Samurai From Outer Space
Antonia Levi looks at the Japanese-ness of Japanese animation
Samurai From Outer Space
Antonia Levi
Open Court
169 pp.
All right, I confess. When I first heard the title of this book, I expected to read something written by a rabid, "anime rules, everything else sucks" kind of fan. We've had books on anime and manga by such fair and even-handed authors as Fred Schodt, Trish Ledoux, and Doug Ranney--we were due for something a bit less reasoned.

I'm happy to report I was wrong. Samurai from Outer Space approaches anime from an angle few others have tried.

Levi's linchpin is a rather obvious fact that is rarely mentioned: anime isn't made for us Westerners. It's produced by Japanese for Japanese, so a good deal of the conventions of the medium might be considered odd or even offensive by us Occidentals.

Most books and magazine articles tackle the history and stylings of early anime from its artistic origins, and anything that follows is seen in only the context of other anime. Levi, who has lived in Japan and holds a Ph.D. in Japanese history, looks at the cultural underpinnings of the things westerners love--or hate--about anime.

For instance, in the chapter "Other Heroes, Other Villains", Levi explains why anime seems to be cluttered with flawed heroes and noble villains by citing relevant Japanese history and giving examples of similar characters in other Japanese forms of storytelling. Along the way, she calls our attention to some things about Western media that we take for granted, but which someone from outside our culture might find odd. The highlights of Japanese history and culture are interesting, and she provides a list of recommended books for those that want to explore a bit further.

Levi's style is informal, loose, and easygoing. It's clear that she knows her stuff, and her writing style gets a lot of information across easily and quickly. However, there were some times when I found she hadn't dug deep enough where something other than Japanese history was concerned. For instance, after a few pages of explaining how Japanese mythology works its way into anime, she states that "Western authors have also begun to experiment with combining different mythologies to produce something new." In the following paragraph, she continues with, "American television has also begun to experiment with retelling ancient Western myths for modern audiences." This suggests that adapting folklore is a recent phenomenon--but then, what were comic book characters like Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Thor, and their spinoffs? What about James Joyce's Ulysses? More to the point, what were all those cartoons spoofing or modernizing fairy tales, Biblical stories, and the like?

She also occasionally falls prey to fan mythology. At one point she mentions the anime in-jokes in Star Trek: The Next Generation, saying that "a large number of the people associated with the Star Trek series are otaku and freely acknowledge their debt to the Japanese art form by including small anime in-jokes in the scripts." In the accompanying footnote, she cites as an example that the "sister ship of the Enterprise... is the Yamato", implying that it is named after the ship from Space Cruiser Yamato. Actually, the only ones who are on record admitting to being anime fans are some of the effects and set design crew, particularly Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda--hardly "a large number". As for the Yamato: even a non-Trekkie such as myself is aware that the larger Federation ships are named after old battleships, such as the Enterprise (remember Star Trek IV?) and... the Yamato.

This may seem like a minor nitpick, but these inaccuracies crop up with such regularity it becomes irritating. It's doubly exasperating when this is the only fault in what I consider to be a significant addition to what little Western anime references there are. We can only hope that future editions of Samurai from Outer Space will take care of this.

Originally printed in fps #14
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