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William D. Routt (i)





AM writes:

Philip is keen to have a session on anime and other issues Japanese [for the World Cinema Now Conference held at Monash University, 27-29 September 2011] – and how he thinks its main currents are being overlooked in Western discourse. You wouldn't have to speak along those lines specifically, but could I tempt you to share a panel – just you and him – on contemporary anime, where you both get about 40 minutes to present/speak?


WR writes to AM:

As for the title/brief description [of my paper] … well, as you might expect, Philip and I have not actually talked or even corresponded. I have to think about a title, although the brief description will be easier (providing, of course, Philip isn't doing the exact same thing … I have a bit of my presentation planned in which I point out how I have been shadowing Philip since at least 1989 and that every time our paths have crossed I have ended up doing something that in effect has prepared me for this panel) …

Maybe you ought to forward what is below to Philip before rushing into print.

WR writes:
Anime Listening Drawing

I will endeavour to sketch out a way of understanding anime by sensing it as sound or music – that is, in listening of a sort – wilfully misunderstanding and misusing some ideas of Jean-Luc Nancy's in the process. This approach is intended to suggest that what anime does is only occasionally what ‘world cinema’ in general does, and also to indicate why I like the one and have pretty much given up on the other.

PB writes:

How Anime Fucks The World (And You With It)

‘The World’ in anime is far from being of such a grand scale. ‘The World’ in anime is infinitesimally immediate, close, connected. It is so near the pores of your skin, the slightest move it makes is amplified to a cosmically debilitating scale. This is why ‘the world’ ends again and again in anime. It ends because the planetary – and all its grand metaphors – is nothing compared to your connection with it. ‘World Cinema’ is an inverse construct: it claims to be of a world for those who think there is such a thing beyond them in the first place. Anime lives in a perpetual ground zero, where the world maybe happened once, but where its actuality is now and forever more the cyclical occurrence of not being allowed to happen again. And anime is very, very happy with that. (This talk will include a scene from FLCL.)


(i) Most of the written text of this piece was first presented at the World Cinema Now conference held in Melbourne, 27-29 September 2011. I had begun to prepare a slide show to (as I thought) accompany the paper but had not been able to implement it properly. When I put this version together I realised that the visuals were far from being an accompaniment, and were in fact integral to what I had written. I was writing pictures as well as words all the time, quoting them silently as I quoted Jean-Luc Nancy out loud; the visual-free conference presentation had betrayed the intended text. So what you read here is what I ought to have done … better than I would have done it then. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Adrian Martin for having arranged the panel at which I and Philip Brophy presented papers, and having urged me to persist in preparing a publishable version. Special thanks are also due to Philip, for reasons which will become apparent to the reader. Thanks also to Anna Dzenis, who is always going above and beyond the call of duty for her friends, to Judy Routt for listening and looking a lot, and to virtually everyone to whom I spoke and sometimes heard at the conference, and especially to Nicole Brenez, Elena Gorfinkel (and Béla Tarr), Vinzenz Hediger, and Meaghan Morris (and Cynthia Rothrock) and all those people I had not seen for such a long time (and, always, Diane).

My research for this paper began with a wonderful, and changing, list of the top anime by Mecha Guignol. That research has continued into the present at the Anime News Network Australian website:where Usagi Drop had just streamed its final episode as I completed the conference paper. And finally that research has been fuelled by what I have found at Anime DVD Plaza in Malaysia and what I have been able to obtain from Madman in Australia. To both these retailers I owe a big debt of gratitude (and so do my wife, my children and my grandchildren).










Disco. In 1981 Philip Brophy wrote a piece on disco that asked the musical question, ‘What is This Thing called Disco?’, then I wrote a piece called ‘Disco Hoodoo’ on disco as an escape from slavery. (ii)



(ii) Philip Brophy, ‘What is This Thing Called Disco’, Art & Text No. 3 (Spring 1981), pp. 59-66. William D. Routt, ‘Disco Hoodoo: 20 Paragraphs for RFT’, Art & Text No. 3 (Spring 1981), pp. 76-79.








Soundtrack. Philip Brophy began writing about sound in 1989, (iii) and I heard him talk about his sound design for Body Melt in 1993. Then, much later, I began to include bits on sound and sound design in what I wrote. (iv)



(iii) Philip Brophy, ‘Film narrative / narrative film / music narrative / narrative music’, Cinema Papers 71 (1989).

(iv) ‘Pieces’, Screening The Past 10 (June 2000).








Anime. Philip Brophy started talking about anime beginning in 1991 and publishing on the topic in 1994. (v) Under the influence of what I read and particularly of the 1994 Kaboom! exhibition that he curated and the volume he edited for the exhibition, I began to write about anime, starting around 1995 – and that piece was not published until 2007. (vi) He has written a lot more about anime than I have.



(v) Philip Brophy, ‘Apocalyptic Scenarios in Japanese Pop Culture’ (talk: 41st Melbourne International Film Festival, 1991); and ‘Ocular Excess: A Semiotic Morphology of Cartoon Eyes’ in his edited book, Kaboom! (Museum of Art, Sydney, 1994).

(vi) ‘De Anime’, paper for the Second International Animation Conference, Sydney, 3-5 March 1995.









I am telling you all this so that you realise that what you will read here is very much in the wake of Philip, not in advance of him – but not so much tracking him as awash, yawing all over the pond, while he sails always already ahead and on course.





Experience. Peripherals. Universe.


Actually, my experience with anime is not at all the result of the heavy swell that Philip Brophy has splashed over my life. The experience does, however, run uncannily parallel to my experience of Australia.


On the way to Australia in 1976 – that is, in a state of limbo – our family first saw anime on LA television, indeed on Japanese language TV. A former work colleague, significantly an ex-pat New Zealander, had a five-year-old son who was hooked on Yuusha Raideen (1975-76)



and we watched an incredibly dynamic and terribly confusing episode with him. Immediately we went out and bought a gigantic toy Yuusha Raideen for the kids.



But, on our arrival in Australia, there was disappointment. No anime on TV, and only a handful of (smaller) related toys in stores.


More than a decade later I saw fan-subbed videos of Bubblegum Crisis (1987-91)



Dominion Tank Police (1988)



and the Appleseed OVA (1988)



and I was hooked.


There began a continuing off-and-on interest, fuelled in part by manga, especially as manga became available in English language versions from US companies like Viz. Shops like Hobby Japan sold fan-subbed videotapes while English translations of manga, and even some issues in Japanese, could be found at Minotaur and Alternate Worlds. And, of course, there was Akira (1988) in the cinemas



and, much later, Neon Genesis: Evangelion (1995-96) on SBS television (1999).



What was my experience, then?


First of all, my experience was of ‘peripherals’, that is, pretextual and contextual materials of anime. Yuusha Raideen was condensed down into one mecha toy, and that was anime for ten years or more. Hobby Japan mainly sold acrylic models of anime and manga characters. And manga made another, parallel world for me – clearly related, sometimes overlapping. I was aware of the pervasive significance of manga in Japanese culture but not, at that time, of the similar (and growing) significance of anime. At any rate, manga became part of my comics culture, which had been mainly French and retro US; and among the manga I remember there were especially Kishiro's Alita



Koike & Kojima's Lone Wolf



Sonoda's Gunsmith Cats



Asamiya's Steam Detectives



and, much later, anything by CLAMP



all of which have generated anime echoes.


Thus, I became aware of a whole lot of mostly Japanese things with some kind of generic tie to anime or manga: plastic models, J-pop, ornaments, Hello Kitty – and later, certain Japanese video games, ball-jointed dolls and Cosplay.




There is a similarity here, which should not go unremarked, between these peripherals and the fan merchandising generated by Charlie Chaplin,



Mickey Mouse



and Shirley Temple



(to name only three notable early examples).



Still, anime was not quite behaving in the way it is assumed classical Hollywood cinema behaves, for even those 'golden age' Hollywood-related merchandising efforts are – mostly juvenile – exceptions to the mainstream.


How to understand this difference?


The idea of so-called peripherals is a clue, because it seems to me that the manga, toys, songs, figures, role-playing are actually not at all peripheral to anime in the way that they usually are to mainstream world cinema. Anime is not stories but a universe: anime universe (and that is not ‘world cinema’). This is a universe characterised by its variety and its fungibility. The sticky fabric of this universe is always tearing: destroying and revealing. And this universe does not generate meaning or a message. No: It. Makes. Sense.


I am sorry to be using ‘universe’, an even bigger word than ‘world’ (not to mention ‘sense’, an even fuzzier word than ‘meaning’), to suggest points of difference between what this essay is about and what ‘world cinema’ is about. It sounds as though I am claiming anime is more than world cinema, when all I am suggesting is that world cinema is less than anime. World cinema is Only One Thing, whereas anime universe is just one of an infinite number of universes dotting resonant strings.


Anime universe is a universe of immediacy (as Philip writes), a universe of touching, that touches you, interrupts you, distracts you, shreds you – a universe where you are forever looking in another direction. You do not have to dress up to dress up in anime. You do not have to own a Hello Kitty figure to possess a Hello Kitty figure, to have heard J-pop to have listened to it and so on – just as, in the Real World, you do not have to wear a suit to be a suit, to eat at McDonalds to know a Big Mac, to have listened to Kurt Cobain to be dead again. (And, of course, anime universe generates a bubble that can float within the worldly universe, the world cinema universe, while it tears it and is torn by it). (vii)


Now you understand why disco is a key step in understanding anime – because disco signifies something more than a pop music style. It was, even is, a way of dressing and moving, a way of understanding how things work – in short, an alternate world, if not a universe. Music often works like that. If anime distinguishes itself from musical worlds like disco, it is very much because of its cosmic ambition, the way in which it insists on going beyond the everyday and into space, fantasy, the past, madness. Anime shares the aspiration of symbolism – or any other form of mysticism – to change the conditions of existence itself, to reawaken, to look again.




(vii) I am sorry to be using the word ‘bubble’ as well, because I do not want you to believe that I am indirectly summoning the spirit of Peter Sloterdijk through it, but ‘bubble’ it is.

This would be the place to say something about Genshiken (2004) and Welcome to the N.H.K. (2006), two anime series that deal fairly directly with the idea of an anime universe through the characters of otako, stone fans. And the thing for me to say is that these series deal explicitly with that universe as it intersects with, runs parallel to, and glances off of, an everyday ‘normal’ world. Such a consciousness of itself as difference bears witness to the deliberate fabrication of the anime universe by its inhabitants. (viii)








(viii) In the context of the tendency of this paper, it is unfortunate that one reviewer of Welcome to N.H.K. wrote, ‘This is more than just anime. This is film’. (James Brusuelas, qtd. In Wikipedia). I have to say that this quote put me right off actually watching the series.












Listening to Anime


Anime, at least as I understand it, is television and television is broadcasting.


Broadcasting is the wireless distribution of audio and video content to a dispersed audience via broadcast radio, broadcast television, or other’ the Wikipedia says and I guess most others would agree. 


This is the point where things start making sense to me, but I fear you will think that it is the point where I start losing the plot (both are true). Anime, then, is first of all television, which is as they used to say, a broadcast medium. Hollywood movies are film, by contrast at least, a narrowcast medium. Anime, as replicated in its peripherals, ripples out in waves like soundwaves almost accidentally encountering an audience among the billions over which it washes. Hollywood movies draw an audience in, just as a visual attraction draws the gaze: they are centripetal, not centrifugal in the way that anime tends to be. A movie targets a viewer, each movie pretends to be only one and crafted for a particular person, pretends it is a fishing line even when it is actually a net woven to fit only some species of fish. A movie depends, then, on the idea that it has prior, hidden knowledge worthy of making it the destination of your pilgrimage; a movie wants you to go home with it. Anime, on the other hand, is wandering through the crowd with its hand out, ‘Please take me home to your house’. Mostly no one takes any notice. But anime is always there for you to pick up.


Anime is like what you hear in this way, where film is like what you see.


There is a distinction I guess I ought to make between empirical essentialism (which is what my distinction between anime and films may seem to be) and making distinctions between differing ideas of cultural objects (which is what I intend that distinction to be). I am not advocating some kind of material determinism on the order of ‘anime/television is essentially this, world cinema/film is essentially this’. Rather, it seems that the history of cinema takes a forked road here. The Japanese anime path diverges from the world cinema superhighway in conjunction with the development and success of anime television since the early 1960s. It leads anime in quite different directions from those taken by world cinema in general and Hollywood specifically. I will be taking up some of these ideas a bit later on.


Now let Jean-Luc Nancy tell us something of listening. That is the English title of one his short books, published in France in 2002.


(À l'écoute title page with sanctioned marginalia)



2002 was the year of Azumanga Daioh



and Haibene Renmei



À l'écoute was finally published in English (with the addition of some related essays) in 2007.



2007 was the year of Baccano!



Toward the Terra



and Moyashimon. (ix)



(ix) Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007 [2002]).










Here is how sound manifests itself in listening, according to Nancy.


  Sound essentially comes and expands, or is deferred and transferred. Its present is thus not the instant of philosophico-scientific time … sonorous time takes place immediately according to a completely different dimension, which is not that of simple succession … It is a present in waves on a swell, not in a point on a line; it is a time that opens up, that is hallowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches out or contracts, and so on. (13)    

He is writing about a continuous ocean of sound – OR what happens as we try to understand what it is to be listening. I want to make the distinction signalled by OR because, clearly, I am trying to suggest that listening is a mode of experience, a way of apprehending a wide variety of phenomena, not sound alone. If we try to think about existing in the midst of waves we may understand the universe in a different way than if we think we are each of us points on a plane. By using the metaphor of ‘a universe’ in conjunction with anime, I was trying to suggest that anime evokes, hints at, that different experience parallel to listening.




[And perhaps for other reasons it is important to note that anime may evoke such a response in gaijin like me because of its difference: its different visual style, its different language, the different culture(s) it represents, the different kinds of peripherals it generates and is generated by. The experience of anime perhaps overwhelms me in its difference. Surrounded by so much difference one attempts to understand it in the way one might attempt to understand Japan if one were suddenly displaced into it as in an endless ocean.]


While I was thinking about, researching and writing the conference paper about which this piece is based (and again while I was revising and rewriting for publication) my ears were congested, rendering me partially deaf. It is strange how such an experience isolates one. I was withdrawn from those among whom I live, as though I had become a ghost. Sound is what connects me to everything around me, it is the phenomenological manifestation of community or ‘a universe’.




Nancy writes that ‘sonorous time takes place’, suggesting that sound and time have a special relation and that what he might call (but doesn't) ‘time-space’ is significantly different from ‘space-time’. In phrases like the ones Nancy uses, we are ourselves displaced without moving; around us the worldly universe, the ‘known universe’, shifts into something that does not lend itself so easily to understanding and the way we commonly think and communicate.


  The sonorous present is the result of space-time: it spreads through space, or rather it opens a space that is its own, the very spreading out of its resonance, its expansion and its reverberation. This space is immediately omni-dimensional and transversate through all spaces: the expansion of sound through obstacles, its property of penetration and ubiquity, has always been noted. (13)    

Yet it is also the case that sound is familiar, even intimate. We are at home, cushioned as well as assaulted by sound. If we do not, cannot, speak of it effectively, this does not mean that we do not experience it every moment; only that language tends to have become tied to vision, at least for those of us in the Occident, those of us who consider ourselves educated – enlightened. It is only that in listening we are, it often seems, lost to language.


Being lost to language ought not mean being lost to expression, lost to communication, lost to system or structure. Of course, sound expresses, sound communicates, sound structures. And of course not everything we see is language either, language fails before any number of visual experiences; and, within language, a poem or a common metaphor can rob us of the language to engage with it. As Nancy writes, ‘The difference between cultures, the difference between the arts, and the difference between the senses are the conditions, and not the limitations, of experience in general, just as the mutual intricacy of these differences is, as well’ (11). If, then, I extend what Nancy calls listening to a broader sensing, the idea that the apparently terribly visual anime universe can be productively understood in terms of sound may not seem quite so perverse as perhaps it did before.


Listening extends and ‘intends’ the idea of a universe – placing that phenomenon within as well as without – which is to say, ‘resounding’. So that indeed in the anime universe, as Philip writes, intimacy is coterminous with the cosmos, the one always acting as a limit, a critique of the other. The effect of the critique or caricature effected by anime listening is to at once contract and extend the ‘normal’ perception of self and world – that is, to confuse it and fuck it up. I ask, ‘In what way am I a Japanese cartoon? If not, why not? If so, why so?’ It is not so much a question of why those crazy things happen in anime as why don't they happen to me. And what would I be if they did?






Peripherals sweep out from what point? Not from a film, or even a television program – rather, the film or program is a peripheral to something else: a character, a diegesis – something that cannot be given a point in time and space and which is (paradoxically?) peripheral to the anime universe.


Nancy makes much use of the idea that sound ‘resounds’, returns. In the anime listening universe that I am describing, resonance predominates, every phenomenon sounds and resounds. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I was struck by the similarity of what Nancy describes and the universe of anime. The anime peripherals I listed before all resonate with each other, all bump into one another, all penetrate each other, even themselves, so also the voices, the songs, the conventions, the styles, the stories, the defining moments, the slitting, squeezing and piercing.


This is a universe of neverending fungibility. Anime, like sound, propagates through a mechanics of the fungible: that is, it re-sounds, replaces itself and parts of itself by simulacra.


The ‘influence’ of any singular sound or other facet of the anime universe is complicated by its rolling out in a universe of plural resounding sounds/facets. I think this can be seen fairly readily in those elements of anime which have been, from time to time, used in world cinema (like mecha robots), but perhaps most clearly of all in the complicated international relationship between post-war westerns (US and European), Hong Kong martial arts movies and the Japanese samurai genre – which has little, if anything, to do with anime.




Here is Nancy on (Western) music:


  But nothing is more remarkable, in this order of consideration and experience, than the history of music, more than any other artistic technique, in the course of the twentieth century: the internal transformations following Wagner, the increasing importations of references outside of music labeled ‘classical,’ the arrival of jazz and its transformations, then that of rock and all its variations up to their present hybridizations with ‘scholarly’ music, and throughout all these phenomena the major transformation of instrumentation, down to the electronic and computer production of sounds and the remodeling of schemes of sonority (timbres, rhythms, notations) which itself is contemporaneous with the creation of a global sonorous space or scene whose extraordinarily mixed nature – popular and refined, religious and profane, old and recent, coming from all continents at once – all this has no real equivalent in other domains. (11-12)    

‘No real equivalent in other domains’?, but he might be writing about the cinema. Or, perhaps I ought to say, ‘something of the same things can be said of the cinema’, because indeed Jean-Luc Nancy would not be writing that about the cinema. And by ‘the cinema’, yes, I mean the whole mess, the Big Picture, du cinéma en général et du son corps en particulier. Tactically, I really ought not to put Nancy's quote here because comparing what he says of music to what can be said of the cinema in general calls into question quite a lot (maybe everything) I seem to be writing and will continue to write in this paper. But then, you need to know that I lie a lot, mostly when I am writing, because writing makes no place to resound, to say everything.





Experience: (Sound) Flattening.



Nancy on sound (again) to act as a transition from one dimension of experience to another.


  Sound has no hidden face, it is all in front, in back, and outside-inside, inside-out in relation to the most general logic of presence as appearing, as phenomenality or as manifestation, and thus as the visible face of a presence subsisting in self. Something of the theoretical and intentional scheme tuned to optics vacillates around it. To listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside, and it is through such a double, quadruple, or sextuple opening that a ‘self’ can take place. To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within, hence from one to the other and from one in the other. Listening thus forms the perceptible singularity that bears in the most ostensive way the perceptible or sensitive (aisthetic) condition as such: the sharing of an inside/outside, division and participation, de-connection and contagion. ‘Here, time becomes space,’ is sung in Wagner's Parsifal. (13-14)    

I am giving you that passage at this point because it describes for sound what I sense in my audio-visual experience of anime.


So, for me, anime suggests flat, animated drawings: thin versus thick, ‘all in front, in back, and outside-inside, inside-out’. Flat, yes, but as I understand it, by no means Superflat, a capitalised descriptor applied to a particular attitude toward contemporary Japanese culture. For Superflat purports to find something (ugly) beneath the surface, beyond the frame, and I can discern nothing there. The flatness I am thinking of is the experience of Arietty, the Borrower (2011) versus that of Tangled (2010): Ghibli versus Disney/Pixar.


I mean also a two-dimensional soundtrack, sound on the surface, not much if any echo or reverb, not much space or breadth. Mundane sound maybe, economical or efficient, no ambient noise (what noise could there be in a drawing?). In mecha anime and magical girl series Japanese voice acting makes the soundtrack parallel the artifice of the drawing: the point being that, of course, real people do not talk the way they do in Sailor Moon (1992-93) or R.O.D. (2001). In anime, musical sound plays a decorative, stylistic role as much, more than, a narrative one; theme songs dialogue with the anime they border.


Most anime is characterised by television production values and what is termed ‘limited animation’: consider the wonderful first series of Astro Boy in its stark black and white,



or the flat still dragons in Record of the Lodoss War (1990).



Limited animation is now regarded as one of the strengths of anime, a register of expression for auteurs. Limited animation can look ‘cheap’: drawings of actants floating or gliding instead of walking, no one moving in the background, reiterated shots and sequences, mouths moving soundlessly, voices speaking while faces are turned away, so many still images animated by voice. So much stillness. So much held back. So much lacking. Such restraint.


And so much repeated, so much convention – such fulsome reiteration. The duel sequences in Revolutionary Girl Utena



and all the costume transformation scenes for magical girls, like


Sailor Moon



Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha



and Princess Tutu; (x)



(x) There are a couple of compilations of magical girl transformations on YouTube which illustrate, without necessarily intending to, common elements and forms of this complex motif as well as the cleverness and talent of some of those who have undertaken its variations.










the standard opening and closing pop songs and title sequences done in fashionable styles by singers and groups with the right kind of image; and so on (Usagi Drop).



School (Sunday Without God),



clubs (Genshiken),



dubious projects – political, social, economic, cultural (Serial Experiments: lain);



androgynous figures (Toward the Terra);



boys with deep social issues (Astro Boy),



girls with deadly skills (Cowboy Be-Bop),



cute nonhuman creatures, many of them cats (Revolutionary Girl Utena),



depraved viewers (Genshiken);



hair colour (xi) and style (Angel Beats!),



(xi) see here and here














(New Dominion Tank Police)






(Eccentric Family)



(The hair says everything about this character, including that he is really a tengu).


And then there are eyes: big (Astro Boy)



(Darker Than BLACK)



medium (Darker Than BLACK),



small (Darker Than BLACK)



even ‘realistic’ (Gankutsuou).



‘Ocular excess’ (Philip's words):


(Steam Detectives)



(The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)






Mouths: small, toothy, huge (Darker than BLACK)




(Bubblegum Crisis)



(Record Of The Lodoss War).



Hair, eyes, mouths and colour are sometimes used together to create drama far exceeding mere narrative decoration (Baccano!)





There are ideographs of banality as well as drama/character: banal food (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)



(Cowboy Be-Bop)



banal clutter (Ano Hanna)




banal interiors (Angel Beats!)






(Steam Detectives)






banal cityscapes (R.O.D.)



More or less genre-specific conventional gestures and actions: the evil laugh (xxxHolic, pronounced ‘holic’ in accordance with the romanji, ‘horikku’),



the embarrassing moment (Genshiken)



the outstretched arm (Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)



the face of rage (Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi)



and many visual and aural conventions having to do with fighting. These are but two.   





(Samurai Champloo)



All of these limiting conditions thin out or flatten the experience at the same time that they surround us with it. Like sound, the limited animation of anime ‘has no hidden face’, but to experience it is, as Nancy writes, ‘to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside, and it is through such a double, quadruple, or sextuple opening that a 'self' can take place’


– or, as I understand it, this is how anime fucks us.





(Black Lagoon)





Experience: Drawing (Writing).


Suppose the history of the cinema were not the history of photography in motion but the history of drawing in motion. Suppose it were first animation. (xii)


Looking at the DVD collection of ‘early’ (mostly 1930s) Japanese animation released by Digital Meme (xiii), first I noticed the two-dimensionality of the images, so like the same qualities of early European and American (and Australian) animation. But then I realised that the real value of the collection as a whole is that it demonstrates convincingly that ‘limited animation’ is not simply the product of post-war ‘television animation’ in Japan, but historically the very condition of the possibility of animation for Japanese cinema: all the films in the four disc collection are ‘limited animation’.


The films themselves are open in their debt to ‘Western’ influences but, at the same time, quite clearly and deliberately exploring ways of animating Japanese subjects and styles.


They treat their medium as animated drawing, but Japanese drawing:


(Sanko And The Octopus, 1933)



(xii) Nancy has written (of course!) a book on drawing, a wonderful book which is quite à propos. He compares drawing with sound. He understands how we are drawn up and out within it. He has collected a ‘sketchbook’ of quotations without which one would not be. For him, I would say, drawing is animation, already animation. Sometimes in his book drawing becomes what is called, by some interested in the theory and practice of criticism for the cinema, découpage. But to enlist his writing again here would be to betray him twice. (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Pleasure in Drawing, translated by Philip Armstrong, Fordham University Press, 2013).

(xiii) Japanese Anime Classic Collection, Digital Meme DMSF 1001, 2007 (4 DVDs). This is an extremely interesting collection.






animating folk tales,


(The Stolen Lump, 1929)



boy samurais,


(Momotaro The Undefeated, 1928)



abstract patterns (in conjunction with Japanese music) often rendered in an ostentatiously Japanese manner.


(The Black Cat. 1929)



In the United States at the same time, the Fleischer brothers were emphasising the rotundity of Betty Boop,



Popeye and Bluto. That is, American animation was on the verge of transforming itself from animated drawing to animated sculpture – looking more and more like the other movies on the program and killing slapstick comedy in the process.


(The Rotoscope)



(Snow White Live)



(Polar Express)



The result were cartoons (a fine thing): the kind of phenomena that can dance with Gene Kelly and act with Bob Hoskins, the kind of phenomena that are still touted as being capable of replacing photographed humans with computer generated programs, the kind of phenomena that will bring the dead back to the silver screen. (xiv) In US mainstream animation, the model of the medium rapidly became the photograph, which is to say the machine-recording, the camera-eye. The cinema was (supposedly, ideologically) without humanity, culture, of its own: pure science. What was before the camera was culture, was human – and was given. In US mainstream animation, what was before the camera was ‘a picture’ (as distinct from ‘an image’, a figure, a story, a character) and ‘imagination’ or ‘genius’. (xv)


But in the Japanese animated films, the drawing, the lines themselves, could convey the sense of Japan. The way a figure was drawn, the decoration of the costume or the setting, a particular attitude or motion (a character's dance, for example) proclaimed precisely what photographs could only represent at one remove, so to speak. These films positioned themselves within a calligraphic tradition, a tradition of writing in which what we might think of as ‘only decoration’ was in point of fact (or brush) the flattened thing itself. What mattered was not the story or its meaning but the experience: the sense in the telling, the reality in the touch of the work – yes, the writing, the sound, the taste and feel of it. (xvi)






(Mushishi) You will say that these lines are biased in one direction because they are abducted from an anime episode that is about the arts of writing. Perhaps that is so, but just see how those arts are applied!


(xiv) In this regard, see Anne Eisenberg, ‘Novelties: Animated or Real, Both Are Believable’. New York Times (28 August 2011).



(xv) This sets up a conflict, to be sure. For what is in front of the animation camera is dead (it is a cel, a photograph, a puppet, even sometimes a dead animal). The photograph kills, but animation gives life.



(xvi) In the context of the ‘influence’ of anime, or its lack of influence, consider the game, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metratron.











Everywhere there are lines of figures.


(Mawaru Penguin Drum)



Combat traces visible and invisible lines.


(Sword Art Online)






Lines become fuller: they bloom and burst, etch and fracture, trace and slice.


(Sword Art Online)



(Ano Hana)



(Cowboy Be-Bop)






I think then, that anime is not only best apprehended through listening, but that what it is doing is best understood as writing. For writing, as I am using the word here, is much better at giving sense than revealing meaning – and sense is what I believe is made by anime (and music and, if I must be honest for a moment, by the cinema even when it tries its best not to). Moreover, sense always has a ‘voice’, as Nancy says.



Sense, if there is any, when there is any, is never a neutral, colorless, or aphonic sense: even when written, it has a voice – and that is also the most contemporary meaning of the word écrire [‘to write’], perhaps in music as well as in literature. Écrire in its modern conception – elaborated since Proust, Adorno, and Benjamin, through Blanchot, Barthes, and to Derrida's archi-écriture – is nothing other than making sense resound beyond signification, or beyond itself. It is vocalising a sense that, for classical thought, intended to remain deaf and mute, an understanding [entente] untimbred [détimbrée] of self in the silence of a consonant without resonance. (34-35)


Writing is also, very literally, and even in the sense of an archi-écriture, a voice that resounds. (36)


In anime, writing, the calligraphic line, the drawing line, writing, moves within strictures, which is to say within a frame. It wriggles, it coils, it stretches, collapses, multiplies, shreds, slashes, strokes, whips, bloats, stinks, disappears and reappears. By contrast, the too-too sullied figure, which may be said to be the object of the moving photograph, the product of photography, is a bounded surface substituting for what is really beneath. The figure signals something beyond the frame, the figure defies the visible inasmuch as it is always concealing an other side, while a line – drawing, writing line– having no other sides, shows itself complete. (xvii)


Within the frame, the movement of the drawing, writing line takes infinite form: anything can happen – and most particularly anything can happen that is not real, which is to say (in one way) not figurative. More or less current anime TV series like


Ano Hanna



(xvii) Michael Bay and other Western action filmmakers, frustrated by the deception and incompleteness of figures, blow them up and, at the same time, Western art cinema makes and remakes the story of the inadequacy of what can be seen, a cinema based on inference.








Muwara Penguindrum



Usagi Drop



play with this condition of drawing, writing anime, insisting equally on the impossibility of the intimate anime cosmos and of its parallel with the mundane expanding universe that we understand as real.




The recognition of the impossibility of what it constructs and the resemblance of that construction to the world we think we know ought to be a general condition of world cinema, but it is not. And, in saying this, I am not so much gesturing to the way in which we have been enduring a cinema of remakes for such a long time now, but to the way in which world cinema remakes, Hollywood remakes, are generally so pedantic, while anime's so-called slavish adherence to convention and to reproducing the success of other media produces instead such singular works as


Steam Detectives



Cowboy Be-Bop









Samurai Champloo






not to mention FooLy CooLy (FLCL)



and anything by CLAMP, for example:





CLAMP School Detectives






and, of course, xxxHolic.



Really, the idea that Japanese ‘genre cinema’ is confining by comparison with, say, the Hollywood B-western or contemporary US action cinema, is simply absurd.


(Political?) dimensions



‘We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it's a commitment, it's a true relationship. That's what I want to write about.’


Although Murakami might be considered an anime phenomenon with his accessible yet ‘experimental’ narration and his use of fantasy devices (and that relation has been commented on in print), he claims to dislike animated movies. He claims that video games bear some similarity to his writing and, significantly, that music (jazz) is a key influence: ‘Writing a book is just like playing music.’ (‘Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182’, interview with John Wray, The Paris Review No. 170, Summer 2004)


I note that the infinite movement of a line within a frame surely must ultimately result in fibrillation, entropy – the heat death of the universe, perhaps especially of the anime universe (or, put another way, ‘becoming’ is not inevitably a life-affirming alternative to ‘being’). Fibrillation is one state of eternity. Entropy can be avoided in the short term by temporal structuring, and narration is one of the ways in which humans structure and imagine time. That is, there is an inherently utopic side to telling stories: inasmuch as, faced with ultimate entropy, any end is a happy one. This tension is nicely manifested in the narratives found in anime and some other serial forms, where there is a desire for continuation à la Scheherazade, as well as one for closure. And thus, in anime, we often experience closing down (ending) masked as opening out (an implied new beginning) or opening out masked as closing off, ‘mystical closure’ (xviii) and the closure of the mystical.






(xviii) This is a phrase I first heard from Kim Montgomery.


Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?


Alan Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as 'wordless': in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence.

. . .

And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution. (Slavoj Žižek, ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ [print version], London Review of Books, 19 August 2011)


Here I should like to contrast maps and anime drawing. Each is a specific type of exaggeration/emphasis/abstraction related to the ‘real world’. Maps always have to strain to reach beyond what they show. Maps stretch out for the infinity within their frame; all maps are impossible, all maps represent what you do not, cannot see. Anime drawing, however, exaggerates what can be seen (and heard); it makes you look again, betrays it with lines. Anime drawing or writing signifies human inability, the finite, limitations of seeing and hearing; it can never suggest there is something beyond drawing, beyond its exaggeration and its flatness – only that there is something beside it.



‘A fake world’. ‘The situation is real’. ‘Meaningless violence’. ‘A spirit of revolt without revolution’.


Or a suggestion that there is something beside it.


I think that what anime writing or drawing produces is caricature. Caricature is not positive. It is useless; it can't tell you what road to take. Caricature is not pretty; it is intimate, mundane, homely. Yet caricature defies realism, the world it thinks it knows must lie beside it. In all this caricature is the opposite of a map – and it is also both more fun and more apt to wound.


In anime there are millions of images or lines of slicing, flatness, and the sharp edge. Anime slices into one's sense of self and universe; anime makes slices of that sense (xix)– transforming it in the process, flattening it, making it transparent, bizarre mirror images. However, in writing this paper I have been most challenged, not by the extreme, excruciating slices made by


Neon Genesis Evangelion



(xix) On the day the earth finally exploded, a fragment from it was blown all the way up to heaven. This fragment was, in fact, a Kosher salami. Several angels gathered around the object the like of which, of course, they had never seen before. ‘It must be important’, said one. ‘Let us take it to the Holy Virgin; she will know what it means’. So they picked up the salami and took it reverently to Mary, the mother of God. ‘Please tell us the significance of this, the only thing left from the final destruction of earth’, they implored. ‘I cannot be certain’, murmured the Virgin, ‘But it seems awfully like the Holy Ghost’.









Angel Beats



Revolutionary Girl Utena



Mawaru Penguin Drum



and the like – all of which I do love – but by sweet, equally lovely, mundane caricatures, mundane universes, mundane stories of Genshiken,



Usagi Drop,



and Moribito.



What happens when anime takes its place beside live action, when anime territorialises the provinces of classic realism upon which it borders and within which its bubble floats?


I have said that anime is writing, and what I do – what I have done in preparing this material as a paper for a conference and what I have done in preparing that paper for this piece, what I find I am impelled to do – is write. Yet I still have not written of anime, only of tropes like universe, listening, drawing, writing, lines, something beside it. I cannot say anything useful about the more ordinary, and obviously serious series I have just mentioned, except that they trace a line for me, challenge me more than the wilder, more daring ones – perhaps in the way that I find myself often more challenged by works that are secondary, banal, even failed beside me – finally, works that don't interest most people, even me, all that much. That is alright, because the only thing I can write is writing after all.






from Issue 5: Shows


© William D. Routt 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.