Critical Analysis in Anime: a look at the Literature

*Before we begin: The following article is a small piece about some of the academic literature surrounding anime. Its not designed to be political, or to make any particular statement. Rather, it is designed to give you readers some insight into how professional scholars have gone about breaking down the key themes and ideas found within the medium. Here at the Vault, we’re trying to cultivate a group of critical thinkers and writers who can pick up on some of the patterns, commonalities, and problems found in multimedia. With any luck, some of you will be able to come away with an awareness of how you yourself can critically assess the medium you take in.*


Anime, as many of us have come understand it, entails a fairly straightforward experience. We all watch shows from the various genres, exciting ourselves with the prospect of a high-stakes shonen battle, chuckling at the wacky antics of a comedy show, even checking our surroundings carefully before casually opening up an especially lewd harem series. These seemingly mundane ways of ‘reading’ anime represent how the majority of us consume it from day to day. With this in mind, it would come as a surprise to many how intricate and complex the meta discussion surrounding the medium can become. Academics from around the world have devoted years of study to unlocking the complex problems that lie behind the ‘question’ of anime, often performing in depth research and analysis that transcends the ways in which we normally perceive it.

These few academics have chosen topics across a range of curriculums, from the political implications of a yaoi show to Marxist critiques of the otaku industry’s commercial models. The point is, professional research on anime is diverse and often times complicated. However, as with any subject of academic discussion, there are always areas with a general sense of unanimous agreement in contrast to subsections still under enormous debate. One of the most interesting circles of research to come across while exploring all that scholarly work on anime has to offer is the debate that has sprung up in gender studies surrounding the relationship between media like anime and the notion of gender identity. The following is a brief dive into the discussion, offering an idea of how intense and abstract the literature surrounding banal subjects like anime can become.

Investigating the relationship between fictions like anime and gender leads to the centre of an interesting, if contentious, discussion. The literature on this particular topic does not contain a noteworthy breadth of research. However, what many of these researchers give up in number of articles produced, they make up for in depth of research. One of the most easily accessible authors in the field is Patrick Galbraith of Duke University. A well-known writer within anime-based cultural studies, Galbraith focuses his investigations on Japan’s otaku phenomenon. His work specifically targets male sexuality in relation to anime-styled characters, including feelings of romance and physical attraction. Important to the literature is his suggestion of the possibility for animated characters to induce sexual or gendered (masculine/feminine) responses from the audience, referencing what he calls ‘the pleasure of lines’ as a primary cause. This idea is reaffirmed by a few other scholars in the field, including Japanese-american writer Kumiko Saito. Saito’s work is especially interesting, concerning itself with the phenomenon of homo-erotic fanfiction (known to most anime aficionados as yaoi). She, however, focuses on the reverse of Galbraith’s research, tackling anime’s female fan base and their perception of gender roles. The literature, including her own, generally seems to agree that there is a connection between gender identity and fictions like anime. Despite this, it is unclear, even to Saito, whether it is the animes which are affecting Japanese mentalities or the society which is slowly enacting changes upon otaku culture. This idea reflects a larger problem that many thinkers struggle to deal with, namely determining the cause and effect relationship between influential popular culture like anime and the gender identity of its audience. Fortunately, there are a few scholars that attempt to engage with this idea more thoroughly than the texts we’ve examined.


Yaoi; interesting study topic, scarily obsessive fandom

Gender identity as a function of influential media is a topic that has received a fair amount of discussion within the academic anime community. Mostly, the focus of the literature has centered around a select few shows in the late 90s and early 2000s. A genre that seemed to be of specific interest to writers was the Magical Girl genre, known in Japanese as Mahou Shoujo. Anime of this type were specifically marketed towards young girls, mostly in elementary school, and were surprisingly non-conformal towards the traditional role that Japanese women played in society. Most authors describe magical girls as empowered; they had the ability to act independently and face danger that their male counterparts in any particular show could not. However, as Kumiko Saito notes in some of her writing, girls were still confined to the idealized Japanese notion of the female lifestyle; falling in love with a cute boy, getting married, and ‘hanging up the cape’ to take care of the household. Moreover, magical girl shows became more and more sexualized and convoluted in their messaging over time as animation companies were forced by the decline of the economy to cross-market towards the predominantly male otaku community. The result was a strange series of mixed messages. On the one hand, women were portrayed as powerful, independent, and strong; on the other hand, they became sexual objects meant to be ‘dominated’. This ‘paradox’ of mixed ideas on gender roles has essentially polarized the literature and is echoed in a variety of other writings and studies, including some non-academic cultural critics like Rachael Lefler and Monique Waldman.


Magical girl anime: power or prejudice?

While Magical Girl shows have been largely shown to meld effectively with Japan’s strict social gender hierarchy, some researchers have chosen to investigate ones that reverse the paradigm entirely. For example, even if many shows during the 1990s and early 2000s still used typical Japanese gender norms to frame their content, various contrarian character archetypes also emerged during this period to challenge the dynamic. This included what cultural critic Mari Kotani calls the ‘Hyper Girl’: a female character so powerful and rebellious that she overturns the whole system of gender relations, establishing herself as dominant. This powerful aura has been reflected in the work of other scholars, many of whom look at more subtle feminist influences in anime. Montserrat Rifa Valls, for example, looks to the work of famous director Hayao Miyazaki for clues about gender relations in Japan. She finds that Miyazaki’s work has opened positions for girls and women to restructure themselves in the gender hierarchy, refusing to show females as passive or domesticated. These analyses, along with those studying the Magical Girl phenomenon seem to create a picture of the influence that anime has had on gender roles in Japan, one simultaneously supporting and undermining a pro-feminist message, throwing the litterature into intense debate about whether anime is ultimately better or worse for gender relations in Japan. Unfortunately, most of the discussion is aimed at the emancipation of women, often ignoring or even chastising changes to male and transgender perspectives on sexuality and gender. This gap has been only loosely filled in by writers like Galbraith and a few other western non-academic writers like the SocialJusticeWizard.


Unfortunately, neither maids nor traps are well-documented by anime researchers

These paragraphs only entail a brief summary of the research done by Western-based scholars on anime, even failing to introduce the full breadth of thought proposed by European and Japanese academics. More importantly, just this small slice serves as an interesting reminder to the power that media (like anime) holds over our lives. Whether we like it or not, anime is important enough to be a subject of study. Anime is a medium, and like any medium, it has the capacity to influence how we think and act. If we apply even a slightly nuanced filter on the things we watch, we begin to realize that the whimsical creatures and characters that we’ve grow up with are archetypes that we model ourselves after. The scenarios imagined in shows are reciprocated (or at least daydreamt about) in reality. And, if the debate around gender studies has any credence to its arguments, the relationships identified and propagated in our favourite shows have the power to either cement a narrow-minded worldview, or expand our morals to a more egalitarian standard. In a radically interconnected and media-full world, the power to discern meanings and implications of media thus becomes one of the greatest skills any consumer can have. So next time you’re holed up in your room hiding your yaoi-ridden screen from parents or roommates, take a moment to consider the power of the medium in front of you. After all, the topic certainly seems salient enough for the philosophers to take a crack at it.



I added this for no particular reason, I just love this image .


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