Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: I am writing a paper on anime for my high school/college/ institution of higher learning class. Can I interview you for an hour sometime tomorrow? The paper is due really soon!
A: Sorry, no. If I responded to all these requests I would never get anything else done. Instead, I suggest you read on where I hope I will have answered most of your questions.
Q: Where did you first read about anime? Were there books on the subject that were useful to you as you entered the field?
A: There were no books on anime when I started research. I wrote the first scholarly book on the subject.
Q. How did you first get interested in anime?
A. I had always loved cartoons when I was little, especially Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I was also a huge comic book fan, everything from Archie to The Legion of Superheroes. But I more or less forgot these interests until one day in 1988 when a student showed me the first volume of Akira by Otomo Katsuhiro. I was amazed at both the dark storyline and the compelling artwork—I particularly remember being struck by the picture of the immense black crater that is Otomo’s vision of a post-WWIII Tokyo. The next year I moved to England where I happened to go to the premier of the animated film version of Akira. I walked out of the theater completely blown away. I knew that it was a cartoon like nothing that I had never every seen before—visceral, intense, heady and grotesque (I almost had to hide under my seat during the last twenty minutes of the film when Tetsuo transmogrifies).
Q. How did you happen to write a book about anime?
A. Actually, I had just finished writing a book about fantasy (see the link) and didn’t really want to write another one immediately. But I gave a paper on Akira at the first ever Japanese popular culture conference, held at Berkeley in 1989 and my colleagues urged me to write it up as article. I did and waited around for someone else to write a book on this exciting new subject (anime) but nobody did. Many people in the field were puzzled, disgusted, or just plain weirded out by this strange new medium which seemed to show a very different side of Japan than traditional Japanese aesthetics. So I finally decided to write a book on anime myself. I believe it was the first scholarly book to have been written on anime in English and it is still selling well to this day.
Q. What is your book about?
A. I’m not going to tell you too much because you can easily buy a copy of it or even find it in the library. (The “library” is that large place on campus or in your school where there are many books that you can take out for free just by having a “library card.” Very cool).
Basically, when I started researching the book I was confronted by a whole mass of animated material –movies and television shows of a dazzling variety, from children’s fantasy to demonic pornography. I tell people it was like trying to write the first book on Hollywood cinema. So, after having spent a LOT of time viewing all kinds of anime, I finally divided it into three major categories—the apocalyptic, the elegiac and the carnival-esque. Often these categories overlap. For example, Grave of Fireflies is primarily elegiac but also somewhat apocalyptic, while Akira is both apocalyptic and carnival-esque. But these over-arching categories helped me put together a lot of disparate material and so far nobody has really disagreed with me.
Q: What is the difference between the first edition and the second edition of your book?
A: I added a new introduction and two new chapters, one on the shoujo (young girl) in anime and one on masculinity in anime.
Q: What are your favorite anime?
A: That is a really tough question because I like so many of them (obviously). Lately, I’ve been really into Mushishi , for example. But overall I tend to go for what I call the classics—Spirited Away, Ghost in the Shell, Totoro, Millennium Actress, Evangelion and Akira (which still holds up remarkably well!). Perhaps my most surprising favorite is Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer which, in my opinion combines the best of Takahashi Rumiko and Oshii Mamoru to create one of the most haunting and mind-bending movies I’ve ever seen. (But it probably helps if you’re familiar with both Takahashi and Oshii)
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I am currently writing a study of the films of Miyazaki Hayao, tentatively entitled The Haunted Sky: Hayao Miyazaki and the Uses of Enchantment. I am also gradually gathering material for my next book after that which will be on the British Fantasy tradition. In my blog for The Huffington Post I like to write on all the different things that interest me, which range from football to apocalypse.
Q. When will the Miyazaki book be out?
A. At least a couple more years as I am trying to read everything that has been written about him in Japanese—quite a slog! In the meantime I recommend Helen McCarthy’s wonderful book on Miyazaki.
Q. What books do you recommend about anime?
A. First, go to my Anime books and look at the “Works Consulted” section. More recent books I can recommend are Thomas Lamarre The Anime Machine and Alan Cholodenko’s The Illusion of Life II. These are both rich but EXTREMELY theoretical books. I also highly recommend the journal Mechadamia, published out of University of Minnesota, which is an extremely rich resource for articles on Japanese popular culture, including anime and manga. I also recommend The Soul of Anime by Ion Condry.
Q. In your opinion what is the future of anime?
This is a tough question. People always talk about a “golden age” that came before whatever period we are now in, and my particular “golden age” was probably around the early twenty first century. This is when Studio Ghibli was producing Spirited Away, the late Satoshi Kon was creating Millennium Actress and Paprika , Mamoru Hosoda gave us The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha was a mega-hit. Anime’s future seemed very bright indeed. Now things are more complicated. The loss of Kon was devastating as he seemed to be getting better and better. Miyazaki, the head of Studio Ghibli, keeps threatening to retire and nobody can blame him for wanting to rest on his laurels but when and if he does retire he will be sorely missed. On the other hand Hosoda is still producing exciting stuff and Hiromasa Yonebayashi did a superb job with Studio Ghibli’s Arietty. I’ve already mentioned Mushishi (and also recommend Otomo’s live action version), and I’ve found Madoka Magica to be extremely interesting, albeit quite disturbing.
Part of this question of anime’s future revolves around economics. Working in anime studios is a time consuming and often low paying job, given the number of hours. You risk burn out and serial unemployment if you are a young, would-be animator. And the Japanese economy has been lackluster for decades now. The Japanese government is doing more these days to try and promote anime but that can be a two-edged sword—government funding does not guarantee a quality product. There’s also the question of the target audience. Many of us are concerned that anime is going in a niche direction and trying to appeal too much to otaku. But then someone will come up to me after a lecture and tell me how much a recent series had meant to them or how much their daughter loves Totoro. So I believe that the overall audience remains robust and wide ranging.
I guess my feeling is that anime in one form or another (films, video games, television series, internet streaming) will be around for a good long time and that there will always be wonderful animated works, simply because the Japanese remain a creative, artistic and imaginative people (see below). But another golden age? As we say in Japanese, “Saa….”
Q. Why do you think anime appeals to people around the world? After all, it’s a very “Japanese” product, isn’t it?
A. I’ve answered this question on many occasions and in my articles and books but here goes once again… Anime and manga are popular because they are not only highly entertaining but they can also be instructive, moving, complex and powerful. Anime occupies a far larger emotional space than most American cartoons, dealing with adult themes like death, apocalypse, utopias and dystopias. While, as with any art form, you can find a lot of duds, the best of Japanese animation is on a par with good literature, film, theater or art.
On recent visit to New York, I saw two brilliant shows of Japanese art, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one at the Japan Society. I was reminded once again how extraordinary the Japanese visual tradition is starting with medieval picture scrolls, extending to screens and woodblock prints, and ending up with manga and anime.
But it is not only the visual artistic tradition that is behind the brilliance of Japanese animation. I started out as a scholar of Japanese literature and I still teach and love Japanese poetry, theater and fiction. I am in the midst of planning a course for next year on the great tenth century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji. Rereading Genji I was struck by how psychologically acute and emotionally subtle Japanese literature has always been. I think this is what really separates Japanese animation from that of other countries: the incredible psychological complexity and believability of the characters. So many times I have heard fans tell me that anime characters are “real” to them and I think this is a primary reason why Japanese animation is so universally popular.
Q. I went to that place you recommended me—you know, the one with all the books? (I think it begins with an “L”). Unfortunately your book wasn’t available. You must have some old copies lying around. Can you send me one?
A. No, sorry. It would be impractical for me to keep an inventory. And the same for articles. Try “Interlibrary Loan” for books and learn to use Project Muse to get articles. Good luck!
Q. Can you come and give a talk at our university/college/institution of higher learning?
A. Honestly, it depends. But I have very little discretionary time available, so I think the chances are slim. There was a time when I was traveling twice a month and it was time consuming and draining. So I try to make life easier by being: a. choosy, and b. charging a lot of money for my talks.