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Book Review: A Fresh Take on Anime History by Jonathan Clements

Anime: A History
By Jonathan Clements
(British Film Institute, 256 pages)
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Jonathan Clements’ Anime: A History differs greatly from more populist overviews of anime available in the English-language market. This book is not about the anime texts themselves, but the surrounding industry: Clements delivers a tightly-packed account of anime production, distribution and viewership from the silent era to the present day.

Histories of anime often begin with Astro Boy (1963). By contrast, nearly half of Clements’ book is devoted to the pre-Sixties years: a seldom-told prehistory of Japanese animation, with pioneers creating shorts influenced by Western animators such as Emile Cohl before being corralled into wartime propaganda films.

Clements tells a fascinating set of tales from the era. To pick just one example, he relates how a prestigious 1940s animated feature based on the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” had its plug pulled by Toho’s Tetsuzo Watanabe—a strident anti-Communist who would later quell a strike by recruiting a small army, including reconnaissance aircraft and tanks – on the grounds that the film was “riddled with redness”.

The book unearths The New Adventures of Pinocchio, a 1960 stop-motion series animated by Mochinga for Rankin/Bass (the text is careful to place the word “American” in quotation marks when discussing US productions outsourced to Japan). Clements points out that, while Astro Boy is regarded as a milestone for delivering twenty-five minutes a week, the Pinocchio series had already reached the halfway mark with 12.5 minutes a week – and yet, this achievement has been largely forgotten.

As intriguing as this may be, Clements does not reinvent conventional history and still presents Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy as the beginning of anime as we know it. Tezuka appears to have coined the word “anime” to identify the limited animation used in his television cartoons – a truncated word for a truncated process, so to speak. “’Anime’, to the [Japanese] mainstream, comprised those cartoons on television that were deemed gratuitously violent”, writes Clements. “[T]he animation community now distinguished between the experimental films and apprentice pieces that could be seen at film festivals, and the junk that was on television.”

This is a warts-and-all history: Clements points out that the revolution in direct-to-video anime, which opened the door for more innovative and less commercial works, also led to a glut of pornography – including material that would be illegal in live action. But between relating the usage of backlit cels for inexpensive effects, and recounting how the creators of Gundam succeeded in telling a worthwhile story within a toyetic genre, the author paints a picture of creativity existing in the face of heavily restricted circumstances.

The book later settles into covering more familiar aspects of anime history such as the growth of otaku culture and increasing reliance on foreign markets, but even then Clements continues to cast a wide net in obtaining facts and anecdotes. Discussing international distribution, he avoids the common pitfall of focusing on the English-speaking world and relates how the Seventies anime UFO Robot Grendizer achieved notoriety in France and Italy for its violence—even becoming the subject of a French book about the effects of media on children. Towards the end, Clements discusses new avenues for anime: Internet distribution, the rise of sophisticated amateur works such as Voices of a Distant Star, and multimedia experiments such as the Hatsune Miku Live Party, in which CGI characters appear “live in concert”.

Looking through the book’s extensive usage of Japanese-language sources, it seems safe to say that much of this information is new to Anglophone scholarship. Anime: A History is heartily recommended for anybody who wants an insight into the industrial politics that lie behind the on-screen images.

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  • Johnny

    I’m happy to see a book like this getting published in English especially covering areas where many so called Anime fans never bother to learn about or even know of.

    This video of Clements discussing the subject of what Anime is and how it’s perceived in the West is both funny and informative.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Love this!

    • khan8282

      I dunno. I watched this video, and at first I thought there were some interesting historical anecdotes, but it started getting weird after a while. He uses the Simpsons and South Park as examples of the media “getting it wrong” and being “stupid” when in fact those are both examples of talented, intelligent people who knew exactly what they were doing when they caricatured Japanese culture for laughs. Does he mean to imply that the South Park guys literally think anime is being exported to America as a means of mind control? Or that Quentin Tarantino, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of violent exploitation film, didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he went to Production IG for the animated segment in Kill Bill? And then he adds to the insult by including those clips in his presentation knowing full-well that the audience is going to eat them up?

      I think there might be an interesting story in there about how many people have a narrow understanding of anime based on a specific sub-genre, or how western distributors have trouble understanding what it is that they’re dealing with, but he goes so far out of his way to make everything fit a melodramatic “anime fans versus the ignorant masses” paradigm that I start to question whether any of his anecdotes are really giving us the whole story. It’s already annoying enough when someone tries to stoke their own popularity by exaggerating their status as a member of a persecuted minority, but at the end of the lecture he literally congratulates the audience on being smarter than all of the other “stupid” people out there.

      On the flip side, I might still read his book haha.

      • Samuel Mann

        I think Clements missed the point on South Park for sure or I don’t understand why Matt Stone speaks Japanese fluently.

        Something else that Clements said (near 28 mn) is that anime only concerned adult or teenagers in EU before 1997 (or something like that)….which is completely absurd because the first french children TV show(Le club Dorothée) that programed anime in France was in 1987.
        I bet that France wasn’t the only european country at that time to do so.

        So when you said “anime fans versus the ignorant masses” I completely agree with it, to use half truth to talk about anime doesn’t elevate the debate…it just does the opposite.

        I really wish that one day somebody will write something serious about anime, with an analytic mind instead of seduction tools…also with a global comprehension of art culture, politic and history not only with one point of comparison.

  • This book looks great! It’s always annoyed me how so many anime fans unintentionally overlook the efforts of earlier pioneers. It’s hard to recommend the likes of the Toei Doga animated features or Nippon’s TV series when so few people talk about them and because they lack good distribution.

    • It doesn’t help that anime fandom is growing increasingly insular with every passing convention. As online distribution has supplanted the role of social gatherings for exposing people to new material, these gatherings have centralized what used to be fairly peripheral affectations (i.e.: cosplay, amvs, “gameshows,” etc.). About the only time they seem to branch out is when they have panels about Team Fortress or BBC shows or Bronies or whatever, mirroring what is popular in general geekdom. Panels, showings and performances that have anything to do with actual Japanese culture or un-sexy, artistically and historically significant anime tend to have very, very small attendance (unless you’re a J-Rock band… they do well). Something like Hakujaden just isn’t in the echo chamber.


  • MikuNotMiko

    Hatsune Miku, not Miko.

    • AmidAmidi

      Fixed. Thanks.

  • C. Rose

    My father and I were just having a discussion the other night about the history of anime in the U.S. and the differences between studio animations, television series, and the ever present “animation vs. anime” issue between fans. This book looks absolutely fascinating – admittedly, being a fan of Japanese animation, I still know very little about the industry itself and only a few facts about its history. Definitely adding to my “Must Read” list!

    • Marbles471

      Oh, no. “Animation versus anime?” You mean some people are still suck on that silliness? I would have thought nonsense like that got left behind in the late 90s.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    I would laugh too knowing the same reason.

  • Centurion

    Gundam is not a worthwhile story it is Star Wars ripoff