Japanese Animation: From Painted Scrolls to Pokemon
February 26, 2011

Review by Ed Sizemore

It’s now the accepted wisdom that anime and manga are direct visual descendants of the early Japanese picture scrolls. Koyama-Richard doesn’t stray from this opinion in Japanese Animation. She doesn’t go back to the earliest scrolls but chooses to start in the 17th century with what is called the Edo period. Her selection of scrolls is brilliant; each looks like it could be the storyboard for an anime film.

Japanese Animation cover
Japanese Animation
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The history section is a fascinating read. I’m not familiar with the early history of cinema, so the pictures of 19th century magical lanterns are a treat. There is one section that sticks out. Koyama-Richard argues that the clockwork dolls of the Edo period were also an influence on anime. However, the link in not as obvious as with the picture scrolls. It’s true that clockwork dolls were heavily used in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, but director Oshii is infamous for being a highly eccentric filmmaker. Koyama-Richard needs to make explicit the connection between clockwork dolls and anime. That lack of explanation makes this section feel like a beloved piece of stray research she hated to throw away.

Following the history of anime, Koyama-Richard discusses some of the major anime production companies. Included in this section are interviews with various executives from those companies. In these interviews, you see that Koyama-Richard is writing less as a detached scholar and more as an enthusiast. She is very polite and respectful, to the point of deference, to the interviewees. She also asks some pretty simple and complimentary questions that permit the executives to boast about their company’s accomplishments and how they had a hand in achieving those.

One question keeps popping up in most of the interviews. Koyama-Richard is worried about the effect that globalization will have on the look and storytelling style of anime. In particular, she frets that anime companies will lose their connection to Japan’s rich artistic past by trying to make their shows and movies more accessible and appealing to Western audiences. Koyama-Richard believes what is great about anime is its distinctly Japanese sense of aesthetics. She thinks that is also the secret to anime’s appeal in the West.

Given Koyama-Richard’s worry about anime losing its distinctiveness, it’s odd that she focuses on Kato Kunio as one of the shining stars of the upcoming generation of directors. His work is heavily influenced by European animation, especially the French. In fact, if you showed his short films prior to the movie The Illusionist, most people would assume it was all done by the same studio. It appears that Koyama-Richard never sees the contradiction.

Of course, you can’t discuss this book without talking about all the beautiful pictures. The reproductions of the scrolls are marvelous. The colors are vibrant, and all the details are preserved. I just wish the photos could be bigger. The screenshots of the various films and shows are also sensational. They make you long to see the movie or TV series. The book really highlights how breathtaking good cartoon art can be.

Japanese Animation is a delightful book. It’s the perfect blend, both an introduction to the history of anime and a coffee table book. The flaws are easily overlooked in light of its strengths. The biggest stumbling block is the price. At $50, only the most ardent anime or animation fans are likely to pick up this book, which is a real shame. There is so much good information that it should be in a format that all fans can purchase and enjoy. If you find it on sale, definitely pick this book up. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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