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It's Saturday, which means time for book reviews! And since I just finished Ian Condry's new book The Soul of Anime a couple of weeks ago, here are some thoughts. Note: thoughts may be oriented towards my own personal usage. YMMV. RSVP. TTYL. Etc. ;)





Condry, Ian. The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Durham: Duke UP, 2013

Of all the academic books published recently, this is the closest to my own interests in its exploration of “collaborative creativity.” It's a nerve-wracking thing to buy a brand-new book on the topic you also writing a book on. It actually took me about a week after getting it to crack the cover because I was nervous about being "scooped." But in the end, I find Condry's work complimentary to my own without too much overlap, and I would recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about how anime is actually produced in Japan today.

Taking an ethnographic approach, Condry's book is based on fieldwork in anime studios, where he aimed to discover what kinds of energies motivate anime production. He was in on the making of works from Mamoru Hosoda's excellent feature film Summer Wars to the children's tv show Zenmai Zamurai, so he has a lot to say about how script meetings work, what the gender balance in the industry is, and what the working conditions for animators are like. He doesn't cover the technical aspects of animation so much, since that isn't his goal, but rather looks at the social dynamics of anime production. Towards the later chapters he also includes fans as active participants in the anime industry, and even devotes a whole chapter to guys who want to marry 2D characters. I find his fieldwork a little sparser here, as the 2D Waifu chapter seems to depend mainly on one male informant. That said, Condry admits that fieldwork is BLOODY HARD and he found it difficult to connect with some participants, especially across gender lines, something I understand from personal experience. It also means that there's still a gap in fan ethnography --and especially female fan cultures-- which I mean to fill! /shamelesspromotion

On the theoretical side, Condry argues that the “soul” of anime is not some inherent fixed essence, nor something determined by technology or the content of films and shows, but a social energy that connects producers and fans. His approach is overall quite positive and at times a bit too focused on celebratory “globalization from below” (214) discourses. But he refuses simplistic ideas of cultural “resonance” (similar to what Lamarre calls culturalism) between fixed entities of Japan and America, which is good. And better, he also cites Anna Tsing's work on "friction", and notes that “Despite their differences (or sometimes because of them), somehow different actors—their competing perspectives and individual ranges of power—collaborate to produce the world as it is today” (87). He is aware of the double meaning of "to collaborate" as to cooperate and to work with the enemy, but he is careful not to get caught in the “binary of oppression and liberation” (4). Anime production is not just a soulless exploitative industry nor a site of unfettered artistic freedom, but a negotiation between capitalist structures and individual agency. I totally agree with this, and find it heartening to see anime/fan studies going this way.

That said, Condry's book itself has been the source of some friction with the "general reader" sector, mainly because of this rather dismissive review on the Japan Times website. But really, all the review is saying is that academics shouldn't study pop culture, which is something cultural studies scholars got over, oh, about thirty years ago. I am well past the stage of trying to justify using ethnography (or for that matter, philosophy and literary close reading!) to talk about anime. So the "controversy" is a non-starter issue for me. It would be nice if the general public would be open-minded enough to read a fascinating study for what it is and not get hung up on the old "It's just CARTOONS, man!" hacksaw. But if people want to say that, I will quietly explain that no, really, we've been studying cartoons seriously for decades now. Then I'll trot out my WWII propaganda examples. Don't worry, I do this all the time. It's ok. And if you think Condry is a challenge, just try Lamarre!

Well, this is straying into rantland. So, just to wrap up, The Soul of Anime is worth the price of admission. It's not perfect (what book ever is?) but it is a valuable contribution to ethnographic studies of anime and a good jumping-off point for future works.

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