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Editor’s Introduction: Anime’s Coming Communities

By Phillip E. Wegner

Tricksters or fakes, assistants or ‘toons, they are the exemplars of the coming community.

Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community

In this special issue of ImageText, we would like to bring together some of the recent work in two of the most innovative emergent fields of interdisciplinary cultural inquiry: comics and visual rhetoric, our case study being Japanese anime, and Utopian studies.1 Scott Nygren claims that “Anime is both written about too much in one sense and not enough in another:” an “enthusiastic fan base” has assembled “massive collections of production circumstances and narrative detail,” while very little “historical and theoretical engagement” with such a rich archive and tradition has been produced thus far.2 The essays in this collection hope in some small way to begin to address the latter concern, and also build on pioneering work by Susan Napier and others, by approaching from a variety of theoretical and historical methods some recent examples of anime.3

We are interested in particular in the ways that anime both helps us further make sense of the new global realities we all now inhabit and imagine alternative worlds and futures. Near the conclusion of his recent book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Zizek argues, “if we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this ‘historical’ notion of temporality: we need to introduce a new notion of time.”4 Intimations of this new temporality, as the essays in this issue bear out, are to be found in some of the most interesting recent examples of this vital popular global cultural form.

We take our lead in these investigations from two different sources. In his pioneering essay, “What is Utopian Film? An Introductory Taxonomy,” Peter Fitting begins with the observation that “unlike the musical or the western, or science fiction film, there is no accepted body of utopian films and no accepted definition.”5 He then goes on to redress this shortcoming by sketching the initial contours of a broad and inclusive set of films that should be of interest to students of utopia: the rare explicit film representations of utopia, the more common dystopia, SF film, representations of past Golden Ages, ethnographic films, the political film, and body utopias, including those found in musicals and certain strands of pornography. In some of my recent work, I tried to follow Fitting’s lead and further expand the range of films that might come under consideration to include film narrations of what I call the deeply utopic or more properly heterotopic “place between two deaths” (my examples being, TitanicForrest GumpThe Shawshank Redemption, and most magnificently of all, Groundhog Day).6 In this issue, we hope to show that a similarly exemplary case study of utopian film can be found in the rich and diverse traditions of anime, and in particular the work of two of the most important Japanese filmmakers working today, Oshii Mamoru and Hayao Miyazaki.

The utopian potentiality of animation was already of great interest to one of the most significant twentieth-century students of emergent mass media forms, Walter Benjamin. In a draft of his landmark essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin speculates on the original perceptual possibilities opened up by the then still new medium of film:

Thanks to the camera, therefore, the individual perceptions of the psychotic or the dreamer can be appropriated by collective perception. The ancient truth expressed by Heraclitus, that those who are awake have a world in common while each sleeper has a world of his own, has been invalidated by film – and less by depicting the dream world itself than by creating figures of collective dream, such as the globe-encircling Mickey Mouse.7

Benjamin goes on to note that while these technologies introduce new “dangerous tensions” in the urban masses, they also offer “the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses”: “Collective laughter is one such preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis. The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. American slapstick comedies and Disney films trigger a therapeutic release of unconscious energies.”8 Finally, in a footnote, Benjamin argues that these positive effects are by no means guaranteed by the technology itself (and indeed, as Esther Leslie shows in her brilliant book, Hollywood Flatlands, Benjamin became increasingly critical of the output of Disney as the decade of the 1930s moved forward).9 We need always to be aware, Benjamin reminds us, of “how easily fascism takes over ‘revolutionary’ innovations in this field too” (131). Rather, animation’s utopian potentiality is a prize to be wrested forth by both its creators and consumers – “politicizing art,” over and against a fascist “aestheticizing of politics,” that Benjamin famously calls for in the essay’s conclusion.10

All of the contributions to this special issue take up in their own ways the challenges issued by Fitting and Benjamin, deploying a wealth of theoretical methods and approaches to read these films in innovative new ways. The most direct exploration of the ways the anime form produces “figures of collective dream” is to be found in Matthew Stoddard’s discussion of Oshii Mamoru’s classic, Ghost in the Shell (Gosuto In Za Sheru) (1995). In the first part of his essay, Stoddard offers a careful and detailed reading of the ways the film’s ostensible contents – its presentation of the cyborg heroine, Kusanagi, the film’s conspiracy plot, and its representation of a near-future fully urbanized world – generate what Fredric Jameson calls a cognitive mapping of the “tightly interwoven networks of power and information” characteristic of contemporary global capitalism. Noting a glaring shortcoming in all of these figures – the absence in them of any representation of “a network of laboring bodies and minds” – Stoddard then turns in the second part of his essay to the way in which the film grapples with the problem of figuring contemporary forms of immaterial labor. He does so by turning our attention from the contents to “an ‘extra-textual’ element, namely the labor of the film’s production,” especially in terms of its pioneering use of computer animation and editing software, a labor then virtually present in the film. Stoddard concludes by suggesting that in this way the figure of Kusanagi at the film’s climax can be understood as a powerful utopian image of the emergence of a startlingly new form of self-produced collectivity.

The contemporary anime filmmaker most well known to a global audience is Hayao Miyazaki, and the other three essays all address some of his rich and diverse oeuvre. Anthony Lioi deploys the critical tools of contemporary eco-criticism to explore the rich utopian vision at work in Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta) (1986). Lioi argues that the film’s portrayal of an airborne island city – an image most recently used, along with a number of other elements drawn from Miyakzaki’s films, in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) – offers its viewers “a critical ecotopia that preserves the possibility of the utopian environment while taking contemporary culture to task as insufficiently ethical.” Taking inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s scathing satire, Gulliver’s Travels, Miyazaki’s film in part critiques the environmental devastations fostered by global capitalism as well as older forms of nationalist militarism. However, in the film’s representation of Laputa itself we are offered a figure of a radically different set of relationships between nature and technology. This is most powerfully evident in the film’s presentation of the robot caretakers of the island, a figure, Lioi contends, of “a restored relationship of technology to nature when the human impulse towards warfare and destruction is overcome.” In this way, Laputa, as well as all of Miyazaki’s films, offer a powerful figure of a new planetary environmental ethics, one that circumvents the destructiveness of imperial nationalisms. And it is precisely his choice of the anime form that enables Miyazaki to circulate this utopian message to a truly global audience.

The question of Miyazaki’s relationship to nationalism and imperial modernization is also at the heart of my contribution to this issue. In my essay, I look at the way My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) (1988) works as an exemplary form of the utopian science fiction subgenre of the “alternate history” or “what-if?” narrative, presenting the viewer with a world meant to be understood as in sharp contradistinction to the grim naturalist portrayal of Japan in the late years of the Second World War on display in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka), an anime that originally screened as part of a double-bill with My Neighbor Totoro. Central to my reading of the film is Kojin Karatani’s landmark study, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, and especially his discussion of the historical “discovery of landscape,” as well as a number of other fundamental epistemological categories, during the crucial period of cultural, political, and social change in Japan known as the Meiji. Emphasizing the marked absence of “landscape” in My Neighbor Totoro, I argue that the film’s alternate history is one wherein the second Meiji Revolution never occurs. Hence, we are offered in this film an evocative utopian image of a mid-twentieth century Japan that never began what, in our history at least, seemed its inexorable march along the path of military and nationalist modernization, a path that would come to its climax in global war.

Our issue concludes on a breathtaking note, with John Leavey’s rich and wide-ranging meditation on the various figures of possession that work through Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) (1997). These begin with the images used in Leavey’s own essay – cut as they were from the film and reinscribed in another imagetext – and continue into the film’s “conflicts of iron and stone” that “run across the differences of god, human, animal in a technology of possession.” He then speculates on the “database animal” as a figure, perhaps, of our new post-national global reality. Following fast upon this, Leavey turns to questions of translation, the images of decapitation that appear throughout the film, and the relation of technology and possession. This leads him to an important claim about the utopian nature of anime itself: “Anime is ‘always’ about the relation to mecha, to robots, to cyborgs, to the lines disrupting a simple distinction between human and machine.” Finally, Leavey concludes the essay by suggesting that the figures of the kodama that haunt the film open up onto another kind of logic altogether, one that refuses the forms of possession that define “our” particular civilization: “The least possessive in terms of the possessed, the kodama is the site of all risk, of all that is at risk.”

A thinker central to Leavey’s meditations here, Jacques Derrida, ends the “Exergue” that opens Of Grammatology, with the statement, “The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity. For that future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue.”11 It is such an opening onto otherness in the form of risks, dangers, breaks, and monstrosity that perhaps best defines the utopian currents running through this film, Mikyazaki’s work, and the traditions of anime more generally.


[1] This collection grew out of a panel presentation at the 2008 Society for Utopian Studies held in Portland, Maine. We would like to thank Don Ault and the members of the ImageText editorial collective for the invitation to bring these essays together in this special issue.
[2] Scott Nygren, Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 239.
[3] See Susan Napier, Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
[4] Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (New York: Verso, 2009), 150.
[5] Peter Fitting, “What is Utopian Film? An Introductory Taxonomy,” Utopian Studies 4, no. 2 (1993): 1.
[6] See Phillip E. Wegner, Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties (Durham: Duke UP, 2009), 29-32; and Phillip E. Wegner, “Learning to Live in History: Alternate Historicities and the 1990s in The Years of Rice and Salt,” in Kim Stanley Robinson Maps the Unimaginable: Critical Essays, ed. William Burling (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2009), 98-112.
[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Second Version,” in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 118.
[8] Ibid.
[9] See Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (New York: Verso, 2002).
[10] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Second Version,” 122.
[11] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 5.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Second Version.” Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Fitting, Peter. “What is Utopian Film? An Introductory Taxonomy.” Utopian Studies 4, no. 2 (1993): 1-17.

Leslie, Esther. Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde. New York: Verso, 2002.

Napier, Susan. Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Nygren, Scott. Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Wegner, Phillip E. “Learning to Live in History: Alternate Historicities and the 1990s in The Years of Rice and Salt.” Kim Stanley Robinson Maps the Unimaginable: Critical Essays. ed. William Burling. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2009. 98-112.

– . Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.

Zizek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. New York: Verso, 2009

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