Short review for the time-poor or reading-averse:
Anime: A History is a game-changer. If you care about the history of anime you need to read it. Yes, there are a lot of words, but they’re all worth the effort.
Longer review for those who like to read me going on a bit:
Anglophone anime writing has suffered from a dearth of solid, factual background information on the labyrinthine obfuscations of the industry for over four decades. Jonathan Clements has changed that with one book – Anime: A History.
This is a book about the business of anime, its production and its audience reception. It started life as a PhD thesis, so it’s packed with facts, all impeccably sourced. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book, and will upgrade the citations of many a thesis in the next couple of years.
Given this, the bright red, girl-crowded cover might seem inappropriate, but Anime: A History is no tedious chunk of verbiage made purely to advance a clueless academic’s quest for tenure. From the earliest days of the medium, whose date of origin, first screened title and first auteur still have enough ambiguity around them to drive whodunnit lovers crazy, to the current century where fluidity of formats and markets has introduced whole new areas of uncertainty, Clements takes us on a thrill-ride through a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite as it seems and fifty shades of undisclosed lurk in the shadows. Having walked us through the cultural and technological developments of a century, give or take, he leaves us with the knowledge that, as far as anime history goes, almost everything in the past is still open to exploration and the future is uncomfortably negotiable.
Granted, a book that started life as a PhD thesis usually requires some flexing of the mental muscles, and this is no exception; but Clements hasn’t fallen into the trap of substituting academic gobbledegook for lack of research. His multilingual expertise provides access to huge amounts of hitherto unknown or scarcely explored background material, and his lucid, intelligent text leads readers down unfamiliar paths with enough clarity to make the journey of discovery enjoyable. The nature of historiography, the mutable reliability of witnesses, the loss of key sources and the shifting role of anime in Japanese culture are elegantly interwoven through the narrative. Key figures appear in a new light, and previously unknown ones emerge from obscurity. (The author’s delight in the discovery of the Shadow Staff, the wartime propaganda unit who were, in a fashion, just as much a bridge between pre-and post-war anime as Osamu Tezuka, is irresistible.)
The genesis of the book itself, as Clements explains it, mirrors the making of many anime: a patchwork of funding, spare-time jobs, family support and serendipity made the research and writing process viable. Like Tezuka, who downpriced TV anime to a level far below competitive and then looked for sponsorship and spinoffs to enable his studio and team to survive, like many of the early hobbyist-animators working at home, authors often guarantee the production of their work by cutting their costs to the bone and cross-subsidising themselves with day jobs.
Anime fans and scholars, historians, sociologists and media students will all find something of interest here. When it finally moves off the bedside table or out of your bag, Anime: A History is worth a place on your bookshelves: definitely a keeper.