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Review of The Anime Machine

By Caleb Simmons

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

The Anime Machine by Thomas Lamarre is the author’s attempt to change the face of animation studies within Western academia focusing primarily on Japan’s anime through an investigation of the “facts of animation” that follows the model of experimental science and technology studies. He argues that in its current state media studies of animation tend to fall into determinism that is derived either from apparatus theory borrowed from monocular perspective theory in film studies or from a socio-cultural explanation of the common motifs found in Japanese animation (i.e. ambivalence to technology, weapon fetishization, etc). Lamarre insists on opening the academic study of animation to include a non-determinist materialist exploration of the composition of animation through the multiplanar composing of animation on the animation stand that provides manifold possibilities in the construction of perspective, motion, and sexuality. However, the pragmatic implications of his novel theory of the animetic process are mooted by his assumption that the abstract machine, like the scientific method, exists objectively and unadulterated by various other influences, which are folded into the animetic machine from its inception. Despite whatever exceptions one might take with Lamarre’s work, the proverbial baby should not be thrown out with the mildly murky bathwater. The work constitutes a landmark within the study of animation and its relationship to technology and media.

Lamarre keenly begins his new media theory of animation by separating his work from that of the apparatus theoreticians with whom he shares similar language, but radically different perspectives. He retorts their determinist theory with one of “underdetermination” derived from Félix Guattari’s abstract machine from which Lamarre derives the term “animetic machine.” The animetic machine is the abstract existence of possible compositions of the mutliplanar animated image that exists prior to the creation of any particular technology or apparatus through which the image is constructed. Likewise, the machine is not a structure that can determine the subsequent image but exists as the sum of all components that can exist within the creation of animation. The animetic machine is substantiated with the composition of the varying layers of animation (i.e. background, foreground, characters, etc.) to produce an image that moves not only between frames but within them through the quasi-apparatus of the animation stand.

Key to animetic machine theory is the space that occurs between the panels layered in the animation stand during compositing, what Lamarre calls the “animetic interval.” The animetic interval separates animation from other forms of the moving image like traditional cinematic film. Whereas film shot from the single perspective on a moving camera has space between frames or two-dimension interstices, animation is composed with a fixed camera, which creates movement within the image by altering the additional lacuna between layers within the image, creating three-dimensional depth. The author believes that an analysis of animation must first explore the movement within images before attempting to understand the movement across them.

Following the abstract animetic machine through compositing, animation becomes contained within two dominant structures—open and limited composition. For Lamarre, these provide a glimpse into animation’s relationship with modernity and technology. He focuses on the chasm that exists between Cartesian one-point perspectivism, the representative form of the modern image, and the multiplanar and multiperspectival image of Japan, which some have labeled as a post-modern expression of image. Lamarre argues against limiting Japanese animation to post-modernity expression because it limits the medium’s relationship to both modernity and technology. Much of the remainder of the book examines three examples of this relationship: Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli (minimalizing technology), Anno Hideaki and Gainax Studios (recreating technology), and CLAMP’s animated manga (perverting technology). These examples concretize the highly theoretical model proposed by Lamarre in the previous chapters, showing how the animetic interval can be manipulated in order to compose an inventive image of the world that is unbound by the limits of modernity and Cartesianism, which he calls animetically thinking technology.

While Lamarre’s theory of the animetic machine is intriguing and provides a genuinely novel exploration of animation, the abstraction of the machine is given an elevated position. The animetic machine, abstracted from tangible technologies or apparatuses, is presented as a pure and unalterable condition. Therefore, Lamarre posits that social and economic issues should not be considered before the serialization of the image through folding (invention) and refolding (reproduction) through the divergence of the moving image from animation to other forms of media (i.e. toys, movies, games, etc.). Lamarre argues that it is in this stage that various machines are converged with the animetic machine. As a result of the convergence of these various machines, social and economic considerations are introduced into the foray of animation by the capitalist desires of marketing firms and studios. However, this necessitates the question of the pure existence of the animetic machine that is somehow separate from the social and economic concerns of animators or the animetic process of production. Though the author is quite convincing in his argument for a specific animetic way of thinking about technology, modernity, and humanities’ relationship to them, to remove the process, even within its most abstract form, from the context from which the animated world is being constructed is overly ambitious. Because of the author’s desire to focus on the “facts of animation” centered around the movement of images within animation, he falls prey to the same shortcomings for which he critiques others who view animation as texts or as socially constructed within nationalism or Japanese xenocentrism, much in the same way as many authors writing from the experimental science field on which he models his theory. His discussion of “how spacing matters” quickly turns into one of “why spacing is all that matters” to the neglect of other highly relevant influences within the process, creating an inherent hierarchization in the components that must come together in the production of animation, with pure vision of the moving image taking precedence. The pedestal on which he places the decontextualized conception of the moving image within animation is exacerbated by the highly repetitive chapters within the highly theoretical opening portion of the book, which at times read more like a collection of essays on the animetic machine and interval than a coherent monograph.

However, Lamarre is at his best when he is putting his theory into practice exploring the movement and spacing within animation in chapters four to twenty-two. Lamarre shows an acute ability to deconstruct the multiplanar image and demonstrate how the spacing between layers thinks differently about the human perspective and its relationship to technology. In his case studies, the abstracted machine is masterfully discussed alongside the social context of animation, which displays the tremendous possibilities that can result when the spacing within the image and how it produces movement is added into the researcher’s toolkit.

Animetic theory should not be limited to the study of animation; it poses interesting possibilities for comic studies as well. Much of the material discussed by Lamarre regarding spacing between images within film is also common to analysis of composition within comics through frames and their interstices. Comic studies scholars could benefit from greater analysis of the movement within the frame and its role in attributing perspective. Thinking more “animetically” about spacing and perspective would no doubt yield similar results about the way comics think technology not only through narrative and overarching motifs but also through the actual production of images, which contain the movement of characters through imagined spaces.

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