Moving Lines, Moving Conclusions

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 2 (Book review 1 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 8 September 2018.


Review of: Bolton, Christopher, Interpreting Anime, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, paperback, ix, 322 pages, ISBN 978-1-5179-0403-6


Lamarre, Thomas, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, paperback, xxxvii, 385 pages, ISBN 978-0-8166-5155-9

Keywords: anime, cultural production, narrative analysis.

Japanese animation is both globally recognisable and globally influential, having inspired—as sincere flattery—imitation from animators around the world. It has also inspired scholars working both inside and outside of Japan, whose work has achieved varying degrees of acceptance and inspiration, in turn. And, it goes without saying, it is often the entryway for undergraduates to arrive at the broader world of Japanese language and cultural studies. As such, Japanese animation, anime,is an immensely important field of cultural, aesthetic, artistic, and ideological production, and one which lends itself well to a broad range of analtyical and interpretive processes. Scholars such as Susan Napier, Brian Ruh, Barbara Greene, Azuma Hiroki, and Ueno Toshiya have explored myriad avenues of inquiry to engage with the religious, gender, historical, economic, and social components and critiques within anime texts, and have done so from an equally myriad range of interpretive strategies. We have before us two works which take extremely different approaches to the interpretation of anime. On the one hand, Thomas Lamarre offers a highly theoretical methodology that focuses its attention exclusively on the mechanics of anime, as a text of moving images almost devoid of content beyond the technological issue of its creation. On the other hand, Christopher Bolton utilises an approach which sees anime as a form of narrative, and therefore amenable and subject to the same analytical and interpretive strategies as other narratives, from prose to cinematic. That anime can invite such widely, wildly diverse considerations of its substantive place in the narrative spectrum tells us not so much about anime itself but about the lengths to which scholars can go to carve niches for themselves in the hyper-competitive world of contemporary academia. Our two works exemplify these dichotomous approaches to anime (indeed, to all manner of theoretical or practical schisms, in both narrative analysis and social criticism). That scholarship is competitive is not a new revelation; that it can look at the same medium and produce such diametrically opposed examples of scholastic utility is amusing but also indicative of the ways in which theory as a general term has supplanted evidence-based, imperical analysis as the starting point for textual engagement in contemporary narrative studies. Our two works present us with examples of reading-as-reading, as an active process of analytical engagement, in one instance, and, in another, not an intricate analysis of individual works of animation, but rather, an ambitious project to theorise the nature of Japanese anime as a category in terms of its ‘material’.

To set the stage, and to tackle these two works in chronological order, we begin with Thomas Lamarre’s suggestion as to the nature of anime:

Anime appear as nodal points in information-rich wired environments with multiple media interfaces, as if somehow filling in the gaps generated by layers of acceleration, of speeding up and slowing down, which make up the rhythm of everyday life as a perpetual commuter (p. xvi).

Lamarre proclaims that “Here I am interested in what animation brings to the world. I am interested in what animation is, how it works, how it thinks” (p. xxviii), and yet he uses Japanese animation only as a convenient example of animation in its general sense, divorced from its historical context as something fromJapan, instead a transnational media commodity. In association with this is Lamarre’s insistence on non-Japanese theorists of cinema, and his heavy reliance on such scholars as Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Baudry, Félix Guattari, Giles Deleuze, and so on. These are important thinkers who have undeniably contributed much to the understanding of cinema’s power, potential, and substance as an artform, as well as postmodernism, the –ism to which Lamarre most consistently refers. But there are Japanese scholars who have alsocontributed to these areas of research, such as Tsuji Masaki and Azuma Hiroki. Indeed, Lamarre does refer to these scholars, but they’re almost lost in the flood of de rigueurFoucault, Žižek, and Derrida, etc., who seem to comprise the totality of acceptable scholastic points of view.

In this book, because I focus analysis on movement in animation and thus on the animetic machine, I adopt something of the attitude of experimental science and technology studies in my approach to animation.… Thus, when I take on decidedly social or cultural issues such as gender and sexuality, I look at the spin that the animetic machine puts on them. I look at how the animation thinks such questions. Consequently, I give priority to technical determination over social, cultural, historical, and economic determination.…  For similar reasons, in contrast with studies that begin and end with questions about Japanese values, I give priority to the essence or materiality of animation… over cultural determinations. In fact… studies that centre on cultural determination usually wind up with cultural determinism, endlessly pointing and proclaiming ‘This is Japan, this is Japanese’ (pp. xxvii-xxviii).

Lamarre insists on the relationship between technology and animation as an intrinsic determiner of the artform itself, and while there is little essentially incorrect in this assertion, the implications which Lamarre draws from it are problematical. As he writes,

At the very heart of animation technique, then, we can see the stirrings of highly specific orientations toward technology and toward our technologised world. Anime in this sense entails a way of thinking technology. This is one of the most compelling features of anime, and something that draws so many fans to it. Japanese animations are compelling not because they are exceedingly conceptual in their presentation of technology… but because their animation techniques imply a way of thinking about technology. Anime thus promises to open up new ways of thinking about how we inhabit a technologised world (pp. 10-11).

Over-generalisations aside, what Lamarre insists on here is that anime by virtue of its mode of production isa discourse on technology, regardless of the narrative content of any given work. In a twisted inversion of Marshal Macluhan’s dictum, the narrative itself is irrelevant to the medium, and the medium is the technique of production.

To understand anime, then, it is not sufficient to discuss themes or to rehash stories. Because anime operates (and thinks) at the level of the moving image, we need to understand how its themes and stories operate from the level of the moving image. It is here that we can begin to understand how anime might enable an animetic critiqueof the modern technological condition through its negotiation with and struggle against the ballistic logics of perception… (p. 11)

But herein lies two of Lamarre’s dilemmas. First, Lamarre fixes his attention on the “modern technological condition,” but this conveniently overlooks the historical reality that some of the earliest animated films in Japan come from the 1920s, and that by the 1940s, anime had become a tool for governmental, miltaristic propaganda (have a look at Seo Mitsuyo’s Momotarô no umiwashifrom 1943 for an example of this). Now, we may accept of course that the 1920s saw Japan in general immersed in a struggle with the nature of itself as a modern country and with modernism in its fullest sense, and also that technology had played an intimate role in these issues since the very late Tokugawa era, but this is not the appeal which Lamarre makes. Rather, Lamarre deals precisely with the mecha suits and EVAsof the late-twentieth century, posultating these as inevitable given the technological source of anime as a form of “moving image,” but one somehow distinct from other narratives of moving images.

The second dilemma arises in that, while Lamarre denies the propriety of Baudry and Comolli’s contention of the mechanical origins of cinema as a determiner of its ideology, he in turn insists upon the nature of animation’s mode of production as precisely a determiner of its own relationship to technology. Lamarre himself is aware of this:

Thinking in terms of a basic aparratus of animation runs the risk of assuming technological determinism and thus producing a teleological history of animation. To counter this tendency of apparatus theory, I propose a very different way of thinking about the apparatus. Rather than thinking of animation… in terms of a technical device that actively and totally determines each and every outcome (determinism), I propose thinking in terms of passive determination, or more precisely, ‘underdetermination’” (p. xxvi).

And yet it is difficult to see the difference between these two—animation, Lamarre wants us to know, has a “diversity of thinking about technology” (p. 11) but nonetheless always “thinks” technology becauseit is the product of technology, but this is, somehow, not determinism.

This theoretical approach to the interpretation of anime as inherently and inextricably bound to a particular, thechnical/technological mode of production insists on seeing all anime as referring fundamentally to that technological mechanism, in the sense that “all speech is concerned only with speech,” for example, to borrow a phrase that Derrida should have said, if he did not. But this is problematic in that all anime is manifestly notconcerned only with technology and its place and influences in daily life, or even artistic production, in the same way that all cinema is notconcerned only with the flow of still images which constitute it. Animation and cinema are, after all, of a piece in this, as flows of still images which create a moving visual narrative, and which concern themselves with the thematic, critical content of those narratives. While indeed we may accept Lamarre’s suggestion that the engagement with technology and dreams of technological development form an aspect of anime’s appeal—after all, where would anime be without mecha-suits and robotic lovers—to reduce anime to the qualities of its production precisely reduces anime to nothing more than two-dimensional shapes, abstract and isolated, whose meaning can in turn only be two dimensional. By overlooking the very real narrative dimensions of anime to focus on the theoretical implications of the production mechanism, Lamarre willfully overlooks that which makes anime meaningful in any human sense—narrative.

Christopher Bolton, on the other hand, focuses his work precisely on this dimension of anime, as narratives which we read, with which we engage, and which make active and intimate comments on not only their readers but their broader social contexts as well. Bolton begins his work with a very simple question, but one that is vitally necessary to every act of interpretation which grows, properly, from a prior act of analysis: “This is a book about interpreting Japanese animation, or anime, but what does it mean to ‘read’ or interpret a visual text?” (p. 1). The answer hinges on an appreciation of the functional analysis of the components of narrative: not only characters, plots, and settings, which all narratives must have, but the medium of narration itself. This of course bears a relation to Lamarre’s argument that the medium of narration has an impact on the analysis of that narrative, but we stop short of suggesting, erroneously, that onlythe medium has significance. A functional analysis of narrative aware of the medium of narration takes into account all the components which push a narrative towards a narrow range of goals, i.e., the components with which an astute reader will work in generating a viable, observable, interpretive possibility of the text at hand. As Bolton phrases this process,

The ‘reading’ I am advocating means coming to a greater understanding of the text and its particular features through interpretation and critical consideration. This kind of reading has several steps, but it begins by looking carefully at the formal qualities of specific works: what is shown and how is it shown? How do different anime handle light, depth, movement? How is each scene composed and edited, and how is the narrative structured? How does a given anime look—meaning what does it look like, but also how does it see the world? … [F]ormal (especially visual) elements generate their own meanings that may either reinforce or upend conclusions we draw from the story (p. 4)

In this, Bolton’s emphasis on the formal components of narrative and their relationship to the medium, the mechanism, of narration stands in close solidarity to the processes of critical analysis which grow from formalism, New Criticism, and narratology. Bolton shares many of the considerations of analysis which Carroll offered in his “Film form: An argument for a functional theory of style in the individual film,” published in Stylein 1998. For Bolton, the aim of a formal analysis aware of the medium of narration, and the specific textual features that grow from this, is “to extract or generate new meanings from the texts, particularly meanings that speak to broader issues of politics, gender, technology, and media” (pp. 5-6). Rather than rejecting the importance of narrativein the process of interpretation, Bolton emphasises the importance of narrative analysis,and in so doing offers the possibility of an objective and verifiable argument as the meaning a work has, a meaning which grows from the interplay of the components of that work in as full a sense as possible. We do not remain mired at the surface of the text, or fixated on its mechanism of production; rather, this aspect, the productive mechanism of the text, becomes another aspect of analysis in conjunction with the necessary components of character, plot, and setting—and, in the case of cinema, the medium of the moving image, animated or otherwise, movement, lighting, colour, shading, editing, sound, and so on. In other words, what emerges as Bolton’s basic technique of ‘reading’ is precisely the close reading of as full a palette of textual components as possible. As Bolton argues, anime as a narrative medium has strengths and weaknesses which become apparent in comparison with other media; his goal is to discover these through a comparative approach “to ask: what are anime’s particular powers and what are its blind spots? Ultimately, what can anime do that other media cannot?” (p. 6). To answer these question, Bolton brings anime texts together with examples from live-action cinema, manga, and prose fiction in a wide-ranging, theoretically informed display of the power of functional analysis as a method for establishing evidence. From this evidence interpretations grow, with the certainty that comes precisely from havingevidence.

Bolton structures his work around nine key anime in seven chapters plus introduction and conclusion, ranging fromRead or Die,to Millenium Actress, Howl’s Moving Castle,and Summer Wars.One criterion which guides his choice is availability of the works outside of Japan, on DVD with subtitles—this is reasonable, given anime’s international appeal and yet the undeniable importance of the cultural contexts of many of the works with which he engages. Some of the juxtapositions Bolton makes are truly outstanding, such as bringing together Kôkaku kidôtai (Ghost in the Shell,Oshii, 1995) with the ningyôjôruri,or Bunraku puppet theatre. The analytical processes in each chapter are readable, thorough, and compelling, making this text accessible and persuasive. Bolton utilises the theoretical stances of Donna Haraway, Karatani Kôjin, Vivian Sobchak, and Ueno Toshiya, among others, effectively and accurately to provide a solid intellectual foundation for his analytical demonstrations, and grounds the whole book in a carefully thoughtful approach to textual interpretation which serves as a productive course in the stages and value of close reading. We have here not only textualclose readings, but cultural ones, as well, standing upon the same valuation and valorisation of empirical evidence. Overall, Bolton has crafted a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of reading, one able to transcend its subject matter—anime—and speak to readerseverywhere, those who seek as full, as complete an engagement with their texts as possible.

Thomas Lamarre and Christopher Bolton have each offered original, valuable works, approaching their common subject from diametrically opposite angles. Each is readable in its own way, and each holds appeal for its particular audience. That these audiences are as different as the approaches in each book is quite apparent. What is not apparent is which audience will endure as academic fashions shift, as they inevitably do. For me, Bolton’s work—standing on the basis of narrative evidence—is the steadier of the two; other readers may hold a different opinion.


Carroll, Noël “Film Form: An Argument for a Functional Theory of Style in the Individual Film, Style, Vol. 32, No. 3, Style in Cinema (Fall 1998), pp. 385-401.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kôbô: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000), and The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film (Brill, 2008), and is the General Editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

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