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Anime Explosion! The What, Why, and Wow of Japanese Animation
Black and White
Stone Bridge Press
Despite a few stumbling boxes, Anime Explosion is a book any anime fan will be hard-pressed to put down.
Anime Explosion! The What, Why, and Wow of Japanese Animation
By Ridwan Khan
Picking up a good book on anything is always a treat, so I eagerly read through Patrick's Drazen's Anime Explosion. The book, as its subtitle would imply, purports to explain "The what? Why? And wow! Of Japanese Animation." Despite some stumbles, the book presents a compelling explanation of Japanese culture in anime.
The book starts out with a chapter entitled "A Page Right Out of History," a look at anime in the past. Unfortunately, the book lacks a descriptive and in-depth look at the evolution of anime from manga and Japanese culture before that (the issue of depth and missed opportunities figures highly throughout Anime Explosion). A much better resource for this type of history, glaring by its omission in Explosion, would be The Anime Encyclopedia, reviewed previously in Animefringe. The major implication in this very first chapter is that Explosion concentrates on new anime, while most 70s and 80s (the latter comprising the so called "Golden Era" of anime) are either overlooked or mentioned in passing.
Anime Explosion instead 'cuts to the chase' with the real genesis of modern anime; the venerable Osamu Tezuka and Tetsuwan Atomu, also known as Astroboy. Interestingly enough, Drazen mentions how Tetsuwan Atomu dealt with topical issues in a manner that American TV, live action or animated would not touch. In fact, the 1960s Tetsuwan Atomu series dealt with civil rights in a way that nearly mirrored the American civil rights movement. However, in discussing Tezuka and the jump his anime made onto American screens, Drazen also brings in other series, including Tetsujin 28, Gigantor, and Speed Racer, in the same paragraphs, a spot of potential confusion for those unfamiliar with which are Tezuka's works and which are not.
Drazen further goes into the other series that impacted upon American TV during the 80s wave (thanks partially to cable, VCRs, and the 1979 Star Wars); Space Battleship Yamamoto (A.K.A. Starblazers), Go Lion (Voltron), and Macross (Robotech) and the later Sailormoon and Dragonball series, each of which met with success on American shores.
In this chapter, Drazen goes onto mention the basis for anime (largely manga, but also traditional Eastern mythology, contemporary events, and international sources). Though Drazen does not explicitly say so, this small section in the beginning of the book almost serves to apologize for what is, admittedly, a difficult task; covering the span of a sixty-year-old medium and explaining it for a Western audience.
Chapter 2 deals with "Conventions vs. Clichés." Just as in American short cartoons, especially those of Warner Brothers, when a character's eyes bug out of his head and his tongue falls out of his mouth, we can be reasonably certain he's seen an attractive woman, anime is filled with cultural (both Japanese culture in general and anime culture in specific) nuance and clichés. Drazen proceeds to list of numerous clichés in anime; whether it is the stylized moment at the end of the battle in sword fights in Utena and Rurouni Kenshin or the happy marriage of Kyoko and Yusaku in Maison Ikkoku.
Another interesting cultural tidbit has to do with Evangelion. Anyone who has seen the series can comment on the cicadas, the insects droning in the outdoor scenes. However, this sound is a summer sound in Japan. For it to go on week after week is a subtle but profound message on the state of the world after the second impact.
The rest of the chapter is an interesting primer, especially for those new to anime, but even for the hardened veteran. Drazen goes on to explain non-Asian characters that are understood to be Japanese (Sailormoon) and the super-deformed (chibi) parody art style. Frankly, this chapter could have been double its present size and still have been both informative and interesting. It ends too abruptly; the information it gives is certainly useful for the new fan and the details it provides certainly will enlighten the more experienced fan boys and girls.
Chapter 3, however, picks up some of the slack from a slightly different perspective. Drazen explains the subtleties of the use of honorific titles (such as -san) with examples from Maison Ikkoku; Drazen ties this all into the Japanese desire to be a part of a whole society. Drazen also (quickly) covers the lack of Japanese swear words. From my (admittedly poor) understanding of Japanese, Drazen's assertion that Japanese has no true swear words seems half true. Drazen claims that Japan has no true four-letter words; those used as curse words are really body parts. While this is true, as one of the best known Japanese swearwords refers (charitably) to a female dog's genitalia, the word has almost entirely lost that meaning and is, now, pretty much the Japanese equivalent of the S-word.
Chapter 3 is entitled "The Social Web and the Lone Wolf" yet Drazen only covers the idea of the lone wolf character for one long paragraph. And rather than explain (or try to differentiate the Japanese ideal from the American lone wolves, like James Dean or Clint Eastwood) he only lists examples from anime.
Drazen moves forward in chapter 4, "Mukashi, Mukashi: From Folktale to Anime" which draws on the mythological and folktale basis for such anime as Mononoke Hime (again, I disagree with Drazen's characterization of Hime's Eboshi-sama; he calls her a villain; I call her another character in the film), Ayashi no Ceres, Princess Minky Momo, and Kujaku-o. While Drazen certainly gets brownie points for something as obscure as Kujaku-o, again the sheer breadth of material he has to work with hurts him. There are plenty of titles for Drazen to work with, many better-known, making his choices seem quite odd. Teasingly, a photo of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind graces the early part of the chapter with a caption on how the film is based on the thousand year old legend of "The Princess Who Loved Insects." As Drazen himself mentions "Any serious look at Japanese folk tales and their connection to the present would take more than a single chapter."
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with everyone's favorite subject: sex and nudity. As anyone who has watched a modicum of anime can tell you, the Japanese have different standards on nudity than Puritanical American culture. Even more so, nudity can be completely outside a sexual context for the Japanese. The basic premise of Ranma 1/2, (where Ranma Saotome, who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water), Drazen argues, could be done quite sleazily but is played for laughs. Drazen also mentions bath scenes in My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies.
Chapter 6 deals with hardcore sexuality, while 7 deals with gay and pseudo-gay themes. Each chapter illustrates the Japanese cultural aspects in anime and titles relating to the topic; Cream Lemon and Urotsukidoji come up in chapter 6, while 7 looks at Here is Greenwood and Rose of Versailles, among others. As the title would suggest, Drazen examines true homosexuality and suggested homosexuality in anime and manga, including gender bending and sex.
Chapter 8 covers bushido or the code of the warrior in anime. It's a principle that is not only limited to samurai; it could be golfers, baseball players, or any number of sports manga. Drazen starts out with the typical samurai and moves into how bushido has been translated after the war, whether it is on the baseball diamond or on outer space. Another way of life is, shojodo, or "the way of the teenage girl" is discussed in chapter 9. Here we see the samurai ethic, now in the female gender. In retrospect, it is odd to think of Sailormoon as a schoolgirl practicing bushido, in any sense, but it is what the series is about. As always, Drazen's text is replete with examples, from Record of Lodoss War's Deedlit to Gundam Wing's Relena.
From daughter to mother, Drazen next tackles the idea (and often contradictory ideals) of the Japanese mother, as represented in anime. Whether it is the stereotypical overbearing mother (as in Maison Ikkoku) or the thoughtful look at mothers in My Neighbor Totoro, the Japanese picture of motherhood is varied.
Drazen then covers religion and myth in the next two chapters. Chapter 11 covers Shinto, Buddhism, but concentrates on Christianity; despite only having 1% of the population claiming Christianity (or, as Drazen argues, because of it) anime is stacked with Christian themes, motifs, and imagery. However, as a balancing point, Drazen tackles the Japanese spirits and ghosts that fill anime in chapter 12.
Chapter 13 covers music and one aspect of anime well known to J-culture fans, the idol singer. This aspect of Japanese culture comes from the U.S., during the American occupation. The big difference between Japanese and American idols is that most American idols are male with screaming teenage girls in tow, while Japanese idols tend to be girls with both male and female fans. The venerable seiyuu and singer Megumi Hayashibara (voice of far too many anime characters to name, most notably Ranma 1/2's Ran-chan and Cowboy Bebop's Faye), Studio Ghibli's Joe Hisashi, and Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop and Macross among others) are all featured in the chapter. In the world of anime, Anime Explosion covers Macross, Key the Metal Idol, and quickly runs past several other series. The chapter also sports an out-of-place sidebar on parallel universes in anime.
Drazen titles chapter 14 "It's Not Easy Being Green: Nature in Anime." Understandably, Drazen focuses mainly on Studio Ghibli's films. However, as in much of the book, space constraints (certainly not lack of material) allow Drazen only a cursory glance at the major ecological themes in Nausciaa, Pimpoko, and Mononoke Hime. Anime Explosion also briefly mentions the importance of trees in Tenchi Muyo. Here, as in other places in the book, Drazen offers a very interesting idea, but is unwilling or unable to flesh out the thought.
Chapter 15 focuses in on a major theme in Japanese culture (still) and anime, war. Drazen starts out with a short description of Grave of the Fireflies and its war themes. In a reoccurring theme, Drazen does not spend nearly enough time on what is one of the most important war films in anime. He also covers Silent Service, Jin-Roh, and Barefoot Gen. In a bizarre editorial choice, Drazen chooses to discuss Gundam Wing in this chapter instead of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The latter was created by people who had grown up in the war and post war culture of Japan and the series reflected it. Overall the original Gundam illustrated the Japanese war ethic far better than the super heroic Gundam Wing. The only reason for Drazen to cover Wing instead of Mobile Suit is to pander to the American audience, many of whom were first introduced to Gundam via Gundam Wing on the Cartoon Network.
From war comes an obvious segue; Drazen moves to death and reincarnation in the final chapter of the book's first section. In an early illustration of death and reincarnation in anime, Drazen summarizes the plot of Locke and Leon. However, he does not mention the title of the series in the actual text, instead it is delegated to a footnote on the page. Also left in a footnote, Osamu Tezuka's Message to Hitler, which should have rightly been featured in the previous chapter.
Drazen also uses this chapter to discuss the ideas in several other anime, including Sailormoon and Tenchi Muyo. Drazen argues that even in death that the idea of reincarnation, hinted at in films like Grave of the Fireflies offers hope to the Japanese audience, in a way implying the Japanese attitude towards death as a step in life, rather than an ending. However, if Drazen was going to pander to American fans, he missed a major opportunity. Dragonball (especially Dragonball Z and GT) covers death and reincarnation in what ends up becoming a very nonchalant way, as the heroes of the series can be wished back to life via the dragon balls.
Where death is a step in life, immortality has a steep price as illustrated in Rumiko Takahashi's darker works, The Mermaid's Forest and Mermaid's Scar. Along these lines, Drazen also mentions Vampire Princess Miyu (but surprisingly, not Vampire Hunter D) and Galaxy Express 999.
The second half of the book covers individual series and directors in anime. Drazen's choices for which series to cover in the individual sections, like the first half of the book, are eclectic. Drazen covers Windaria, Wings of Honneamise, Utena, Giant Robo, The films of Studio Ghibli, Sailormoon, Escaflowne, Evangelion, Please Save My Earth, Pokemon, Plastic Little, the work of Masamue Shirow, and Key the Metal Idol in the book's second section, taking in depth look at themes and ideas. Many ideas explored are similar to the unfleshed thesis earlier in the book. This section is quite recent, as Drazen covers both Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi and this summer's Neko no Onegashi in the Ghibli chapter. Granted, many of these series could be given their own book (as Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy), but Drazen does a good job of covering many interesting elements in all the anime he covers in the book's second half.
Anime Explosion is a hodgepodge. If one idea kept smacking me in the face while reading this book it was this; the book is filled to the brim with interesting ideas; unfortunately, many are begging to be fleshed out. An entire chapter could have been made from the ecological themes in the Studio Ghibli films alone, let alone all of anime. Unfortunately, space restraints seem to keep Drazen from exploring a topic to satisfaction. Done once or twice, it can whet the audience's appetite. But as many times as Drazen does it, it becomes something of an intellectual tease.
Additionally, while Anime Explosion is certainly not a criticism on Shakespeare, Drazen's language in places seems overly familiar, a little too common to be taken seriously. For the most part, Drazen walks the line between overly informal and playful well, but in several places a certain word or phrase makes a sentence come off like a line on any Internet shrine/fansite. Speaking of the Internet, Drazen references dozens of URLs in Anime Explosion. While I am all for a greater connectivity between print and the Internet, Drazen's links are all outside of his control. Thus, his links to Japanese myths or Jurai Trees (the latter was on Geocities) have a good chance of being down. I think the book's publisher should mirror the pages Drazen mentions and host them itself.
In both sections of the book, Drazen exhibits a perceptible bias. There are several series he goes back to over and over; Sailormoon, the Ghibli films, and Key the Metal Idol are mentioned dozens of times. Drazen seems to want to balance this out by mentioning several obscure titles. However, this approach misses a lot of middle ground anime. Many important series that would have contributed to Drazen's arguments are either passed over with brief mentions or omitted completely. Drazen also paints himself into a corner in the book. Early on he mentions Osamu Tezuka as the god of modern anime and keeps coming back to him. However, through the course of the book Tezuka becomes overwhelming. Nary a chapter goes by without a mention of the good doctor. However, rather than exploring even Tezuka in depth, Drazen often relegates him to footnotes.
I have to make a special note of this book's cover. It's awful. It's embarrassing. Unlike the dramatic cover for Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation or the simple and striking cover for The Anime Encyclopedia, Drazen's book looks too busy, too comic book, and too cheap pop. Next to those two titles, Anime Explosion's cover looks tacky. This is a shame, considering the book itself is fairly well illustrated with manga and shots of anime.
I've taken pains to knock Anime Explosion and with good reason; it's a great book that is difficult to put down. The very length of this review suggests this. The quibbles outlined above detract from the overall picture, but Drazen presents an intriguing look at Japanese culture and customs in anime. I can guarantee any fan will find many interesting of tidbits about one series or another that they did not know before. Despite the problems the book has (many of which can be corrected in subsequent editions) any anime fan will be hard-pressed to stop reading, until reaching the end.
Anime Explosion is an excellent book, despite its faults. Drazen's writing style keeps the book moving forward and his insights are excellent. He combines a concrete basis in Japanese culture with just a dash of intellectual daring to explain anime in a fashion that makes the book extremely interesting. While I can't recommend Anime Explosion as a must-have book as I did for The Anime Encyclopedia, anyone with even a bourgeoning interest in anime will find it an exciting and informative read.