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Sunday, July 29, 2001

Anime stakes claim in global culture

ANIME FROM AKIRA TO PRINCESS MONONOKE: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, by Susan J. Napier. Palgrave, 2001, $16.95

Periodically Japan innovation charms the U.S. public with a compelling work that seems to have read the very heart of human culture. Within the last five years, the Pokemon craze and the run of Hayao Miyazaki's modern classic "Princess Mononoke" grabbed the attention of a new mainstream audience. In doing so, they signaled to Japanese literature professor Susan Napier the blossoming of anime, a new genre come of age and a powerful, successful alternative to Hollywood in the global culture market. Recently, she argues, the genre has attained a new artistically sophisticated and intellectually complex level, making it ripe for critical evaluation.

So inspired, Napier presents in this volume an in-depth analysis of several major works that have shaped the anime genre of film. "[It] may be the perfect medium to capture what is perhaps the overriding issue of our day," she writes, "the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society."

It is this theme of identity -- both personal and national -- to which she is particularly attuned. The author brings an analysis of metaphor and the psychological underpinnings of images, a delineation of the influence of the contemporary cultural setting, and clues about the creators' inspiration to her examination of nearly 20 films.

The book first explores popular representations of the body. In particular, Napier focuses on the adolescent and the sexual body, as well as the relationship between the human body and technology in such films as "Akira," "Ranma" and "Evangelion." She subsequently devotes an entire chapter to the superlative Miyazaki and his works, including "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," with a lens on his novel and progressive portrayal of "shojo," or young girls, an image popular throughout Japanese media. The final chapters deconstruct the treatment of time and the depiction of history in anime, in particular the distinctively Japanese portrayals of apocalypse and of nostalgia for lost worlds.

The discussion of anime's contribution to a global culture and of the commentary they make about contemporary Japanese society is particularly enlightening. Hiding in the wings, however, deeper questions sorely tempt the reader. The book's exploration of the social context that birthed these creations begs, in return, a look at social phenomena to which they might have contributed: What impact have these films had on their audience? In a country where historical representation is so hotly contested, how do historical depictions in anime play into the political debate? Are violent themes in anime merely a symptom, or also a cause of escalated social discontent? When real-life criminal cases investigated by the police turn up stockpiles of violent anime in suspects' rooms, how does that play into the nation's consumption of anime?

The closest the book comes is an intriguing appendix based on surveys Napier conducted of the anime fan community in the United States, which convincingly argues that the community has been portrayed all too narrowly in both academic and popular literature in the past. The data dispel stereotypes of sex-hungry, geeky "otaku." In fact, the author argues that fan clubs often fill the role of a family for their members.

Napier carefully delineates her position and its distinction from colleagues' throughout, the text, although but at times a tendency to hedge conclusions creeps up. The reader should also be forewarned that the language tends to the technically academic; if you are unfamiliar with tropes, liminal spaces and recrudescences, keep a dictionary on hand. Finally, it must be noted that an unfortunate number of distracting editing errors mar the text.

The popularity of anime outside of the U.S. is evidence of the genre's ability to speak to a global media culture. And recent offerings seem to signal new and increasingly sophisticated forms. As an important contribution to the growing critical literature, "Anime" will give fans a more intimate view of the culture and inspirations from which anime are born, cinema fans a broader view of the possibilities of film, and media critics a new angle on our diverse global media culture.

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