Review of Lamarre, Thomas, The Anime Ecology: A Genealogy of Television, Animation, and Game Media

Simon Gough [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 3 (Book review 4 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 16 December 2018.

Review of: Lamarre, Thomas, The Anime Ecology: A Genealogy of Television, Animation, and Game Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018, paperback, 448 pages, ISBN 978-1-5179-0450-0

Keywords: anime, popular culture, merchandising, TV franchises.

Across the three parts of The Anime Ecology, Thomas Lamarre weaves an intricate exploration of the relationship between animation, television, media mix franchising, and the human brain. Though seemingly broad in the scope of topics covered, Lamarre provides a significant contribution to media studies in how he argues for the development of the terminologies and concepts to grapple with the expansive media franchises we find ourselves surrounded by and, as consumers, wandering within. As Lamarre posits in his introduction, even as these media franchises become increasingly intimate to our everyday lives, “these nondiscrete objects still feel cumbersome and unwieldy in conceptual terms” (p. 29). It is in the notion of addressing the nondiscrete gatherings of heterogenous texts, and moving beyond the preference in media and cultural studies of leveraging discrete art-objects against social and power formations, that Lamarre’s work finds its greatest strengths. Furthermore, rather than trying to separate new media from television, Lamarre argues that new media has significantly contributed to the possibilities of television, enhancing its capacity for parasocial interaction and engagement.

To his credit, Lamarre attempts to go beyond the focus on the technologies of anime he deeply explored in The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (2009), addressing in turn the technological realities of television animation, the historical development of television networks and media ecologies within Japan, and the configuration of media infrastructures at both the level of technology and narrativity. Although largely concerned with broadcast television animation, The Anime Ecology provides an engaging demonstration of how transmedia ecologies can be negotiated outside a narrow focus on the individual text; Lamarre justifies the focus on television by emphasising the central role television anime has played in the distribution and development of Japanese transmedia ecologies—even as media franchises spread across divergent platforms, “it is the anime series that allows them to communicate with one another” (p. 244).

The arguments of the book, although coalescing around the central theme—the question of how contemporary scholarship can address the complexity of transmedia ecologies—are presented in three parts, with eachrevolving around a separate aspect of the relationship between the individual and media ecologies. Part I focuses on a comprehensive analysis and exploration of the causes, impacts, and connections that surround the ‘Pokemon Incident’ of 1997, where thousands of children across Japan experienced seizures and other photosensitive symptoms during a broadcast of an episode of the Pokemon anime series. Here, Lamarre offers a compelling examination of how television and animation connect to and affect physical reality, from the level of state control to the human brain itself. The exploration of how this incident resonated across domestic and global spheres is particularly engaging, with Lamarre offering a compelling analysis of how the reaction to the incident—and related notions of the harmful possibilities of television—had a forceful impact on the distribution and production of television animation in Japan. Lamarre’s argument that the “blinking stuff of screen ecologies is a matter of inferences and resonances between different kinds of activity, neuronal and cultural” (p. 105) reinforces the central contention of the book that understanding contemporary media requires negotiating television not as a singlular concept for isolated analysis, but approaching it as a complex web of technological, social, and biological relations.

Building on the power and social relations that generate the distribution of television, Part II explores the history and genealogy of the Japanese media ecologies as they stand today, centring on the development of the distribution of television. It is here that one of the most compelling aspects of Lamarre’s arguments comes to the fore, in the sustained effort to de-centre the study of Japanese television and anime ecologies from normative points of reference to North Atlantic television histories. Drawing on the historical and media analysis of Japanese scholars including Takumi Shun’ya, Shiga Nobuo, Hidaka Ichirō, and Kato Hidetoshi, Lamarre provides a useful review and analysis of the Japanese scholarship on media distribution complexes, providing an accessible point of reference for future scholars to draw on.

Continuing to build on the critique levelled at anime scholarship in his earlier work—particularly the broad focus on analysis of anime texts as individual, textual objects—Lamarre here performs a deep analysis of four media franchises that extend beyond the anime screen. These four franchises, being Kureyon Shin-chan(Crayon Shin-chan), Meitantei Konan(Detective Conan), .hack, and the Megami Tensei, come together to provide Lamarre with fertile ground to examine not simply individual series or texts as discrete art-objects, but how these complex infrastructures of multiple media platforms come together and become distributed. It is within this part of the book that I found his most accessible and engaging analysis, as Lamarre weaves together how these franchises contain both narrative texts and connections to non-narrative territories of technology and social engagement. In effect, Lamarre argues that these four media franchises highlight the myriad possibilities of media ecologies to engage with social (totalising and individualising) and broadcast (one-to-many and point-to-point) tendencies. Important to Lamarre’s arguments is how these tendencies connect to ontopolitical possibilities. Rather than these four ecologies offering similar answers and relations between consumer, producer, and text, Lamarre provides an insightful exploration of how these franchises engage with a broad spectrum of power relations, and his analyses will be particularly useful reference points for scholars wishing to engage with media ecologies at a more holistic level.

It should be noted that Lamarre’s writing is, as ever, dense and theoretical in its style, drawing extensively as he does from the work of scholars such as Félix Guattari, Giles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Brian Massumi. Although occasionally weighed down by the terminologies of continental philosophy, there is value to be drawn if time is taken to ensure one comprehends the genealogy of argument given. Much as Lamarre provides diagrams to outline his arguments, with the caveat that there is an “expectation that readers are capable of imagining them topologically” (p. 348), there is an extent to which one must adjust his or her understanding away from what is literally printed on the page and toward what is being communicated through the pages and arguments—how the arguments contribute to the book’s own ecology, if you will. 

There are some small questions which arise over the course of the text, particularly in its use of certain terminologies. One I quickly noticed was that the concept of assembling is brought up early and often throughout the text—indeed, in the very Introduction Lamarre “propose[s] a genealogical approach to television media centred on assembling” (p. 11), and the term “assemblage” appears in the index referencing some thirty or so pages within the text. Yet at no point in the book does Lamarre acknowledge the existing use of these terms within the theoretical framework of Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), despite drawing frequently on Deleuze and Guattari’s work (both together and independently) throughout the text. Indeed, the concept of assemblage offered by Deleuze and Guattari would seem highly congruous to Lamarre’s concepts, particularly in his conception of a media ecology as being heterogenous parts held together through relation to an “energy cascade” (p. 115), or how the concept of television is a subjective assembling of conceptual territories such as reception and production (p. 3). If Lamarre did not wish or intend to draw directly on the term’s pre-established use in Deleuze and Guattarian theory, that is understandable, but the absence of even an acknowledgement of such use is odd.

Another minor question relates to Lamarre’s choice of the media franchises he analyses in Part III of the book. This is not a question of subject matter of the franchises themselves, for Lamarre eloquently justifies his choices for analysis on that front. Rather, following Lamarre’s own frame of reference, my query is centred more on the genealogies of the franchises explored. Although certainly covering franchises emerging from a variety of media platforms (such as video games and manga), all the franchises examined in Part III came to animated television media secondarily. This discussion follows Lamarre’s argument that the flows of media mix have historically relied on the movement from print media to television (p. 181). Yet in the past decade, there has been an increasing emergence of media franchises where television anime was the point of origin, such as the Code Geass(2006), Madoka Magica(2011), or Tiger and Bunny (2011) franchises. This change from television as through-point to original source would seem to complicate how television is addressed as part of the media mix generative process. How this changing trajectory of origins may affect the anime ecology is an important question, yet seemingly beyond the scope of Lamarre’s work. It is, nevertheless, a subject I hope to see engaged with in future work.

These small issues aside, Lamarre’s latest work is a valuable contribution to the field of cinema and media studies. The Anime Ecology does an impressive job in demonstrating how the contemporary transmedia ecologies of Japan function within a complex set of power relations and techno-social arrangements, and how these ecologies present scholars and activists with worthy sites of analysis not only within Japan, but in global media more broadly. As media franchising practices and consolidation of such franchises becomes increasingly common, such questions of how the power of distribution and control over media will become more important in media studies—one only needs to look at how many franchises are now under the Disney umbrella to begin to understand why it is necessary to address these complex media relationships in new terms. Lamarre’s approach of decentring from analysis of discrete texts and toward addressing the complexity of contemporary media ecologies, and generating the terminology necessary to grapple with these developments, is extremely pertinent, and worthy of a read for any scholar in the field.

About the Author

Simon Gough holds a PhD in Japanese Studies from Monash University, Australia. His field of study is primarily Japanese media cultures, with a particular emphasis on the consumption and production patterns that surround anime, manga, and other forms of popular culture. He has a particular interest in the development of narrative and genre, and globalised consumer engagement with Japanese media. His doctoral thesis, ‘Exploring Madoka Magica: Producing Narratives in Japanese Popular Culture’, analyses two interwoven aspects of Japanese media culture: the contemporary status of the mahou shoujo (magical girl) genre, and the trends in production and consumption of narratives in anime media franchises.

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