Anime as Fantastic History

[This is the text of a lightning talk I gave this week at an event organised by my colleague Dr Saeko Yazaki, ‘Thistle and Sakura: Glasgow-Japan networking event’, attended by Mr Nozomu Takaoka, the Consul General of Japan in Edinburgh.]

Journey to Agartha (2011), dir. Makoto Shinkai

My interest in anime is bound up with my interest in fantasy and the fantastic: the art of the impossible, books and films whose creators choose to turn away from mimetic realism to represent things that never existed and never could exist. Anime movies in particular interest me because they’re more immersive than TV shows, and can be more easily watched in my spare time. I’ve taught courses on anime, lectured on it at Masters level, and published a couple of essays on the genre.

Journey to Agartha (2011), dir. Makoto Shinkai

The question of what can or can’t exist is answered differently by different cultures, and by different individuals within each culture. Anime gives me the sense that Japan has more available gateways between what’s possible and what isn’t possible (such as the symbolic gateways of shrines) than the Western cultures that have embraced its art.

Letter to Mom (2011), dir. Hiroyuki Okiura

Animation makes the distinction between the real and the unreal, the material and the immaterial, a seamless one. You can transition from cityscape to dreamscape, from the near and familiar to the far and strange, without even noticing the moment of transition if nearly everything is drawn by hand.

Whisper of the Heart (1995), dir. Yoshifumi Kondō

Animation encourages us to think about the ways we affect and transform the things we imitate or dream up. The peculiarities of character drawing, for instance, lend a distinctive flavor to entire movies or TV series. Each frame in a well-made anime is carefully composed, and draws attention to that fact (pun intended).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), dir. Isao Takahata

I like to think of anime as a way of telling history. Thanks to its famous period of isolation, followed by an equally famous accelerated industrial revolution, Japan has gone through faster and greater changes than the Western cultures I know best. Japanese artists seem to me to have used anime to articulate the effect of these radical changes in radical new ways, through memorable stories and evocative images.

Princess Mononoke (1997), dir. Hayao Miyazaki

I’m also fascinated by the way anime collaborates with other art forms, especially literature. I’m interested in the way Western writing has been adapted to Japanese concerns in films like Panda Go Panda! (Pippi Longstocking), The Castle in the Sky (Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels), Tales from Earthsea (Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea sequence), Arrietty (The Borrowers), and Mary and the Witch’s Flower (The Little Broomstick). Anime’s intimate relationship to books and reading delights me; Whisper of the Heart, for instance, is about writing fantasy fiction, while Giovanni’s Island is about how a book helps two young boys endure terrible things.

Panda! Go Panda! (1972), dir. Isao Takahata

In terms of future plans, I’ve invited Jonathan Clements to give a talk here at the University of Glasgow to mark ten years of the Scotland Loves Anime Festival, perhaps the most important anime festival in the UK; that’s on the 10th October 2019. And I hope one day to write a book on anime, if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous coming from a scholar who hasn’t visited Japan and doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ll need a lot of help with it!

Patema Inverted (2013), dir. Yasuhiro Yoshiura