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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007

Keeping up with anime is by no means kids' play


The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2006, 867 pp., illustrated, $29.95 (paper)

The only real problem with anime is that there's way too much of it. Try to get a quick grasp on nearly 90 years of movies, television series and straight-to-video productions, and you'll soon feel as if you are trying to take a drink of water out of a fire hose.

Such was the case until the first edition of "The Anime Encyclopedia" was published in 2001. In it, Britain-based authors Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements began to bravely map out the big picture for the rest us. In the process of cataloging an A to Z of anime, they also showed how the form evolved from a single 5-minute short from 1917 ("Mukuzo Imokawa the Doorman") into a growing pop culture force to be reckoned with globally.

But just as their book was released, a whole new age of anime history began to take shape. Director Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" became the first Japanese production to walk away with an Oscar for Best Animated Film. Hollywood began to back elaborate coproductions like "The Animatrix" and "Afro Samurai." Now, thanks to the increasing demand both domestically and aboard, there is more animation created in Japan than ever before.

All of this brings us to the new revised and expanded second edition of McCarthy and Clements' "Anime Encyclopedia." As the pair points out in their introduction, this new 867-page beast is "approximately 40 percent larger than before. Dozens of errors have been corrected and hundreds of new entries added." Like its predecessor, it is destined to become the sort of book fans like myself will wind up in a long and drawn-out relationship with, full of giddy highs and nagging lows.

Often, it's simply a pleasure to marvel at the way the "Anime Encyclopedia" sheds light on subjects that have simply never been written about in English before, such as the production history of pivotal-but-unknown- in-the-West anime like "Star of the Giants," or really obscure robot shows from the '70s like "Daikengo." But other times, when still-present errors persist, you'll just want to call up the authors in the middle of the night to nag them like a know-it-all otaku about how many details they got wrong in the entry about a stone classic like 1980's "Space Runaway Ideon."

Like most reference books, "Anime Encyclopedia" works best when it aims to stick to the facts, which it happily gets right more often than not. Footing becomes less certain though when the authors give into the temptation to play judge and jury. It's noble when they try to rescue a lost masterwork like Rintaro's "Metropolis" from the onrush of history, but other times, as in their dismissal of 2000's "Jin-Roh" (one of the last anime handcrafted without the aid of computers), the results can seem cranky and ax grinding.

While Clements and McCarthy's mastery of Japanese culture, both high and low, is impressive, the authors sometimes stumble when they try to step outside their fields of expertise. Not only is comparing the recent Samurai Champloo anime to Pink Floyd's classic rock LP "The Wall" an extremely dicey proposition, but they get the date wrong for the release of the latter (1979, not 1976). Already you can see how much fun it is to nitpick, argue and just plain interact with a book containing so much in the way of pop culture content.

The strength of the "Anime Encyclopedia" is a lot like the strength of anime itself — the sheer overwhelming diversity of the subject matter it explores. One way or another, it's all here, ranging from the rise of TV anime with 1961's Astro Boy and the science fiction boom of the '70s to the milestones of Hayao Miyazaki's much-lauded career and the doorways to anime hell like "Thomas the Rape Engine."

Yet, no matter what territory they find themselves in, the authors do their best to employ biting wit when navigating even the most bananas of plot synopsis.

Here's hoping a new epoch of Japanese animation eventually arrives for Clements and McCarthy to further incorporate into their massive on-going project . . . but not too soon. Not while there's a whole new warts-and-all relationship for fans to dive with this latest incarnation of the "Anime Encyclopedia."

Patrick Macias is the editor in chief of OTAKU USA magazine. He can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com.


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