Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine

Kathryn Dunlap
University of Central Florida

Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 424 pp. $24.95 (978-0-8166-5155-9)

[1] In The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Thomas Lamarre proposes a valuable media theory of anime that explores the technology of anime production and its representations of a 3-dimensional world through the manipulation of celluloid layers. He also discusses the relationships that anime foregrounds between men, technology, sexuality and cultural consumption as he critiques psychoanalytic profiles of the otaku from Japanese scholars Tamaki Saito and Hiroki Azuma. While Lamarre's substantial volume covers an expansive amount of Japanese animation history and delves into critical analysis of anime narratives and characters, the primary themes of this book emerge from his examination of the images of anime. The overall structure of The Anime Machine moves from the technology that creates anime images and how that technology shaped the aesthetics of the medium, to the otaku culture that began to closely dissect those images after the spread of videocassettes, to the analysis of the figure of the otaku though the consumed images.

[2] The "machine" of the title performs on multiple levels, referring simultaneously to the literal "anime machine" called the multiplane camera that shaped the medium, to how anime view and create technology. Lamarre also refers briefly to the machinery of the studios and corporations invested in the manufacture of anime, the manufacture of the anime fan, the otaku, and, in some way, to Japan itself as the origin of the globally popular entertainment form. These different meanings might all be suggested, but the primary focus on the multiplane camera and the development of otaku psychology leads to a detailed book that feels almost too comprehensive, like two separate books bound together. The stronger section, the discussion of the development of the genre through media constraints, containing one of the more broadly applicable concepts – the complex interplay of cinematic and "animetic" conventions – also requires the most familiarity with the anime genre. While The Anime Machine would be difficult for those with limited exposure to anime and anime culture, the payoff is an insightful media theory that links the limitations imposed by the technology of animation stands and celluloid to the development of conventions within anime form and narrative. It then relates those conventions to uniquely "animetic" views of technology, which can be turned as a lens by which to view the cultural consumers of anime.

[3] Like any book that focuses on specialized cultural practices and artifacts, the theory embedded in The Anime Machine is most easily unwrapped by those with a certain level of familiarity with anime. Terms like otaku – obsessive fans, typically male – are important concepts used to support Lamarre's claims. As a knowledgeable author dealing with concepts that are very often completely unfamiliar, Lamarre takes great care to explain these to his readers, but explained familiarity can only take one so far, as demonstrated by the example of otaku. Lamarre does explain the origin of the word otaku from the root taku, meaning a household, which became a self-ascribed term used by homebody anime fans and the studio Gainax's satirical Otaku no Video (Video of Otaku), which interspersed an anime story of a young man becoming increasingly obsessed with anime with short scenes of "mockumentary" interviews with supposedly real otaku and their unsavory hobbies. He also covers the pathologization of "otaku," the tragedy of the "The Otaku Murderer" who killed 4 young girls, the following public outcry and the subsequent attempts at reclaiming the term and the popularization of the new image of the harmless and childlike otaku as portrayed in the wildly successful Densha Otoko (Train Man) series.

[4] The level of contextualization and explanation Lamarre delves into is extraordinary and should certainly allow even those entirely unfamiliar with anime, its history, context and content to understand all of the references in this book. When he begins to use the term otaku to refer to both a solitary housebound figure and to one that only gains identity from inclusion in a family group and association with a specific location at the same time, however, the nuances of his argument can become muddy to the uninitiated. The book is also much easier to understand after watching Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, Hideaki Anno's Nadia and CLAMP's Chobits as these are the anime sources from which the book derives most of its significant points. Lamarre's vivid descriptions and the use of screen captures throughout the book make it unessential more often than not, but several of the effects of motion and animation that he describes are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to understand without a strong mental image of what these series look like in motion.

[5] Lamarre argues that the style of anime imposed by the relatively low-tech productions means of drawing, celluloid and the animation camera, that he calls animetics, are held in contrast to the aesthetics of the cinematic. Lamarre does not suggest that animetics and cinematics are in direct conflict, but he does say that they are different stylistic moves that can appear to greater or lesser degrees in various media. While the feeling of depth and movement is created in cinematic style by means of a ballistic trajectory moving into the depth of a shot that forces the traditional Cartesian perspective as the objective stance, the depth in animetic style is simulated by way of the multiplanar image, which challenges Cartesian principles. Lamarre describes how the stylistic choices of color tone and drawing detail and the movement of background, mid-ground and foreground layers create a sense of space between the layers that simulates depth, in contrast to the vanishing point perspective of cinema. He uses the concept of looking from the front of a moving train (cinematic) versus looking out the side window (animetic) to illustrate the contrast between these two style perspectives. He discusses the multiplane camera, invented by Walt Disney, and how it was used by Miyazaki to create the rich and detailed animation of Castle in the Sky and other films that helped to influence the anime style based on the limitations and possibilities of the technology. This has a decisive impact on not only the study of anime, but the study of traditional animation, and the new challenges of computer images and 3D film.

[6] The television series Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, directed by Hideaki Anno and the studio Gainax is also used to discuss the multiplane image, but it is also where Lamarre really starts to investigate how anime begins to view technology. Technology exists simultaneously on multiple layers of anime, in something that Lamarre calls "Exploded View," which is also the name of the second section of the book—the first being "Multiplanar Image" and the last "Girl Computerized." There is a long history in anime of very sophisticated, detailed images of technology appearing alongside highly stylized characters. The popularity of the Gundam franchise, for example, is dependent on the critical and techno-obsessed position that fans take to the giant robotic suits of armor from which the franchise takes its name. This close, detailed view of technology, along with the growing popularity of videocassettes, leads to a new form of connoisseurship among anime otaku, where the minutia of the technical production of the anime becomes as important as narrative and character development. This "exploded view" often is reflected by the heavy merchandizing that accompanies popular series and the subsequent fanaticism of the collectors, like the gunpura (Gundam Plastic Model) hobbyists who build plastic miniatures of these fantastic robotic suits.

[7] This shift of focus from narrative to the technical details of animation has again shifted to character, but not in the typical sense of character development or personality. In a later chapter called "The Spiral Dance of Symptom and Specter," Lamarre introduces the concept of moe as a growing symptom of the images of women, or girls, in otaku culture. He discusses the observation of the Japanese scholar Hiroki Azuma, who connects moe to specific elements of character design, such as animal ears and maid or nurse outfits, as characteristic of the postmodern otaku. Azuma suggests that these characters elements are structured much like a database, with these elements interchangeable and completely independent from the base character, making otaku easily swayed and manipulated by a simple randomized function. This discussion of moe, while not a huge element of the book, is important to note because of the recent explosion of so-called moe anime based entirely on this idea of independently interchangeable features of characters. Lamarre acknowledges the importance of studying moe elements, but expresses concern that this continued focus of both Azuma and the Lacanian otaku scholar Tamaki Saito on the anime female as persistent symptom of male otaku sexuality only leads to the continued hystericization of female figures in anime as a symptom of the male viewer's desire for a consistent ontology (262).

[8] The role of female character in anime is a pervasive theme in The Anime Machine, from the role of the "girl god" in both Castle in the Sky and Nadia and her relationship to the technologies of communication, to the figure of Chii, a female robot character from CLAMP's Chobits. Her role, as Lamarre describes it, is as a sexual fetish object for the main character as he contents himself with a life that is highly sexual and masturbatory, but perpetually without sex. Lamarre is continually looking at the role of the female figure in anime in relationship to the male otaku gaze. He seems to perpetuate the role of female as subject of male gaze, but is also aware of this problem and suggests that his continued theorizing is troubling this paradigm as described by Laura Mulvey. This does little, however to alter the essential fact that the active viewer in Lamarre's book is male, while the viewed is female. Female viewers, while outside the scope of his theorizing, are seldom mentioned.

[9] Jasper Sharp, a British media writer who focuses on Japanese cinema, discusses James Cameron's film Avatar in relation to the first few chapters of The Anime Machine in a post dated December 2009 on his blog. Sharp notes Lamarre's point about how the aesthetics of anime have been fundamentally shaped by the technology that created them and can be similarly read into 3D films. The emphasis on 3D worlds, in films like Avatar, contributes little to furthering either the cinematic or the animetic aesthetic in terms of style and content. To me it seems that the concepts of multiplanar image, exploded view and their created subject positions could shed vital light onto our understanding and interpretation of 3D films, particularly as we consider how 3D technologies should make movies work for us, the subjective viewer position. The Anime Machine is an excellent book and demonstrates clearly that the "frame" and "shot" of anime can never really be understood within the current conventions of cinematic film review, and thus, the need for developing the concept of the animetic.