Review of Stevie Suan. Anime’s Identity: Performativity and Form Beyond Japan. United States, University of Minnesota Press, 2021.
Traditional scholarship on anime has left the identity of the media form as de facto Japanese, reducing a global industrial network into a simple diagram with Tokyo at its center. Thus, the concept of anime remains rooted in locality, linking that style of animation to Japan but within this simplistic paradigm lie myriad edge-cases and disconfirming evidence. This does not diminish the significance of the Japanese animation industry, rather, the author explores anime’s dynamic intercultural production process, culminating into a media form that at once affirms and escapes Japanese national identity. Just as anime is fabricated from distinct frames and layers, its identity as a product of national culture is constructed as Japan engages in nation-branding strategies through a web of globally distributed pop-cultural commodities, merchandise, spin-offs, fan-works, and so on.
As animation crosses borders, diffusing across a hyper-fragmented media landscape, the value of repeated gestures and tropes to signify a media form’s identity increases. Following the patterns that come to define a particular category of commercial medium requires sensitizing oneself to the performativity of the media form, bringing the complex global and local influences into focus. Rather than defining anime according to a fixed list of static qualities, the author coins the “anime-esque” to describe that elusive combination of design and narrative elements which evoke anime, such as spiky hair, large eyes, or switching from naturalistic to iconic facial expressions. This approach attends to the ways in which anime relates to itself across a vast history of influences, exploring the ways in which anime sculpts the infinitely malleable medium of animation into a metastable media identity. Each chapter of Anime’s Identity uses anime as concrete examples to explore the permutations within a franchise. This includes the introduction, which unravels the diverse material of the Macross (1982) franchise, functioning as landmarks along the ever-developing anime landscape.
The first chapter deconstructs the tension between transnational networks and the conceptually closed borders of the nation. Rather than one determining the other, external and internal forces are articulated between the local and the global, revealing their contradictions within the media form. The second chapter makes use of actor network theory, through the analysis of Shirobako (2014-2015), an anime about producing anime, to explore the human and non-human factors which determine what hits the market. The third chapter navigates between the poles of regionality and the transnational nature of the industry’s history. Chapter four explores anime as a type of performance that entails balancing a multitude of design elements and aesthetic codes while operating within a global network of industry and genre-specific references, tropes, and conventions. Chapter five further elaborates on this new conceptualization of creativity as generative repetition, evaluating anime produced outside of Japan without deriding it as inferior mimicry, appraising them as iterative performances representative of interwoven transcultural connections. Chapter six links the construction of anime to the fabrication of identity through repeated performances of tastes, knowledge, interests, and so on. The final two chapters circle back to the beginning of the book, as chapter seven considers the local-global forces as work in the sekaikei genre, growing from the internationally acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). As neoliberal rhetoric places increasing emphasis on the individual, this genre evolves to adapt to the crises of self-hood, dramatizing the tension between the ideals of the closed-off monad with the realities of existence as a social animal. Chapter eight considers the ways in which anime navigates contradictions between local places and the frictionless globalized spaces characteristic of transnational corporations. Anime that communicates the local character of a place likewise reveals the spatial dislocation at the heart of anime’s media form.
Anime’s Identity offers several useful terms and tools for unpacking the incongruities inherent in global media production, providing fans of animation a method for broadening their understanding of the media form. Grounding the reproduction of storytelling tropes within the market-oriented logic of the industry remains a rich avenue of exploration, into which the author carves a considerable niche. However, the subject matter does not restrict itself from more abstract theories related to the formation of identity and the self, relating the storytelling in anime to the performances one puts on every day. This is not to say that the author veers into the overly technical or semantic, expertly summarizing theories from the likes of Butler or Latour, while framing it within the anime industry. An expansive gallery of texts enters into this analysis, including manga, light novels, television series, and films. This book will be of particular interest to scholars of animation history and production. It would make an excellent addition to any film/television studies library, particularly with a bent towards Asian media, to contextualize the increasingly global nature of such an industry.
Colin Wheeler researches media industry discourse when he’s not working as a freelance animator in Atlanta. A doctoral candidate in Film, Media, and Theater at Georgia State University, he combines theoretical with practical knowledge to explore animation production practices. He likes writing about and making weird films and television.