-action and what makes animation is well delineated, a theoretic definition of separation remains ambiguous – such a distinction bleeds.

Napier seeks to clarify these differences in her book and position animation as a truly postmodern device. She argues that “unlike the inherently more representational space of conventional live-action films, which generally has to convey already-existing objects within a preexisting context, animated space has the potential to be context free, drawn wholly out of the animator or artists.” This, therefore, makes animation “…a particularly apt candidate for participation in a transnational stateless culture.” This is, of course, an idealistic claim, and one reliant upon a good deal of optimism, yet her ardent desire for an art form that can comfortably exist in a post-state space is an admirable one.

Napier’s conviction for a stateless global structure inhabited outside the boundaries of Modernity’s suppositions helps to explain her strong reliance upon the films of Miyazaki Hayo as foundational texts within her study. And indeed, Miyazki’s work exists both as distinctly national in its identity (“Spirited Away” remains the highest grossing home-produced feature in Japan), as well as distinctly and amorphously global in its vision – note how he borrows from Greek mythology in “Nausicaa of the Winds” as well as his rendering of a non-particular, yet clearly European landscape in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Miyazaki is a formidable figure, both artistically and culturally, and he is one that must be dealt with in any comprehensive consideration of the medium. It is frustrating, then, that Napier occasionally steps outside her precise nonpartiality to deliver empty, qualitative admissions on the quality of certain anime features. Look at Napier’s examination of the final scene of Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” in which “…the children watch their parents while happily ensconced in the branches of the tree outside the hospital…” There are traces of sentimentality here, as what we see at the movie’s conclusion may “..simply be a product of the children’s wishful imagination…,” yet Napier insists that this ambiguity (which contains a fair share of potential emotional avoidance on the artists’ behalf) “…is far less important than the overall sense of joy and harmony that the film’s ending evokes.” It is almost as if Napier feels she must deliver qualitative claims for the art form, though anime is defended much more persuasively through close critical and theoretical examination. For instance, within her discussions upon the body in Japanese anime we encounter some of the book’s strongest arguments- one puts the book down eager to explore the medium.

Napier’s treatment of the body is one of the book’s great pleasures. The body provides a terrain of seismic fluctuation reclining across Japanese animation. Through the medium of the physical body, encounter panic sites, where contemporary shifts in Japanese culture are both symptomized and critiqued. Napier argues that animation’s peculiar relationship with a nonreferential “…human body is one of the most interesting and provocative aspects of the medium… the animated space becomes a magical tabula rasa on which to project both dreams and nightmares of what it is to be human, precisely as it transforms the human body.” The body, its privileging as the site of identity and its marketability, has been questioned, or at the very least problematized, as the flow of disembodied information becomes increasing important to our culture. Yet despite ostentatious escapes – fantastic flights out of the body and into an abstracted virtual reality, the body remains a focalized point of interest. It gains preeminent even, despite talks of a future that is post-body.

Anime repeatedly approaches this duality in a wide range of films and series. Napier discusses both the eruptive transformation of Tetsuo in the great film “Akira” – where the body bursts and expands as it fails to contain the psychic power therein contained. A later film, “Ghost in the Shell,” concerns the cyborg Kusanagi, and her quest to transcend her bioorganic body. Her body undergoes transformations that are both violent (she is literally ripped apart) and transgressive (she is uploaded into the body of a prepubescent girl at the movie’s close). Yet, as in “Akira,” the body stands as “Ghost in the Shell’s” chief metaphor for a greater, metaphysical shift. In Napier’s thorough investigation, the body emerges as the decisive site of conflict and change within Japanese animation. The animated body manifests as the propulsive agent that “…gives movement and life to any and all fragments of identity in a world that is insistently unreal.” And the medium itself, anime, provides an amorphous body refusing singularity and privileging the representation of what is nonrepresentational.

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