Review of Bolton’s Interpreting Anime

Review of Interpreting Anime by Christopher Bolton

Chris Reyns-Chikuma

Christopher Bolton. Interpreting Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Paperback. 336 pp. $24. ISBN-13: 9781517904036.

Over the past 25 years, anime has continuously attracted not only fans but also academics. Bolton’s brilliant book joins a growing collection of outstanding academic works about Japanese animation, such as those by Anne Allison, Jacqueline Berndt, Ian Condry, Thomas Lamarre, and Susan J. Napier, as well as works in Japanese by Murakami Takashi, Otsuka Eiji, and Azuma Hiroki, most of which are rarely translated. That these texts converge in Bolton’s study is one of its major strengths. Being both a Japanologist and a comparatist, Bolton is able to read and bring together rich Western texts like Lamarre’s, Lacan’s, and Jameson’s with scholarly works written in Japanese, sometimes to corroborate or complement each other and at other times to challenge prevailing Western views on anime and Japanese culture. 

Although younger than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Japanese science fiction (SF) has been prevalent in literature and other media since the 1960s, especially in anime. Although anime covers all genres (historical, romantic, erotic, pornographic, etc.), SF, with its subgenres like mecha and cyberpunk that originated as anime, is ubiquitous. As a specialist in Japanese studies, Bolton also has expertise in SF. He is the author of two books on the subject, one on avant-garde writer Abe Kobo (2009) and another, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams, Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007), for which he served as co-editor. He is also a founding member of the editorial board of Mechademia, the academic journal on anime.

In Interpreting Anime, Bolton has chosen six SF anime, some already famous, to make a case for the richness of these “texts.” He begins by asking, “What can anime do that other media cannot?” (6), and although I would argue that his answer to this question is not convincing, his chapters are nonetheless thorough and illuminating. Bolton argues that what most long-feature anime do best is to strike a balance between immersion and distanciation. The shortcomings of this argument are that the question is too general, and he inevitably focuses only on examples that support his thesis. The question asked in the title of the last chapter, “It’s Art but Is It Anime?” (233), is revealing: Miyazaki’s artful animation would not be considered anime because they tend to be mostly immersive. Similarly, one could argue that some American animations, which are not mentioned at all, could also be interpreted as using the same balancing technique (see for example Eric Herhuth’s Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination, 2017). Therefore, readers are not given a satisfying answer to his too general question about anime.

Undeniably, Bolton’s hermeneutical methodology (obvious from its book title) provides sophisticated arguments and analysis that should convince the few remaining skeptics who are unconvinced that popular media/genre is potentially as rich as our literary texts. To this, Bolton adds two strong specificities. The first one is that he analyzes not only narrative devices and dialogues but also visual language in a very detailed, precise, and convincing way. The second is that, being also a comparatist, Bolton performs “text” analysis within a comparative paradigm by comparing the same narrative in various media, i.e., anime with theatre, manga, TV anime, and novels. However, Bolton emphasizes the abundance and richness of self-reflective symbolic devices, such as the mirror and the half-opaque window, as an insightful postmodernist reader-scholar, but what of the immense majority of other viewers who are not academics? We see here the weak point of his study: the absence of the readers’ agency within these insightful interpretations. Hence, in Chapter 4, when he first considers the otaku in his analysis, it is to make “it” (the otaku) play a role inside the “text” as another distancing device. Interestingly, Bolton sees the otaku not as a “separate group or even a separate way of reading but to describe a potential in any viewer and any viewing—the potential to have a third eye open as we become aware of the artifice or artificiality, and become able to see ourselves watching the text” (156). This otaku reading would be more idealized, “a mode of reading associated particularly if not exclusively with anime and its viewers” (168). Moreover, the author favors progressive critical readings rather than conservative ones, or rather he favors the tensions between these two readings, when most people might see one or the other in the anime but not both.

In Chapter 6, after using Lamarre’s subtle hermeneutical methodology, Bolton directly mentions other methodologies, such as Allison’s and Condry’s ethnographic approaches. He then addresses Otsuka Eiji’s character and “grand-non-narrative” (216) interpretation, as partly integrated by Marc Steinberg in his media studies approach, by writing, “With their ideas about the decline of individual narratives and individual auteurs, and/or the need to focus more broadly on characters, collaborations, franchises, and commercial contexts, the critics above position their work variously as a supplement, alternative, or replacement for the kind of interpretive close readings of individual anime and individual directors practiced in this book” (217). He then considers whether we can combine these two approaches by evaluating three different franchises of Blood. His answer, although well-rounded, is not completely convincing. 

To conclude, this book is a very useful and enlightening reading for many scholars and students of literature and media. This is especially true for those without much knowledge about Japan and/or anime. But, as the book insists, if students, like anime fans, read in a more participative way through the balancing act of immersion and distancing, anime (and other media) studies need to integrate their points of view. In his book, Bolton uses “we” a lot; however, if “we,” as academics, still want a grand narrative of tolerance and social progress, we need to teach and write not only through lectures, regardless of their quality, but from the students-readers-viewers-fans-producers’ perspectives also.

Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1 (2019, TV)

Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1

Michael Pitts

LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Blur Studio, distributed by Netflix, 2019.

Currently in production of its second season, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS is an anthology series produced by Netflix. Bringing together the talents of different casts and creative teams, the series consists of standalone episodes exploring diverse themes of the science fiction genre. These episodes, which do not exceed 20 minutes in length, reflect disparate genres such as cyberpunk, alternate history, and dystopia while covering themes from AI and transhumanism to colonization. They raise, for example, questions concerning the future of humankind, the destructive consequences of colonial expansion and capitalism, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the privatization of space travel, and the dilemmas of robotic consciousness. Yet, while the series offers some interesting explorations within each of these fields of interest, it is problematic in its traditional framing of issues related to sex and, more specifically, its catering to the male gaze.

A re-imagining of Tim Miller and David Fincher’s initial plan to remake the animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal (1981), Love, Death & Robots continues its predecessor’s efforts of legitimizing adult-oriented animation and genre fiction. Like Heavy Metal, it utilizes advanced and diverse animation techniques, pushing the genre into new territory. Led by Miller’s Blue studio, which is known for its hyper-realistic, video-game style aesthetics, and produced using a variety of animation tools, the show is characterized by vivid, realistic details and cutting-edge animation. Uniting the disparate aesthetic styles of the episodes is their depiction of tropes common to the underground comics of the 1970s, which in turn influenced the production of Heavy Metal. Like the 1970s adult-oriented graphic fiction that skirted censorship rules, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS centers explicit content including sexuality and violence.

It is this intermingling of sex and violent content that makes the series, like its comics and Heavy Metal predecessors, problematic. Like Heavy Metal, the program caters to heteronormative male viewers through its presentation of sex and the female body. Though it occasionally presents non-normative sexuality, for example, these portrayals of queer characters frame female bodies within patriarchal conceptions of desirability. Each female character populating these episodes acts, as Laura Mulvey puts it in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “as an erotic object for the spectator within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (62). Women in LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS are therefore predominantly portrayed in accordance with the desires of a heteronormative male audience. Also, like Heavy Metal, the program frequently depicts violence towards women and emphasizes gratuitous sexual and violent details. Female characters, for example, are brutally hunted and murdered, such as in “The Witness,” or brutalized and mutilated, such as in “The Secret War.” Other episodes, such as “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” are suddenly interrupted by sex scenes clearly developed and included to appease heterosexual male viewers. While the program caters to the male gaze and includes toxic portrayals of women and violence, a few episodes do divert from this patriarchal framing of sex and gender. “Good Hunting,” for example, follows the plight of a female huli jing or fox spirit as she escapes sex slavery and mounts an attack upon the patriarchy in early 20th-century Hong Kong. Another episode, “Helping Hand,” similarly diverts from this catering to heteronormative male viewers in its centering of a female protagonist who demonstrates incredible courage and strength in the face of eminent danger. Overall, however, though it includes these limited, non-patriarchal presentations of female characters, Love, Death & Robots problematically frames women, sex, and violence.

To a limited extent, the show also comments on other issues such as colonialism and capitalism. “Good Hunting,” for example, emphasizes the legacy of colonization and its effect upon women through its portrayal of women sold as sex slaves as a result of colonialism. “Suits,” on the other hand, undermines traditional stories of American individualism and self-reliance by revealing that the farmers upon which the episode centers are actually colonizers attacking the indigenous alien species of the planet they desire to control. “Helping Hand” imagines the consequences of corporate space exploration upon astronauts whose labor is exploited at great cost. As these examples illustrate, the series builds upon pre-existing trends and themes of science fiction and occasionally offers interesting insights into topics pivotal to the future of humankind such as environmental concerns, space travel, labor practices, the expansion of human civilization, and transhumanism. Overall, then, while LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS offers occasional commentary on issues common to science fiction, the brevity of its episodes, its patriarchal framing of issues related to sex and violence, and its catering to the male gaze limit its potential as an innovative work of SF.


Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory, edited by Constance Penley, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57-68. 

Review of Rick and Morty, season 4

Review of Rick and Morty, season 4

Max Suechting

Rick and Morty, season 4. Adult Swim, 2019–2020.

The least interesting thing to say about season 4 of Rick and Morty is that it is, generally, both good and bad in the ways that the show’s previous seasons have been good and bad. At its best, it is smart, tightly-written, and searingly funny, alternately experimenting with and lampooning the devices of science-fiction and advancing simple but compelling characters along a series of wildly imaginative conflicts. The breadth of literary and cultural history it simultaneously draws from and skewers is impressive and probably as enjoyable for the seasoned SF stalwart as the novice or newcomer, with this season variously digesting Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway, Batman-esque acid vats, Akira!, heist movies, Edge of Tomorrow, and more. At worst, the season is so loaded with references it becomes difficult for even the conscientious viewer to piece each episode together. Luckily, though, the episodes move at such a breakneck pace that this turns out mostly not to matter very much. Once the viewer settles into the experience, Rick and Morty becomes a kind of gamified television, unspooling familiar or almost-familiar references every few seconds.

Of course, this referentiality has been the series’ all-but-explicit subject matter since its inception. Rick and Morty has always been self-consciously about itself—or rather, about its own reflexive relationship with science fiction as a genre as well as the conventions of medium, character, plot, and so forth. The formula of a typical episode goes something like this: begin with a well-known media property or fictional trope, jam it together with a handful of other references, lay them out along an archetypal SF plot, and season heavily with complex, depressive, and/or fourth-wall-breaking metahumor. If the show’s aesthetic architecture is an improvisatory jumble of pastiche, reference, and imitation, its narrative engine is fueled by recursion, repetition, and intertextuality. Indeed, much of Rick and Morty’s charm comes from its celebration of its own intellectual indebtedness, genially rearranging its own source code with the bottomless delight of a child immersed in a Lego-and-Erector-set playworld. The result is a show which delights in endlessly plumbing its own increasingly reflexive relationship to its forebears, obsessively showing its work while at the same time acknowledging that work as at least partially meaningless.

What is novel about this season in particular, however, is that its metafictional churn is applied most strenuously not only to SF as a genre but also to the show itself—or, more specifically, to the tension between its status as both a piece of art and a commercial media product. For example, the season’s sixth episode, “Never Ricking Morty,” finds the titular pair trapped aboard a “Story Train” running along an endlessly looping track—a direct reference to series co-creator Dan Harmon’s famous story circle. While aboard the metaphor, the pair must puzzle their way through a variety of literalized narrative devices to “break the fifth wall” with their “story potential.” The episode concludes with grandpa and grandson happily zapped back to the Smith family home, entranced with what we see now to be not an extradiegetic prison but rather a simple toy train Morty purchased for Rick, who rhapsodizes:

You did the most important thing: you bought something. . . . Your only purpose in life is to buy and consume merchandise, and you did it. You went into a store, an actual honest to God store. … And you bought something. You didn’t ask questions or raise ethical complaints. You just looked straight into the bleeding jaws of capitalism, and said, “Yes daddy, please.” I’m so proud of you. I only wish you could’ve bought more.

But when the suddenly train derails, Rick’s mood sours:

Didn’t you hear what I said?! Consume, Morty! Nobody’s out there shopping with this fucking virus!

The episode thus concludes with an elaborately-constructed meditation on the relationship between commodity status, narrative logic, and audience satisfaction—with a character all but shouting the conclusion at the audience in the final thirty seconds—built atop an impossibly contemporary reference.

Such moments are par for the Rick and Morty course: speedrun absurdism maintaining its forward momentum by ruthlessly undercutting its own sentiment. Of course, it is not surprising that an “adult cartoon” should aim to soothe its audiences’ own neuroses by layering bleak cynicism, one-degree-shy-of-treacly moralizing, and wide-ranging pop culture knowledge (BoJack Horseman works in much the same way). Yet, despite its restless oscillation between desire and disdain for true feeling, Rick and Morty mostly manages to remain entertaining and lighthearted rather than slipping into pointless nerd solipsism.

This is not to say that solipsism is absent, of course, although it’s less a property of any specific part of the show itself and more the cumulative impression the series leaves on your brain. In the show’s best and most pleasurable moments, it plays like a hyperdrive version of A Thousand and One Nights (a comparison which the characters all but make themselves). Four seasons in, however, Harmon’s relentless equation of anti-social cynicism with sophistication and intelligence has started to wear through the show’s adventure-of-the-week format in a way that is harder and harder to ignore. In those moments, Rick and Morty feels less like a lighthearted romp through SF history and more like asymptotically performative snark, an affectation which unfortunately registers less as scandalous or risqué and more as vaguely annoying. (For instance, the season’s fourth episode includes an incestuous dragon-powered “ten-slut soul-orgy,” a phrase which is as tiresome to comprehend as it was to write.)

When all is said and done, however, the show’s most important assets aren’t its willingness to offend or the breadth of its references, but rather its creators’ pairing of witty inventiveness with a complex take on media and intertextuality. Hopefully Harmon and his collaborators can keep drawing from them for years to come.