Saturday, February 11, 2012

Analyzing Anime 101 Notes

Below are my notes for my upcoming Analyzing Anime 101 panel at Katsucon 2012. The aim of the panel is to provide an overview of the techniques and approaches of textual analysis as applied to anime. It assumes a level of knowledge equivalent to a high school education, which is to say no prior knowledge of textual analysis (hence the 101).

I welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms, as I want to do the best job I can of presenting this. In particular, if anyone can suggest good introductory books or books for laymen on general analysis, film criticism, or anime criticism in specific, I would be most appreciative--all of my knowledge comes from the textbooks I used in college, which were expensive to begin with and now mostly out of print.

Warning: Major NGE spoilers, minor spoilers for Madoka, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Slayers.

Analyzing Anime 101

What is Analysis?
  • All art is collaborative process: Even when there is a singular artist, there are still two people involved in the experience of art: the artist and the viewer.
  • Most viewers usually are passive consumers of art, with the interpretation occurring mostly automatically and subconsciously. Few works provoke the general viewer into actively trying to construct meaning, usually by aggressively posing questions and providing ambiguous answers.
  • Analysis is the active, conscious participation in art. It consists of taking conscious control of the process of interpreting art, observing one's own automatic interpretations and subjecting them to test or intentionally trying different interpretations.
  • Analysis begins with "close reading," the careful and attentive study of a text with a focus on identifying what is actually in the text itself, rather than what is constructed by the viewer.
Why Analyze?
  • Because it is fun: the more effort you put into the things you enjoy, the more you enjoy them. Good art becomes better; bad art becomes tolerable, or at least instructive.
  • Because it adds depth to your experience of works: The passive consumption of a 22-minute episode takes 22 minutes. The analysis can take as long as you want it to, which means you get to enjoy it that much longer. You can also discover things to appreciate you never knew were there.
  • It gives you new things to think about, talk about, and explore: Analysis can lead you down new and interesting paths to learn about things you never thought you would be interested in, and give you insights into other works. For example, I learned about Kabbalah primarily because I wanted to understand Neon Genesis Evangelion. I learned about Jung's use of alchemical symbolism because I wanted to understand Xenosaga. And when both showed up together in Fullmetal Alchemist, I understood.
Basic Concepts
  • Art as Process, not Object
  • Multiplicity of Perspectives
  • Close Reading
  • Pattern-Forming
  • Interrogating the Text
Art as Process
  • Any work of art begins as thoughts, feelings, images, and concepts in the mind of the artist(s).
  • The artist expresses these thoughts, feelings, etc. through some sort of medium, for example a painting, a book, or film.
  • The chosen medium informs and contains the expression. There are things a painting can do that a film cannot, and vice versa. This is why, when a film is based on a book, adhering too closely to the book often results in a bad film, even if the book was good. Because the artist's expression is filtered through the medium, the text is already moving away from being a pure expression of the artist's intent.
  • The viewer experiences art through the medium.
  • The viewer interprets and filters the art through their own ideas, experiences, and current state.
  • As time passes, the viewer's imperfect memory further distorts the text, while at the same time the viewer continues to interpret and re-interpret it each time they think about it. The viewer constructs an interpretation and understanding of the text, forms opinions and emotional responses, and creates the final form of the experienced text in the viewer's mind.
Perspectives on a Text
  • Doylist vs. Watsonian: Who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories? In real life, Doyle did. But in the stories themselves, they are accounts by Watson of his adventures with Holmes. The Doylist perspective on a text looks at it from outside, as an artificial work created in a real-world context, and all the characters and events are creations of the author. The Watsonian perspective on a text looks at if from within, as a reality of its own, and all the characters and events are real, with motivations and causes. For example, a Doylist explanation of the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion might be that they were a cost-saving measure forced by the studio's near-bankruptcy. A Watsonian interpretation might be that they represent Shinji's attempt to interpret events beyond human comprehension. A spectrum, rather than a binary, and most of the following perspectives can be placed on that spectrum.
  • Psychological Perspectives: Focus on the characters. What drives them? Why do they make the choices that they do? What are their personalities, and how do they reflect the way real people behave and think? For example, one can view the magical girls in Puella Magi Madoka Magica as exploring different responses to child abuse: Kyoko oscillates between acting out and denial; Homura detaches and tries to shut down her emotions; Sayaka becomes violent and self-destructive. A mostly Watsonian approach.
  • Historical/Cultural Perspectives: Focus on the time and place in which the work was created. How does the work reflect the concerns, ideas, and controversies of its time? Does it embrace any trends in other works from the same time/place? Attack such trends? For example, Sailor Moon blends the traditionally feminine maho shojo genre with elements of the traditionally masculine sentai genre. One can argue that this was a trend in the 90s of adding shonen elements to shojo series and vice versa. A mostly Doylist approach.
  • Social/Values Criticism: How does the work reflect the social and political structures and conflicts of its time/place, or how can it be applied to the social and political structures and conflicts of the viewer's time/place? What values does the work express and explore? For example, one can explore Cardcaptor Sakura from the perspective of queer criticism, and look at how it depicts both a romantic reciprocal relationship between two young men (one clearly bi and the other gay or bi), and a one-sidedly romantic relationship between a lesbian or bi young woman and her apparently straight friend. Tends to blend Doylist and Watsonian perspectives.
  • Death of the Author: Not a perspective per se, but a concept which cuts across and influences many perspectives. The Death of the Author is the notion that, since the work in the author's mind is not the same as either the text or the final product in the viewer's mind, statements by the author about the meaning of the text carry no more weight than any other person's statements. More broadly, the only facts, as far as analysis is concerned, are the contents of the text itself. Everything else is interpretation. It is a historical fact that Hideaki Anno said that the Christian and Jewish symbols used in Neon Genesis Evangelion were just thrown in to look cool and exotic to Japanese audiences, but the only fact as far as interpreting the series is concerned is that they are there. They may be meaningless in the NGE in Anno's head, but that does not necessarily mean they are meaningless in the NGE in yours.
  • No perspective is the best one. If you have a particular perspective you find you prefer, by all means go for it. If you find different perspectives better for different texts, go with that. If you find mixing multiple perspectives most rewarding, go with that.
Close Reading
  • "Reading" a "text": Despite the terms, any human creation can be viewed as a text, from a novel to a film to a painting to the back of a cereal box to a garbage can lid. Any text can be read, which is to say, viewed and interpreted in order to construct and assign meaning.
  • Close reading is mindfulness. It consists of paying close attention to the text, looking for details and patterns, and noting anything that stands out.
  • Close reading is about the text and only the text. It is not about what you think of the text, how the text makes you feel, or anything else about you. It is not about where the text was written or what it implies about the author. It is solely and entirely about getting as clear a view of the text as possible, both as a unified whole and on a reductionist level. It is objective, not subjective.
  • [Example: Show the ending credits sequence of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, guide audience through a brief attempt at close reading.]
  • Humans are pattern-making machines, so sophisticated and powerful we can look at two dots and a curved line and turn them into a face. Pattern-forming consists of finding patterns within the text and fitting the text into external patterns.
  • Patterns within a work can include repeated motifs, parallels between elements, contrasts between elements, and implied comparisons between elements. For example, NGE has a repeated motif of bad things happening to people's left arms, especially Shinji's. It parallels Shinji's troubled relationship with his father to Misato's troubled relationship with her father. It contrasts Asuka's bright colors and brash persona to Shinji's more neutral color scheme and extreme doormat tendencies. By presenting both as possible love interests to Shinji and as pilots, it implies comparison between Rei and Asuka.
  • External patterns a work can fit into include the use of common structures, tropes, and motifs; generic elements that place it within a definable genre; and references, allusions to and parodies of other works. Slayers uses immediately recognizable tropes such as its anti-hero main characters and Manichaean fantasy setting; its story structures, character archetypes, and themes are typical of the shonen fantasy adventure genre; it includes references such as a character in Utena's costume proffering a rose to Gourry or Lina wearing a dress reminiscent of Alice and Wonderland while lost in an absurdist dream world, and explicitly parodies (among other things) sentai teams, the movie Shane, and old Merrie Melodies shorts.
  • [Example: Ask audience to describe patterns within and external patterns influencing the Madoka ending credits.]
Interrogating the Text
  • Does the text ask any questions? A text may explicitly or implicitly ask questions of the viewer, as simple as "What just happened?" or as complex as "Who are you?" or "What does it mean to be good?" These are often a good place to start in asking and answering your own questions of the text.
  • Does it answer its own questions? Most texts will pose and then answer at least some questions, such as "And then what happened?" Some texts will do likewise for more difficult questions. The text may also answer a question, but then call that answer into question. For example, early on NGE poses the question of whether human science can win against a force of nature, and points to air conditioning as proof that yes, it can. Later, however, when the Eva breaks free of its binding this conclusion is denied.
  • Does the text take a stand (implicitly or explicitly) on any controversies? What political positions does it support or treat as true? For example, Hayao Miyazaki frequently depicts anti-war and environmental themes in his films. In Princess Mononoke, the three-way war between Iron Town, the Imperial forces, and the boars accomplished nothing but bringing destruction and suffering to all sides, and the elimination of the industrial Iron Town and restoration of the natural environment it damaged is treated as a happy ending.
  • What does the text have to say about the big questions of life, the universe, and everything? Bakurano depicts a universe that is bleak, hostile, and hopeless, and human existence as tiny and meaningless. Gurren Lagann, by contrast, depicts humans as beings of immense potential to affect change, who can transform portions of the universe to be friendly spaces full of hope.
  • What is the viewer left wondering? Does the text give any clues? NGE's final episodes are notoriously difficult to understand and stylized, but they contain tantalizing glimpses of what is "really" happening and interstitials suggesting a possible interpretation.
  • [Example: Ask the audience to interrogate the same Madoka clip.]
Further Reading (TBD)



  1. I went to your panel yesterday and it was my favorite of the whole con. I can't wait to be able to use what I learned from you.I only wish that it wasn't at 2am so more people would have come.

    1. Wow, thanks, Chaos! I had a blast giving it, and I hope I get the chance to again!