Until recently, the options open to anyone looking for a general text on Japanese animation – one that could serve as a general explanation and summary, and an introduction to more in-depth approaches and readings – have been relatively limited. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, first published in 2000 and updated in 2005, certainly played this role at the time of its initial publication, but could it still do so almost twenty years later? The essay collection Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation (2006) was similarly important, but it too is now dated in many regards. Thomas Lamarre’s 2009 The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation is a major contribution to anime studies – but it is by no means an introductory text. And somewhat despite its title, even the relatively recent Anime: A Critical Introduction is a more complex book than it may at first seem – as it is in fact an introduction to the critical debates and discussions around and about Japanese animation.
This is precisely why Interpreting Anime (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), is a such a welcome addition to the body of English-language scholarly writing on Japanese animation. The author, Christopher Bolton, is a professor of comparative and Japanese literature at Williams College, with a focus on Japanese science fiction in particular, and has been studying Japanese animation since the early 2000’s. So, what exactly does Interpreting Anime add to the growing list of “books on anime”, and, turning this question around, how it is actually useful, and to whom?
By “interpreting”, Bolton specifically means the idea of “critical consideration” – the goal of the process is to “extract or generate new meanings…particularly meanings that speak to broader issues of politics, gender, technology, and media.” More specifically, the purpose of the book is also to demonstrate how anime can be “interpreted” using a variety of specific critical approaches, among them structuralist analysis, phenomenological film theory, postmodernism and posthumanism, and queer theory. In a way, then, it is also an introduction to the approaches themselves. In addition, as Bolton notes, one more goal, given his own background in comparative literature, and following Jaqueline Berndt’s call for a “broadly comparative perspective on manga”, is to “juxtapose anime with a different comparison medium”. This, then, will allow for examinations that lead to at least some answers to the question “what can anime do that other media cannot?” And if these goals are successfully achieved, readers can use the “lessons” of Interpreting Anime to inform their “creative engagement with any and all anime” going forward.
The process of actually meeting these goals is a short introduction, seven main chapters, and a conclusion. The title of each chapter (as well as the introduction and conclusion) actually specifically names the anime that it “interprets” – Read or Die, Patlabor 2, Ghost in the Shell, 3×3 Eyes, Millennium Actress, Blood: The Last Vampire, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Summer Wars. Of course, this does not mean that the named anime is going to be the only title that is discussed in each – the Ghost in the Shell chapter covers both the first movie, and Innocence; the discussion of 3×3 Eyes is followed by a reading of Vampire Princess Miyu. It is also worth noting that five of the main chapters are based on materials that the author already published previously – but each one is significantly updated and expanded from the form in which it first appeared.
At the same time, equally important to the structure of Interpreting Anime is the specific approach or methodology that each of the chapters utilizes. So, the Akira anime is “read” alongside the manga, and alongside several major discussions of postmodernism in media as a notable example of a “Japanese postmodern”. For his interpretation of Patlabor 2, the author draws on Vivian Sobchak’s examination of electronic media, with a dream or potential for limitless possibilities, and a strong urge to ignore or just not consider limitations or costs or inevitable effects. Millennium Actress is interpreted using an approach grounded in queer theory – and a comparison with experimental theater, including a theatrical adaptation of the film. And for Howl’s Moving Castle, the interpretation considers the similarities and the very significant differences between the original English novel and the Hayao Miyazaki anime.
So, with all of this in mind, where does Interpreting Anime leave us after its approximately 260 pages? Importantly, and hopefully, it leaves us aware of anime’s limitations:
Comparisons between anime and other media invite us to consider what each of these media can and cannot do, what it it can and cannot represent. I cannot escape the limits language imposes upon me, any more than I can look into my own blind spot, stand apart from my own body, or speak outside my own voice; but by comparing different forms of language, we can at least beign to think about what those limits might be.”Interpreting Anime, p. 258
Bolton already readily acknowledges that many potentially interesting topics must necessarily be left outside the scope of this book – “a tradeoff between focus and coverage” – both in terms of the kinds of anime that it highlights, and the theoretical approaches that are utilized. In particular, as with most English-language scholarly writing on Japanese animation, the discussion primarily deals with theatrical films, not with the television series that make up the vast majority of Japan’s animation production, although one of the chapters does consider Blood: The Last Vampire both as a thing in of itself, and as a component of the Blood franchise and media mix. And, thought the book was was published in 2018, the most recent anime it discusses is 2012’s Blood-C: The Last Dark – this is inevitable, but still, unfortunate.
Still, though, why does Interpreting Anime exist – and, better yet, why it is worth paying attention to? To me, the explanation Prof. Bolton puts forth is actually very convincing:
For me, the reason to talk, write, or teach about anime (or any literary text for that matter) is to forge an encounter with other people across the language of that text – to touch and change and learn about each other. The more texts we have available to us and the more we have to say about them, the richer, the more nuanced, and the more creative these encounters will be.– Interpreting Anime, p. 258
Interpreting Anime, then, is not solely, or even primarily, about the “passive” act of interpretation. Rather, and granted, potentially, it is an aid to another process, an active and ongoing one – of conversation. This, then, makes it particularly welcome for anyone who is interested in learning about these kinds of conversations, and about how to participate in them!
Ed. note: To promote the book, Prof. Bolton has prepared a full website for it – InterpretingAnime.org. This includes an in-depth table of contents, a teacher/instructor guide, a selection of review blurbs, and a book trailer
[Full disclosure: Interpreting Anime cites to one of the posts in this blog.]