Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Sunday, October 30, 2011

07:47:00 pm , 1219 words, 8471 views     Categories: Animation

Chris Robinson's Japanese Animation: Time Out Of Mind

"What does it matter what is truth or fiction? We can learn just as much about our past, present and future from fiction. Facts don't matter. Fiction can take us beyond the facts and reveal the essence of a time and place."

Your opinion of this book will depend on what kind of truth you come to it looking for: the hard facts kind, or the poetic insight kind.

In his latest book, Chris Robinson takes you beyond the hundrum facts and figures about indie Japanese animation to a place of the mind - his own mind, and through his mind's eye, the imagined mind of the various independent animators he encounters on a metaphysical journey through Japan.

Chris Robinson kicked animation criticism in the ass with his unconventional approach to writing about animation during his days as the animation pimp, and he's continued to do so with his various book outings. Time Out Of Mind is no exception.

This is like no animation book you've ever read. Chris actually traveled to Japan and interviewed many of the figures in this book, and after his trip he could easily have published a fact-based book full of interviews with the leading indie animators of the day. But he was visited with an insight that has apparently eluded many an author of an animation book: Nobody wants to read that sort of thing. It's boring.

Instead, Chris has fashioned a fascinating and unique journey through a landscape of the mind constructed from the shards of his experience with indie Japanese animation. His trip to Japan is re-fashioned into a metaphoric journey through the funhouse mirror reflection of modern Japanese culture and society that is indie Japanese animation.

The title of the book comes from the fact that this whole experience was a time when the author was out of his mind from the grief of having lost his brother. Beyond being technically about Japanese indie animators, the book shows the author on a hallucinogenic odyssey as he copes with grief and tries to make sense of it all.

Personal recollections about his brother and imaginings mingle with shards of interviews and descriptions and analysis of films into a narrative thread neither purely fiction nor purely fact. The animators become a figment of his imagination, sometimes speaking their own mind in obvious quotes, sometimes speaking through his mind as he digs deeper into what they're really about.

There is no replacing solid historical documentation of animation facts, but there's also no doubt that that sort of thing is boring to read, and it was high time that someone de-geekified the whole enterprise by injecting a vein of poetry and personality into writing about animation.

The thing I most learned from his writing back in the day is to never forget that it's an individual who is writing. Don't hide behind the animation like a kid immersed in a video game world. It has to be about how a specific individual encounters and interprets animation. Never try to hide the history and baggage we all bring that colors our perceptions and interpretations. That's actually the most interesting part of it - like in quantum physics, each person is a personal history whose gaze affects the broader history. Chris's book is really about a personal journey, and healing through art - one that just happens to take place in the context of indie Japanese animation.

When Chris talks about animation, it feels like it's straight from the gut. There's no mincing words. If he finds Yoji Kuri tedious, he says so. (Ah, that's the word I was looking for all this time.) At the same time, he shows that he understands and appreciates what Yoji Kuri achieved. He takes sly digs at artsy fartsy animation festival darlings like the Brothers Quay. He minces no words about anime: He has no time for it. I don't blame him.

He likes Atsushi Wada and Naoyuki Tsuji, the punks of Japanese indie animation who care little about pretty drawings and actually seem to say something about the world around or the world within. He seems baffled by Keita Kurosaka. I'm not quite sure what he thinks about Taku Furukawa, other than the fact that Furukawa is a huge baseball nut. I was happy to read his sensitive and thorough analysis of Tadanari Okamoto. This must be one of the first places anyone has written so extensively in English about Okamoto. Most of all, I was happy to hear he appreciated Okamoto's films as much as I do, from one animation fan to another.

I knew about much of what he said in the book, but I also learned about animators I wasn't so familiar with like Renzo and Sayoko Kinoshita. He also talks about Kei Oyama, Mizue Mirai, Kunio Kato, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Maya Yonesho, Nobuhiro Aihara, Keiichi Tanaami, Koji Yuri, and three anime pioneers - Noburo Ofuji, Yasuji Murata and Kenzo Masaoka. I came away with more insight into what makes all of these great artists tick.

Then there's the simple, baffling fact of the near-neglect of publishing about indie Japanese animation, which Chris's book rectifies in one swoop. His book is willful and tantalizing more than meaty in its descriptions and analysis, but at the same time it whets the appetite and does a good job of highlighting the remarkable, flourishing variety of indie Japanese animation that has been hidden behind the shadow of the anime for so long.

Although this book is technically about Japanese indie animators, it's really about how a certain individual with a unique perspective and insight views these artists' work, never feigning to be giving you the Objective Truth. It's about having fun on the journey and meeting a few interesting souls with a different way of looking at and dealing with all the good things and the bad things life throws at them.

It's also about the remarkable insights that animation can provide us about the world we live in, in the hands of talented artists. It's about having pride in the fact that animation can be a genuine, deep, meaningful artistic platform for talking about life and the issues we face.

The only disappointment was that it was such a quick read. It's an eminently readable, entertaining introduction to the world of indie Japanese animation, through the mind of one of the most honest and trustworthy champions of artistic animation in the world today. The way I see it, this book that didn't need to be and will probably have a small audience is an homage to all the Japanese artists who toil in virtual anonymity for little reward to create interesting and moving animation the likes of which we've never seen before. Thanks for bringing us along on your trip, Chris.

Buy Japanese Animation: Time Out Of Mind on Amazon

Anipages posts related to the artists talked about in this book:

Tadanari Okamoto
Tadanari Okamoto: Towards the Rainbow
Koji Yamamura: A Country Doctor
Koji Yamamura: Your Choice
Kihachiro Kawamoto
Naoyuki Tsuji
Taku Furukawa
Mirai Mizue
Keita Kurosaka
Maya Yonesho
Keiichi Tanaami & Nobuhiro Aihara
Animation Battles of Keiichi Tanaami & Nobuhiro Aihara
Tokyo Loop
Alt Anime
Thinking & Drawing
Imagination Practice
Otogi Pro and the rise of indie animation in Japan
The First Wave of Independent Japanese Animators
Winter Days
Old Anime



AzureNimbus [Member]

Wow, this sounds amazing. I’ve been wishing for a book like this for a long time, and it seems incredibly passionate and original in its approach.

I’ve ordered it.

Now Ben, when are we going to see a book like this from you? :D I think any other reader here would agree that you have plenty to say and great prose to burn. We need more voices, too much greatness is vanishing unnoticed.

(BTW, the links at the end of the posts are ultra useful, I think it’s a great touch.)

10/31/11 @ 22:23
Cameron Koller
Cameron Koller [Visitor]

As I’m currently gathering research to write a report on Tadanari Okamoto, any English writing about him is quite welcome, so I gave this book a look, initially to look at that particular section, but then thought it best to read the whole thing.

I hate academics who go beyond bias and seem to put themselves ahead of the artists (the Pauline Kael school of criticism is my bane) but I actually found this to be a highly entertaining read, irregardless of the fact that I had to shake my head at his use of the word “wankmajer” (I admit it, I like the Brothers Quay more than Naoyuki Tsuji). But my own personal disagreements aside, he never pretends to be objective, and I enjoy the dreamscape he cooks up.

Well worthwhile reading, and his section on Okamoto is particularly strong.

11/02/11 @ 16:32
Ben [Member]  


Haha, that I don’t know. It’s very nice of you to ask. I don’t think anybody would be crazy enough to publish a book from me. And even I don’t know what I’d do if I had to write a book…


He’s definitely quite upfront about what he likes and doesn’t, and yeah, the wankmajer thing… a little juvenile for sure. But I also got a chuckle out of it. I personally love Svankmajer, so I don’t necessarily agree with all of his opinions, but I still respect that he’s got his own informed views on what makes animation great, and most of all a passion about it.

11/04/11 @ 15:34