Akira & Japan (chapter 3: Literature review & methodology)

Chapter Three

Literature review & methodology

In fact, I found Japanese fantasy to be very serious stuff, exploring issues such as the dark side of modernization, the increasing tension between the sexes, and the nightmare of technological apocalypse, in ways that were often much more vivid and memorable than anything in ‘serious’ fiction.

–   Susan J. Napier [Professor of Japanese literature and culture; http://inic.utexas.edu%5D

Outside of Japan, in English speaking countries, there are few studies on anime and manga.  The academic literature on the medium and its derived meanings are sparse, compared to the attention paid on conventional cinema or literature for example, but what serious literature there is on the topic of anime is full of valuable information and insight, albeit from a non-Japanese point of view, as the following literature review will hopefully show.

The literature focused on in this chapter will be grouped into two sections, one for film theory, and one for anime specifically, as these two areas will be prevalent to my study, and grouping them apart will make it easier to understand what literature from each section makes a significant contribution to its specified field.


Alan McKee’s Textual Analysis: A Beginners Guide (2003) is a good starting point to base the literature review off of.  As I will be undertaking a textual analysis of various anime to come to various conclusions, it would be wise to acknowledge the concepts involved in my methodology, and such concepts are touched upon by McKee as he explains to the reader what textual analysis means, the ways in which we perform textual analysis and how we ‘make an educated guess at some of the most likely interpretations that might be made of that text’ (McKee 2003: 1).  His most important comment in the early chapters is the understanding that there is not necessarily a ‘correct’ manner to obtain a ‘truth’ from a text, ‘different methodologies will produce different kinds of information, even if they are used for analysing similar questions’ (McKee 2003: 2).

More relevant to my own attempts at textual analysis is McKee’s comments on interpretation and cultures, considering that I am tackling a media text from a country different to the one I live in, it is important to understand that different cultures make sense of the world in very different ways (McKee 2003: 4).  He lists three different responses to judging how other cultures see the world, realist, structuralist, and post-structuralist, I see my own analysis falling into the group of structuralist, which McKee defines as:

All these cultures seem to be making sense of the world differently; but really, underneath, they have common structures.  They’re not all that different; people across the world are basically the same. (McKee 2003: 9)

Whether this is true or not will be up for debate, it is a question of subjectivity versus objectivity, though McKee goes along with the thought that everything is subjective, ‘every description of a text is an interpretation’ (McKee (2003: 64), and uses an example of a European and an indigenous Australian (Warlpiri) observing the same text and gaining different meanings from it, warning that:

‘If you don’t know those texts, and instead interpret the Warlpiri videos through your knowledge of Western entertainment videos then they appear to be completely different texts – empty of possible meaning’

McKee arrives to his important point:  That you must know the context of a text, and not just apply your own description of it, ‘in short – don’t just describe elements of a text.  Textual analysis is not just textual description’ (McKee 2003: 66).

I will be attempting to treat Japanese anime and its representations of reality, or more specifically the relationship between Japan and technology, in the same way film theorists treat western films in their film studies.  The reason for this is that I see anime as falling under the category of film text, for reasons of form and content, in that film and anime share the same traits and qualities.  My methodology will be to analyse genre and image representation, which the next two books cover.

Nick Lacey’s Image & Representation (1998) and Narrative & Genre (2000) cover the themes of my methodology that I will apply to anime.

Image & Representation begins with a basic model to read a text by, using Roman Jackobson’s model for analysing speech, Lacey applies it to images, breaking down the act of communication into six factors:

  • The addressor  [i.e. – anime, or anime director]
  • The addressee  [i.e. – me, or the viewer]
  • Context  [i.e. – Japanese society, history or culture]
  • Message  [i.e. – content of anime, the story]
  • Contact  [i.e. – visual communication]
  • Code  [i.e. – derived meanings, connotations]

This can be applied to my methodology as I analyse anime, it covers all the areas of image analysis, understanding the meaning of a text.  Lacey builds on the model throughout the book citing Barthes, Saussure, developing Jackobson’s table further, and exploring other facets of analysis, looking at the importance of connotation, codes as objects or symbols that have a consensual meaning, the mise-en-scene of film scenes, ‘assuming everything in the picture has been put there for a reason’ (Lacey 1998: 20), and it leads to his point that to decipher a code, the context is essential (Lacy 1998: 24).  This is key to my dissertation, the importance of context to my studies, the meanings derived from specific sci-fi anime have to be read in light of recent Japanese history, taken alone they could be considered random ideas thrown on a storyboard, but decoded while examining the social background at the time of filming, more meanings can be discovered.

Lacy’s Narrative & Genre defines the concepts in its title.  Importance is stressed on logical structure in narrative (Tzvetan Todorov and Vladimir Propp are cited for their causal framework for narrative), and identifying genre defined as a ‘ready-made framework with which to understand the text’ (Lacy 2000: 10).  It is genre that concerns me more in this reading, as I will be studying anime from sci-fi in particular.  The chapters on genre and conventions detail in simple terms the concepts that will pop up in my textual analysis, such factors as setting, iconography and themes will need to be addressed, tying in the Japanese anime sci-fi genre to its western counterpart and observing any contrasts will be useful to my decoding of the text.  Lacy comments shrewdly; ‘the fact a genre is popular is likely to suggest something about society at the time of this popularity just as…certain themes predominate in different eras’ (Lacy 2000: 168), although recognising the difficulty in deriving any information from media texts about society, Lacy also recognises that it is easy to fall into the trap of drawing trite conclusions, but there is still some worth in speculating what the relationship between media and society is (Lacy 2000: 168).


Of the various studies in the English language of anime and manga, there are only a few selected for substantial review under this section.  This is because the majority of books and articles in the media (most notably British and American) tend to only scratch the surface of anime and concentrate on more trivial aspects or are part of an attempt to defend the mediums of anime and manga against stereotyping by western media by showing them in a more positive light.  A quick glance on amazon.com will show books such as How to Draw Anime & Game Characters (Ozawa, 2001), or The Anime Encyclopaedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 (Clements & McCarthy, 2001), that pop up as some of the first results of a search for anime related books; these type of books provide fans of the medium or people new to anime, a way of breaking them into the world of Japanese animation or giving them statistical knowledge.  There is an attempt to teach western viewers some of the meanings behind anime conventions, books like The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation (Poitras, 1999) attempt to decode Japanese mannerisms and cultural quirks for the western reader, but none of these books, or articles that resemble them, contribute to the understanding of anime at the level I would like to pursue, they do not analyse the medium at a significant textual level.

The following books and articles do successfully immerse themselves into a textual study of the medium, in a sense raising anime and manga from mere ‘cartoons’ and ‘comics’ of ‘popular’ culture to the lofty heights of ‘high’ culture, through analysis of genre and narrative they look at the relationship of anime and events occurring in reality, such as the impact of modernization and technology on Japan, and come to various conclusions which I will critically evaluate.  Importantly, they were all written within the last ten years which is a period that I will be concentrating on, in anime and Japanese history, tying in the themes of technology.

Professor Susan J. Napier teaches in the United States, at the University of Texas, Austin.  She is the leading western academic voice on Japanese animation, and has written many articles concerning anime and Japan, and in particular two books that delve into these topics more deeply.  The first of these is The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (Napier, 1996), a book focused more on novels and film, in Japan, than anime in particular.  The book description explains:

Modern Japan’s repressed anxieties, fears and hopes come to the surface in the fantastic.  A close analysis of fantasy fiction, film and comics reveals the ambivalence felt by many Japanese toward the success story of the nation in the twentieth century. (Napier 1996)

Napier begins her study of Japan’s repressed thoughts in media form, by looking at an early Japanese writer by the name of Natsume Soseki, who’s fantasy story Yume Juya (1908) translated as Ten Nights of Dream, seems to be yearning for a purer, richer past, which was disappearing in the midst of the Meiji Restoration period (Napier, 1996: 1), and it is this feeling of modern anxiety that Napier examines in this book, that is reflected in Japanese fantasy, and is also according to her, ‘highly culturally specific to modern Japan’ (Napier, 1996: 2).  She does not provide adequate evidence for this, though it may have bogged down her studies if she had, it is however clear in such successful anime, such as Miyazaki’s mentioned in the previous chapter, that there is a form of retro nostalgia displayed, especially in the sci-fi genre (see also: Metropolis (2001) written in manga form by Osamu Tezuka, adaptated to the screen by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, and directed by Rintaro).

Napier then looks at western fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to observe representations of futuristic Japan, though it should be asked whether the citing of western media is merely used as a frame of reference for the reader or if Napier believes the Japanese are subconsciously led by the west in the genre of sci-fi.  Both sides are influenced from each other regularly, though only the west views Japan as something exotic and strange, whereas it would be hard to find any representation of America in Japanese science fiction.  The cities in anime and manga are either Japanese, fictional or nameless.

Napier surmises in the beginning of her first chapter that the Japanese eagerly embraced the science fiction genre, and have continually used it to create scenarios of their future, and they have for the most part been bleak, ‘dystopian visions of technology run amok and social and psychological collapse have been a consistent thread’ (Napier, 1996: 3).  She then uses her first (and most used) anime example, Akira, to highlight this; shrewdly observing that soon after the dystopic epic was released, Japan’s economic success story came to an abrupt end and the country was in a recession.  Akira had become a major cult hit worldwide, its themes and portrayal of a future that could be appearing at any moment had touched a cord with the post modern public, or as Napier would say ‘due both to its exuberant post-modern celebrations of vivid metamorphosis and its remarkably well-realised vision of a grim twenty-first century Japan’ (Napier, 1996: 4).

The majority of the book is focused on explaining the definition and examples of the ‘fantastic’, how it is reflected and manifested by various different authors, artists and filmmakers, and how the Japanese contradictorily utilize it to comment on reality, citing such prolific writers as Haruki Murakami alongside manga artists such as Katsuhiro Ôtomo, this is one of the strengths of this book.  The fantastic as Napier investigates, may not be as clear cut as the more popular perception of it, i.e. – David Hartwell’s definition that ‘fantasy promises escape from reality’ (Napier, 1996: 6), but more in line with Rosemary Jackson’s thought that the ‘fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture, that which is silenced, made invisible, covered over and made absent’, or as Napier surmises, a ‘literature of subversion’ (Napier, 1996: 8).  It is Napier’s view that the fantasy genre has explored Japan’s experience with modernity in the most evocative manner, which gives more credence to my dissertation being focused on the sci-fi genre (and all of its fantastic creations) of anime released within the last decade or so.  Napier’s intention of holding up manga and anime to the same criteria as novels or films when critiquing them is unique from an academic in the west, and after the publication of this book other writers began to do the same.

Brian Ruh followed Napier’s lead (incidentally Napier was his mentor while he studied in university), by publishing his auteur study of Mamoru Oshii; Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii.  Published in 2004 the book was a rare addition to the academic field of the study of anime, concentrating on one director and his works of anime and live action films.  Oshii himself directed the anime adaptation of the seminal cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell, written/drawn by Masamune Shirow, an anime as popular as Akira, not least for rejuvenating the interest in Japanese animation in the west, so much that popular American director James Cameron, known for his blockbuster sci-fi films, called it ‘a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence’ (sci-fi.com).

The question is whether anime and manga are valid forms of art to be examined in this manner, Napier and Ruh consistently treat them as such, their popularity worldwide is rarely used as an excuse, it is due more to the way they are constructed, the way they are respected by the people behind anime and manga, and the people who consume them as media in Japan, the country they are created in and aimed for.  Anime itself can be read as a film text, and any critic can find worthwhile meaning derived from them, the same as they could find meaning in a Hollywood film, the only difference is that one is animated, the other is live action.

Napier’s investigation of the fantastic is convincing and contributes to the area I want to pursue by linking Japanese fiction to commentary on real life events, most notably the relationship between Japan and technology, especially when she concentrates on Akira in the latter half of her book, and its representations of a dystopic society in Japan.

Napier builds substantially on her 1996 book and its brief encounter with Akira and dystopic visions, with her next book Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke.  By concentrating solely on anime and providing a detailed textual analysis, geared towards genre and narrative, she explores the links in the relationship between anime and Japan’s experience with technology, or to be more specific Japan’s experience with modernity.

Her hypothesis also leads her to discover the derived meanings behind the way the Japanese portray the body in anime, and not just in romantic comedies as she also focuses on, in relation to gender issues, but also in sci-fi (grouped into the ‘fantastic’ in her last study), once again returning to Akira for examples of metamorphosis and identity.

Conclusion & Methodology

My methodology is based around a textual analysis that factors in genre and image representation, after studying various literature that revolves around the same subject as the one I am undertaking, my method of analysis can be best broken up into four aspects, that are summed up by McKee:

  • Other texts in the series.
  • The genre of the text.
  • Intertexts about the text itself.
  • The wider public context in which a text is circulated.  (McKee 2003: 93)

My methodology takes into account the four point guide of incorporating relevant texts by applying it to anime.  By recognising the traits of the sci-fi genre, referring to other anime and literature in my analysis and taking into account the context with which the anime is imbedded in, I hope to contribute to the field of anime study in my analysis and subsequent observations of the likely interpretations of my chosen text.

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