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Taking anime too seriously

by Michael Hoffman

“Why study anime?” the author of this study of anime asks himself. Good question, thinks the reader. Why indeed “study” a pop art whose appeal is less to thought than to mass, unreflecting, spontaneous enjoyment?

THE SOUL OF ANIME: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, by Ian Condry. Duke University Press, 2013, 241 pp., $23.95 (paperback)

There are reasons, of course. The wildfire spread, the global reach, the character-transforming impact it has on fans — the world-transforming impact it has on fans’ world — all elevate anime to something beyond mere entertainment. It is a phenomenon. Enter, therefore, the cultural anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, media scholars, Japanologists and other trained and dispassionate academic observers, all seeking to penetrate “the soul of anime.”

Ian Condry himself is a cultural anthropologist, and his book, he tells us, is the fruit of six years of “ethnographic fieldwork,” from 2004 to 2010. The nagging question persists in the reader’s mind: Isn’t his intellectual artillery too heavy — his prose certainly is — for an art form with so few intellectual pretensions?

Why study anime? “For me,” the author writes, “the answer … lies in an interest in uncovering the dynamics of cultural movements that don’t rely on the promise of exorbitant wealth as the measure of success.” Fair enough. There is much of interest to be learned from this perspective. For example: Anime producers toil in veritable sweat shops. Long hours, low pay, fast burnout — nine out of 10 animators leave the industry within three years.

Or this: “Unlike American culture in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, which rode on the coattails of U.S. political and economic power, anime’s prominence overseas came at a time of persistent recession in Japan.”

That invites a further question: “Why did Japan, of all places, become a global leader in animation?” Japan’s long history of visual art is one partial explanation. Another is something that did not happen in Japan but did in the U.S. — the purging in the 1950s of “extreme content” from comics owing to moral revulsion. American comics turned childish and are mainly for children. Japan’s didn’t, at least not in the same way, and never lost their hold on adults.

Japan to an astonishing degree is defined by its cartoons. “If you haven’t lived in Japan, it may be hard to appreciate how ubiquitous the images of characters are,” writes Condry. The Foreign Ministry’s appointment of the robot cat Doraemon as a “cultural ambassador” in 2008 is one instance. Another, less well known, concerns water trucks sent by Japan to Iraq in 2004 as a contribution to reconstruction of the war-shattered nation. The trucks were marked not by the Japanese flag but by a national symbol deemed (rightly) more instantly recognizable abroad — manga and anime soccer hero Captain Tsubasa. Talk about soft power!

Has it gone too far? First suspicions that it had go back to 1988, when a serial child-killer named Tsutomu Miyazaki was found to be an avid fan of kiddy-porn manga. The word otaku was coined around then. It has since lost some — not all — of its sinister implications, and today otaku-hood’s major impact is cultural rather than criminal. Defined primarily as an obsessive involvement in the anime world and corresponding disinterest in the “real” world, it has produced two small — maybe not so small — social revolutions. One has reshaped heroism, the other love.

As to the first, Condry writes, “Otaku-oriented anime contains troubled male protagonists who essentially reimagine the hero as vulnerable, conflicted, and anything but all-powerful … Even passive, insecure, dubiously virile warriors have a place in saving the world in many anime series.”

The love revolution is more complicated. Condry sketches it in a few strokes via a man named Taichi Takashita, who in 2008 “set up an online petition to call for legal recognition of the right to marry an anime character. He offered the following explanation: ‘Nowadays, we have no interest in the three-dimensional world. If it were possible, I think I’d rather live in a two-dimensional world.’ ” The up-to-date reader will recognize this as moe — infatuation with anime characters — in somewhat concentrated form. Within a week Takashita’s petition had drawn 1,000 signatures. Concentrated or not, clearly it struck a chord.

So yes, a popular art having so transformational an effect on individuals and society must be studied. But in Condry’s study the nonacademic reader is likely to soon lose interest. The jargon-heavy prose, with a parenthesized citation of some previous study punctuating nearly every sentence, is demanding without being rewarding.

“What I find most provocative about the notion of moe,” he writes, “is the assertion of the value of an internalized consumption.” Moe is provocative all right, but “internalized consumption” doesn’t come close to capturing it, and you put down the book suspecting you could learn a lot more watching a single anime film than you could studying a whole library of books about an art form that, after all, simply was not meant to bear such ponderous intellectual weight.

Michael Hoffman’s latest novel is “The Naked Ear.”

  • Kato David Hopkins

    “This book was too hard for me” would have been a more honest review. Identifying the reviewer’s difficulty in understanding an academic book as a flaw in the author’s approach and argument is extremely disingenuous. He should have returned it to JT so that someone able to read that level of monograph could have written a serious review. An anti-intellectual simply shouldn’t have been given the job. I think I can comfortably assume that there is no “ponderous intellectual weight” in Hoffman’s latest novel….

  • inqualia

    Fully agreed with Mr. Hopkins. Did the reviewer not realize he was reviewing an anthropology book published by a university press?

  • Graham Tsuno

    Wow, what a non-review. If Mr. Hoffman doesn’t think that anime in general deserves scholarly study in the first place, why did he bother reviewing this particular book? It sounds as if his mind was already made up for he read page 1.

    I confess that I haven’t read it, but anyone can see Mr. Hoffman’s bias. He clearly views all anime to be the same, which is like saying, all Japanese food tastes the same. To say that anime was not meant to be analyzed in a critical matter shows that the speaker already thinks it is inferior to other art forms.

    What upsets me more is that Mr. Hoffman acknowledges that is a phenomenon and the significance of this soft power. Don’t cultural phenomenon warrant the attention of academia?

  • Poka_Scarlet

    Anime “not meant to bear such ponderous intellectual weight”? I get that the reviewer is essentially saying that the book was difficult but to say people can’t write understandable, thoughtful, intellectual analysis of anime simply because anime primarily exists for entertainment value is preposterous.

    Have you watched Psycho Pass? Shin Sekai Yori? Shingeki no Kyoujin? There can be some very psychologically provoking anime; its not all just dominated by moe for otakus.

    • deathlock

      > Shingeki no Kyojin
      > psychologically provoking

      I lol’d

  • Daryl Surat

    The reactions to this article suggest a widespread misreading of what the text of this article actually says. The author, Michael Hoffman, is NOT suggesting that the act of writing about Japanese animation is not worth scholarly study because it is pop culture entertainment. It does in fact state the OPPOSITE. Yes, it contains sentences like “why indeed ‘study’ a pop art whose
    appeal is less to thought than to mass, unreflecting, spontaneous
    enjoyment?” But it is presented for purposes of rhetoric, as the
    question is answered in the body of the text. If you are the type of person that reads just the headline and a few sentences, then this is an easy mistake to make.

    Therefore, if you are walking away from this article thinking “how dare the author say that looking at Japanese animation with a critical eye is dumb” then all I can say is “that is neither stated nor implied by this.” That said, it does point out that Ian Condry’s writing style when approaching the material isn’t exactly the greatest, even when accounting for the fact that it is a scholarly text. However, this is not a controversial viewpoint. In fact, I happen to fully believe it myself.

  • trograin

    The book is most likely not ment for non academical people. Thought that it was obvius considering the language he is using.