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Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation

by Susan Napier
Review by: Joseph Murphy
Philosophy East and West, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 2006), pp. 493-495
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
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BOOK REVIEWS

Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese An-

imation. By Susan Napier. New York:St. Martin'sPress,2001. Pp. vii + 320.


Reviewed by Joseph Murphy Universityof Florida

Certainprogressionscan be markedfrom Antonia Levi'sSamuraifrom Outer Space


in 1996 to Susan Napier's Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing
Contemporary Japanese Animation in 2001. While both survey the phenomenon of

Japaneseanimationas consumed in NorthAmerica, the palpable underdogsubculturalcontext and sense of mission in Levi'searlierwork has given way to a confident
mainstreamappreciationin Napier's, with the term "Japaneseanimation"replaced
in Englishby the naturalizedanime (a-ni-me,pl. anime). In a fast-movingmedia phenomenon both were dated as soon as they were published; however, bolstered by
the worldwide criticaland financialsuccess of MiyazakiHayao'swork, and contemporarywith the exposure to youth by the rise of 24/7 cartoon networksand the runaway success of the card game-anime nexus, Napier's Anime finds itself still in the
right historical moment. Though the book has limitationsin terms of both its own
systematicity and its treatment of potentially interesting philosophical themes in
anime, it is a reliable and sometimes inspired guide to a new phenomenon that
formsan increasinglyimportantdefault in the backgroundyour studentsbring.
Napier is concerned not so much with accounting for the visual and perceptual
propertiesof anime as with its narrativequalities:"Japaneseanimationmeritsserious
considerationas a narrativeart form and not simply for its arrestingvisual style....
Much of this book will be an investigationinto the themes, imagery, and ideas of
some of the most memorableanime created over the last two decades" (p. 10). The
strengthsand weaknesses of this book are nicely summed up here. Concentratingon
narrative-a formal propertyof storytellingtransposable across media-allows a
broad and well-chosen survey of themes, images, and ideas. However, there is
some question as to whetherthis will allow the readerto satisfythe ambitionto "understandwhat makes anime the distinctiveartform it is" (p. 10).
The book is comprisedof twelve chapters in four parts.Part1 is an introduction
that arguesfor the importanceof anime and sketches a quasi-Aristotelianmethod as
the basis for Napier'staxonomy. Parts2-4 cover majorthematic divisions that characterize the particularobsessions, power, and dramaof anime, and these are particularlywell-chosen to reflect not just the relatively palatable work deemed suitable
for TV or subtitledfor video distributionin the United States but also the anarchic
diversityof the phenomenon as it circulatesin Japan.Part2 is on the essentialtheme
of the changeable body and includes discussion of the monstrousadolescent body,
pornographicanime, and the cybernetic body, and will allow you to catch up with
classic anime like Akira (1988), Ranma 1/2 (TV version, 1990s), and Ghost in the

Shell (theaterversion, 1996). Part3 is on fantasyand romance as genres and the un-

Philosophy East & West Volume 56, Number 3 July 2006 493-495
? 2006 by University of Hawai'i Press

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493

usual space in anime for female leads, and includes discussion of Miyazaki'spastoral work and the comedy TV series Urusei Yatsura(1980s), Oh My Goddess (1980s),
and Video GirlAi (1990s). Part4 discusses anime that have sought to make a selfconscious contribution to historical debate, including Barefoot Gen (1983) and
Grave of the Fireflies(1988), on the bombing of Japanese cities in World War II,
and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997), which presents a multiculturalpicture
of Japan'spast produced in consultation with Japan's leading ethnologists. Discussions are balanced and entertaining,introducingthe majorauteursof the last twenty
years (Oshii Mamoru,Otomo Katsuhiro,Takahashi Rumiko,etc.) and creating the
sharp impressionthat the genre of anime is not the same as the American concept
of "cartoons."
Though the anime phenomenon raises interesting sociocultural and critical
questions about narrativeand image culture, it is not immediatelycertain that there
is a philosophical issue to anime. One might seek this philosophical content within
the medium itself or in a systematic quality to the critical approach. Philosophy is
certainly a theme in anime, and, versus relatively pedestriandoubts about the evidence of the senses thatfamouslyforma plot twist for the Matrixseries, the narration
in anime often comes to a halt while charactersembarkon systematic speculation
on problems of time (Urusei Yatsura),consciousness and artificiallife (Ghost in the
Shell), identity and networks (Serial ExperimentsLain 11998]), and skeptical questions about illusion and reality(PerfectBlue [1999]). These stretches, though short,
are often highly systematic and relatively sophisticated, and send threads through
the restof the feature,knittingits gags or action sequences with a net of ideas. These
moments reflect a serious acquaintance with the underlyingissues in auteurs like
Oshii, MasamuneShirow, KonSatoshi, and others, and unquestionablyare valuable
stepping-offpoints for more sustained reflectionon the model of Open Court'sPhilosophy and PopularCultureseries. In fact, someone should write that book. There
are probablyquestions of perceptionand identity,though these are at the startmore
cognitive and neuroscientificthan philosophical. In Narrativeand Consciousness
(Oxford University Press, 2003), John Bickle argues that the relation of narrative
and identity is literal, and "the sense of self under scrutiny is supposed to be the
full-blown, philosophically interestingone" (p. 195). In this sense, as the perceptual
characterof the media in which narrativeis circulatedshifts,the sense of self should
shift, too. Hence, your studentsare not like you.
As a literarycritic, Napier seeks to understand"what makes anime the distinctive art form it is." A gesture to systematicityis contained in a NorthropFrye-like
taxonomy of genres, which provides part of the organizing principle of the book:
"Such a protean art form as anime is impossible to completely sum up in a single
book and I shall not attemptto do so. Rather,I intend to look at a variety of anime
in termsof three majorexpressive modes that I have termedthe apocalyptic, the festival, and the elegiac" (p. 12). However, the point of Frye's Aristotelian method is
that by stepping systematically through a series of permutations of relations among
creator, material, and audience one can arrive at precisely a complete account. The
three modes are rather descriptive and contingent. Though the categorical setup is

494

PhilosophyEast& West

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Aristotelean throughout, this lack of explicit awareness (the Poetics is not cited in the
bibliography) leads to some curious moments, as when the metamorphoses attending the final scenes of Akira (Otomo, 1988) are said to be, though hideous, "also
truly spectacular (in the postmodern sense of spectacle)" (pp. 43-44). It is hard to
know what to make of this, as spectacle is a key category for narrative in the Poetics.
This exemplifies the piecemeal way in which positions are brought together.
This quality in Napier's theoretical choices does not vitiate the quality and extent of the descriptions, and this is where the value of the book lies. In the Preface
she tells of students from 1989 covertly approaching her after class to show her
anime tapes they had gathered, subtitled by fans and circulated in an underground
network that characterized early otaku (anime fan) culture. She has listened to her
students, examining carefully the things they showed her, attending anime conventions with them, and following the discussion of anime in the American and Japanese popular press. Napier discerned the importance of anime five years before the
rest of the academy, and retains a tonal accuracy and currency that academic
accounts of subculture often lack. It is in thrall to the facts, but there are a lot of
them, and they are very interesting. Don't look here for a clarification of the aesthetic, cognitive, or sociological significance of this emerging cultural form. Nonetheless, read this book. What you will find is a reliable and very enjoyable elucidation of themes and a copious introduction of data. You will learn something about
your students, who know this inside and out.

Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization. By Seyyed Hossein Nasr. San Francisco:
Harper San Francisco, 2003. Pp. 224. Paper $9.71.
Reviewed by Zain Ali Universityof Auckland
"Islam," writes Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "is like a vast tapestry," and in his book Islam:
Religion, History, and Civilization he aims to survey the masterpiece that is Islam.
The present work is part of a trilogy including Ideal and Realities of Islam and The
Heart of Islam. Nasr states that the common theme in the trilogy "is the universalist
perspective and respect for other religions" (p. xxiv). In addition, Nasr clarifies that
his approach, as with all of his Islamic writings, is to write from an Islamic perspective, which he terms "traditional Islam" (p. xxiii). Nasr stands opposed to either the
secular modernist or fundamentalist perspectives, both of which he regards as forms
of extremism.
This book, initially published as part of Our Religions, edited by A. Sharma, is
significantly revised and includes a new introduction and bibliography. It can best
be described as a primer on Islam, consisting of eight chapters that focus on a variety
of pertinent themes.
Chapter 1 deals with the self-understanding of Islam and the Islamic world.
Islam, Nasr notes, sees itself as a return to the primordial faith of humanity, a faith
that affirms the unity and oneness of God. This chapter also presents an overview

Philosophy East & West Volume 56, Number 3 July 2006 495-497
? 2006 by University of Hawai'i Press

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495