Animation as an art form has a self-reflexive relationship with itself, especially with regard to its various modes of realism, which establish the laws of the animated universes we are presented with as viewers. This self-reflexivity and self-awareness extends to the formats that have evolved over animation’s history (such as theatrical features, short films, and TV series); the genres and codes it continually employs and refers to; and to its engagement with the wider media contexts it draws from and also contributes to. However, while animation both as an art form and an industry is inherently self-reflexive, individual animated films can to a greater or lesser extent accept or reject this relationship with the established norms of animation. Anarchic Warner Bros. short films such as Duck Amuck (Charles M. Jones, 1953) display the range of possibilities animation can take advantage of when it embraces the almost borderless realms of its own definition of realism. At the other end of the spectrum, the work of Satoshi Kon, which deftly uses animation to explore the boundaries of reality, may seem initially to reject a self-reflexive reliance on some of animation’s defining characteristics. However while Kon’s work eschews such obvious markers as Disney’s “squash-n-stretch” animation, it nonetheless subtly expands the self-reflexive nature of animation beyond animation itself, to include the media ecosystems in which animation exists.
Animation is “a medium which is informed by self-evident principles of construction”1. Unlike live-action cinema, which in principle records its version of reality from the pro-filmic, animation needs to create its conception of reality entirely from nothing. Animation codifies the reality it depicts in various forms of realism, the most prominent of which is the ‘hyper-realism’ associated with American (and particularly Disney) animation. Hyper-realism in animation2 is rooted in the kind of reality that is depicted in live-action cinema, and presents a world where, despite the existence of talking animals and sentient robots, the laws of physics and biology are otherwise as we would expect them to be: massive boulders fall to the ground, and other common-sense details such as correct sounds being produced by corresponding phenomena are as they should be3. This hyper-realism has become the template for representing reality in animation, so that an animated film can be classified according to the extent to which it conforms with animation’s pre-established norms of representation. Hyper-realism “is neither a completely accurate version of the real world nor a radical vindication of the animated form” but a kind of “second-order realism” whereby the objects and physics of the animated realm follow internally consistent logic but remain “beyond the orthodoxies of realism”4. Adhering to conventions such as hyper-realism involves a self-reflexivity that allows animation to build itself according to rules of its own design, ignoring the restraints that link cinematic realism with the phenomenological perception of the real world, and permitting it to go “beyond the photographic image and into an aesthetic territory accessible only to animation itself”5. This is however complicated by computer-generated animation which, instead of following hyper-realist modes of representation, frequently emulates pure cinematic realism, aiming to reproduce live-action aesthetics by adhering to representational conventions such as camera angles and movements, lighting, and visual flourishes such as lens-flare and shallow depth of field. When viewers comment that a 3D animated film is “realistic”, they are perhaps unconsciously referring to the fact that it is realistic in the way that contemporary films are, rather than the way that real life is.
At the same time however, this self-reflexivity has allowed animators a remarkable freedom to revel in animation’s “ability to exaggerate reality, to push it farther, into a more fantastic, and ultimately entertaining version of reality”6. Duck Amuck expresses a gleeful contempt for any form of reality that is not defined by the animator, as Daffy Duck and the environment he exists in are deconstructed at the whim of an omnipotent creator, who alters and destroys for pleasure. Daffy is humiliated by having his body erased and refashioned, and much of the humour comes from the irrepressible duck attempting to nonetheless soldier on with the job of being a professional actor in a Hollywood production, wilfully ignoring his status as an animated cartoon despite all evidence to the contrary. His in-world identity as a character in a “real” film crashes into his real status as an animated icon, and Jones goes so far as to recreate the strip of film Duck Amuck is supposedly recorded on just to make fun of both Daffy’s pretensions and the limitations of live-action cinema when compared with animation. Jones’s film is conspicuously aware of its own materiality and the mechanics of producing a representational universe using pencil, paint, and paper. The short film’s joyful disregard for the laws of both the real world and the cinematic world of live-action films is possible thanks to what Scott Bukatman has termed “cartoon physics”7. An expression of freedom from the restrictions of real physics that is permitted only by animation, cartoon physics are nonetheless bound by some limits in order to ensure narrative coherency, resulting in a “world that is ordered, but ordered differently”8. The knowledge that practically anything is possible in animation means that artists can take advantage of the medium’s limitless potential for storytelling, while audiences can expect and also accept that virtually anything goes. Duck Amuck’s joyful disregard for logic demonstrates how the usual rules of our universe don’t always need to apply in animation, and that the medium can make its own laws of physics to follow or abandon as needed.
Duck Amuck’s humour relies on an acknowledgment and acceptance by the audience of cartoon physics and other conventions that are only possible within animation. Such formal conventions — “hammerspace” for example, which is “the realm behind a character’s back from which any object (often an oversized hammer) can be pulled”9 — travel across animation as a medium, allowing individual animated films to operate within an already codified framework of realism. Audiences understand such conventions when they are encountered in individual animations without their having to be explained or reintroduced. Duck Amuck’s mockery of cinematic realism is representative of animation’s ability to freely redesign reality, and its comedic success is built on its self-reflexive faithfulness to the laws of animation as a medium, and not to the competing realisms of live-action film or the reality that audiences inhabit.
Japanese animation has a distinct approach when considering the self-reflexive quality of the medium and its relationship with realism. Marc Steinberg notes how “realism is first and foremost a set of conventions proper to a historically produced configuration of a given medium, rather than a visual resemblance to a given reality”10. The realism animation is founded on thus refers to reality as it is conceived of within animation, it is “the realism of an artificial environment”11. Director Satoshi Kon engages with animation’s self-reflexive nature throughout his work. His films and series are frequently concerned with intersecting realities and the role media and technology play in confusing our subjective understanding of the world around us. His skill as a filmmaker is demonstrated in sophisticated formal experiments that conspicuously play with the possibilities of animation as an art form while also expanding the borders of what self-reflexive animation really refers to, incorporating a wider media ecosphere in his analysis of animation’s place within popular culture. As such, Kon’s work, despite being cel animation, is a good example of what Paul Wells classifies as developmental animation, which “by definition, harks back to traditional aspects of the animated film but also seeks to embellish or reform these traditions with contemporary approaches”12. On the surface Kon’s work is rooted in orthodox animation, which tries to maintain a connection with unambiguous reality, but Kon crucially employs experimental animation’s capacity to “properly interrogate dominant perceptions of ‘reality’ and the received imagery which apparently represents it”13.
Episode ten of the animated series Paranoia Agent (Mōsō Dairinin, Satoshi Kon, 2004) begins with a scene from Mellow Maromi, a new animated series within the world of Paranoia Agent, featuring a cartoon character that has become a media sensation. The opening scene’s nostalgic animation style is distinct from Paranoia Agent’s usual aesthetic, and the images suddenly degrade into work-in-progress layout art and storyboards, as the audience becomes aware they are watching the unfinished first episode of Mellow Maromi take form, a process which will continue as Paranoia Agent’s tenth episode progresses.
Episode ten frequently shifts between the animated modes of the series Paranoia Agent and the mise en abyme of the incomplete Mellow Maromi episode. This includes humorous fourth wall-breaking digressions detailing the minutiae of animation production, the various job roles of those working within the industry, and the logistical challenges of successfully completing an episode of animated TV. Like Duck Amuck, it roots its humour in audience awareness of animation as an art form. In addition to its stylistic shifts and meta commentary, episode ten of Paranoia Agent connects the animation industry to the series’ overall exploration of popular culture as a breeding ground for unhealthy fantasy and escape for a disillusioned and disassociated society.
While Paranoia Agent’s tenth episode is explicitly self-aware regarding animation’s material form, the series as a whole extends the frame of reference to consider anime’s position within a wider ecosphere of mass media entertainment. Exploring the writings of cultural theorists Eiji Ōtsuka and Hiroki Azuma, Steinberg places animation at the centre of popular culture, built upon a self-reflexive realism “whose premise is the environmental ubiquity of animation and manga; a realism whose referent is anime and manga: “manga-anime realism””14. According to Ōtsuka, the self-reflexive realism of anime has proved powerful enough to completely permeate cultural imagination, to the extent that it has “become the basis for the operation of other media forms”15.
This analysis of animation’s position within mass media culture, and its reflexive relationship with that broader context is also explored in Kon’s film Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū, 1997). Perfect Blue on its surface appears to reject reliance on animation’s typical self-reflexivity; Kon’s film is a psychological thriller where the principal referent is a cinematic realism that is far beyond animation’s hyper-realism. Following the emotional breakdown of a pop singer transitioning to a career as an actress, the film depicts her struggles with professional pressure, self doubt, and an obsessive stalker. Kon seems reluctant to take advantage of the world of possibilities offered by animation; the cartoon physics of Duck Amuck are rejected in favour of a second-order realism that becomes progressively more disconcerting as the borders between the film’s various realities collapse. Perfect Blue’s aesthetic presentation replicates the grammar of live-action cinema, with a sophisticated mise-en-scène that makes use of, among other things, a wide range of shot compositions (from intimate closeups to panoramic city views); carefully rendered camera movements; shallow depth of field; dissolves; and multiple montage sequences. The film reproduces the aesthetics of images replayed on various screens or seen through viewfinders, as well as the onscreen graphics of various devices and formats, replicating changes in resolution and saturation, and recreating the fast-forwarding and rewinding of video tapes viewed on televisions. Even though this faithful reproduction of different visual media occurs within the world of an animated film, Kon is successful enough in rejecting animation as the film’s main point of reference to ensure that these (animated) details achieve a realism that the audience associates with live-action thrillers.
This grounding in cinematic realism is particularly evident in the film’s chase scenes, most notably when protagonist Mima pursues an hallucination of her other self through an office and into crowded streets. The sequence is constructed exactly like a live-action chase scene, obeying real-world physics and utilising cinematic shot composition and editing rhythms. The film’s various assaults and murders are similarly based in cinematic reality, and achieve their disturbing power by faithfully replicating live-action depictions of violence. The brief scenes where cartoon physics do appear in the film (such as Mima’s doppelgänger skipping through the air over street lights) are presented as the protagonist’s hallucinations and are intended to demonstrate the power of her unstable imagination rather than the possibilities of animation as an art form.
Similarly, Perfect Blue’s depiction of various realities colliding with and intruding upon one another is achieved through cinematic means rather than utilising techniques unique to animation. A scene showing Mima’s genuine emotional anguish at home in her bath is followed by another in which she initially appears to be discussing these same problems with a doctor; the conversation is however revealed to be a performance on a film shoot. A subsequent chase scene later appears to have been a dream, and is itself followed by an apparently real conversation with her manager, which ends abruptly as the sequence cuts back to the earlier scene on the film shoot once again. Notably, this confusion of subjective experience and the film’s layering and intermingling of dreams, filmed fiction, and perceived reality is achieved using simple editing and juxtaposition of images and sequences, as in live-action cinema. This fidelity to cinematic reality can also be seen in the film’s depiction of its characters’ psychologies and behaviour; Kon’s film (and his work in general) is notable for the emotional depth and complexity of not just protagonist Mima, but her nemesis and the rest of the supporting cast as well. The naturalistic performances of the voice cast and the unexaggerated representation of movements and expressions by the animators ground the film’s psychological portraits, helping the film’s narrative credibility.
Perfect Blue’s tension derives in part from Kon’s almost perverse efforts to make the audience forget they are watching an animated film, while acknowledging that it is impossible to deny that Perfect Blue is animated. Much as object animation, such as that of Jan Švankmajer, produces unsettling feelings of the uncanny by animating real objects so that they appear to be imbued with life, Kon reaches a level of uncanny psychological distress by refusing to refer to the unreal fantasy world of animation and hewing so closely to the aesthetics and language of live-action cinema. The distinction is that, unlike stop-motion animation, Kon’s reference is not photo-indexically linked to the reality of the audience’s daily life, but to the cinematic reality of live-action thrillers, a realism audiences nonetheless immediately recognise and accept. Wells notes that the “dread and foreboding” we experience with the uncanny emerges from the “inability to reconcile tensions between the familiar […] and the sudden, irrational emergence of secret repressed forces within the familiar”16. The horror of Perfect Blue troubles us because the psychology of the film’s characters and the film’s images are rooted in what we recognise as cinematic realism instead of the less plausible self-reflexive hyper-realism of animation; even though we’re aware that we are watching a “cartoon”, it is one which refuses to refer to the rules and language of what we recognise as animation, resulting in an unsettling incongruity.
However while Kon’s film goes to great lengths to reject reflexive formal references to animation, Perfect Blue engages thematically with animation as a media form, and explores aspects of the media ecosphere animation exists within, including the thorny issue identified by Eric Herhuth of “fan activity and how it serves/complicates the interests of powerful media companies”17. The film presents a critical view of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the entertainment industry and its attempts to sculpt new idols out of vulnerable young hopefuls. Mima’s encounter with then-nascent online fan culture reveals the noxious flip-side of a media-audience relationship that encourages fan participation and unhealthy identification with media figures. Encouraged to participate in consumerist mass-media culture, the fans depicted in Perfect Blue expect in return to be able to exercise control over the idols they have paid to become invested in. This phenomenon is easily seen in today’s pop culture landscape, which is dominated by the trans-media universes of Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars, and whose fans frequently express outrage at perceived offences against them or the franchises they love, and frustration at their inability to influence the uneven relationship between audiences and corporate behemoths. It is by exploring this relationship in Perfect Blue that Kon reveals his sleight of hand: while seemingly refusing to acknowledge animation’s hyper-realism, the director situates animation itself within a wider context, expanding the reference of animation’s self-reflexivity to include the exploitative network of diverse media forms that together comprise popular culture.
Kon’s film demonstrates that if animation is self-reflexive, what it refers to is greater than just the technical and material qualities of animation as an art form. It refers not only to thematic concerns, genres, and codes that can be traced across animation internationally and in its multitude of formats, but also to the wider artistic and cultural ecosystem in which animation exists. Reciprocal interactions between various forms of cultural media create a wider meta-textual and para-textual foundation on which animation builds itself, and it is this broader cultural context that animation ultimately refers to in its self-reflexivity.
Afterword ~ Tune in next time!
Alongside Perfect Blue, many other anime productions have engaged with the broader trans-media context of animation, while an endless number of articles and books have dissected otaku culture, which has now spread beyond both the media confines of anime and the geo-cultural borders of Japan to consume mainstream international mass-culture. Satoshi Kon’s final film, Paprika (Papurika, 2006), while more focused on the mutability of reality and the failings of subjectivity and individuals’ perception, also engages with otaku culture and the wider media system of which animation is part. As with Perfect Blue, Kon is restrained in his deployment of animation’s potential for phantasmagorical chaos, but like the earlier film, Paprika’s grounded aesthetic and links to live-action cinema conventions lend the thematic impact of the narrative greater force.
Hideaki Anno’s iconic series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) is notable for its caustic view of the norms and expectations of anime and popular culture — including its often sarcastic tone towards fan service during its “On next week’s episode …” sequences — and the series was created in a context of personal (for its director) and societal depression. In addition to psychoanalytic references, Evangelion is infused with sociological critique. The trauma of combat is linked to the loss of parental figures, echoing the family struggles experienced by Anno’s generation; absent fathers, who were consumed with the rebuilding of Japan during the postwar economic boom, were a recurring theme in Japanese media of the time. Intergenerational distrust18 and a sense of unpredictable, shifting realities are major features of the series, reflecting the existential shock of the early 1990s following the economic collapse of bubble-era Japan.
Evangelion was also a turning point in animation’s relationship with media ecospheres. Discussing the controversial original ending of Evangelion, Hiroki Azuma explains how episodes 25 and 26 were influenced by fan-made “secondary production” that grew out of the cultural terrain of which the series was a part19. The direction of communication between media and fans was beginning to shift, and the influence of fan fiction and fan culture became overwhelming, leading Anno to create a “parody of parody” and an “autocritique of their impasse” with the final episodes. Anno was forced to respond to a new media environment where the surrounding landscape could exert more influence on cultural production; the ground had shifted beneath his feet during the making of the series and the narratives he sought to build were no longer possible. As such Evangelion is singular in its engagement with the relationship between anime and its cultural environment, exemplifying the self-reflexive realities that are created in animation, and the recursive loops that link the medium to the broader media networks of postmodern hyper-reality.
For consistency, in this article Japanese names are rendered using the Western format of given name first, family name second, and not according to the standard Japanese mode that places family name first.
- Wells 25.
- Hyper-realism when discussing animation is distinct from the hyper-reality of postmodern theory, where vast quantities of media have overspilled into the real world, leading to confusion between simulations of reality and reality itself. Hyper-realism in animation refers to a realism built on recognisable laws of causality and physics that still allows for some of animation’s wilder fancies. That these laws are taken more from live-action cinema than our daily reality is where the broader ecosystems of Eiji Ōtsuka’s explorations of anime realism come into play, and where postmodern hyper-reality becomes relevant.
- Mihailova 48.
- Wells 27. See also Steinberg 288: “When Darley defines second-order realism as “an attempt to produce old ways of seeing or representing by other means,” he ultimately takes one step further and forward by suggesting that animated realism — in Disney as in contemporary CGI — is in fact a representation of an older form of representation: the animated reproduction of standard photographic techniques.”
- Mihailova 52.
- Mihailova 49.
- Bukatman 301-302.
- Bukatman 302.
- Bukatman 302.
- Steinberg 289.
- Steinberg 296, emphasis in original.
- Wells 51.
- Wells 51.
- Steinberg 292. See the previous entry here, and Steinberg 291-296, for more discussion of Ōtsuka’s three “realisms”.
- Steinberg 295-296.
- Wells 48.
- Herhuth 177.
- Napier 424.
- Azuma 2007.
- Duck Amuck. Directed by Charles M. Jones, Warner Bros., 1953.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion). Directed by Hideaki Anno, Gainax, 1995.
- Paprika (Papurika). Directed by Satoshi Kon, Madhouse, 2006.
- Paranoia Agent (Mōsō Dairinin). Directed by Satoshi Kon, Madhouse, 2004.
- Perfect Blue (Pāfekuto Burū). Directed by Satoshi Kon, Madhouse, 1997.
- Azuma, Hiroki. “The Animalization of Otaku Culture”, Mechademia: Second Arc, Vol. 2, University of Minnesota Press, 2007. pp. 175-187.
- Bukatman, Scott. “Some Observations Pertaining to Cartoon Physics; or, The Cartoon Cat in the Machine”, Animating Film Theory, edited by Beckman, Karen, Duke University Press, 2014. pp. 301-16.
- Dobson, Nichola. “TV Animation and Genre”, The Animation Studies Reader, edited by Dobson, Nichola et al, Bloomsbury, 2019. pp. 181-189.
- Herhuth, Eric. “Political Animation and Propaganda”, The Animation Studies Reader, edited by Dobson, Nichola et al, Bloomsbury, 2019. p. 177.
- Mihailova, Mihaela. “Realism and Animation”, The Animation Studies Reader, edited by Dobson, Nichola et al, Bloomsbury, 2019. pp. 47-57.
- Mishra, Manisha and Maitreyee Mishra. “Animated Worlds of Magical Realism: An Exploration of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress and Paprika“, Animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Volume 9 Issue 3, Sage, 2014. pp. 30-31.
- Napier, Susan J. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain“, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2002). pp. 418-435.
- Steinberg, Marc. “Realism in the Animation Media Environment: Animation Theory from Japan”, Animating Film Theory, edited by Beckman, Karen, Duke University Press, 2014. pp 287-300.
- Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. pp. 25-51.