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Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
304 Pages
ISBN: 0-312-23863-0
Palgrave Trade Paperback
Susan J. Napier
The clever asides keep the book from falling apart.
Overall Rating:

Animefringe Reviews:
Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
By Adam "OMEGA" Arnold

First of all, my attention span is like that of an hyperactive child who can't sit still long enough unless he's drugged, so it's no surpise that my 'drug' is all of my hobbies. Needless to say, the reading of a full-length book, and not the graphic novel kind, isn't normally in my repertoire. So, I picked up Susan J. Napier's Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation in hopes of learning something about anime that I didn't know before and that hope was realized, as I now know even more anime trivia.

Clearly, the first few chapters in the book are the best. The introduction is broken down into two chapters, the first being called 'Why Anime?'. This chapter features one of the most up-to-date looks at anime's impact on our culture, especially now that the popularity of series such as Pokemon has left it's mark. From there, the introduction presents a look at the worldwide scope of how anime is looked upon in a number of countries. It isn't until the second chapter that there is any real classic look at the history of anime, but that's all right because I think I could recount anime's evolution in my sleep by now. The second chapter does present some interesting information like: the reasons behing anime's hold on Japanese pop culture; reasons why Japan is so pictocentric; and most bizarrely of all, the origin of 'tentacle sex.'

However, by the end of the second chapter, it is clear that the author's goal is twofold. Part of it is to categorize anime into three categories, which she has named the apocalyptic, the festival, and the elegiac. These break down like this: shows that deal with the end of the world in some manner fall into the apocalyptic category; whimsical and fun shows fall into the festival category; and the elegiac category covers shows that have some historical, societal, or personal commentary aspects. As the book progresses, these concepts are fleshed out, but they become somewhat convoluted as the author uses scenes or episodes from a series that fits into one category to describe a different category. A clear example of this is the mention of Shinji's escape to the countryside in episode three of Evangelion. The other part of the author's goal is to investigate in depth the themes, imagery, and ideas of the shows that she is focusing on.

Where the book truly excels is in-depth looks at specific scenes and characters in a particular anime. Clearly the most in-depth and mind-numbing of these is the look at the metaphors and allusions associated with the strange transformations that Tetsuo goes through and the ending of Akira. This is a double-edged sword though as the discussion based on Neon Genesis Evangelion relayed nothing that I hadn't seen debated online countless times before. Yet, I found the look at Ranma more enjoyable because is less reliant on giving reasons for certain themes and more on giving background behind possible reasons behind Ranma's suffering when he transforms into a girl. This is further helped with the use of plenty of dialogue from both the dub and the sub of the anime and descriptions of key scenes that stress great anxiety for our cursed friend.

A major hole that the book falls into is the pit of stereotypes. This is especially apparent in Chapter 4, which deals with hentai. The chapter uses four key titles, Wicked City, Twin Dolls, La Blue Girl, and the non-hentai TV Series Cutey Honey, to show that male characters are only viewed as voyeurs and as demons. The one problem with these labels is that near the end of the chapter, there is a paragraph showing that Wicked City's Taki breaks this mold. If there was a third 'type' of male named, then this would not be a problem. However, the author's use of 'types' leads to a lot of disagreement and contradiction as the book progresses, which is a common problem when using stereotyping as a means of explanation. For instance, the hentai discussion also goes into great lengths about how anime porn is mostly made up of demon tentacle monsters with the occasional recreational sex scene, yet makes no mention of non-occult titles. What about hentai titles like First Loves and End of Summer that don't feature gothic tendencies but instead just the protagonist's desire to be with the girl of his dreams? Or how about semi-occult based hentai that don't feature tentacle rape like Magical Twilight? Or what about all the games that feature large amounts of lesbian S&M like Love Potion?

As I progressed through the book, I found my self disagreeing not with what the author is saying, but instead with the examples that the author was choosing to use. Susan J. Napier is clearly a fan of Japanese Anime, it is just that her use of well-known titles with a sprinkling of obscure ones as examples leaves a wide spectrum of anime's scope untouched.

Maybe I'm being too critical. The book is divided into four main parts with chapters and even sub-sections in each giving an overall look at a specific aspects of anime. The problem I have with the second part of the book is the whole idea that the author has of giving a look at the body. The author uses the way that characters, whether they be male, female, or mecha, are physically represented (i.e, physical appearance) as a tool for interpretation. If you miss a key point in the explanations, you could wander for a good number of pages just trying to figure out how this ties into everything. The becomes a real problem as the chapters go on because the intent really begins to become lost among the myriad of examples and is only found again after the plot of a particular show has been recounted in full. Even the original idea of categorizing series by three arch-types is muddied by the oddly structure topics. Don't even let me get into the fact the the author calls every non-human main character (yes, even catgirls and elves - all of them!) an 'alien.'

If the book has one fatal flaw, it's the structuring, which, after everything is said and done, makes the book read way to much like a college text book. Even in the concluding chapter when the three anime types are finally fleshed out, there is still a sense that, had the book been structured differently, some of the in-depth studies (like that of the unique aspects of Miyazaki's shoujo heroines) wouldn't have been so hard to grasp.

With all the pages of text, there are still some interesting extras - including an addendum chapter which seems to take a page from Otaku No Video and tries to figure out the traits that make up an otaku. Of all the chapters in the book, this is probably one of the ones that could have been expanded on even more, because the research that is presented could really have benefitted from being shown in the form of a series of reference charts instead of being in paragraph fashion. There is also a complete list of chapter notes, bibliography, index, and photo-gallery. The gallery is a series of color pages in the middle of the book which features screen shots from various series that vary in quality from grainy to excellent.

This book is not for the occasional otaku. It's an in-depth and often spoiler-filled dissertation on what makes anime what it is. This book is not Dreamland Japan or even The Anime Movie Guide, it's someone's interpretation of where anime's mind-numbing images and concepts stem from, and is well worth checking out if you've got some spare reading time.

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