Friday, May 24, 2013

Analyzing Anime 201 Notes

Been a while, huh? Sorry about that--maintaining a daily pony blog has left me with very little time or energy to write about other animation.

But nothing brings out the writing about animation bug like a con, and I'm at one right now. My favorite, in fact, Anime Boston. And that means it's time for one of those easy posts where I just put up notes from one of my panels.

So, here's Sunday afternoon's Analyzing Anime 201, the sequel to my Analyzing Anime 101 I posted notes for a couple of years ago.

Continuity and Canon: Continuity is the idea that a story represents a fictional "world" and provides a means of exploring it. Different views: Tolkien's "secondary creation." Whatsername's "gossip about imaginary people." Based on aesthetic of verisimilitude, but erases the text/author/reader relationship. Tends to be something fans care about more than writers are critics, precisely because it ignores the text itself and all the craft that goes into it. Canon originates from theology--the Christian canon is the set of books that make up the Bible, for instance. Expanded in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to the idea of an "English canon"--a set of works that made up "English literature," such as Shakespeare, Milton, and so on. Thus came to mean "the set of books you could make references to and expect intelligent people to know what you're talking about." However, by the late twentieth century the idea of a single canon for the entire language has largely vanished; there's just too many books. You can pick any given work, and it's possible to be highly intelligent, well educated, and well-read without ever having read it. We can, however, talk about canon in terms of implied viewer. In that case, canon is the set of works a work implies its viewer should know. Madoka, for example, expects its viewer to recognize magical girl tropes in general, and Cardcaptor Sakura in particular. To a much lesser extent, it implies its reader should be familiar with basic ideas about the science of thermodynamics, Buddhism, and Goethe's Faust. All of these are thus part of the Madoka canon. Note that canon has nothing to do with continuity--you can talk about multiple works sharing a continuity. Another example: the Rebuild of Evangelion movies clearly expect the viewer to have seen the original Evangelion show, but it's still not clear whether or not the movies share continuity with the show--that is, whether they take place in the same world.

Genre: [madoka ending] If you didn’t know what show this was from, what genre would you think it was? How do you know? [madoka beginning] Yet this is from the same show. What genre does it feel like, and how do you know?

We live in a time when genres are extremely flexible and most works belong to more than one. What does genre mean in this day and age, then? One way to understand genre is by means of generic traits, but that runs into a problem because of how much overlap there is between genres. For example, it’s very hard to come up with a set of generic traits for magical girl shows that doesn’t end up including Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another way to define genre is by using lines of descent and influence. In this model, a genre is understood by its influences and ancestors. In other words, looking at the ending, what older anime and stories do you see influencing Madoka? And looking at the beginning, what older anime and stories do you see influencing it? If you trace those back to certain ur-anime, seminal works that shaped entire genres around themselves, you can define its genres by the ancestral works.

Implied Author/Implied Viewer--Every work has creators. It’s tempting to try to use analysis of the work as a way to make statements about the author. For example, what do all the cross-shaped explosions and allusions to Christian or Jewish concepts (the number of the beast, Adam, Eve, and Lilith, the Sephiroth, Gaf, etc) say about its creator Hideaki Ano? [pause for answers] That was a trick question, because he didn’t put them in, Sakamoto did. All works have what is called an implied author. For a work with a single creator, the implied author can be viewed as a sort of persona the author takes on to write the story--for example, an author with strong political views may intentionally suppress those views in order to write a character who holds opposing views without turning them into a strawman. You can also view the implied author as the answer to the question “What kind of person would create this?” In collaborative works, like almost everything animated ever, the implied author is the imaginary writer-director-animator-actor who represents all of the real, individual writers, directors, animators, and so on. On the other side, the implied reader or implied viewer is the imaginary person the creators are making their work for, the answer to the question of “who would watch this.” It’s a very useful concept, because it allows you to talk meaningfully about the apparent intent behind a work even though the intent of another person is always entirely unknowable.

Signifier/Signified: For the rest of this panel we’re going to talk about postmodernism, but to get there we’re first going to have to talk about a core concept in modern analysis, the signifier-signified distinction. A symbol--which can be anything that stands in for something else, an image, a word, an idea--has two parts. The signified is the thing the symbol points to. For example, the signified for the word “rock” is a class of physical objects, rocks. The signifier is the symbol itself, in this case the sound “rocks.” The symbol is the combination of the two; change one and you change the symbol. So, “rock” is a different symbol when you’re talking about music, because even though it has the same signifier, it’s a different signified. Likewise, even though “stone” has the same signified as “rock,” it’s got a different signifier and is therefore a different symbol.

Two important things to keep in mind about symbols. First, the signifier and signified can be literally anything, as long as one stands for the object. A physical object can be a signifier for an abstract signified, such as a flag standing for a nation. A sound can stand for a sound--buzz, for example. A color can stand for an idea. A set of mathematical equations can stand for space and time. The possibilities are endless.

The second thing is that there is no necessary connection between the two. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, there is no goo you can add to a signifier that makes it into the signified. The flag is not “the country minus something.” The idea of a rock is not a rock stripped of something, and conversely, a rock is not matter wrapped around the idea of a rock. This is what I meant in the first hour about meaning being constructed--”meaning” is another word for the relationship between signifier and signified, and that relationship is entirely arbitrary. The map is not the territory,and there’s nothing you can do to the map to make it be the territory.

Postmodernism: Would normally be a much more advanced topic than can be done in a 201, but it’s so important to animation in general, and anime in particular, that I think we should try to do a basic version here. So, the basics: Modernism and postmodernism are both based on the signifier-signified distinction, the fact that meaning is constructed. Modernism largely attempts to reject significance, to see what art can do when you strip it of the requirement to mean anything, for example through absurdist drama or non-representational paintings. Postmodernism, on the  other hand, dives into the gap between signifier and signified and explores it. There are two definitions of postmodernism I really like; one’s mine and the other’s Philip Sandifer’s. Philip’s is “Taking signifiers out of their usual context and trusting them to work anyway.” Mine is “deliberately calling attention to the process by which meaning is constructed.”

 [Wing it from here]
I'll put up a video of the actual panel some time in the next few weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I saw the last hour of the panel today and it was great, thanks for posting this.