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Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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A professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, Susan J. Napier is heralded as one of the top Japanese animation scholars in America. Her 2001 book entitled Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation contains a collection of analytical essays and commentaries on the different elements that are explored within the context of anime.

Napier’s book is an interesting read because it addresses anime as a legitimate art form that covers a broad range of topics that we (specifically Westerners), for the most part, are not familiar with seeing expressed within the medium of animation. While acknowledging and briefly covering the ground in which anime is based upon, she segments the remainder of her book into three topics, each dealing with ideals and themes she believes are encompassed within the specific anime series and films she highlights in the book, as well as Japanese animation overall. These three ideals are what she refers to as apocalypse, festival, and elegy, in which she makes her case and point throughout the book in how these concepts can be applied and utilized within the space of anime. She uses relatively well-known series and films to make her claims; Ghost in the Shell, Princess Mononoke, Ranma 1/2, and Akira to name a few, and her use of Japanese culture to identify themes that run through the series and films mentioned deliver some very constructive and critical analyses that clearly define Japanese animation as much more than your standard medium of animation.

While the issues explored in the book are extremely in depth, I can see that same reasoning being the book’s downfall for the common reader. Considering the attributes that are explored within the book and the heavy use of cultural connotations, the average reader should have at least a comprehensive understanding of college-level vocabulary and some historical background concerning Japan to fully understand the entirety of what Napier has to offer in the book. The technical word usage is something that I believe could turn off some individuals and definitely confuse many readers who don’t fully understand what a word means but continues to forge ahead in reading the book. There is also some exploration of sexual themes within certain series and films that might not be suitable for younger readers mainly because they simply wouldn’t understand the concepts of sexuality and the way in which Napier applies them, let alone having any knowledge whatsoever of what the series and films are in the first place.

The analyses and commentaries found in the book was something I personally took notice of on certain occasions because of their rather fixated application in which Napier handles them. While not every analysis and commentary found in the book does this, I found at times that Napier was overanalyzing topics that I felt could have been easily addresses in a shorter space of words. This is not to say that what Napier has to say is redundant, it’s just that certain claims she makes are somewhat overextended at times and it seems that her own interpretative view preceded the actual content expressed in the show.

Overall, Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation is an extremely important book because of the issues it delves into and the manner in which it does so. Napier’s ability to bring up critical issues that support the legitimacy of Japanese animation as an art form are exceptionally realized within the context of the material she uses, albeit a little personal at times. With that being said, Napier still showcases a deep respect for the medium and her examination of the cultural, societal, and worldly influences upon the medium is evidence of this. I highly recommend this book for the reasons mentioned above, but I do acknowledge that it’s a book not suitable for everyone.

This book has since been updated with a 2005 revised edition entitled Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Updated Edition: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. This updated version contains new chapters on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and other recent releases, plus a new foreword from the author. This updated edition is the one featured in this review.

Table of Contents

PART ONE: INTRODUCTION * Foreword to the Updated Edition * Why Anime? * Anime and Global/Local Identity *

PART TWO: BODY, METAMORPHOSIS, IDENTITY * Akira and Ranma ½ : The Monstrous Adolescent * Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Anime * Ghosts and Machines: The Technological Body * Doll Parts: Technology and the Body in Ghost in the Shell * Stray: Gender Panics, Masculine Crises, and Fantasy *

PART THREE: MAGICAL GIRLS AND FANTASY WORLDS * The Enchantment of Estrangement: The Shojo in the World of Miyazaki Hayao * Now You See Her, Now You Don’t: The Disappeaing Shojo * Carnival and Conservatism in Romantic Comedy *

PART FOUR: REMAKING MASTER NARRATIVES: ANIME CONFRONTS HISTORY * No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of Fireflies, and “Victim’s History” * Princess Mononoke : Fantasy, the Feminine, and the Myth of “Progress” * Waiting for the End of the World: Apocalyptic Identity * Elegies

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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