Science Fiction Studies

#137 = Volume 46, Part 1 = February 2019


Kumiko Saito

Mapping Anime Scholarship in the Post-Genre Age

Christopher Bolton. Interpreting Anime. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2018. 328 pp. $96 hc, $24 pbk.

Anime, “a style of Japanese film and television animation” (Oxford Dictionary), has been a focus of Western scholarship since the early 2000s, and many brilliant books on anime, both academic and fan-oriented, have appeared since then. When the mysterious word “anime” began circulating as a trend word early in the twenty-first century, the question scholars asked was: “So, what is anime?” Today the question is: “So, which book should I use for my course on anime?” The shift of focus in these questions does not signify that scholars understood what anime is and then moved to the next question: rather, the new question suggests that many are experiencing difficulties judging which book represents which discipline, or even whether a particular book targets fans or scholars. This condition mostly derives from anime’s own character. Anime appears solely to consist of visual texts and is thus a medium with close disciplinary affiliations to film studies and literature; anime has proven to be quite compatible with many other fields in and outside scholarship, however, especially studies on—and participation in—fandom and pop culture, as well as anthropology, sociology, history, and industry research on media-crossing marketing strategies that fluidly traverse games, music, and other entertainment media. Christopher Bolton’s Interpreting Anime is a rare instance that accurately describes its task in just two words.

Interpretation is a core practice of literary criticism, which is fundamentally an act of finding values and meanings in literary texts by means of close reading. Bolton introduces the critical stance of Interpreting Anime by explaining his disciplinary background: “I have been teaching Japanese literature and visual culture to college students for twenty years, meaning that I received my graduate training at a time when studying Japanese literature meant studying Japanese poetry, stage drama, or prose” (16). During his career, he has observed and has been engaged in “some exciting debates and decisions about the most productive and interesting ways to read this new medium” (17). One purpose of his book is “to trace that critical history” (17) by reading a range of anime. All chapters have appeared in different publication venues since 2002, so that this study tracks Bolton’s own critical history on anime as well as aspects of the scholarship on anime.

Each chapter focuses on a specific anime film or original video anime (OVA or OAV), starting with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), and then progressing through Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor 2 (1993) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), Yuzo Takada’s 3x3 Eyes (1991), Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2002), Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), and Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Bolton presents an in-depth and comprehensive discussion of key aspects of each anime text, often with close attention to Japanese art and society. For example, the chapter on Ghost in the Shell connects the cyborg protagonist Motoko’s skepticism about her identity at the intersection of human and machine to the scholarly skepticism that oscillates between the implications of the female cyborg as, on one hand, “a euphorically powerful and flexible new posthuman (even feminist) subject” and, on the other, as “an objectified doll” (96). Then Bolton further expands his interpretive praxis to note the cyborg body’s commonalities with puppets in bunraku, a form of traditional puppet theater in feudal Japan, taking full advantage of his wide knowledge of Japanese literature. Along with his lucid and accessible language, Bolton’s well-balanced and sophisticated discussion makes this study an ideal choice for students and scholars who want a good overview of academic approaches to anime as well as for fans who seek more knowledge about the socio-cultural contexts of Japan.

The hermeneutic approach to texts hinges this book to a specific location within anime scholarship. If we are to visualize a spectrum of theories and disciplines concerning anime for a better grasp of current anime scholarship, one end of the spectrum would be directed toward the hermeneutic methodology of literary studies and the other toward media theories centered on the intermedia industry and on fandom. Of course, all writings display both tendencies to some extent and no book or article will fully belong to either end of this spectrum. One of the first monographs on anime in English-language scholarship, Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle (2005; updated from Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, 2001), approaches anime with the close-reading methods brought to the study of Japanese literature, often employing the established method of Aristotelian taxonomy. She classifies anime into “three major expressive modes ... the apocalyptic, the festival, and the elegiac” (12), and investigates how each anime text achieves these effects (among other meaningful functions). The modes may partially overlap with genres: the apocalyptic roughly translates as science fiction, especially with dystopian future visions, the festival signifies the comic, especially with potential disturbance to social structure, while the elegiac points to implications of loss and sorrow (13-14). The disciplinary platform that frames Napier’s discussions is close reading of anime texts for meaning and, more importantly, reading Japanese cultural traditions through anime. This pioneering work clearly marks the hermeneutic end of the spectrum.

In a somewhat antithetical relationship to Napier’s book, several studies soon appeared that focused on media theories and undertook thorough field work, such as Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine (2009), Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime (2013), Marc Steinberg’s Anime’s Media Mix (2012), and Alex Zahlten’s The End of Japanese Cinema (2017). Coming from different disciplinary domains, such as communication-media studies and sociology- anthropology, these books emphasize the idea that the medium defines the content. For example, Lamarre examines anime’s visual traits to advance his discussion about the relationship of modern technologies and visual media, as anime primarily “entails a way of thinking technologies” (11). In this context, contemporary anime is one component of a much larger franchise involving video games, manga, novels, and more, and the decentered nature of intermedia franchises enables fans and creators to participate in anime as a cultural-industrial phenomenon rather than as a collection of visual texts. Steinberg’s focus is on “characters” that transmigrate to multiple media platforms to create different narratives, a strategy called “media mix” following the example of the industry’s giant producer Kadokawa. Condry argues that “the soul” of anime is found, not in the text itself, but in the creative energy that works between the anime text and the participating parties in the anime’s eco-system such as creators and fans. Zahlten sheds light on academically marginalized but economically viable subgenres such as Pink Film (softcore pornographic films), Kadokawa Film (big budget transmedia productions), and V-Cinema (direct-to-video films), which he calls “industrial genres.” Given that a genre in this respect is determined by specific industrial formations and material forms, anime also qualifies as an industrial genre (7). Both indirectly and sometimes quite explicitly, these books oppose the literary convention of reading the anime text itself as the authentic source of meaning. With Bolton’s Interpreting Anime, which returns to interpretation while carefully referencing recent scholarship, the academic agenda of writing about anime has come full circle.

Bolton seems fully aware of the challenges and discrepancies between these two critical positions, as manifested occasionally in phrases such as “recent theories of anime that supplement or even challenge the methodology of this book” (199). His book displays the literary method’s advantages and difficulties in coping with anime, reminding us that this is not an issue unique to one particular study but should be seen as a disciplinary constraint for any scholar who chooses to accommodate hermeneutic practice to anime. This methodology, with which scholars associated with literature are familiar from their most basic training, presupposes several conditions for the work of art to serve as an adequate object of analysis, conditions that are often incompatible with anime. Reading for meaning assumes that the text is a coherent whole with a beginning and ending, that it demonstrates high complexity or ambiguity to endure diverse analyses and interpretations across time, and that it can provide meaningful meanings—values that the reader can make sense of from messages in the text. In our age, important values are usually centered around such key terms as subversiveness, transgression, marginality, and liminality.

Most anime does not pass the “meaning” test: that is, it does not seem worthwhile to undertake in-depth literary analysis of its texts. Most are produced as serialized television programs without a clear plot structure across episodes or a sense of closure at the climax. Like many popular television programs, the future prospect of sequels and crossovers overtakes textual coherence. Studies in literature and film also value arguments built on concrete evidence directly taken from the text (the so-called primary source), in which form is required to correspond to content. Certainly, we tend to find more philosophical value in the apocalyptic vision of Akira and the criticism of Japanese self-defense policies in Patlabor 2 than in toy franchises for children and in the ubiquitous underpants flashing and breast bouncing of so much popular anime. This tends to confine scholarly interest to those film productions, whether intended for theatrical release or direct-to-video release, that possess the integrity and autonomy of the auteur film, allowing the viewer to search for cinematic metaphors and motifs embedded in the text, unlike intermedia productions with little consistency or coherence in their plots or character development. There are not many anime that fulfill these conditions: relevant directors and studios would include Studio Ghibli films (especially those directed by Hayao Miyazaki), Production I.G.’s theatrical releases (especially by Mamoru Oshii), Satoshi Kon films, plus the most famous anime, Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. The next generation aspiring to replace these directors might include Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai. All chapters in Interpreting Anime focus on this range of material, except chapter 4, which examines anime’s enthusiastic audience known as otaku. When we try to gain a comprehensive view of anime, we inevitably step outside of the “meaningful” world of individual interpretable texts and face the overwhelming majority of anime productions that largely nullify the academic value of interpretive reading.

Current anime scholarship creates a dilemma for sf as well as for anime analysis of the interpretive kind. Science fiction concerns “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present” (22), to quote Robert Heinlein’s famous definition of the genre. In other words, science fiction as part of a larger entity called speculative fiction is a genre principally dependent on the “content” of its texts in relationship to social and historical contexts (such as setting, plot, and discourses reflecting extrapolation of scientific thoughts and methods). In short, the association of anime with sf has developed due to its affinity with the more literary conventions of genre labeling. If anime is, rather, defined by its forms of production, distribution, and consumption, there is little room in scholarship for sf as an anime subgenre.

This in no way means that science fiction is rare in anime. On the contrary, anime is a medium that almost exclusively deals in sf and fantasy as far as its subject matter is concerned. The anime examples referenced in Interpreting Anime are no exception, ranging from stories of cyborgs and robots to vampire hunts and psychic battles. And so are the anime samples in the books that operate on theories about the industrial and consumer sides of anime, whether they are about wind-up samurai or time-traveling highschoolers. Science-fiction elements appear throughout Japanese popular media, and the dominance of speculative fiction in Japanese media is rarely noted precisely because of its omnipresence. In Anime: A Critical Introduction (2015), Rayna Denison introduces the term “meta-genre” to explain how anime is perceived differently in Japan than in the rest of the world because of different genre conventions. Anime genres in Japan “often reflect industrial categories ... that target specific demographics” classified by age group and gender (24). By contrast, transnational marketing of anime took advantage of the sf genre to showcase how the new medium should be viewed. Denison contends that “cyberpunk was particularly useful to critics because of its routine transgression of the boundaries” between different media (32) in analogy to cyberpunk themes. This suggests that science fiction was a convenient rhetoric through which to introduce a foreign medium imported from a country where popular media do not comply with Western methods of genre classification. Furthermore, as genre crossing and globalization intensifies in current media culture, generic boundaries increasingly erode.

Interpreting Anime responds to challenges from current anime scholarship and successfully proves the ongoing significance of literary methodology as a means of interpretation. Bolton points out in his conclusion that anime creators as well as viewers make a “distinction between commercial anime and animation as a higher art” (255); different approaches are required for the mass of popular anime in contrast to individual anime texts. Although I cannot comment on which anime is more valuable as a form of expression, Bolton’s account demonstrates the validity of his methodology in investigating “universal themes” (254) such as anxieties and beliefs about identity, technology, family, and the nation’s future. Anime is an ideal medium for expressions of these themes and Bolton’s book brings our attention back to anime’s epistemological value.

Condry, Ian. The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2013.

Denison, Rayna. Anime: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Heinlein, Robert A., and Basil Davenport. The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism. 1959. Chicago: Advent, 1971.

Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.

Napier, Susan J. Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.

Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Zahlten, Alex. The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017.

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