Hofstra Papers in Anthropology
Volume 1, Article #1, 2007
A Critical Look at Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke
by Amanda Mowbry
Susan Napier’s book Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke delves into the world of anime and the psychology that fuels it. Defining TV shows and Original Video Animation (OVA) into three categories, apocalyptic, festival, and elegiac, she is able to define a vast array of work. Yet, her knowledge is clouded by her enthusiasm often making her work subjective. Attempting to justify the darker side of anime, Napier turns her back to the resonance of Japanese patriarchy. Furthermore, she glosses over the mindset and status of animators, as well as failing to address artistic conventions within anime. Despite, demonstrating a strong knowledge of the medium, the darker depths of anime are merely touched upon and deserve closer examination.
Napier begins by describing the phenomenon of anime, and its relation to Japanese live-action cinema. She explains, the popularity of Hollywood movies virtually drowned out box office appeal for Japanese cinema. With the demand of American films so high, the Japanese turned their focus to another avenue of entertainment, animation. Anime, short for the English word animation, became a major output for the Japanese studios “producing around 50 animated series a year and a comparable number of OVAs. In fact, in 1997 Princess Mononoke broke all box office records to become, briefly, the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and it remains to this day the highest grossing Japanese film ever” (Napier, 7). With such a high level of production, anime hit the global market to become a popular culture phenomenon.
As such, anime has merited a closer look. Napier defines this genre of entertainment under modes, the first being “apocalyptic” (237). She writes, “the apocalyptic is based on the knife-edge between coherence and dissolution, often at the forces of technology” (237). With the devastation of atomic bombs still felt, the events of World War II heavily influence this mode. Anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion warn of the dangers of technology and the waning of the human soul while films such as Akira show that the blind pursuit of power can lead to the decimation of society.
The second mode of anime is the festival. “The festival celebrates the (temporary) dissolution of social boundaries and hierarchies” (237). A more light-hearted mode, festival themed anime produces levels of social anarchy, which offers brief retreat from conformity. Many of these works contain “wild humor, grotesque exaggeration, playfulness, sexual content, and violent themes” (30). Shows such as Ranma ½ explicitly break social and sexual barriers; the main character, Ranma, gains the ability to turn from male to female after falling into a magic pond.
The last mode Napier describes is the elegiac. “The elegiac naturally arises from an awareness of loss, but it also offers fragments—of hope, beauty, and even transient visions of coherence—to shore up the ruins that it so eloquently describes” (237). This wistful nature has been an important and recurring element in Japanese culture as expressly seen in literature. Often tapping into “‘mono no aware’ (the sadness of things),” much of elegiac anime uses wistful imagery such as cherry blossoms or water (31). OVAs including Barefoot Gen and Grave of Fireflies tap into the elegiac. Both are centered on children during World War II; they contain a sense of loss and longing for the past. While Grave of Fireflies remains dismal, Barefoot Gen offers a sense of hope for the future.
Despite such classifications, Napier notes that an anime series or movie can contain elements of all three modes; all acknowledge fragmentation, loss, and possibility. Furthermore, within these modes fall a multitude of categories including mecha (machine), romance, and fantasy.
Yet, despite Napier’s knowledge, there are several topics she does not sufficiently address. In particular, she does not fully explore and analyze the creators of anime. She records animator Oshii Mamoru as “suggesting that animators do not possess a real ‘furusato’ or hometown” (25). In fact, the “other world” environments they create seem to be a result of the “animators who are themselves ‘stateless’” (25). Beyond these descriptions, she drops the issue. Yet, it is crucial to take a deeper look at how the animator relates to society and how this effects his work. Being animator, he is immediately separated from the norm. Whereas many men take on dronish roles as salary men, the animator has separated himself in a creative field that deviates from traditional employment. Because of this, the themes and ideas conveyed in anime are not necessarily representative of the larger Japanese mentality. In a sense, he embodies an “otherness” quality that separates him from the masses. Although there is still a strong sense of patriarchal hierarchy, anime is equally progressive. Yet, this is not necessarily a comment on today’s Japan, but rather, insight into the minds of a Japanese minority.
Additionally, Japanese animators fall under the festival and elegiac mode within their society. They break away from conformity dissolving social boundaries. In a sense, they are the comic voyeurs portrayed within their work that tread past boundaries seemingly impenetrable. Yet, there is also a melancholy air that pervades their status. As Oshii points out, they are without a home, and their status has no clear-cut place within society (25). This sentiment must surely resonate within their work although it may not encompass the majority of Japanese opinion.
Napier also fails to sufficiently address the aesthetics of anime. In particular, the tendency to draw leading male characters with feminine qualities, which is a popular convention in many series. In order to gain insight, one must look at beauty and how it relates to women. Generally, a woman’s power within anime is that of seduction. Whether for good or evil, anime women usually gain sexual power over men rather than through physical prowess. Applying this to effeminate men within animation, one can assume that he is drawn such in order to make him a seductive character. As seen in the series Berserk, the lead character Griffin has long flowing hair and pretty features; he is charismatic and seductive. This seduction is tied to his physical appeal; it is another way for him to gain power. Griffin uses his attractive/girlish looks to climb the social ladder seducing both men and women in his climb to greatness.
Another possibility for the common practice of drawing effeminate men is that it indicates a level of purity. In Japanese theatre, all women troops became popular for some time. These women would cross-dress when male roles were needed. In many instances, young girls watching the play would develop crushes on these characters. Yet, parents did not discourage these crushes because women were deemed as more wholesome for a girl to like. Although the parents would permit nothing beyond acknowledgement of attraction, they had no problems letting their daughters like these characters; women were deemed more pure than men and less likely to make any sort of advances on such fans. As such, some effeminate men also carry this sense of righteousness. Their looks tend to blur the sexual boundaries as is seen in the all-female plays.
Additionally, Napier sometimes justifies conventions within anime that are not deserving of such vindication; this includes pornography. Napier states, “frequently, the female body is indeed an object to be viewed, violated, and tortured, but other scenes show women’s bodies as awesomely powerful, almost unstoppable forces of nature” (65). Napier goes on to say in many anime series and OVAs women’s ability to change form gives them a strength often missing from the male characters. “These anime depict the female body as being in touch with intense, even magical, forces capable of overwhelming male-dominated reality” (71). Yet, this does not seem to be the case. Instead, women’s roles and strength are almost always undercut in some fashion. Especially in pornographic anime, women are commonly raped and brutalized, which ultimately strips away their power.
Napier continues her assertion by writing, “even conservative ones [anime]…put on and display hopes and fears that contest dominant hegemonic and hierarchal relations of power…they often show failure—or at least confusion—of those attempts to uphold the power structure” (70). Yet, their bodies are constantly being objectified with men groping or ogling them. Never do you see a woman spying on a group of men when they are bathing or naked, though, often, you will find the reverse. Women’s bodies are also exaggerated giving them voluptuous bodies and large breasts; generally, they wear next to nothing further developing sex appeal. It is women’s bodies who are drawn in full nudity, whereas it was outlawed for quite some time that men could not be illustrated naked.
This objectification of women feeds directly into male-dominated fantasy. This would seem to be the result of animators being mostly populated by men, which Napier does not clarify, but which is a reasonable guess considering the nature of Japanese society, and its emphasis on gender roles. These men, who are born in a patriarchal society, are creating the ideal woman who always falls under a man’s strength. It is seems unlikely that many women would find watching female characters getting raped appealing. Furthermore, Japanese women are typically small and flat-chested. Giving anime women exaggerated bodies is in a sense defining what these animators/men find to be beautiful. It seems yet another assault on the female gender to indicate that the natural body structure of most Japanese women is not the ideal, at least according to anime.
As briefly mentioned before, Japan is still very much a patriarchal society. Although there has been a shift towards women’s liberation, men continue to dominate the work force and home. I propose that although Japanese animators are “others” within society, they still are affected by this patriarchal structure (possibly for the fact that it benefits them). Due to this, it exposes itself in their work and most significantly within anime pornography, which is the most demeaning style of anime in its portrayal and use of women as sexual objects. So, despite the animators “other” status, he returns to conventions ingrained within society.
In her writings, it seems that Napier is grasping for anything that will vindicate pornography or at least grant a more positive outlook on its content. Yet, despite her vehement protests that women are indeed powerful creatures even if they are raped, tortured, or ogled, there are very few redeeming features in such works.
In regards to mecha, some discrepancies arise with Napier’s claims. For instance, she claims that some mecha seems to privilege the robotic or cyborg body, while other anime presents technologically armored body as bringing about the deterioration of humanity. Although these elements are prevalent within the mecha genre, Napier mistakenly attributes this mentality with the whole of Japanese thought. She writes that often these stories have a “bleak world view” and that technology, although seemingly good at first, turns out to be a double-edged sword leading to the downfall of man (90). Despite the fact that technology is often depicted as leading to a bleak outcome, it is largely a result of this group of Japanese “others” producing the anime, rather than a representation of the whole of Japanese society. Most Japanese take pride in their technological efficiency; the machine is glorified. Walking down the streets of Tokyo, flashing lights and glowing billboards boast of innovative technology available for the consumer to buy. Japan has excelled in this field, and they are proud of this fact. Although these “other” animators may have misgivings, most Japanese people seem to embrace this excellence.
Also in regards to mecha, Napier writes that “the imagery in mecha anime is strongly technological and is often specifically focused on the machinery of the armored body, the narratives themselves often focus to a surprising extent on the human inside the machinery. The mecha protagonists are first and foremost humans in robotic armor” (87,90). Although this statement is correct, she fails to explore the issue in a broader context. Once again, we return to the idea of “others” producing this product—the emphasis on the individual. Yet, within Japanese society, there is still more focus on the community, rather than one’s individual importance. For example, the suicide rate within Japan is one of the highest in the world. It is not uncommon that when men lose their jobs they commit suicide rather than live in shame with breaking with norms. In this case, such men are not looking at their individual importance, but that of the whole. As they are no longer a part of the whole, they have lost their importance. Yet, the mecha genre is contrary to this thought process, and, presumably, animators share close sentiments to those portrayed in their work.
Napier’s book possesses insight, although anime’s darker nature is clouded by her love for the medium. Napier’s categories of apocalyptic, festival, and elegiac stand well within anime, but she fails to take a closer look at the minds who create it. Furthermore, disregard for animation conventions, such as effeminate looking men, are set aside ignoring the psychology behind such decisions. While Napier’s writing is lively and informative, she fails to take a closer look at its darkness and subversive nature, which reflects heavily on the people and culture who create it.
Works CitedNapier, Susan. Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
[Citation Reference: Amanda Mowbry, "A Critical Look at Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke " Hofstra Papers in Anthropology 1(2007):#1. http://people.hofstra.edu/daniel_m_varisco/hpiamowbry.html.]