Anime: A Guide to Japanese Animation
An invaluable reference on Japanese animation gets tripped up in translation
Anime: A Guide to Japanese Animation (1958-1988)
Andrea Baricordi, Massimiliano de Giovanni, Andrea Pietroni, Barbara Rossi, and Sabrina Tunesi

Translated by Adeline D'Opera
Edited by Claude J. Pelletier

320 pp.
Japanese animation, otherwise known as anime, has become impossible to avoid: Pokemon, Digimon, Card Captors, and Dragonball are on every channel, Princess Mononoke and Akira still run in repertory cinemas, and you can't go to a video store without seeing shelves full of anime titles, half of which are rented out at any given time. But with that same ubiquity, there is a curious lack of hard knowledge. The fan culture which supported anime for decades has long relied on rumor and wishful thinking as much as fact, abetted by the fact that few of its proponents speak or read the original language.

And so it is that Anime: A Guide to Japanese Animation is particularly welcome. A translation of the 1993 Italian book Anime: Guida al Cinema d'Animazione Giapponese, it features is a list of every commercial anime production released between 1958 and 1988. Flipping randomly through its pages, the structure is obvious. Each chapter focuses on a year's releases, listed by format (theatrical, television or direct-to-video) and in chronological order. Each entry is usually accompanied by a plot synopsis and any other relevant information. The big picture is provided by a summary of the year's trends at the beginning of each chapter.

The book is published in English through Protoculture, a Montreal-based small-press publisher whose backbone is an anime magazine called Protoculture Addicts, the longest-running such publication still extant. I'm pretty familiar with Protoculture; I first met them back when they produced Addicts out of their Université de Montréal dorm, and for a little while I worked with them on the magazine.

It's precisely because I'm familiar with Protoculture that my blood ran cold when I opened the book to read it. There it was, in black type, right under the translator credit: "Edited & Presented by Claude J. Pelletier."

I should complete my previous disclaimer: For a couple of issues I served as Protoculture Addicts' English editor. As the founders were all francophones, their writing was prone to the usual mistakes that most people make when writing in anything other than their mother tongue; my job was too smooth things out.

So why didn't they hire an English editor, proofreader, or copyeditor for Anime when they clearly have a weakness in that area? I couldn't tell you, but the book clearly suffers for this choice. Awkward phrasings and classic francophone-to-anglophone misspellings (e.g., "lenght" for "length") abound. This sets an unfortunate trend for the whole book, as language and wording are behind most of its problems. The most obvious example of iffy translation is the repeated use of the word "famous", used interchangeably to mean popular, well-known, admired, recognizable, or prominent--and at that, sometimes only within a particular group of people. This leads to a one-two punch where shades of meaning are completely lost and the text seems more repetitive than it is.

If that were the extent of it, it would be regrettable but forgivable. The trouble comes when language interferes with the book's stated purpose as a reference guide. For example, City Hunter is described as having "humorous and erotic scenes," when it's really no wilder than an episode of Will & Grace. Ryo, the main character, is perpetually hot to trot, and his lecherousness is played for laughs, but that's about it. However, "erotic scenes" implies a very different kind of show.

More frustrating are the title translations. For each entry, the original Japanese title is given, followed by the literal English translation and the titles used for Italian, French, or English releases. It's an excellent idea, but in several cases the translated English title given doesn't match up with what has long been used in the fan community (and consequently in other publications) for decades. Kido Senshi Gundam becomes Gundam, the Warrior With the Mobile Armor, despite the use of Mobile Suit Gundam as a the official English title in Japan, among Western fans, and more recently for the licensed North American video release. How is someone supposed to look a title up if they don't know what to look for?

Of course, some of the problems stem from the source material. I've long complained that Japanese animation fans, for the most part, don't actually understand how animation is made. This is readily apparent in the entry for Majokko Meg Chan (Meg, the Little Magician), which states: "A high point of the series was its very rich artistic staff, who rotated through the production of every episode." It sounds remarkable, except that that's how most animated TV series are made. The same entry also credits Bonjin Nagaki as the one who "took care of the animation." What exactly does that mean? Was Nagaki the lead animator? The director? Then there's the later mention of a show's use of "step one" animation, which clearly should be "stop motion." That's likely a translation error, but it still points to a lack of understanding on the part of the translator or, less forgivably, the editor.

Sadly there's more, too much to list here. However, the book isn't a total loss. The information presented here will probably surprise many skeptics (anime has a much wider range than just science fiction and pornography) and true believers (a lot of anime has been quite derivative and aimed at kids), and the raw data gives a good insight into general trends and the way the anime industry has evolved. Of particular interest is the way the OAV (Original Animation Video, or direct-to-video) market exploded in so little time, and the shifts in themes that came about once studios were freed of television's constraints.

Alas, data alone does not a reference make. The Protoculture gang had a great opportunity to make an important and entertaining contribution to anime--heck, animation--studies, but it's been soured by the choices they made. One of the recurring laments from anime fans is that no one takes it, or them, seriously. The cavalier treatment of this book is a step to understanding why.

Originally appeared in January Magazine (February 2001)