Book Review – The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation

Thomas Lamarre.  The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Miri Nakamura

Thomas Lamarre’s Anime Machine is an enlightening work of astounding intellectual depth.  In the first scholarship to treat anime as technology, Lamarre propounds his own theory of animation, one that does not rely purely on film studies (the most dominant analysis of the moving image, with Cartesian tendencies) or on sociohistorical approaches (e.g. apocalyptic scenes as being a symptom of the singular historic event of the atomic bomb).

Central to his framework is the notion of machine proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.  He describes the anime machine as “a multiplanar machine—that is at once technical/material and abstract/immaterial” (xxvi), multiplanar referring to the stacking of images and planes (compositing) that animation requires.  It is important to note that Lamarre’s machine is an abstract concept that goes beyond the actual technological device.  The main question he tackles in this book is not how technology creates anime but how “anime thinks technology” (xxxvi). The machine is its own being imbued with a kind of vitality:

[T]he animetic machine is truly the “life” of the animation, what makes it act, feel, and think.  The machine tends to fold out into an ensemble that comprises humans, but this does not mean that animators can fully master or easily control the machine.  They must learn to work with this center of indetermination, to think with it, by giving it space to think. (xxxiii)

It is an unrestricted, constantly transforming force, where the product that it creates is never determined and always pluralistic.  It is, in essence, the Deleuzian becoming.[1]  In Lamarre’s conceptualization, anime thus emerges as its own life form.

Lamarre breathes life into this machine in three sections.  Part I links Miyazaki Hayao’s animations to Heidegger’s philosophy on the “free relation to technology.”  Lamarre gives a succinct but concrete history of Tōei Dōga (Tōei Moving Pictures) and offers an innovative reading of Miyazaki’s films, focusing on the animator’s use of open compositing (the manner of rendering specific movement and depth by sliding the layers within the image), depictions of imaginative flying objects, and the animation of human bodies, especially the youthful shōjo characters with special abilities like telepathy and flight, who come to suggest a new way of coping with technology that is not hindered by a Virilio-esque future.[2]

Part II explores the animations of Anno Hideaki and the concept of exploded view.  Here Lamarre continues to develop a theory that is “movement-centered” as opposed to formalistic or structuralist, in order to capture the full dynamism of the anime machine.  The example of exploded view Lamarre gives is that of an engineering diagram, where all the elements on a page of assembly instructions are pulled apart to show how a machine is comprised.  This projection offers Lamarre a way to undermine the kind of one-point perspective that presumes a fixed subject, the Cartesian view.  In anime, the line of sight always follows a lateral view of motion, and the illusion of depth is created on the superflat surface.  Lamarre calls the result a distributive field where “movement into depth is replaced by density of information” (133).  Whereas one-point perspective requires an object with a fixed position to produce depth, explosive view uses line of sight (movement) for positioning, and any object can now become a field.  Part II ends with an examination of Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion,[3] to which I will return below.

Part III offers an invigorating analysis of gender in CLAMP’s Chobits[4] that is inspired by Lacanian theory but goes far beyond it by bringing in Slajov Zizek’s analysis of Lacan.  Instead of reading the figure of the gynoid as filling in the lack of the male protagonist, for example, Lamarre shows how technology (the gynoid) functions to mediate desire and does not point to castration.  Some of his analyses, such as the one about the asymmetry of the female and male characters’ eyes reflecting the asymmetry of the database, call for further elaboration.  Overall though, the chapters on perversion (as encounter with the machine and the “symptom”) and the “absence of sex” are some of the most illuminating in the book, and I want to turn now to one idea tied to this that he introduces in the Anno chapters: soulful body.

Lamarre’s book can be read as an innovative theory of the body.  If anime is a machine of “life,” the soulful body is the embodiment of this vitality.  The word “soul” is first mentioned in Part II where Lamarre turns to Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of movement-image and time-image: “the movement-image is the body of cinema, and the time-image the soul and brain of cinema” (198).  He thus equates the time-image[5] with “soul,” and goes as far as to say that “[t]he production of an autonomous time-image nonetheless remains one of the dreams of animation—a brain or soul or consciousness that is somehow free of the body or flesh” (200).  A soulful body is thus the embodiment of this “dream,” and Lamarre locates this potential in Anno’s limited animation, the ultimate soulful body being Rei in Evangelion.  Rei is described as a specter, a body whose affect and psychology are inscribed on the surface, a body that can leap from image to image.  She has the potential to disrupt the movement-image by making the animetic interval become visible to the viewer.  As Lamarre summarizes in the conclusion, whereas full animation tries to cover up any gaps in the intervals, in limited animation, “[t]he gap is always in the picture” (313).  These soulful characters thus function to undermine the notion of representation, the illusion of linear, undisrupted flow of images that is often viewed as being more “realistic.”   Lamarre constantly criticizes the Cartesian obsession in visual studies by imbuing the female bodies in limited animation with this potential.  This reconfiguration of the figure of the shōjo (Miyazaki’s heroines, Rei, Chii the gynoid in Chobits)into a technological force is tremendously thought-provoking and ground-breaking.  It offers a completely new understanding of the function of characters and character design in anime.

Lamarre’s book will appeal to a variety of scholars and students alike.  In particular, there are three ways in which his book can be used in the undergraduate classroom.  First, the book provides a list of terminologies to introduce seminal anime vocabulary: multiplanarity, animetic intervalopen compositingfull limited animation, and exploded view, to name a few.  Together with the third chapter from Paul Wells’ Understanding Animation,[6]  Lamarre’s book offers an invaluable set of terms for analyzing animation in a formalistic manner.  In fact, future printings may well benefit from a glossary at the end.  Second, Lamarre’s provocative analyses of gender in Chobits provides a new framework for thinking about the dominant image of cyborgs (gynoids) in Japanese popular culture.  Teachers may want to couple this book with Susan Napier’s comprehensive guide to Japanese animation, Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke or Sharalyn Orbaugh’s scholarship on cyborgs.[7]  Third, Lamarre’s new theorization of the otaku will be useful for any course on Japanese popular culture.  In contrast to Saitō Tamaki’s Lacanian understanding of otaku as a subject disavowing lack, or Azuma Hiroki’s “technologically deterministic” definition that sees an otaku situated in a stabilized viewing position in front of the database, Lamarre envisions a presence with an unfixed positionality.[8]  He proposes that an otaku is a cooperator—an evolving entity that is constantly shifting towards the attractor (moe elements/characters), and thus engaged in a constant “affective loop.”  He distinguishes himself from Azuma by stating that these attractors function as the limit to the distributive field, and that the field is not infinite: “[s]imply put, the distributive field generates affective asymmetries not subjective asymmetries.  This is very much like what Félix Guattari calls a machine in contrast to structure” (275).  An otaku is hence a kind of navigator of this affective machine, a pluralistic being, a machine himself.

The Anime Machine is an impressive work that will certainly remain a touchstone of rigor and innovation for years to come.  Lamarre is a scholar who truly defies and undermines the overused, simplistic dichotomy of “(Western) theory” versus “(Japanese) data” by brilliantly weaving together anime history, sociohistorical and feminist studies, not to mention both European and Japanese cultural and visual theories.  He, in his own right, leaps through various fields.

Miri Nakamura is Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Department of Asian Languages at Wesleyan University.  She teaches modern Japanese literature, horror films, and cultural theory.  She recently completed a book called Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[2] By “Virilio-esque future,” I mean a dystopian view of the future where technology has come to dominate everyday life to the point where a certain humanness is at risk.

[3] Shinseiki evangerion, dir. Anno Hideaki, TV series, 26 episodes (1995-96); translated as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Perfect Collection, 8-DVD box set (ADV Films, 2002).

[4] Chobittsu, dir. Morio Asaka (2002); translated as Chobits, 4-DVD box set (Funimation, 2011).

[5] “Time-image,” as Deleuze defines it, is an image infused with multiple temporalities.  It contrasts to and often disrupts what Henri Bergson calls “clock time,” a linear Cartesian temporality.  An example may be Ozu’s shots of carp kites in Early Summer, shots that do not make any sense temporally.  Deleuze locates a kind of potential in this type of image, one that Lamarre finds as well in full limited animtion.  Bakushū, dir. Ozu Yasujirō (1951); translated as Early Summer, DVD (Criterion Collection, 2004).

[6] Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[7] Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave, 2000).  I am thinking of works by Sharalyn Orbaugh, such as “Frankenstein and the Cyborg Metropolis: The Evolution of Body and City in Science Fiction Narratives,” in Cinema Anime, ed. Steven T. Brown  (New York: Palgrave, 2006), 81-112.  Also “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity,” in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, ed. Christopher Bolton et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 172-192.

[8] Saitō Tamaki, Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki (Psychoanalysis of beautiful warrior girls), (Tokyo: Ōta shuppan, 2000); translated by J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson as Beautiful Fighting Girl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).  Azuma Hiroki, Dōbutsukasuru posutomodan: otaku kara mita Nihon shakai (Animalizing postmodern: Japanese society as seen from otaku) (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2001); translated by Jonathan Abel as Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).