Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Book Review – From Impressionism to Anime

Here’s the second book that I made use of in attempting to draw comparisons between Meiji and anime fandom. As the title suggests, this one seems to deal with the same stuff I want to get out of these books. It sweeps through the same time frame as Benfey’s The Great Wave (see that review here, since I will be referencing the book often), includes a brief section on pre- and post-war fandoms beyond that, and then spends the majority (about half) of the book focusing on the modern anime scene. But what is it trying to accomplish by doing this? And how does it compare to what we want to get out of it?

From Impressionism to Anime


From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West

Susan Napier (Professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University)

“What is it about anime that is so appealing to a transnational fan base? Is the American attraction to anime similar to the popularity of previous fads of Japanese culture, like the Japonisants of fin-de-siecle France enamored of Japanese art and architecture, or the American poets in the fifties and sixties who latched onto haiku? Or is this something new, a product of global culture in which ethnic identities carry less weight? This book explores these issues by taking a look at anime fans and the place they occupy, both in terms of subculture in Japan and America, and in relation to Western perceptions of Japan since the late 1800s.” (Credit: Amazon.com).


My purpose for reading From Impressionism to Anime was exactly what is advertised throughout these series of posts: I wanted to attempt to compare the “fandom” of Benfey’s characters to modern anime fandom today, as illustrated in Napier’s book. And this seems to mesh quite well with what she is trying to do here — just the synopsis seems to indicate that this might be the book I was looking for! Furthermore, it advertises what she’s trying to do with the book, which gives me some criteria to judge it by. So I’ll be reviewing the book based on how well it lives up to its goals, how well it portrays the current fandom (trying to keep some perspective, since I’m part of it), and how valuable it serves as a text for our purposes.


[General] 1–2–3–4–5–6–(7)–8–9–10 [Academic]
This is not a book intended for a general audience, and indeed there’s a decent amount of background knowledge that is recommended if you want to get a sense of perspective (and just plain understand) some of Napier’s arguments. First, you need to have seen a decent smattering of shows (especially the big ones) plus Miyazaki movies. Second, you need to have a good grasp of con culture, from how they work to the art/motivations of cosplaying. Third, you need to have some awareness of anime demographics, AKA some prior knowledge of the fanbase. Most of this is not necessarily required, but Napier’s viewpoints are sufficiently biased that I think its necessary in order to put her arguments in perspective. Besides this, the book also makes some notes of historical figures in the late 1800s/early 1900s, so you need some basic knowledge of the Impressionism movement and figures, as well as a basic overview of world/Japan-Western history from that period onwards. It also includes some stuff on movies and sci-fi novels (which make references to idol culture). While you don’t necessarily need to have seen a lot of older/Japanese films or read a lot of sci-fi novels, you do need a basic understanding of how idol culture works in Japan in order to figure out what Napier’s driving at. While it should be quite accessible to the veteran anime fan/Japanophile (and probably anyone who’s reading this review), it won’t be to most other readers. Note though, that From Impressionism to Anime doesn’t really require much other background in things such as literary criticism, film studies, etc., and really tries to give good overviews of some of the concepts it does use, which is why it is only a 7 instead of an 8 or 9.

[Easy] 1–2–3–4–5–(6)–7–8–9–10 [Difficult]
In a nutshell: Napier’s book is dry and could be organized better. This is fairly typical of many academic texts. Unlike Benfey, she does not opt to make her book a narrative about characters that represent ideas, but rather one about ideas that sometimes are represented by characters. The problem with the former I talked about in my previous book review; the problem with the latter is that if you’re not interested in the idea already, most likely the book will be pretty boring. This, coupled with the fact that sometimes her organization is a bit scattered and her argument a bit diffuse, makes the book a bit more challenging to read. As I noted above though, the book really tries to give good overviews of some of the concepts it does use, which means that although it might be a bit confusing at times and relatively dry throughout, the concepts and arguments are not difficult to grasp.

[Widely applicable] 1–2–3(4)–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Niche]
Napier’s book has a lot of things that can be widely applicable when used in the correct way. Her focus on fan cultures makes it inherently limiting, but in this context, her arguments can be extrapolated to be remarkably general and quite powerful. Her emphasis on the issues outlined in the my Context post, in contrast to The Great Wave to which these ideas are applied in retrospect, is definitely something to note (although the irony that her ideas actually make Benfey’s book, in my opinion, more widely applicable than her’s is not lost on me).

[Effective] 1–2–(3)–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Ineffective]
There are three main problems that hamper the effectiveness of Napier’s argument.

The first is that she does this thing that all historical literary scholars do, which is try to extrapolate from a select few sources of literature to determine wide-ranging cultural perceptions at the time. And I’m not comfortable with this. The process by which culture is distilled into books is not one-to-one, but an incredible black box that distorts, selects, and modifies them. And it changes radically based on a billion factors, many of which we don’t really know or understand.This process — figuring out which elements of culture have been distilled into some media product, as well as how and why this happens — is fine, and many critics/researchers try and do this all the time. But even this is remarkably difficult. So how can you try and run the process backwards with a high level of confidence? Napier spends entire chapters doing this, close-reading media and using them to extrapolate cultural perceptions of Japan, and because of this I’m quite skeptical of her conclusions. Now, I’m sure they’re probably correct and have been influenced by other sources, but since they’re not explicitly utilized, I’m not entirely convinced.

The second problem is that Napier’s main information concerning modern anime fandom comes from a skewed perspective. All the interviews she uses come from females (so the predominantly male demographic is completely ignored), as well as the majority of her examples. She also takes most of her results from a survey that she’s conducted, without at any part of the book providing any information (list of questions, demographics, non-response rates, etc.) about said survey. While this can be shored up with some outside research, it makes some of her arguments less believable.

The last problem comes from the organization of the argument itself. It’s a mess. Napier references a lot of things and does a lot of analysis, but her central motivation and train of thought is not present in most of the book. While this doesn’t diminish the ultimate strength of the argument (which can be pieced together), it does reduce its effectiveness. When you’re at a loss exactly what it is she’s arguing for half the time, the material doesn’t mesh nearly as well as it should. I needed to make repeated references to her stated goals in the “Synopsis” when I was going through to book to keep her chapters in perspective, something which you probably shouldn’t have to do when reading a book like this.

With all these problems though, Napier’s argument still is convincing. Her more academic format saves her from the huge pitfall that Benfey falls into, although these caveats make the discerning reader a bit skeptical on many of the details she puts forward.

One last note: Napier’s fandom is essentially the same as Benfey’s — “elitist”. The crowd she draws upon are the much more veteran, self-aware, and educated anime fans. She doesn’t include the significant population of “weaboos” and the like, or much of the more casual anime viewer.

[Useful] 1–2–3–(4)–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Useless]
From Impressionism to Anime is a relatively dry and academic read, much suited to the inquiring anime fan with a growing interest in anime’s relation to Japanese history, culture, and fandom but largely inaccessible to many others. The ideas it puts forward are insightful and synthesized decently well, and while there are several (ultimately minor) issues that hamper the book’s core arguments, including notable biases and organizational problems, it is worth a read if you’re interested in exploring anime fandom.

4 responses to “Japanese Fandom Through the Ages: Book Review – From Impressionism to Anime

  1. I have a lot of problems with Napier’s writing and arguments in general, but I liked this book a whole lot more than her Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. That said, From Impressionism To Anime has its fair share of problems, and I think you’ve done an admirable job of pointing them out here. As usual, a very compherensive and well-written review.

    • Thanks! I haven’t read much of her stuff besides this, but what I’ve heard about Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t great. As far as I can tell, Napier seems to read a lot of stuff into anime than picking things out, and seems to have a particularly strong “feminist” slant. Are these fair critiques? And, having read more of her stuff, what would you say are the problems with the rest of her writing/arguments?

      • I’d say those are fair critiques. To be honest, I could probably go on a bit of a rant about Napier, but I won’t because I don’t want to write an essay, and also I don’t want to criticize the woman overly much given that she’s still contributed a lot to the general anime scholarship. But in a nutshell, I have two main problems about Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. First, (and this is me probably being kind of nitpicky here), despite its title, a lot of the anime films and shows she analyzes date back to the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. More importantly though, I feel that Napier has a tendency of looking at representations of sexuality in anime through this weirdly hyper-sexualised, often Freudian lens. It’s like everything has to be psychoanalyzed using a whole bunch of theorists just because she can and because it sounds good on paper. While I have no issue with using psychoanalysis as a tool to explore some themes or ideas, I think Napier overdoes it – and that this has resulted in the anime she discusses becoming divorced from its cultural setting.

  2. Pingback: Soft Power, National Branding, and the Process of Engineering Attraction (Part 3: Soft Power, K-Pop, and Anime) | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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