The Soul of Anime book

One point that The Soul of Anime, a new critical book by Ian Condry, makes repeatedly is that anime fans often use Japanese animation in ways their creators – at least their initial creators – didn’t intend. Fans can obsess, frame by frame, over the trajectories of missiles in a showy sky battle. Fans can create a Princess Tutu music video set to a Swedish pop song and win a con award by doing so. For this reason, it feels fair to apply this approach to The Soul of Anime itself, and review it as a reference book full of interesting things about anime, rather than what it’s meant to be, an academic exercise in applied theory.

To be blunt, I found the theorising a slog, and it didn’t help my own understanding of anime much. On the other hand, the book taught me a great many things I didn’t know, whenever it dropped into straightforward history and reportage about fan-favourite and fan-ignored titles. For Condry is no armchair theorist – there can be few Westerners who’ve explored the industry as energetically as he has.

Condry sat in on the production of Summer Wars, watching Mamoru Hosoda talk people through a battle between a ninja bunny and a giant lobster. He saw a head honcho at the Gonzo studio chew out hapless producers during the making of Red Garden; on the same show, he was roped into voicing a horny New Yorker. At Studio Ghibli, he used Paxman tactics, asking Toshio Suzuki repeatedly if he thought fansubbing was a good or bad thing. Suzuki rewarded him with a smile, and no comment.

The ‘soul’ of Condry’s title refers to what he sees as the energising force of anime – something, he argues, that can be understood, not by analysing anime’s stories or themes, but by looking at the networks of creative collaborations round the medium. These networks are emphatically not always Japanese; they’re also not always profitable, not always ‘professional,’ and not always even legal. As an example of such collaboration, Condry describes his experience of the Summer Wars production meeting:

‘Hosoda’s storyboards were filled with kinetic energy. Even in the morning in a sweaty room with canned coffee, we found ourselves being pulled into the world of the film… There was something about being in a meeting like that, with others in the room intensely focused on the project at hand, that has a galvanising effect. The collective attention helped build connections, bring focus and clarify the roles of the many people needed to complete such a large project. Such meetings did more than convey abstract information about a mechanical process of production; they helped reinforce a sense of engaged commitment.’

Later in the book, Condry cites another example of anime-related energy, involving two male Japanese geeks at a fan convention, called Yasuhiro Takeda and Toshio Okada.

‘They met at a convention and found themselves bored. They skipped the official events, Takeda recalls, and started an energetic conversation near a bank of vending machines. “We started going off about things like, ‘What if Space Battleship Yamato had been made in China?’… As we continued to entertain ourselves, a small crowd started to gather.” The crowd continued to grow, and the conversation continued from 10PM till dawn. This caught the attention of some of the convention’s organisers, who invited the two young men to perform on stage before the closing ceremony.’

It’s a cute fan anecdote, except that Takeda and Okada also went on to become founding fathers of Gainax, the creators of Evangelion. For Condry, anime’s ‘soul’ pours through collectives of creators and fanboys alike, often turning the second into the first. Even Hayao Miyazaki became an animator after forming a proto-moe crush on the girl in the first feature-length colour anime, Hakujaden.

Condry gives many vivid illustrations of the anime world, and numerous well-made points. For example, he knocks holes in the idea that anime should be seen as an exclusively Japanese phenomenon; on the contrary, it’s been bound up with Western culture and consumption since Osamu Tezuka nicked his big-eye style from Disney and Fleischer. At the same time, Condry quotes a plausible argument from Peter Chung, the creator of Aeon Flux, that many of the stylistic differences between Japanese and American cartoons are rooted in America’s tendency to base cartoons on voices.

The Soul of Anime is an excellent mix of familiar and new territory. The new titles includes such anime as Deko Boko Friends, a pre-school series that seems weirdly reminiscent of Blighty’s Bod; the gag show Mr. Despair; and the terrifying-sounding Japanese pundit Radiowave Man, who argues that all humans will evolve into doll-loving otaku and leave ‘3D love’ behind. Remarkably, Condry treats Radiowave Man with sympathy and tolerance.

Indeed, Condry also quotes copiously from anime professionals and critics in Japan, rarely translated into English. I particularly liked this comment from critic Toshiya Ueno, on the ‘realistic’ lens flare effects of Mamoru Oshii in films like Ghost in the Shell:‘[Oshii] doesn’t do this to be faithful to reality. He does it to show straightforwardly that both anime and reality are simply fragments of the possible.’

One less fruitful argument that runs through the book is that anime should be analysed in terms of their characters and worlds, rather than in terms of their stories. Of course, many of animation’s greatest hits are characters with little or no story: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Hatsune Miku. And even anime with propulsive, addictive serial stories – Death Note, say, or Fullmetal Alchemist – often have multiple versions with diverging plotlines and endings; in that sense, the stories are less constant than the characters and the starting premises. And many anime creators – like many creators generally – invent their characters and worlds first, then improvise the story with little forethought.

And yet, Condry’s frequent insinuations that it is mistaken to place importance on anime stories feel forced. Surely it depends both on the particular anime and the particular viewer? The angle seems contradicted by the book’s very interesting discussion of The Girl who Leapt Through Time,>which looks closely at how Hosoda changed a key plot point from the original 1960s story so it resonated more with contemporary viewers; and in Condry’s equally interesting discussion of the first Gundam, with its ‘complex story arcs’ and ‘storylines extending across many episodes.’ Finally, of course, story and character are both woolly categories; someone like Hosoda tends to mash them up, as Condry inadvertently shows when he discusses the director’s work.

As mentioned earlier, the book is intimidatingly heavy on theory; not jargon, but lengthy passages outlining abstract models and dodgy metaphors that challenge comprehension. A sample sentence: ‘Dark energy draws attention to the flows that precede and follow moments of commodification, like a river that draws together many sources, passes through a dam, then flows on.’ Like many academic treatments of pop-culture, the book’s aim sometimes seems less to increase the reader’s understanding than to build increasingly baroque theoretical castles – a process which might be more lucid in animation than in print.

Condry quotes another anime theorist, Thomas LaMarre (author of The Anime Machine), who warns against the relatively lowly pursuit of ‘endlessly amassing anecdotes about studios and commodities, producers and fans.’ Thankfully, Condry doesn’t agree. For readers who do like amassing anecdotes, The Soul of Anime offers oodles of them, often gained first-hand by the intrepid author, ploughing through the anime multiverse.

The Soul of Anime by Ian Condry is published by Duke University Press. Paperback and Kindle editions are available from Amazon UK.

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