Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Anime Theory Crash Course Summary

A quick overview of what was discussed during my Anime Theory panel at AnimeFest 2011.

Anime theory is a focus on themes and cultural identification in Japanese animations throughout their history. Because it’s considered a non-genre category, such as documentaries or silent films, having it mirror with traditional film study isn’t the best method. It has to be studied on its own. So to simply lump anime into specific genres in terms of study would be too easy. Anime theory has more definable focuses that make it a unique study. But because they deal with a lot of the commonalities with film, we can use pieces of film theory to process anime theory. Such as the auteur theory, formalist theory, and screen theory.

Anime history can be traced back to the Edo period and early manga, but the anime we know today first developed in the 1950’s and 60’s, post WWII. Anime theory began to develop into the themes we commonly see in the 1980’s. It is the mix of East meets West that really help anime stand out from other entertainment mediums. From here, we began to break down some of the common themes.

Why is anime obsessed with nature?

Nature can be attributed to cultural context. Childhood stories of animals with an emphasis on finding balance as well as teaching morals, where as Western fairy tales tended to focus on more black and white, good and evil. Anime also tends to be more up-front about their ties with nature in comparison to other mediums.

Post-apocalyptic and end of the world stories.

Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke, states that the apocalyptic mode is not just a part of anime, but also deeply ingrained within the contemporary Japanese national identity. Apocalyptic imagery tends to increase during times of social and cultural change, such as post WWII, thus it’s easy to see how it became a part of anime. For anime, end of the world disasters tend to focus more on the after-math and how will humanity continue, not so much the spectacle of the event as those in the West (think Armageddon or Deep Impact). In many ways this ties in to Buddhism and Shintoism teachings. We could also argue that Japan’s size and location contribute to apocalypse stories, being a series of islands, on the ring of fire, and susceptible to multiple natural disasters.

Is there another dimension to Pokémon other then animals squeaking their names?

Now trying to find “theory” in Pokemon is not easy. Even a Google search and book readings will give you pages about the Pokemon epileptic episode. For many people, Pokemon is viewed as a children’s oriented tv show about cute monsters that fight each other, but don’t really do anything violent. And I won’t argue that it’s not, because clearly that’s the target audience.

But Pokemon does apply the theme of nature quite heavily both in the video games and in the anime. Towns are nothing more then towns. Pokemon trainers don’t destroy the environment to catch their Pokemon, and animals are treated in a humane way. Forests are lush, waters are plentiful, and it’s a lovely place to live.

There is also a very strong David and Goliath thread throughout Pokemon. Ash is a 10 year old, scrawny boy with small Pokemon who has to overcome these great obstacles. And what better message to kids and adults then to say “no matter what your size, if you work hard you can achieve your goals.” In many ways, this mimics Japan’s place in the world. A series of small islands, surrounded by large countries and a huge ocean, and yet they consistently do their best to top everyone and everything around them.

To relate these back to some of the film theory buzz words, Satoshi Tajiri who created Pokemon could be considered an auteur. He has used many of the same concepts of nature and friendship in his other video game projects such as Legend of Zelda and Yoshi.

Now I can’t explain why Pokemon squeak their names. I’m sure it would require a very deep psychological study beyond my brains comprehension. But I hope at least I have shown just a little at why Pokemon could be viewed as a viable entry into anime theory.

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