Jonathan Clements: Anime: A History

by tigermanifesto


This dense republication of the author’s doctoral thesis is significant largely because it is the only broad history of the anime industry available in English. Most of the academic studies of anime have heretofore been focused on the thematic analysis of individual works. From reading some of the few available books on anime and a smattering of journal articles, I can safely conclude that the field of anime studies suffers from some endemic ills. Though it’s not difficult to understand why so many people who study anime are also fans, having a fannish attitude toward the object you’re studying can be a source of critical errors and omissions. Luckily, Anime: A History avoids this error, though one consequence is that its prose is enervating, reference-dense, and ponderous.

Clements draws largely on industry professionals’ memoirs, official studio and media archives, and economic records for his sources. Significantly, most of these sources are only available in Japanese, so Clements’ summarization and appropriation of these documents has the additional value of giving English readers a first glimpse at them. Neither would I fault the book in terms of its level of detail, which is not only additive but also intelligently used to provide multiple perspectives on a single event. Though it does produce a level of “he said, she said,” this is inevitable where the past is obscure and the memories recording them often self-serving or simply addled.

Broadly, the book describes the history of Japanese animation (defined as Japanese largely by the nationality of its producers and the location of the labour used to produce it) as a technological movement from magic lanterns to cel-shaded digital animation. From that technological basis, he branches outward to discuss the transformation of animation from artisanal industry to a complex of brand tie-ins and the so-called “media ecosystem” or “media mix” that now dominates production and dissemination of animation from Japan. Though he doesn’t explicitly state that technology is the single most important driver of change in the animation industry, deferring to a more “complex” and discourse-focused style familiar to his post-modern historiographical touchstones like Hayden White, his narrative is largely organized around documenting major shifts in technology at all levels of commodity circulation and production. Cels, rotoscopes, film projectors television, VHS, DVD, cable television, and file sharing software produce the ripples that transform the industry, while the human beings within the industry use and react to these developments.

Clements also spends a great deal of time talking about the economic life of animation in Japan, including a great deal of specific data about foreign distribution deals, break-even sales figures for video releases, box office figures, and the like. At the same time, its treatment of the labour of animation and how it’s integrated into a system of capital accumulation remains under-theorized, left at the level of empirical observations. The anime industry is treated more often as the centre of particular discourses or memories than as a system with any coherent shape. Perhaps given the overwhelming scope of his project––covering more than a century of artistic/commodity production with a huge array of sources––we shouldn’t be surprised that the book often seems shapeless, more of an arrangement of events and rumination on sources than a theoretically coherent account of a defined subject. Because anime is the purported focus, rather than the anime industry, Clements’ analyses of animated objects, industry figures, economic realities like mass subcontracting to China and Korea, the aura of “cool” around anime among fans in the West, etc. are put next to each other but never connected in a systematic way.

In other words, I learned a great deal about the who and what of the history of animation in Japan and its development but not the why. I mentioned earlier that Clements usually centres changes in the forces of production––computers being an important later example––in his account, but this is far from consistent, and it’s always difficult to tell with any clarity whether Clements think that Great Men, forces of production, relations of property and ownership, fan whims, or larger political and economic developments drive activity within the anime industry. I would, in fact, argue that Clements’ book implies that it is all of these things, but at different times, with each singular case treated as an isolated case rather than the symptom of a structured whole––even a complex one. This gives Anime: A History a kind of unrewarding density. Rather than considering anime from one strong perspective, it tries to create a composite but without any systematization.

Stated more polemically, I think those who want to take Clements’ nevertheless considerable achievement and advance the field should approach his sources with the strength and totalizing power of a Marxist perspective. Being able to take these disparate accounts, take note of all the forces in play, and produce an overall picture that integrates singular events into an overall view of both the anime industry and the industry’s place in a wider world. Anime: A History is at this point the only book of its kind, and will hopefully act as a springboard for better-theorized and more systematic accounts of anime.