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Jasper Sharp reviews the biggest anime book in the world

There have been seismic shifts in the field of anime since the first edition of Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy’s comprehensive The Anime Encyclopedia appeared back in 2001. Its publication signalled, celebrated and in no small measure contributed to the maturation of this one-time niche interest into a major commercial concern for Western distributors.

It is important to remember at this time that while key titles such as Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Perfect Blue (1997) were well on the radar of film and animation fans with an appetite for more challenging fare, and that the massive success of the Pokémon phenomenon had caused much bemusement in the mainstream Western media around 1999, the works of Studio Ghibli, to give one notable example, were still some way from enjoying the mainstream appreciation and critical respect across the world that they do now.

The significant rise in interest in Japanese animation over the ensuing years, as the tastes of the Pokémon generation led to a new boom in consumption outside Japan, soon led to international festival and award ceremony recognition for Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii, among others.

This heightened profile was reflected in 2006 with a ‘Revised & Expanded Edition’ of this already hefty reference tome. Additions included several hundred new entries, an expanded forward, and a range of thematic sections on terminology, technology and historical industry info stretching all the way back to 1917, the effective origins of the medium in Japan. This resulted in a near doubling in length to 867 pages, pushing the physical constraints of the traditional book format to its very limits as its dimensions approached that of a telephone directory (remember them?).

And now here we are again, with the long-awaited third edition, and as can be expected with the breakneck speed with which Japan’s animation industry churns out more and more titles, it is even vaster in its scope than its predecessor. I think we can safely describe its array of content as “spine-busting”, with one significant development being that there is no paperback edition. With the hardback priced at a level that will restrict it largely to the library market, it is safe to assume that it is the incredibly reasonably priced Kindle edition that most readers will opt for, and for this very practical reason, this is the version under review here.

Perhaps I should state from the offset that I am no fan of electronic publishing. We all spend so much time staring at screens nowadays that I’d always opt for a more tactile, physical artefact when one is available. Digital technology moves on at such a pace that the Kindle reader I am using to review this edition, bought in 2010 (for around the same price as the new Anime Encyclopedia hardback), is already pretty knackered, clunky and sluggish, while my well-thumbed paperback of the invaluable 2006 edition, while dog-eared and coffee-stained, is still in good enough nick to be regularly consulted whenever I’m looking for something. Flicking through pages, for me, is a far more expedient means of getting a grip on the book’s contents and chasing up references than pressing unwieldy permutations of buttons.

This ease of access of information should be one of the key strengths of the eBook format. It is interesting to consider that when the first edition came out, the amount of information available on the internet on the subject was actually pretty limited (I am in a good position to remember, as it was the same year the Japanese film website Midnight Eye which I co-founded with Tom Mes was launched). Over the past decade, the internet has resulted in a drastic slimming down of the market for hard copy reference books such as this, and while the rapidly proliferating array of online resources and reviews can have their own issues with regards to factual inaccuracies, misleading opinions and lack of references, it is generally fairly quick and easy to find whatever information one is looking for.

In this respect, I was hoping that the Kindle version would do a slightly better job at addressing some of the indexing limitations of the reference book format compared with the more dynamic domain of the internet, although clearly compromises have had to be made in order not to overwhelm the onscreen text with a jumble of cross-references to other entries. The index does permit one to skip to the start of the relevant alphabetical section, of course, and Kindle makes it possible to search through the text, but even so, it took some time for me to jump to the beginning of the ‘W’ section and repeatedly press the page turn key to get far enough through to note that The World of Golden Eggs has not been included among the otherwise vast amount of entries (I’m always curious as to why such a popular and innovative anime series gets paid so little attention in the West).

But enough griping about the format, because despite such odd omissions, it is the content that is the king here, with over a thousand new entries, more than 4000 updates and the whole exercise comprised of more than one million words. You’re not going to find more information about the subject gathered in one place than here, that’s for certain.

Perhaps what is most surprising, given how Jonathan Clements’ comprehensive and more academic account of the medium in Japan, Anime: A History, points towards a decline in the industry’s fortunes in recent years, is the sheer number of new series included since the 2006 edition. The ever-expanding volume of anime released in Japan, which includes theatrical one-offs, TV serials and videos, is truly mindboggling, and the authors have really done an amazing job in cataloguing titles emerging on new media platforms such as the internet and mobile phones.

The introduction does a great job in pointing out that these new trends have in turn had an impact on the form and content of new titles such as the cellphone-distributed Today’s Aska Show (2012), particular with regards to running time, in a not dissimilar way brought about by the emergence in the early 1980s of straight-to-video formats, “suggesting that the presence of TV, or rather the illusion of a TV format, is fading from the minds of producers. By 2019, anime in general could be substantially shorter; we predict increasing numbers of episodes clocking in at the 20-minute mark.” Meanwhile there are thematic entries such as “Advertising and Sponsorship”, “Censorship and Localization”, “Gaming and Digital Animation”, “Ratings and Box Office”, “Technologies and Formats” that detail the changes in the industry and its output in line with technological and commercial developments by way of key titles.

Elsewhere there are a host of insightful entries giving a cultural and historical context to anime content, such as “Fantasy and Fairytales”, “Foreign Influences”, “Religion and Belief” and “Stereotypes and Archetypes”, overviews of subgenres such “Romance and Drama”, “Science Fiction and Robots”, “Sports Anime” and valuable historical information on “Early Anime” and “Wartime Anime”.

Understandably a lot of this new information has come from the authors’ other research, some of it replicated from previous publications such as the aforementioned Anime: A History and McCarthy’s own recent books on Osamu Tezuka and manga. It is certainly great to have the accumulated knowledge of Clements and McCarthy all in one place, two figures who have been working with anime and subjecting its tropes and trends to the most microscopic scrutiny since it first permeated the consciousness of viewers in the West.

There’s some great, informative and entertainingly written stuff in here, such as an introduction to the terms “Fan Service” (“a temporary suspension of the concerns of the story in order to pander to a sense of camp, the male gaze, or metatextuality on the part of the audience – usually images and moments in which the female characters lose their clothes or pose provocatively”) and “yaoi” (its original meaning explained as a contraction of the original pejorative Japanese meaning to describe erotic animation about homosexual male love, of “no climax, no punchline, no meaning”).

It is also fabulous having such a wide range of contents, encapsulating virtually everything from current favourites such as One Piece and Naruto, early adaptations of Japanese folktales, mecha classics such as Gundam, international co-productions well-known to European viewers of a certain age such as Ulysses 31 and war propaganda like Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943).

One reservation I have is the relatively limited focus on Japan’s internationally-acclaimed “independent animation” artists, which surely should have warranted its own section. Individual practitioners such as Kihachiro Kawamoto and Renzo Kinoshita are given their dues with entries of their own, but other worthy pioneers in this field, such as Tadanari Okamoto and Koji Yuri, are rather glossed over, and there appears to be no mention at all of Atsushi Wada or Mirai Mizue, two of the more prominent figures in this field in recent years.

There is an entry for Mount Head (2002), which was nominated for the Oscar for the Best Short Animation in 2003 (not 2002, as the authors claim, nor was it a “stop-motion” film), but surely an animator of the international profile as its director Koji Yamamura would have benefited from a broader look at his overall output? This imbalance is slightly unfortunate given the amount of space devoted to describing just how execrable another example from the world of indie animation, Tamala: A Punk Cat in Space (2010) is, and the amount of text describing the contents of such examples from the world of erotic animation as T&A Teacher (2004) and Wife-Swap Diaries (2009), wonderful as such titles may be.

Nevertheless, the sheer range of content that has fallen under the authors’ radar is quite amazing, as is the innate understanding conveyed here that both definitions of anime and its future incarnations are in constant state of flux. Who knows how current patterns will play out? Anime in the future might well be conveyed in 5-minute chunks for mobile phone consumption or delivered on the back of cornflakes packets rather than in the form of the lavishly crafted hand-drawn theatrical features of Miyazaki et al. We might see more packaged “events” like Hatsune Miku Live Party (2011), a “live” concert film featuring the famous holographic virtual idol, or more examples of “post-anime” localized content produced in countries like India or Nigeria, using characters, scenarios and technical know-how developed in Japan.

Despite my slightly peevish reservations about the eBook format, electronic publications clearly belong to the same atomised digital world as the aforementioned possible futures of its subject matter. The Anime Encyclopedia was never a book to be devoured in a single sitting, but browsed through or consulted in a non-linear fashion in which the viewer decides their own path through the vast and infinite ocean of content according to their interests. As such, in many ways it is a perfect reflection of the complexities inherent in describing anime’s past, present and future. Perhaps it’s time for me to invest in a new Kindle before the next edition…

The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation is out now from Stone Bridge Press.

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