Samurai from Outer Space, Antonia Levi

Open Court, 1996, 169 pages, C$30.00 tpb, ISBN 0-8126-9332-9

You can find the strangest thing at your nearest college’s library.

For instance, there I was in the University of Ottawa main library, checking out the New Arrival section, when a title bounced at me from the bottom row: Samurai from Outer Space. Who could resist taking a look at a book with such a title? I picked it up. The subtitle clinched it for me: “Understanding Japanese Animation.”

Now, understand that I am not an otaku (anime (Japanese animation) fan). I’ve watched countless hours of dubbed Japanese animation in my youth (French-Canadian TV was/is full of dubbed Japanese children’s series) and the “big” anime movies (AKIRA, GHOST IN THE SHELL) but I don’t go to the local Anime club, or track down the latest anime release as soon as it’s imported. I don’t even know more than a handful of Japanese words.

But I’ve got friends who are otaku. One of them’s the audiovisual tech for the anime club, the other knows enough Japanese to get by… With this kind of friend, I’d have to be an idiot not to get at least a passing appreciation for the genre by passive osmosis. So, it was only natural that I had to borrow Samurai from Outer Space.

(To give an idea of the mindset of UfO computer science students, everyone I showed the book to either said “Oooh!” or “Cool!”)

Reading this book is time well-spent. Samurai from Outer Space is a fascinating journey into not only Japanese animation, but into the very collective mind of Japan’s society. As Levi points out in her introduction, you can’t understand art without understanding the cultural context in which this art was produced. Most of the time, anime is produced by Japanese for Japanese. The attitudes of anime are thus the attitudes of Japan itself. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of history already knows about the divergent paths Japan and Western culture undertook, only to be reunited in the last few decennia.

This difference is reflected everywhere: Anime is built on a paradigm that is completely different from the Western tradition of storytelling. Mood is important; virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded; the eyes have it; women can be powerful and sexy without being a sidekick; characters can be multifaceted; animation isn’t for kids; you don’t have to have a happy ending… And that’s barely scratching the surface. The chapter on the role of women in anime and Japanese society is revealing; far from being powerless, the typical Japanese housewife wields an unsuspected power in Japan. (A power often reminiscent of the role of the rural French-Canadian housewife between 1850-1950, but I digress once again…)

But what about the otaku who doesn’t care about sociology? (Levi is quick to point out that a true otaku is bound to be interested in Japanese society, note!) Samurai from Outer Space is a splendid text for both novices and experts. Some of the analysis is invaluable and a few conclusions are surprising.

The book isn’t always interesting, especially for the casual reader: The chapter on religion is loaded with references to traditional Japanese myths, and while they’re well-explained, they’re not always easy to grasp. Sometimes, Levi overdoes the sociological analysis on this side of the Pacific ocean (“Gen-Xers […] were born in an overcrowded world filled with crime”, [P.108] etc…) but everything holds up pretty well. For an academic publication, the style is downright breezy: I found myself smiling through most of the book, and laughing quite heartily at a few places. Also notable are the “side-notes”, literally placed on the side of the page rather that at the bottom, or the end. Samurai from Outer Space could have used a few more illustrations and put them alongside the text rather in a separate section, but publishers can’t always do it all, I guess.

In short: Grab it, read it, you’ll like it. Recommended.

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