Anime Book Review

I’ve never done a book review before but I thought I’d just pen a few thoughts about these two anime-themed books I’m currently reading.

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I’ve just finished Susan Napier’s Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. The book is published in 2006, so it unfortunately does not contain the most updated view of anime, however, it is a second edition of the book that previously stopped at an analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). The book is published by Palgrave, which I find is a publisher I’m very comfortable going to for academic books with high quality insight, argument, thought and readability.

Napier’s academic writing style is thus highly readable even to non-academics and effortlessly deep. The conclusions she arrives at and her analysis of various animated texts are not only insightful and well-argued, but also very naturalistic. There are no jarring leaps in logic and her argumentation style flows from one logical conclusion to the next. Her writing is well substantiated and often reads like a blockbuster list of who’s who of the academic world. The theorists she chooses to quote and the actual quotations she picks are appropriate and fit seamlessly into the argument she is trying to make. If one were to level one critique at her choice of critical writing and academics to reference it would be that perhaps there are too few Asian critical perspectives being referenced.

She identifies 3 big overarching types in the genre as a whole – the apocalyptic, festival and elegiac modes. However, she is fair enough of a writer to acknowledge that even these 3 trends or themes are not exhaustive. She even throws in the occasional exception to the rule whenever appropriate. The surety of her stance coupled with her self-reflexivity about the limitations of her argumentative framework leads to a very balanced writing style that put me as a reader, at ease. It helped me to take on her conclusions in the comfort of the knowledge that this is a trustworthy writer who is not trying to push for a specific reading or agenda, who is just trying to share her view on the subject.

Her observations about anime were presented in a forceful writing style that was ever conscious of the reader. Mindful of his/her possible doubts, rejections, questions and other reactions that may arise in the reading of the views being presented. Every chapter was poised to address an obvious question about the genre and had a clear claim that was supported with in-depth textual analysis of 3-4 anime series or OVAs to support that claim. Her efforts to make meaning of the genre were also very well seasoned with historical readings and a socio-cultural understanding of the other arts originating from Japan. This caused an unusual pleasure to bloom within me even as I read the very objectively written chapter Napier had on anime porn.

Perhaps one other critique that one could level at the way the book, if at all,  is with regards to its use of examples. Each chapter of Napier’s book is organised such that it can accommodate about 3-4 examples before it starts to feel over-long. Due to this, there is a slight sense of the author cherry-picking examples that best prove the claims made in the chapters.

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Conversely, I am currently trying to struggle my way through Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime. The book is a much more recent work of academic writing about anime published in 2013, but a far less fulfilling read. It is published by Duke University Press and the reason why I picked it up is because it had a 3.7/5 rating on Goodreads.com, the same rating that Susan Napier’s abovementioned academic book got.

Silly me, I should have checked the number of reviewers. Napier’s book was reviewed by 405 readers, while Condry’s was reviewed by only 62. And if that didn’t give it away, I should have looked really hard at the book’s subtitle which reads, “Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story.”

Not to say that that’s not an interesting area of focus or that it’s not a worthwhile area of study or that this comparative book review is even a fair one (because it’s like comparing apples and oranges in terms the books’ foci). I just really wasn’t expecting the writing to be so wishy washy. I’m two and a half chapters in and all I’ve gotten from the book is that the author is trying to make the argument that the soul of anime IS the collaborative framework that surrounds it from source material mangas/mangakas, light novels to producers/studio houses, and fan communities. And that it is these interconnected networks that have led to the success of the genre.

These are not new findings or new arguments, and as a whole, it just seems that every chapter he is repeating this same conclusion. If the books starts out in the intro chapter saying that this is what the book wants to prove and then repeats this claim at the end of every chapter with no nuance to the argument presented in the introduction it just comes off sounding tautological and repetitious.

I’m sorry if I come off sounding too harsh but it’s really, really boring. There are a lot of references to Henry Jenkins and this leads me to think that the big chapters where the book’s premise is supposed to really take off is chapter 6 (Dark Energy: What Overseas Fans Reveal about the Copyright Wars) & 7 (Love Revolution: Otaku Fans in Japan), because they are devoted to fan culture. But other than that, the interviews he cites from his field work and close observations of various recent anime OVA productions, which really should be more interesting, come off sounding a little incoherent and pointless. The incoherence comes in part from the short, stuttering quotations he inserts into his writing which seem to defeat the purpose of using a quotation. You don’t want to quote someone just to prove that they said it. You quote someone because they’ve said something about something in the best possible way that something could have been said.

All I can say is that so far the book presents a very interesting argument that seems to have a lot of potential. And I would like nothing more than to see more depth in the analysis and use of the raw data gathered from such close on-the-ground work with animators and studio houses, but right now it’s just that, a potential argument that hasn’t actually been made. Even after almost 3 chapters. Ergh. So tedious.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

In my previous post I talked about how lovely it feels when the CGI introduced into a film is imbued with a specific narrative value. This is true of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well.

Most reviews online readily point out that this is a film that tries to embody the look and feel of the 1960s by making it not just the film’s subject matter but by infusing the form of the film with recognisable signs of film stock used in the 1960s – i.e. the use of “cigarette burns” in the top right hand corner of the cell that indicate the end of a reel of film; and the use of the old Universal logo.

But what I found most satisfying about the film was that the seemingly run-of-the-mill use of CGI to lengthen the creepy little girl’s jaw and turn her eyes a milky white in the trailer was not run-of-the-mill at all. These specific effects were chosen because of the specific nature of the ghosts in Ouija.

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The other thing that I really liked and appreciated about the film was the use of the ear as the point of entry for evil. It’s a very classical choice of body orifice to use.

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“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment” (Act I Sc V, 59-64)

It is how Claudius poisons Hamlet’s father, the king, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also a very gender neutral body orifice to use, and one that is grossly under utilised in horror films.

Most possession horror films, you will find, feature possessed women, girls or girls on the cusp of womanhood. Regan from The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), and even Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), whose mother believed her telekinesis came from her being possessed by satan.

In more recent films you have Angela Vidal from [REC] (2007), Mia from the Evil Dead (2013), Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body (2009). The filmmakers of the The Exorcist even made a production choice to change the gender of the possessed child which was based on a true story about the possession of a boy, Roland Doe (a pseudonym given to the victim by the Catholic church to protect the boy’s identity).

The reason why females are the preferred possessed is because of the fluid nature of their gender. This is especially so in the case of the classics. Carrie and Regan were both female protagonists on the cusp of womanhood. Their adolescent natures and the fact that they are both menarcheal women makes their identity especially fluid and impossible to think of them and their bodies as closed vessels. In the case of Rosemary, she is in the unique position of being with child and again this is a time of great change in a woman and a state that suggests an openness to her identity because where does mother end and child begin in a pregnant body?

In the case of Ouija, however, even though the three main protagonists are women, the use of the ear as the orifice through which evil is spread seems to raise the stakes as we see male characters falling prey to possession and the insidious forces at work.

In addition to this, the spread of evil is not from some messy exchange of fluid that we’ve come to expect in horror films (no projectile pea soup vomit or gushing fountains of blood). Instead, evil is spread through these sibilant whispers poured into the ears of ambushed victims.

We never hear what these words are, but one would assume that they are some kind of language. And I thought this was so interesting because language exists in the realm of the Symbolic, the most codified and rational of the three phases of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real).

However, the forceful removal of words, language, and a means of communication from the souls of the victims of torture that have been forced to live out all eternity in the walled off cellar of the house, forced the re-emergence of language to perform an inverted role of giving form to the Real. The Real, according to Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, can be thought of as “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.” In other words, that which escapes language.

This violation of the order of the Symbolic through the return of the Real represented through a kind of reverse language that the spirits speak then represents a different kind of abject that comes to the fore in the film.

The words, the whispers, the spirits, the shameful history that America gave asylum to many a war criminal fleeing from Germany after WWII to find safe haven amongst its masses becomes the effluvia, the abjected bits that the characters are forced to confront, and for the audience where the horror resides.

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I suppose it’s customary to end off a film review with a conclusive statement about whether I liked the film or not. So in case that wasn’t clear in how I waxed theoretical about it, YES, I LIKED IT! It’s a good horror film. It manages its share of jump scares pretty well too, but towards the end the film felt like it was trying to overcompensate a little for the lack of jump scares at the start. So consider yourself warned.

Miyavi

You know how when you wake up in the morning and those first few precious moments are when your mind is at its freshest and the world connects up in a way it only does in Limitless (2011) right after Bradley Cooper’s character pops those magical pills? Those are the exact moments I’m squandering right now on this post… argh.

I thought I’d wake up with some Miyavi from his 2014 self-titled album, namely the tracks “Guard You”:

 

And “The Others” because I needed to wake up and continue writing my final paper:

 

And there’s just something about the way the lyrics are arranged that give away the fact that they’ve been written by a non-English speaker. I don’t say this to knock his ability as a lyricist or anything. Just pointing out that the percussive use of language (so much like his guitar slapping style), might be part of a lack of awareness and comfort with vowel length in the language, probably in part because Japanese is also a language that lends itself really well to music with a greater focus on beat and rhythm (rap/hip-hop) what with the highly regular alternation of consonant and vowel sounds in the language.

But when it comes to English, some words just take more time to say and can’t fit within certain beats yet in Miyavi’s English song’s they’re sort of jammed packed and squeezed right in there? I think I was just struck by the fact that I could hear this unusual use of language in a slow number like “Guard You”.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:

Leave you lying in your bed/ Black rain is in my head”

And then as I was looking at the lyrics a little closer to look for examples to substantiate my claims I noticed something else… There are just certain arrangements of words people want to avoid because they’re hard to articulate within a fixed number of beats and in the song he gives himself too few beats to clear the following line and that has an impact on the clarity of his articulation:

“we can‘t stay to see this war”

The other thing I noticed is the use of the word ‘Sakura’ in the song? I mean I’ve always been of the opinion that Miyavi is an amazing guitarist, he writes really strong melodies and rifts for his songs and he’s really strong as a lyricist too, it’s just that his voice doesn’t really hold up? Just to plug some other artists I really love: Hyde’s amazing range and crystalline delivery from L’Arc en Ciel and Gackt’s amazing vibrato and timbre come to mind…

So anyway, what becomes more apparent to me now that he’s singing in English and has to contend with all the difficulties that come with a language crossover from  Japanese to English where they struggle with the ‘R’s and ‘L’s – so much so that I often get a little embarrassed about sharing Miyavi’s more recent songs because I’m afraid he’ll get judged for his mediocre voice and poor pronunciation (and by extension I will too) before people get a chance to appreciate that he’s really a pretty solid musician…

Dammit, Sonia! Stop digressing with these asides and run-on sentences! But, back to what I was saying, that’s when I was struck by how we always judge these Asians or foreigners for mispronouncing English words but what about these westerners who mispronounce Japanese words and other borrowed terms in the English language? The criticism ought to go both ways. So I just wanted to point out that there’s a rolling naturalness to the way Myv says ‘Sakura’ in the song that just stands out because it’s pronounced the way it’s meant to be pronounced… and the one stanza in Japanese was all the more effective because he sounds like he is in his element.

Which leads me to my final point on poiesis and poetics. The imagery in the lyrics is very vivid, a little lost because of his struggle with pronunciation, but phrases like ‘black rain in my head’ and ‘sakura is falling down’ have a distinctly haiku quality to them with the strong visual imagery that functions as metaphor for abstract ideas like loss and rendering a specific texture to that loss.

Although…  another realization that struck me was how some of these phrases could come across as cheesy and kinda mediocre if like a former student of mine wrote something like that for a creative writing assignment but here it seems oddly effective because in my mind, what comes to bear apart from the words, is the entire history of the person – Miyavi being Japanese and an accomplished musician.

Omg… so biased. Now I just feel bad for all the students I critiqued for submitting similar things in their creative writing assignments -_-“

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