The past 15 years have seen a boom in academic studies of anime, ranging from thematic and cultural analysis such as Susan J. Napier’s “Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle” to formal theory based on technical processes and the nature of two-dimensional images such as Thomas Lamarre’s “The Anime Machine.” Alistair D. Swale’s “Anime Aesthetics: Japanese Animation and the ‘Post-Cinematic’ Imagination” covers even more ambitious ground. It asks: how is anime “art”?

Anime Aesthetics, by Alistair D. Swale
176 pages
Palgrave Macmillan, Nonfiction.

Asking that opens the door to an even broader question, and here Swale reveals his purpose: analyzing anime according to the definition offered by English philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) in his 1938 treatise “The Principles of Art.”

Swale’s book is essentially a primer to Collingwood’s, who defines art first by what it is not: art is neither “craft” (technology skillfully used to a predetermined end), “representation” (an exact reproduction of the real world), “amusement” (the conjuring of fleeting emotions like excitement and humor) nor “magic” (deeper and longer-lasting emotions or appeals to action).

After discussing all these in their own chapters, Swale turns finally to art proper. In addition, Swale attempts to bring 1938 to 2015 as he addresses the idea that we live in a “post-cinematic” age — just as photography transformed representational art, digital media has transformed camera-generated art. High definition visuals have lost the power to impress and computer-generated imagery has stripped the camera of its authority. Is this the perfect time for anime, which has always been made of created rather than reproduced images?

Throughout the book, Swale prioritizes creative agency over other considerations, beginning by arguing that the “anime aesthetic” is more than just an outgrowth of the technical needs of traditional hand-drawn animation.

Although anime has largely retained a stylized two-dimensional look (albeit with CGI becoming part of the toolbox of even stoutly skeptical creators such as Hayao Miyazaki), Swale posits that this is a conscious aesthetic choice and not merely traditionalism or born of budgetary and technological restrictions.

Essentially, animated two-dimensional images require more imagination to process than photorealistic ones: anime art is iconic, down to the often repetitive character designs, because its power comes from its “ability to convey concepts, rather than objects” (to quote anime researcher Raz Greenberg).

And while anime stylizations can in some cases be traced back to pre-cinematic Japanese graphic traditions, Swale admirably avoids the path of essentialist cultural scholars who claim, for instance, that manga is inextricably rooted in Hokusai’s animal scrolls and kamishibai (picture drama) street theater.

Great anime transcend their cultural specificity. Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” does not authentically evoke a rural Japanese past, but creates “a sort of pancultural nostalgia, or cosmopolitan sentiment.” Likewise, the cyborgs of Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” speak to universal questions about the nature of the self.

For general audiences, one of the pleasures of a book like this is discovering new works and seeing familiar works analyzed. Swale focuses on titles which fit his auteur theory outlook, mostly anime films by respected elder directors such as Miyazaki, Oshii and Satoshi Kon. Nontheatrical works receive less notice, with a few exceptions like direct-to-DVD titles “Texhnolyze” and “Ergo Proxy.”

The vast sea of TV anime and “media-mix” merchandise-oriented titles are left almost unexplored. Commercial titles such as “Dr. Slump” and “Is This a Zombie?” are summarized in the chapter on amusement — evidently to impress the reader with their weirdness — while in a brief mention of megahit “Dragon Ball” series Swale romanizes the hero’s name as “Go-kuu,” an idiosyncratic spelling suggesting Swale wasn’t familiar with official translations.

On a fortunately few other occasions Swale dances around facing anime’s more lowbrow content. “It would also seem unavoidable,” he writes, “to acknowledge that the at times extended sequences depicting (‘Ghost in the Shell’ character) Kusanagi with minimal or no clothing on lend themselves to the interpretation that they cannot help but provide an avenue for erotic pleasure.”

The whimsical side of anime, going back to the inherent novelty of animation itself (seeing strange shapes transform and move), is mostly of interest to Swale as the trenches in which the great film directors earned their stripes, such as Oshii, who directed the 1983 rom-com “Urusei Yatsura” before creating his more mature films.

“Magic,” defined as the creation of more sophisticated emotional effects, is the penultimate chapter, and finally this leads to Swale’s (and Collingwood’s) definition of art: It is about expressing fundamental truths, and artists are people who can see and express these truths in ways others can understand. It’s a traditional definition, but an uplifting one, with its affirmation of the power of the imagination to turn images into metaphors and into meaning.

Ultimately, though, Collingwood’s theory makes more impression than Swale’s exegesis, which — in trying to survey anime according to craft, representation, amusement, magic and art — bites off more than it can chew in 170 pages.

The full implications of the term “post-cinematic,” too, are barely touched upon, with the vast focus of the book being on directors from the cinema age such as Miyazaki, Oshii and Kon. Only a little attention is paid to younger directors such as Makoto Shinkai, let alone other futuristic hybrids that involve man-made images on screens but may lie outside the definition of “anime.”

Despite its inspiring message and ambitious subtitle, “Anime Aesthetics” sometimes seems as old-fashioned as the archetypal big anime eyes on its cover.

Jason Thompson is the author of “Manga: The Complete Guide,” the first encyclopedia of manga published in English.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.