Death of the Animator

Mayu (G-s N-k)

A strange and twisted journey into methodology, during which I will kill off all animators, everywhere, namecheck the Father of Western Literature and (the ultimate challenge) talk about Gundam without boring people who aren’t interested in Gundam.

Why the busty succubus? Read on to find out, or perhaps to find out why that’s the wrong question. Alternatively, if you’re not very interested in ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’, go read another anime blog – there are plenty of good ones out there – and wait for my next entry.

I read. Reading is what I do. While I read, I try to analyse and interpret (I pay good money to be trained to do this, after all). Something similar happens when I watch anime. The amount of anime-related opinion out there (the otakusphere?) suggests that pretty much everyone else does, to some extent, too.

Now, my literary background would suggest that in the terms of this distinction, I am more of an ‘anime literaist’ [Audit Trail: that distinction was discovered via another blogger’s methodology entry]. This is probably correct, though I hope I have demonstrated that I do pay attention to visuals.

[While I’m on the subject, I will note that I find ‘literaist’ a clumsy term. Personally I would prefer ‘anime littérateur‘ or ‘anime literatus‘, depending on the pretentious language of your choice. Also, it strikes me that the otakusphere as a whole may be skewed towards narrative/textual approaches, as ‘visualists’ are less likely to be interested in writing about anime – though there are plenty who are, I’m sure.]

The following piece of methodological theory is, therefore, inspired by a critical position I adopt when I read text. It’s also quite possibly wrong, and almost certainly a position which I will ignore or break regularly . . . but, as they say, ‘If life gives you hypocrisy, get blogging.’ Let’s use an example of analysis, one which doesn’t contain spoilers and hopefully will be fairly simple, and accessible regardless of taste in anime. This will help me to isolate what I want to talk about. So, hwaet!

Ok, Mobile Suit Gundam, Region 1 (dub-only) release, Episode 25, 19:40, this happens:

Blinding a Mobile Suit
Non-Gundam fans, please don’t switch off

Ignoring context, terminology and background information which would only be of interest to Gundam afficionados, this is a beam saber being thrust through the mono-eye (main camera) of a giant robot, by the very first Gundam. The battle is taking place in a harbour. The more Classically-educated among you may already have spotted a possible allusion. Yep, as always [?] it all comes back to Homer, in this case a passage from the Odyssey which I will quote at length (Rieu’s translation, Book IX; warning, graphic description ahead):

Seizing the olive pole, they drove its sharpened end into the Cyclops’ eye, while I used my weight from above to twist it home, like a man boring a ship’s timber with a drill . . . In much the same way we handled our pole with its red-hot point and twisted it in his eye till the blood boiled up around the burning wood. The fiery smoke from the blazing eyeball singed his lids and brow all round, and the very roots of his eye crackled in the heat.

Phew. And there isn’t even a Parental Advisory sticker on this . . . at least I finished the quotation before the aural simile describing the hissing noise of the eyeball burning.

Anyhow, I sit there seeing this for the first time, and I think to myself: ‘Is this an allusion to the blinding of the Cyclops?’ Then I think: ‘What did the animators and director intend? Could they have been alluding to the Odyssey?’ The similarities are certainly suggestive – the giant robot’s eye is obviously Cyclopean in design, and it’s being destroyed by a thrusting, heated weapon (and the act is in a nautical journey context). And it’s quite possible that the animators were familiar with Homer.

Then again, it could just as easily be coincidental. If the pilot of the original Gundam wanted to blind this enemy, he would have to destroy the mono-eye; I doubt that Gundam was equipped with beam sabers, and the enemy given a Cyclopean eye, in order to make a throwaway allusion. Also, Mobile Suit Gundam isn’t ‘deep’. It isn’t layered with (complex?) symbolism (I’m looking at YOU, Evangelion) or loaded with literary references to the point of nausea (I’m looking at YOU, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence).

Now, all of the above thinking is based on a fallacious premise: that meaning (read: symbolism et cetera, et cetera) comes from the studio, the director and the animators. This kind of thinking leads to an image of the analyst/blogger/reader as something like this:

Zeon Submarine
I realise water doesn’t show well in static images, but this is (trust me) a submarine

The analytical submarine blogger descends into the anime he’s watching, attempting to catalogue all the messages intentionally implanted in the series by the studio. Obviously, some shows are deeper than others, like different oceans. There’s also, in this model of analysis, a bottom limit – when the submarine reaches the seabed, or the critic discovers the author’s intentions – beyond which the analysis cannot progress. Barthes, in an article which helped to inspire this entry, described this limit: ‘when the Author has been found, the text is explained – victory to the critic’.

There are two major problems, as I see it, with the Submarine Model of analysis. It is impossible to succeed – you can’t really reach the bottom – I’m not Hideako Anno, so I’ve no idea what he’s thinking. Even if I am Anno, I’m still not the same person as the Anno who produced Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The other problem is that meaning doesn’t happen (at least for the analyst) in the minds of the animators; it happens in the mind(s) of the viewer(s). The blinding of the Cyclopean giant robot works as an allusion to the Odyssey if you’ve read the Odyssey. If you haven’t, and no one points it out, it doesn’t exist. No point agonising over the animator’s intentions. What the analyst needs to track is the relationship between the content of the anime and the mind of the viewer.

The better model for analysis is something like this:

Zeon Spaceship

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Spaceship Model of analysis, where you can go pretty much where you want. In fact, this explains why Submariners couldn’t find the bottom of the ocean: they were on a spaceship all the time, they just hadn’t figured out how to use the instruments and controls. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, you can pretend you’re on a submarine (talk about the animators’ intentions) if you like, but you always know that really you’re on a spaceship, so you won’t make any disastrous errors.

Now, if interpretative meaning resides in the viewer, not in the anime, then there is no such thing as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ anime; there’s just anime, with deep and shallow viewers, and deep and shallow discussion. (And this is where the possiblities for ego-inflation begin: consider for a moment whether you consider yourself a deep or a shallow viewer.)

Certainly, there is a distinction in quality – there’s good and bad anime, and also anime which I like and anime which I dislike (good and liking do not always match) – but not a distinction between ‘deep’ shows which are suited to analysis, and ‘shallow’ ones which are not.

In fact, much, much more fun can be had extracting meanings from a light fanservice show (if you enjoy it) than from something which shoves symbolism in your face (hello again, Evangelion, and hello ef). And the meaning of light and fluffy shows is more insidious: a Dark and Symbolic show signals that it wants to make you think, while the possible messages of things which are ‘just entertainment’ sneak past your radar much more easily.

[This is ‘Why I Didn’t Watch ef‘: if you’re getting wrapped up in analysing things that the animators have provided, you’re being suckered into playing their game. Behind SHAFT’s idiosyncratic approach to animating it, ef may or may not have a brilliant story full of pathos and drama, but life is too short for all the drama out there.]

Ultimately, however low in quality something is,

It’s Not Meaningless!
An example of a light fanservice show, though it wandered a little from its roots

In truth, this is probably an extreme position, taken up only half-seriously. At the least, I am arguing that less attention should be paid to the animators’ intentions, paving the way for inventive readings of anime – any anime. And, as I warned initially, I’m unlikely to ever actually manage this, so it’s probably a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

I would welcome objections.

[The busty succubus? Well, you shouldn’t be asking why I put her there, but what her presence does to your mind. Because this is about you the reader, not me the blogger. For the record, it’s because I like the repetition of ‘bus’ in ‘busty succubus’, and it’s up to you whether or not you believe me.]


  • This Angel’s Thesis was involved in the writing of the above. While I’m sure it’s possible to watch Ninomiya-kun just to relax, I’m also sure that there are things to write about in it.
  • This long and thought-provoking essay over at Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!? is one which I will have cause to refer to in later entries. However, the second paragraph contains a classic (I summarise) ‘Eva‘s crosses are meaningless because Anno just threw them in’ moment of authorial intention analysis. There are, I feel, better reasons for ignoring the crosses than that (like the fact that they’re too obvious – no ego-inflation possibilities in deciphering those).
  • When I originally wrote this, I was not aware that some time ago, the Anime Blogging Collective wrote (or rather, were maneouvred into writing by an evil genius?) a collection of posts on the subject of depth in anime. Sadly, as they’re a Collective, no simple link is possible, but I’m sure a little quality time with Google would render results.
  • Someone mentioned (incorrectly, I feel) the Intentional Fallacy when commenting on this post at The End of the World (I love being able to type ‘at the end of the world’), which put me in mind of the issue.
  • I mentioned Barthes above; I’m playing with his article ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image – Music – Text.
  • Also important would be The Personal Heresy (Lewis and Tillyard), and some of T.S. Eliot’s thinking, especially ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (which can be found in his Selected Prose).
  • Some folks at My Anime List who helped me to refine my argument by presenting objections (not linked for privacy reasons – I haven’t asked their permission).

27 responses to “Death of the Animator

  1. Great post. But I strongly disagree with the statement that “meaning doesn’t happen in the minds of the animators but in the mind(s) of the viewer(s).” Surely, fans made a lot of false interpretations, but don’t underestimate intentions of animator.

    Take for example Zipang and compare it with Nimitz.

  2. Post-structuralism and I have a difficult history, but ultimately I agree audience response is more important than the original authorial intent. And countless counter-arguments have now just caused my brain to explode all over the monitor.

    I love [Lit] Theory. Its fundamental maxim is that you’re not allowed to truly believe anything (Truth is Provisional, as Peter Barry would say), so it’s at once incredibly informative and painfully unsatisfying.

    Still, excellent post. Good work on the highly suggestive sword-thrusting screenshot, too.

  3. The significance of a connection or correlation between what the creators intend a piece to mean and what the viewer decides it means is an interesting one; I can think of a few examples where a definite message has been misunderstood by many viewers, but equally there are some that could well have been open to interpretation because the writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with an answer in the first place.

    I’m sure more thoughts on this post will occur to me when I re-read it but at this stage I congratulate you on a well-written and thoughtful article. Keep up the good work. :)

  4. @ general so far: thankyou for the encouraging feedback.

    @ charz: I’m afraid to say I haven’t seen Zipang, so I don’t really grasp your example. If you’re arguing that the animators have absolute control over the plot and appearance of the anime then I’d agree, but I still think that they don’t have any control over what the fans do with it once it’s broadcast.

    But I’m not sure I understand your argument, so I could be making the wrong response, in which case I apologise.

    @ Hige: If I’m causing someone’s brain to spread itself all over their monitor, I must be doing something right! Theory is one of the most enjoyable bits of my degree (though it’s unpleasantly difficult) and part of the fun is the way theorists can never decide whether they’re discovering the Meaning of Everything, or just playing a vast intellectual joke on the world (Barthes’ book equating reading to sex comes (pun intended) to mind), while enjoying free lunches at their universities’ expense.

    Incidentally, I love that particular MSG episode, partly because of the Cyclopean blinding, and partly because there’s a shot with a lighthouse in earlier on which always makes me say ‘this is why I love mecha anime’.

    @ concretebadger: It’s a sticky issue. Especially if the majority of people who watch something interpret it differently to the director (classic literary examples would be reader sympathy for Satan in Paradise Lost and perhaps for Humbert Humbert in Lolita).

    Still, the academics who teach me seem generally to be in the process of withdrawing from the entirely subjective, postmodern ideas I used for this post, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for them. ‘Never unnecessarily irritate someone who marks your essays’, as they say.

  5. For reference, here’s the ABC compilation site (although I’m not sure how much it’s updated):

    Intriguing post, I especially like the comparison and analogy made with Submarine and Spaceship Watching, and while I’m a bit too vacation-minded to make a lot of comments, and while I like taking light shows to pieces just like you mention, I do wonder if analyzing simple shows is as carefree as you say.

    I say this because I do imagine it’s possible to overanalyze a show, to get too much out of it, to become a sort of conspiracy theorist. There’s probably a point somewhere, way out there in the Spaceship Theory, where you realize that that star out in the distance might just be a star off in the distance. It’s fun wondering whether the reference of Schroedinger’s Cat in a harem show is on purpose (this is a real one, and I do think that it parallels the main character, but it’s Kanon, so I’ll disengage the ranting mode now), but it’s probably more true that a lot of space really is just…empty stuff.

  6. The degree of awe in which this post left me was akin to that of episode 1 of TTGL, i.e. MORE PLEASE!

    To nitpick a bit, like CCY, what I don’t agree with the Spaceship analogy is how it all breaks down at some point if you’re going to say that you can find meaning in everything: it is one thing to relate Marxism to Claymore’s system because it fits reasonably well, and another to say that you can find the bourgeoisie-proletariat relationship present in Bokurano’s world because of those creator people things (bourgeoisie) controlling the means of production (living) in terms of the parallel worlds they have power over(proletariat). That being said, I agree with what you said, and think it a very succinctly stated post.

    Digressing a little somewhat, wouldn’t you say that you’re falling into the trap of ef by not watching it too? Heads I win, tails you lose. Part of the “art” aspect of ef is the paradoxical manner in which it presents itself: on one hand, it aspires to bring its genre (eroge) to heights much like Evangelion did with mecha so many years ago; on the other hand, it seems to want to intentionally alienate the very people they want to reach out by means of its design — the joke here being that those who usually snob eroge adaptations will be skipping it all the more due to its decidedly eccentric, but nevertheless unwarranted style that doesn’t seem to add anything to it.

    I’d like to point out here too that there’s a distinct difference between SHAFT’s style and Minori’s source material. From what little game CG I’ve seen, it appears that a majority of the scenes, when not filtered through SHAFT’s idiosyncratic lens found in the first two episodes, were true to the source. I see you as faulting SHAFT for doing no more than what KyoAni did in their capacity for Misuzu, or Ayu’s final scenes in their anime adaptations, and that’s where I think you’re wrong, even if this is nitpicking. As far as adaptations go ef has been quite a good one.

    Personally, I found ef to be as good as TTGL in terms of genre. Not a heartfelt, overtly personal thing like, say, Honey & Clover, Karekano, or even Byousoku 5cm (although I’m guessing here that a comparison to Kumo no Mukou would be better off), but a thing of wonder and beauty. It has many jaw-dropping moments, but rather than feeling what the characters went through I eventually tended towards feeling for the characters, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it wasn’t what I’d call a must-see in that regard.

    Eroge connoisseurs lauded ef like mecha ones did TTGL, to be sure, but this isn’t saying that you had to appreciate mecha to like TTGL, or appreciate eroge to like ef, for that matter. There’s something in it for everyone, but I saw ef to be a case study of what the genre could do, and do well, without being steeped in its conventions so much as to be a turn-off to the layman who couldn’t give a toss.

  7. A minority of those who view any anime series will not understand references made to allude to other arts. For that matter, most art forms shares that same characteristic. It is true that there is a proper way to interpret a piece of art; however, that does not implicitly mean that the personal experiences of each individual that experiences art is any less valid. The proper way to view something is simply the accepted means of experience and nothing more.

    Coincidentally, this is the basis of my anime blogging “philosophy.”

  8. @ CCY: Space is, indeed, mostly empty stuff, but (keeping with the Gundam analogies) there’s no reason why we can’t throw a few colonies up. If the viewer is sophisticated enough [cue arrogance] then even the emptiest anime is dripping in accidental meaning. Sophisticated viewers are like spacefarers with the technology to build colonies in especially remote bits of space, I suppose. The trick is keeping control of those troublesome colonies once they’re established. Just like primary texts, interpretations have a nasty tendency to rebel against their creators.

    Incidentally, I recall reading your Schrödinger’s Cat-related article with pleasure.

    @ Owen: I’m very chuffed if this produces anything like TTGL-level reactions (‘I cried POST-STRUCTURALIST TEARS’). Though I can’t promise to produce something like this that regularly. Theory lends itself to an OVA-like schedule.

    Marxism claims to be an all-encompassing paradigm, so (while I haven’t watched Bokurano, or read the manga) the Marxist approach might be to consider not whether there are any obvious class-relationships embodied within the plot, but rather what the story says about individual action vs. historical inevitability. I would also expect a Marxist critic to pay attention to the material conditions of the series’ production: what kind of society is Japan right now? And how does Bokurano reflect these origins? Does the show attempt to conceal reality or to reflect it? Perhaps Bokurano describes a process whereby one or more characters are forced by upheavals in fortune to ‘face with sober senses’ the real conditions of life (which then form the premises upon which Marx builds his church Communist theory)?

    Not having watched ef, I’m prepared to take your word (backed up by the collective and almost universal blogasm of the otakusphere) for it that it’s good, and worth watching. I’m not really faulting SHAFT for anything; on the contrary, I admire their achievement in bringing about the aforementioned blogasm. Rather, I’m giving an example of heavy, overt symbolism, plainly intended to ‘mean something’ by the animators. This I find rather pedestrian and a little irritating. The second sentence of the ef paragraph is a reply to the implicit objection ‘But ef should really be watched because of its story’.

    Rather then an exploration of the surface symbolism, one example of what I’d like to read about ef would be some thoughts on what sort of messages about love it carries, whether these form a coherent and consistent position and (if they do) how that position relates to reality.

    @ j.valdez: I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that there’s a proper way to experience anime, but I certainly believe that some ways are more interesting, and more productive in analytical terms. Though whether or not there is a proper way is a question high on my list of Questions to Ask if there is an afterlife, somewhere between The Problem of Evil and why I was given an insatiable appetite for dead literature.

    Incidentally, having just encountered it, I’m tempted to pose one of j.valdez’ own questions to all the readers: ‘does this post tell you more about art, you, or me?’

  9. Now that’s a thought provoking post.

    First I wanted to say, that I don’t know there’s a good way to be an anime visualist. Granted, you can break down the visual messages as they are presented, but to me unless they are part of the larger story then it doesn’t really matter. For example, several of the visuals in Evangelion are important to the understanding of the story. But they’re important for adding layers of meaning to the actual story.

    If I might take this a step away from anime, if say we compare the visual symbolism in Evangelion with the “eyes of T.J. Eckleburg” in the Great Gatsby. Sure they’re both important clues as to the nature of the story (whether the author intended it or not), but in of themselves they’re kind of meaningless without the context of the actual story.

    And I really have to agree with you that there is a need to analyze “throwaway” shows. But more because it’s too easy to simply dismiss them or simply accept them.

    But those are just some thoughts.

  10. I would argue that writing about Eckleburg’s eyes is still the task of a literatus. A visualist would look at the typography of The Great Gatsby, or more likely at the actual images of actual billboards. I imagine an anime visualist would approach anime’s images much like one approaches [is meant to approach] a video which is on display in a modern art exhibition.

    But as a very narrative-focused person, I agree that it’s hard to imagine an approach which is entirely free of attention to story – just as I would find it hard to completely ignore the visual aspect of an show I was writing about.

  11. Damn, please ignore what I said about Bokurano and Marxism back there. I meant that as an example about why simply seeing anything you wanted to see in an anime was a bad idea, but that was due to how I thought there wasn’t a connection present there. You explained it in a way where Marxism does fit, though, so I guess I had you confused there for a moment.

    Regarding what you said about ef: Have you watched H&C? Your reasons for not wanting to watch ef are interesting, but what I want to say about the two shows and how they’re related will take up more space than a mere comment, so do watch out for my ef post in a bit.

  12. Sorry, I guess I missed the thrust of your argument there and wandered off on the wrong track myself. Certainly having an agenda or a theme which you want to see, and therefore see in everything, would be a mistake; this is why the comments section of each blog entry is good. Other people very swiftly cure this sort of thing.

    I look forward to reading your ef post as and when.

  13. @animanachronism

    I owe you an answer. Sure, animators don’t have control over what the fans do with it. Gay Hentai Doujinshi of Doremon are the “perfect illustration” of it. :)

    My point was simple : “Infinity of Space is just a quantic illusion”, or “In Wing commander, your submarine is hiding like a spaceship”. The wall of meaning exists, we just have to stop walking in circles to find it. (quick reference to Project Blue Earth SOS)

  14. Ah, doujinshi. I’d love to see some doujinshi of doujinshi.

    I suppose there is a point where things become meaningless and analysis has to stop. Also, lol @ your Wing Commander joke. The ‘film of the game’ had depth charges in space, if I remember correctly.

  15. OH GOD I CAME.

    You have written a post made of awesome. And because I don’t want to add (or rather, can’t), m(_ _)m to you~

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  26. Interesting. I understand what you are referring to. It’s one of the reasons why I despised my High School English classes (not to mention any of the other english classes that had some sort of analysis of literature preceding that, but my memory isn’t as good as it used to be, so let’s leave those aside for now). Books were taken a bit too analytically, scraping out a great, great deal of allusions and other sorts of literature devices that most likely did not exist there in the first place and are the product of scholarly ideals and the “author’s intentions.” I tend to watch, or read, stories on sort of a borderline position, both watching for their motifs and themes and just what the author is attempting to deliver to us with all of the story elements (because nothing is just done without purpose, even if it wasn’t intentional and perhaps subconscious) and plot devices or characters as well as taking the story for what it is: entertainment. The better a story can meet at both sides of the wall, the more likely I’d enjoy it.

    I think a good example of this sort of anime would be Blood+. Blood+ was a great watch if you like action and intense scenes of blood (heh), but I found that the foundation was there for it to be taken more than just a source of action-based entertainment. There were a great deal of connections I could make to literature, and even then, the virtues and messages being delivered within such a gruesome show were unimaginably true and honorable. The show managed to break almost every vampire-related or other such story-related cliche in the book and created a very interesting juxtaposition of characters and events. All of the great devices of literature are there, if you watch for them.

    So, I see your point and I agree. Anime, books, movies… any of those and more. Your line of thinking applies to them all.

    Good post!


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