Q&A with Thomas Lamarre: How does anime speak to the world?

This week’s Q&A is with Thomas Lamarre, professor of East Asian studies, art history, and communications studies at McGill University and author of The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (November 2009).

Q: How does anime speak to the world?

A: Former Prime Minister Asô Tarô’s appointment of the beloved manga and anime character Doraemon to the position of Anime Ambassador in March 2008 made it seem that anime (and manga) speak the language of diplomacy. Anime appeared to offer Japan a way to speak to the world persuasively and even authoritatively but softly, gently, diplomatically. Anime appears as ‘soft power.’ While there has been much criticism of Asô’s constant evocation of manga and anime at the level of national and international policy, it seems to me that Asô’s gesture does not only reflect his personal tastes and neoliberal opportunism (building on the widespread popularity of Japanese pop culture or the contents industry) but also tells us something about anime.

Q: What is it about anime that allows its characters to become ambassadors?

A: This is the sort of question that interested me in writing about Japanese animation. It seemed to me that there is something about anime that encourages characters to break the frame of the entertainment and to leap into action, not only as diplomat, but also as companion, mediator, co-worker. I became interested in animation as a force, as a material impetus. It seemed to me that we cannot really grapple with what’s going on with anime in contemporary culture and politics without some understanding of anime. And it seemed to me that, as point of departure, cinema afforded a fine contrast, because so much has been written on the dynamics of moving image in the context of cinema.

Discussions of film have tended to call attention to the connections between images, both connections between frames and connections across larger units (sequences and takes). Such connections have been understood technically (continuity editing, eye-line matches, montage, etc.) and immaterially or subjectively (suture). Yet animations commonly work with movement and image at a different level. Animations are, like films, moving images, and yet animation procedures have tended historically to gravitate toward connections within the image first, and then to sort out connections across images second.

There are many consequences of this tendency of animation, which I discuss in detail in my book, with particular emphasis on the consequences for thinking technology. One important consequence is the tendency, prevalent in those forms of limited animation loosely called anime, to work with a multi-layered or multiplanar image, to unmoor the character from its background, to loosen the ties between character and world, while channeling the force of the moving image into the character.

Seen in this way, anime effects such as Ambassador Doraemon are not so surprising. Nor is it surprising that even though the current Prime Minister of Japan Hatoyama Yukio has reneged on some of Asô’s anime-related policies, Hatoyama has nonetheless appeared in the magazine Otaku Eriito (Otaku Elite), and his vision of Japanese power in the region refers constantly to multi-layered networks, offering an anime-like information imaginary. There are powerful discourses at work here, such as that of Japan as the knowledge base for development in greater East Asia (see his address in Singapore, November 15, 2009). Yet, as the image of Hatoyama among otaku elite suggests, there is also a material impetus that comes into play, a force of the moving image that exceeds these discursive articulations, which announces a new set of critical possibilities for thinking about Japan and the world today. This is one site where new ethics and politics are arising today, outside the frame of government policy.

-Click for details about The Anime Machine, including its table of contents. You can also find out more about author Thomas Lamarre here.

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