The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story

Naomi Chiba, University of Maine [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 3 (Book review 5 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2014.

Condry, Ian (2013), The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Durham and London: Duke University Press, paperback, ISBN 978-0-8223-5394-2, 256 pages plus index.

Animation, or anime, is one of Japan’s leading global cultural products. As Douglas McGray (2002) notes, anime constitutes one of the country’s major strategies for transforming its cultural power in traditional arts such as Ukiyo-e into economic power the global market. Yet Japanese manga and anime are often nationally ambiguous. For instance, Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) include characters who could be from any nationality or ethnicity and settings which could be from any country. Napier (2005, 23–27) considers this mixture of multiple cultures to be the “statelessness” or mukokuseki quality of anime, while Iwabuchi (2002) calls these products “odourless” commodities of the late 20th century. With the success of non-culturally specific anime, Japanese anime studios have been producing around 60 percent of globally-viewed animation programs (Napier 2005). Moreover, the popularity of annual anime conventions and expos attract thousands of ardent fans. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry welcomes these activities and promotes Japanese popular culture as “Cool Japan.” Anime thus enhances Japan’s cultural capital and represents one form of Japanese “soft power.”

Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime uses ethnographic methods to explore Japanese animation studios. Condry, an ethnographer focusing on Japanese popular culture, is chiefly concerned here with the anime production process, the roles of producers and consumers, and also how online file sharing has been shaping the final anime product. Condry organises his analysis around the idea of finding a “soul” in anime, arguing that the essence of this animated medium is found in the collaborative creativity across the animation industry, the Japanese media industry, and fans (page 2). Anime’s “soul,” Condry argues, comes from this connectedness: “Anime connects people; a connection that operates as a conduit of interest and activity; a soul, in other words, that arises out of collective action” (page 30). Anime is not simply a media object, according to Condry, but a passionate collaboration between fans and producers.

The Soul of Anime is the result of over 10 years of multi-sited ethnography conducted in Japan and the US (page 14). Condry explicitly challenges other methods, including literary criticism, for being too constrained by their focus on content alone. Instead, he argues that an effective understanding of anime requires a close examination of the people involved in the production and consumption of this popular art form. Condry traces the process of collaborative creativity with reference to several specific examples. His analysis of the animated film Summer Wars (2009) emphasises the film’s catchphrase that “connection itself is our weapon.” The plot of Summer Wars is set in rural Japan and follows a 17-year-old girl’s struggles with her extended family. Condry links the film’s message about connection-as-strength to the idea of collaborative collectivity in the entire anime enterprise (page 37).

Each of the seven short chapters in The Soul of Anime discusses directors, studios, content, production, and fans. Chapters 1 and 2 are based on participant observations of anime studios. While attending production meetings of children’s TV series, Zenmai Zamurai, Condry observes the process of decision-making in creating characters and plots. An anime program has three fundamentals, he explains: characters, premises, and worlds. In the decision-making stage, the three components are matched before a story is created. The combinations of the three serve as the platform for “anime creativity” (page 56).

Condry then shifts his concepts of the “soul” and “anime creativity” from production to the larger social context of consumption. Using the work of media anthropologist Faye Ginsburg, et al. (2002), Condry argues (page 76) that fans’ involvement in anime potentially gives consumers the power to influence social activity and practices. Ginsburg’s approach examines the social process of the mass media surrounding fans, producers, and broadcasters. Considering the popularity of anime globally, Condry connects this media-anthropological approach with anime creativity, suggesting anime creativity results in new social practices. Fans’ activities, such as anime conventions and fansubs, embody social networks across various social groups without borders between gender, race, or income. Condry considers the nuances in the relationship between the anime industry and fans to be the product of the reciprocal process at the heart of anime creativity.

The Soul of Anime also explores labour relations in the production of anime. The anime industry has a strict division of labour: animators draw, producers finance, and directors manage. The globalised labour force plays an important role, Condry explains, with 90 percent of anime paintings and frames drawn in South Korea, the Philippines, and China because of their cheap labour costs. But Condry fails satisfactorily to explore the larger implications of exploiting cheap overseas labour for production. Rather, he prefers to focus on the Japanese audience’s collective experience of anime. For a scholar seeking to uncover the “soul” of the media production process, more attention might have been paid to outsourcing and its effects in the anime industry.

Chapter 3 provides a history of the anime industry’s postwar development, but there are some omissions and slight errors. Condry states that television anime began in 1969 (page 86) but then later explains that Astro Boy aired in 1963 (page 100). In fact, as early as 1961 the animation series “Otogi Manga Calendar” was broadcast by Tokyo Broadcast Station (Clements and McCarthy 2006, 302). Condry also makes the interesting comparison between Walt Disney’s American animation and the Japanese collaborative model as representative of the approaches used in the different cultures. Japanese animators emulated Disney’s work, but the sizes of their studios were small compared to the giant Disney. The early development of Japan’s anime industry occurred while the nation was still struggling through the economic rehabilitation of the 1960s.

Chapter 4 contains Condry’s interviews with executives of Japan’s largest toy company, Bandai, which has integral ties to anime production; the development of anime programs has often followed the creation of anime-character toys. Chapter 5 contains ethnographical research on two anime studios, Studio Ghibli and Gonzo. Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli reveals his struggles to establish an anime studio in the 1980s. Condry also conducts interviews with animators, producers, and production companies.

The final chapters discuss anime’s future and fansubs. Fansubs, or illegal copies of anime shared via the Internet, are organized by avid fans who seek no compensation from their activities. Using various technologies, these fans translate original anime programs from Japanese into English and frequently modify original stories and characters without permission from media distributors or studios. Condry argues that a simplistic discussion of whether fansubs help or hurt the anime market misses the key point that the popularity of anime relies on fan activities. Stricter anime production regulations will decrease fans’ interests and activities and could backfire by hurting anime’s popularity. Media piracy, Condry concludes, is a complicated issue, involving the economy, technology, and audience accessibility (page 181).

The Soul of Anime offers an effective introduction to the production process in the anime industry. Condry’s interesting and engaged fieldwork reveals the complex interrelationships between media outlets, producers, anime artists, and consumers. His emphasis on the dynamics of creative collaboration works well, and his book is often incisive and revealing. The book might have been improved by a more holistic examination of anime, with more elaboration on how the multiple levels of power relationships between producers, sponsors, and artists inform the final product. However, as one of the first ethnographies published about this global media industry, Condry’s study is an important and valuable source for future anime scholars.


Clements, Jonathan and McCarthy, Helen (2006) The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917, revised and expanded ed., Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Ginsburg, Faye D., Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin (2002) “Introduction,” in Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin (eds) Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1–36.

Iwabuchi, Koichi (2002) Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

McGray, Douglas (2002) “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” Foreign Policy, 130: 44–54.

Napier, Susan, J. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, revised and updated ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

About the Author

Naomi Chiba is a PhD student at the University of Maine. She currently researches the Japanese television anime series, The Big O. Her interests include ideology and representations of memories of war in the media. She is coauthor of “Nationalism Seeks Strength from the Gods: The Yasukuni Issue, Ideology, and the Japanese Press,” which appeared in volume 3, issue 3, of Media, War, and Conflict. Her forthcoming book chapter “Pedagogy of Ozu: Early Spring” will appear in Ozu International: Essays on The Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur, edited by Marc Dipaolo and Wayne Stein and set for publication by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2015.

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