Review: Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke by Susan J. Napier

by tigermanifesto


In 2000, when Palgrave published Susan J. Napier’s Anime, anime was nearing its peak of visibility and popularity in North America. Canadian and American children were being raised by Pokémon and Digimon, and late-night blocks dedicated to Japanese animation were being established, making what had been a pursuit relegated to enthusiasts more accessible to a [more] mainstream audience. By the middle of the decade, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠しwould have won an Academy Award, the 1996 Disney distribution deal with Ghibli would begin to pay off in droves, and anime adaptations from Naruto to One Piece to Death Note would achieve varying degrees of high-level publicity in North America.

At this point, with the increasing marginalization of network cartoon blocks for kids in favour of cable channels and the waning of the anime market, most of the mainstream hype for anime has disappeared. This means I have received Napier’s book in a time where the apparent urgency to formulate a Western, English-language critical response to anime has decreased. Most major series still get distribution to the United States, and this has become increasingly easy with the advent of streaming services like Crunchyroll and the one hosted at Funimation’s website. These are often able to simulcast episodes with their Japanese premiers. Fan communities are just as fervent as ever. But the atmosphere has changed, become less electric and exciting. I hear few claims anymore about the advent of Japan as a new center of post-industrial cultural capitalism, and as their home market shrinks and companies increasingly cater to that decaying centre, anime, like video games and many other topics around Japan, seems to be controlled by a decline narrative.

Nonetheless, while the specific shows and films this book covers have become less relevant to the contemporary conversation about anime, the story the book weaves is still largely true. Anime is worthy of critical consideration, and it not only opens a space for collective fantasy and escape but reflects, twists, and even subverts those norms and social constructions that produced them. While anime is a product of an advanced technological and capitalistic enterprise, Napier argues, as well as a culture steeped in a dominant but paranoid patriarchy, it is not wholly supportive of those systems. Rather, it is deeply in tune with its culture’s own anxieties about itself, she argues, and to substantiate and systematize her point she develops a kind of hermeneutic triad for interpreting different works’ response to their culture: festival, apocalypse, and elegy. The first temporarily flattens and overturns social norms in a frenzy of excess or celebration. Apocalypse is more obvious: it sees a fundamental lack in the present world that can only be addressed with obliteration and, depending on its perspective, a possible renewal or final collapse. Elegiac anime, on the other hand, engages in meditation on real or imagined loss.

While this triad might be used as a crutch in place of deep engagement with specific works, Napier largely avoids pigeonholing any of the works she considers as merely one of those three. In her treatment of Akira, for instance, she recognizes an intersection of festival and apocalypse. The former can be seen in its reveling in the destruction of social boundaries and ideas of  “normalcy,” while the apocalyptic mode predominates in its obsession with the corruption of adult society and the devastation wrought on Neo Tokyo by the events of the film. Other works are examined with the same set of tools, though in different ways. In her chapters on the body, for instance, she considers works in the mecha genre, pornographic work like La Blue Girl, and the aforementioned Akira with an overriding focus on how the nature of the animated medium makes it an ideal site for examining and physical transformation. Other chapters, including those on the magical girl genre, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and more elegiac war films like Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen (the chapters on national memory and war films will be key to the intersection of this book and Prosthetic Memory) cover different material in different ways. All of the chapters show sufficient depth of engagement and critical attention to detail to merit this book a look from serious fans of animation or visual media more generally.

Nothing in Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke redefines cultural criticism in any explicit way. By making room for more serious English language criticism in anime, however, it has served an important role and continues to be a valuable resource for perspectives on this vital art form. Especially as a primer for fans looking to take their appreciation of these works to a deeper level, this book comes highly recommended.

Note: this review considered the first edition.