Saturday, January 4, 2014

Anime, The Atlantic, and Space Dandy

The Atlantic on the release of Shinichiro Watanabe's latest anime Space Dandy, and if you know me, you know how hyped I am for the show. The article itself gives a brief overview of the show, but also seeks to contextualize anime in terms of (Western) consumption and place Watanabe with Andrew Sarris' auteur theory, etc.

While I appreciate the author's interpolation of theory, I do have a few qualms with the piece. Many of these stem from the broadness of the article itself, as it stretches to be a crash course on anime, its history, its genres, and much more. While I appreciate any kind of mass exposure towards anime, and to good anime at that, I'd like to add some nuance to her argument.

The author, Monica Kim, starts by lamenting Miyazaki's announced retirement, noting that the "world mourned," which is a very dramatic way of saying "the man is still alive and announced retirement from directing many times, yet keeps coming back." This is an example of the "great directors" view of media history I find flowing as an undercurrent of the piece, tracing and emphasizing the key directors of major works rather than acknowledging overall trends or the vital connection anime has to manga.Of course, this is to be expected as Kim delves into auteur theory to frame Watanabe's work. This is certainly an effective strategy, though a brief statement about Watanabe's main themes and conceits would have done well enough on their own without a paragraph explaining auteur theory.

I'd also like to expand upon the description of the state of anime as a medium, and critical reception to it. Kim writes of the formulaic nature of much anime-in a dismissive tone I might add. But I would like to highlight that much of all media, regardless of genre or medium, is formula. Much of anime is third rate, like much of Western television is third rate. Anime just has the edge of being foreign in the West, with all assets and detriments that come with it.

Just briefly, I'd like to address the description of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hideaki Anno and a bunch of other fan boys stated the animation studio Gainax, so saying Anno "worked against the studio system" is incorrect. Let's be clear, the show's ending was controversial because of its last two episodes, eschewing plot for stripped down psychoanalysis of the characters. But these are just nitpicks. What really confuses me is an outright dismissal of the show's popularity in the West by stating that "Evangelion has been credited with advancing a more serious study of anime in Japan, but . . . it was deemed too alienating and foreign for most Western audiences at the time, despite the fact that it subverted that mecha genre." It genuinely baffles me, as the show was a legitimate hit. Perhaps Kim sees it as a failure that it was only a hit within the anime fandom, not breaking out into mainstream consciousness. If so, those are unreasonable standards to expect, considering the state of anime's consumption (it's an insular fandom, like gaming, and it is a strange, strange beast.) Anime getting the "respect it deserves" might look more like the acclaim given to foreign film or British television imports in the United States than mainstream commercial acceptance.

While Kim dismisses the lack of critical response to anime, I must emphasis the boom of scholarly work anime has attracted in the academy. Susan Napier's seminal work opened the floodgates of critical conversation, while scholarly journals like exist solely for the exploration of Japanese culture and its interactions in the West. (Both are publications I highly recommend reading, incidentally.) Mainstream critics might barely give a glance to anime now, but rest assured, the academy is continuing its critical discourse on anime.

Kim goes on describing the changing public conception of film, arguing anime's fate may soon be the same, I agree of course. I would like to add a bit more nuance as well as expose some folly. Essentially, Kim asserts that anime's sophistication comes from its use of filmic techniques, making it superior to American animation. This is a rather unfortunate claim to make. Kim tries to heighten the critical acclaim of anime by flipping the script and putting down Western animation to create a sense of superiority for anime. And that is such a shame. It fails to recognize the tremendous differences between Japan and its western counterparts, such as production styles, and trends in art and entertainment. It also fails to note the mass amalgam that is Western animation, which is impossible to broadly characterize due to its various forms (Saturday morning cartoons, feature films, adult comedy shows, web indie animators, etc.)

Moreover, if Kim wants to elevate the discourse of televised anime, contextualizing the article by heavily relying on film theory is a bit of roundabout way to go. Now, film and television are the same form of audio-visual medium, just with strongly different formulas and conventions. But while films are a directors' craft, television is a writer's craft-at least that's the form it has taken in the West. At the very least, more focus on Watanabe's longtime collaborators, such as Keiko Nobumoto and Yoko Kanno, would better clarify the group collaboration that goes into anime productions. A better entry point altogether might have been to, say, discuss the heightened standards and renewed appeal of western television that has emerged the past few years, or talk about the rising success of simulcasting anime in America, rather than a film angle. These would be more specific entries into talking about televised anime, and may have proved more beneficial.

I also must point out the omission of Watanabe's last anime series Kids On The Slope (making Space Dandy Watanabe's fourth anime series, not third). I suspect this is done because the show does not fit Kim's description of Watanabe's auteur style. It's a low key, high school drama set in 60s Japan about some kids playing Jazz - not a group out to explore the world (space, ancient Japan) and themselves. Either that, or the author never took the time to check out wikipedia.

There are other nitpicks I could mention, but lest I sound overbearing, I believe it's time to wrap things up. Kim noted on twitter today she's anticipating a less than courteous reaction: "Cue defensive, overly possessive, hipster-know-it-all passive-aggression from members of the 'fandom.'" I don't think it's passive aggressive to say Watanabe's made four shows, not three. Her statement made me a bit reluctant to publish my critique. But I press on.

For instance, at least 60% of anime is based off of manga or light novels, while character designs from manga are typically applied directly to the anime with little or no variation. This is a vital connection to the mangaka and preexisting work I don't want to see overlooked when talking about anime, especially as the manga boom companies like Viz and TokyoPop (R.I.P.) prove manga has its own force in Western markets as well.

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