The art of animation has been a significant influence on my work. I’m interested in different kinds of animation, and in the work of creators from different cultures (the Brothers Quay, and Jan Svankmajer, for example), but it’s Japanese animation (‘anime’), in particular, to which I’m drawn.

I consider certain anime to be among the greatest works of art of recent times – beautiful and brilliant works, exhibiting a wonderful vibrancy of style and colour, developing imaginative worlds of fabulous depth and subtlety.

I hope to discuss specific anime in other posts, but first, I’d like to look at anime in general, and think about why I find the art form so attractive.

In this post, I’ll discuss anime’s means of creating artistic realities.

1 | Style of representation | One of the things I find fascinating is anime’s mode of representing reality, and how it differs from conventional live-action cinema.

Pre-digitalisation, every frame of an anime’s narrative was drawn by hand. Drawing a human face, and then redrawing it many times over, in a chain of subtly different positions (in order to create the effect of life and movement) seems an extraordinarily primitive and time-consuming process when set against the apparent facility of using film or video cameras to capture the performances of actors. Moreover, it’s surely impossible to draw a human face and to reproduce the delicacy and complexity of actual human features?

While I don’t believe it’s quite right to say that a drawing of a human face (or any other subject) is necessarily a simplification of an original1, I think it’s fair to say that no one looking at the still from an anime would be likely to mistake a drawn face for a living, human face, or for a photograph of a living, human face. A drawing of Johnny Depp or Scarlet Johansson is noticeably different to a photograph of the same subject. We’re long past the stage where we believe that the ‘camera never lies’, but its method of reproducing an image is generally considered to be more accurate than drawing.

Both photography and drawing are artificial, but the artifice employed in the latter means of creating an image is less technologically stable, less predictable and generally more idiosyncratic than in the former. (If you were to place a camera on a tripod, before a subject – a still life – in a studio, for example, and ask 10 different people to push the button on the camera, the 10 resultant images would be very similar to each other; but if you were to ask 10 different people to draw the same subject, the results would surely vary quite considerably.) There is a kind of ‘wonkiness’ in anime, an organicity, and an undisguised presence of artifice, which, I believe, lies at the heart of its mystery.

Anime is ‘unreal’ – even an anime that follows the conventions of a realist narrative is clearly not a film of ‘actual’ people or locations. From the first instant of any anime, it’s obvious that we are dealing with a particular form of construct – something made up2. Everything – every street, building, person, animal, every cloud, every blade of grass and every tree shimmering in the breeze – is all designed and fabricated.

I’m not sure there’s a word that precisely describes this ‘self-evidence of artifice’ in a work of art. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we take pleasure not in the way that anime makes things look real, but precisely in how anime makes things look unreal, beautifully. For example: we can admire how an anime renders water effects, of raindrops falling in puddles, but we admire the effects precisely because we know they are (in pre-digital anime, anyway) hand-drawn. They are like rain, but not rain – whereas, in a live-action film, the images we see are records of rain (or records of simulations of rain). In one way at least, the element of construction in an anime is more obvious to us than it is when we are watching a live-action film3.

The element of fabrication, the method of creating the artwork, then, is very heightened and obvious in an anime. Fabrication saturates the images we see on the screen, and exists in a kind of emulsion, as a part of the aesthetic experience, in every molecule of the artwork.

Perhaps anime is, in some ways, more closely related to the world of puppet theatre than a contemporary, live-action film may be. In a shadow puppet production, for example, using cut-out silhouettes, artfully carved into the shapes of characters, we see the strings, and possibly glimpse the hands of the puppet handlers: the creators and performers are evident in their works. The overpowering presence of filmed media in our world makes live-action cinema particularly seductive: in certain types of film, for example, although the work may be one of fiction, using the techniques and ambience of documentary, the film-makers can blur the division between life and art, leaving us uncertain of the reproductive status, as it were, of what we are viewing. An anime could never perform the same trick on us – its artifice is announced in every instant and every frame.

In one of the episode previews to the television anime series, Genshiken, the über-otaku4, Harunobu Madarame, in a voice-over, expounds a philosophy of animation:

“Animation” comes from the Latin “anima”. In other words, its root word means “the soul”.

“Animism” is the ideal from the 19th-century anthropologist Tylor’s “Primitive Culture”, which advocates that souls reside in all things. Animation is therefore what gives movement to still pictures and breathes life into them. Namely, the power of the gods!

I find myself deeply sympathetic to this philosophy of Madarame-san’s. I’ve explored in other posts [here, for example] something of my own view of human life, and particularly my scepticism regarding any objectively stable or discreet system of value or meaning – a universe “outside” us, which we can access and upon which we can ground a definitive understanding of the world. I see all human life as a form of intervention, of creation – of animation, in fact. Both individually, culturally, and as a species, we create the world as we go along.

It is this active process of creation which, I believe, makes human life so interesting (to us, at least!). Such life is always open-ended, always on-going. Works of art, it seems to me, embody and demonstrate this process back to us – and that may be one reason we are so very drawn to things that are “made up”, which have no obvious “basis in reality”.

I find anime so appealing because, through its intense and fundamental artificiality, its inescapable playfulness, it mirrors our everyday minds in action. A human mind is less like the passive running of a video camera, objectively recording what is already there, and more like the hand-drawn animations of anime, creating everything from scratch. It is as if, as our minds work, we are producing hand-drawn images of the world each instant – millions of them, perhaps.

Madarame-san exults in the power of the animator, the otaku god who breathes life and soul into still pictures. This ‘wonkiness’, the inevitable idiosyncracy of hand-drawn, personal images, belongs to anime, and belongs to us. We animate the world with our cares and our obsessions, our laws and rituals – all the time, in every way, with thoughts and dreams, theories, values, we further animate what is already living, each producing our stories, our anime.

1 In fact, it may be a form of complication, rather than of simplification…
2 This wouldn’t be the case in, for example, a live-action documentary film. An anime documentary would offer an inescapable degree of artistic intervention, or mediation. While a documentary film is also a construct, something fabricated – involving points of view, editorial decisions, commissioning factors, financial support, and so on – it may be understood as a record of a reality. An anime depicting the same events isn’t a record, but a representation of a record, of reality. (Naturally, there are grey areas in and around these definitions – thank goodness…)
3 Again, there are grey areas in and around these definitions, but I would suggest that while a live-action film is the record of a construction (the record of actors acting out a story), an anime is a construction, or the assemblage of thousands of constructions. Anime might be described as a primary means of construction, whereas live-action film is a secondary means of construction. It is, I must admit, however, all very blurred… which keeps things interesting…
4 An otaku is usually understood to be a fan of anime, manga [‘manga’ is a Japanese term for ‘comic’ or ‘sequential art’], games and other manifestations of popular culture. The term can sometimes be used pejoratively. The anime Genshiken (based on a manga, by the manga artist Shimoku Kio) is about a university club, ostensibly devoted to the study of ‘modern visual culture’, but in which, generally, the otaku members pursue their own obsessions, and simply hang out together.