February 25, 2008
When I read the first Mechademia volume, I felt that it maintained a tenuous balance between different kinds of scholarly essays on manga and anime. Mechademia Vol. 2: Networks of Desire has about the same amount of works—23 contributions compared to the original's 20—and more of a focus.
The subtitle of this volume accurately describes the book's theme, and essays are divided into four sections (Shojo, Powers of Time, Animalization and Horizons). Each essay spins "desire"—and sometimes its own section title—in different ways.
Five essays in particular are standouts, and worth the price of the book on their own. Deborah Shamoon's "Revolutionary Romance: The Rose of Versailles and the Transformation of Shojo Manga," Toku Masami's "Shojo Manga! Girls' Comics! A Mirror of Girls' Dreams" and Keith Vincent's "A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny" combine to provide a rich, textured history of the origins and progression of shojo manga and their depictions of same-sex relationships. Miyao Daisuke's "Thieves of Baghdad: Transnational Networks of Cinema and Anime in the 1920s" offers a fascinating look at the "Japanification" of Noburo Ofuji's 1926 Bagudajo no kozoku (The Thief of Baguda Castle, incidentally part of the Cinémathèque Québecoise's early-anime retrospective), which was a sort of remake of the American live-action feature The Thief of Bagdad.
For me, the crown jewel of the book is Mizuno Hiromi's "When Pacifist Japan Fights: Historicizing Desires in Anime," an look at how the evolution of postwar Japan's militarism, nationalism and masculinity were expressed in 1977's Space Battleship Yamato and 1995's Silent Service. The piece was so compelling it made me want to rewatch Gasaraki and further appreciate Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, both of which featured conspiracies to remilitarize Japan. It's worth noting that this essay is the longest in the book, but reads so smoothly it feels like it's the shortest.
Otherwise, the book is hit or miss depending on the kind of scholarly essays you prefer. As a fan of Occam's Razor, I'm a bit wary of essays that read a lot of symbolism into anime that the creator makes no claim to. Granted, there are those shows like Haibane-Renmei and Neon Genesis Evangelion where the creators are specifically adding layers of meaning, but I had to roll my eyes when Christopher Bolton read various shades of meaning into 2000's Blood: The Last Vampire's use of CGI for mechanical objects, specifically airplanes. While it's true that this was a pioneering blending of CGI and cel in anime then, the same techniques had been used elsewhere in the world for almost 15 years in pretty much exactly the same way. It's a symptom of my long-standing complaint that at times anime aficionados wall themselves off from animation history at large.
This same issue comes up in William L. Benzon's review of Takashi Murakami's Little Boy: The Arts Japan's Exploding Subculture book and exhibition, but in a good way: After thoroughly examining Murakami's thesis of how Japan's unique national trauma (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their defeat in World War II) explains the frequent use of apocalypse in the country's fiction, he turns around and says he doesn't buy it. Why not? Because "apocalyptic art and fantasy are in no way unique to Japan. For example, apocalypse has been a persistent theme in postwar American culture," despite the fact that the U.S. was never bombed during the war.
It's exactly this kind of intellectual awareness and honesty that anime scholarship (hell, anime fandom) needs more of. There are many things about anime and manga that are unique, and there are many books (including Mechademia) that celebrate that. But if we really want to position these media within the cultures of the world at large, then we need more work that looks at them in relation to what's going on outside of Japan, and there's no better place to do it than within the rigorous structure of academic writing. I'm happy that Mechademia is starting to encourage this kind of thinking, and I hope the next volume takes it further.