Studying Anime as Film
One experiences a pervasive feeling of art when viewing anime. As opposed to regular cinema, anime is entirely created by the artists who make it. Critics hesitate to treat animated sequences of images in the same way as photographic film, regardless of the essential similarities. Cinema tries to get at something aesthetically powerful, and it uses reality to do this. By viewing a different reality, the audience of cinema experiences something other than themselves, but this otherness confronts them with a new reality. The question is whether the form of anime can create this effect or an equivalent, and what the implication are of anime’s intrinsic differences.
Whereas film demands attention to the actors, the mise en scene, and other concrete elements, anime has nothing concrete – instead of things, anime deals with images, and images are entirely imagined and constructed, the only reality being the ink and paint or programming and code. This break with reality is easy to ignore, but its a fundamental difference in that many anime strive still to represent to most powerful and real lived experiences without using reality. Furthermore, because of the totality of the creative representation, attention must be given to every aspect of any image. This is a common theme in each of the different ways of approaching anime to discover its value.
There are critics ready to defend anime from being typed as a sub-genre of cinema. Tom Gunning, in his essay, “Animating the Instant,” draws attention to the fundamental similarities between anime and cinema that can’t be ignored. While the anime filmmaker experiences “a freedom of image creation rather than the supposed indexical enthrallment to reality that photography entails” (Gunning 36), all filmmakers are creating the illusion of movement through a sequence of images. They are working with time, engaging both with instants and with continuity. Quoting Jodie Mack, Gunning paints the filmmaker as someone who can “treat one foot of 16mm film as one long canvas or forty tiny individual canvases” (Gunning 39). In both cases, filmmakers are using an apparatus to create continuity from a sequence of still images. Alan Cholodenko, in his essay, “’First Principles’ of Animation,” goes even further to argue that “not only is animation a form of film but all film, film ‘as such,’ is a form of Animation” (Cholodenko 98). For him, animation should be the paradigm through which all film is viewed, instead of the other way around.
The apparatus of anime filmmaking is especially important to Thomas Lamarre, who, in
The Anime Machine
, writes at length about what makes anime special in its own right. The acts involved in composing both a still and moving image are distinct to anime, and quite complicated. He alludes to the term “compositing” to explain who a variety of layers work together to create the animated image (Lamarre xxiv). He looks both at the way images are put together and the movement intrinsic to anime to find value in both. Lamarre’s careful and extremely thorough treatment of anime help draw out its worth as a form in itself.
Ways of Looking at Anime
Movement is fundamental and intrinsic to anime. First, there is the movement of the characters and objects on the screen. In this way we can look at anime in the same way as cinema. We can observe how characters are moving in relation to their environment, how they move in relation to each other, and how the camera “moves” in relation to its subjects. But there are other forms of movement at work as well. It’s important to pay attention to the movement of the images themselves, as they are created and recreated frame by frame. Lamarre would like us to pay particular attention to the space in-between frames and how the images move within that space (xxv). The animation stand creates a place for the camera to combine and record a number of images, and the constraints of this apparatus are important to consider. Even the digitally-created anime makes use of a computer apparatus resembling the stand in its deliberate layering of images and creation of a sequence of frames. Giving students the awareness that the images they see are always a part of this apparatus can given them a sensitivity to the layering of images and the subtle shifts that happen as they are developed into film. Instead of questioning, “What do you see here?” the teacher can question the students, “What do you notice about how this is put together?”
Another interesting direction to take in exploring anime is its situation as a Japanese text. Lamarre situates the Japanese anime film in a modern cultural space of constant movement. This is an oversimplification, but it starts with the moving individual. We consume text on trains, for instance – a traditional and powerful metaphor for film – and we consume text quickly. Short manga magazines, web comic and phone article reading, television shows both on our phone or at home, all kinds of texts we consume either on the move or in brief periods of stasis. The texts themselves move too, as manga magazines become anime television shows, and those shows become movies that engage in different ways with the manga, and then the fan-generated manga and short videos engage with those forms: it is difficult to find a stable, canonical text. Instead of pinning anime down, Lamarre argues this is the fundamental condition of film, and we should explore how it moves (xx).
Animism and Objectification
Karen Beckman’s introduction to
gives a number of interesting approaches to studying anime. One of her first insights is that in anime everything is alive. There is a connection between life and movement. In studying anime, it’s important to look for life where you least expect it. There’s always a tendency to make inanimate objects human both in overt and inconspicuous ways. Being animated, however, these lives are non-threatening, and a reverse effect happens with living things: because they are drawn, they aren’t as lively. They have less life for being represented in moving drawings. They aren’t “real” people, so there is less emotional attachment when they are hurt or injured, giving violence in anime a kind of slapstick quality (Beckman 4-5). Anime works to counter this through the narrative, giving added vitality to the characters it cares about by giving them a compelling story.
Utopia and Dystopia
Animation allows for the transformation and creation of our ideals and our ideal worlds. “Taken as a document of utopian thinking, animation shows a nature that is reformulated according to imagination and social prompts from a world that could one day and in some form be ours” (Leslie 30). The freedom of the anime filmmaker allows them to create new forms easily, and because of this anime often engages with fantasy scenarios. Just as anime worlds are molded, made perfect or destroyed, so too are characters: anime often engages with hybrid creatures (Leslie 31). Not only are people combined with animals, animals combined with animals, and fantastic monsters created, but there are also human-machine hybrids (there is often a biological link between human and the “mech” fighting machines they control, such as in
.) and humans take on magical or spiritual powers as well.
Ways of Looking at
is both story and poem, and its formal aspects deserve attention. Just as students look at an anime scene for its structure, form, and movement, so too should they examine Homer’s writing. The first and most concrete thing students will notice is how Homer describes important moments through extended simile. The poetry has a rhythm that moves it quickly through the story, but at times Homer pauses to dwell on a specific image, and this is the equivalent for the students of an important cinematic pause. Examining form is made even more appropriate since Homer’s use of figurative language draws attention to itself, and it allows for the easily discussed question, “Why
Homer also uses the plot to draw attention to the act of storytelling. The opening invocation of the muse sets the tone for the story as one that will rely on the divine to convey itself with accuracy and beauty. Odysseus constantly engages with story telling, and he is aware of the importance of his own narrative. This draws attention to the frame of the narrative, and it allows for an interesting transfer to the study of anime. The students can question who is telling the story, and how they are receiving the story, and what difference that makes in their understanding of the narrative.
This text lends itself well to the themes portrayed in many of the most popular anime series, where a single group of people — and among them a hero — must stand against impossible odds. The anime I’ve researched so far also tend to portray external conflict as a reflection of the protagonist’s inner state, and when the main conflict is resolved the character also experiences a meaningful epiphany. Odysseus seems like he would fit right into this narrative structure. On the other hand, anime also has the potential to mirror themes in
, for instance the consequences of hubris, coming to terms with responsibility and mortality, the nature and rules of leadership, and many other themes important to young adults. I would abridge Homer’s work to focus on a linear telling of Odysseus’ journey, and we would focus on his character development and the heroic cycle. As we read, I would introduce anime selections from various series that portray similar scenes, problems, or ideas in