The best books if you really love animation and/or Japanese popular culture

Susan J. Napier Author Of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art
By Susan J. Napier

The Books I Picked & Why

Japanamerica

By Roland Kelts

Book cover of Japanamerica

Why this book?

This book has remained consistently influential and thought-provoking from the time it was written in 2006. Kelts uses the notion of the moebius strip to analyze the sometimes surprisingly rich and complex dynamics in the mutual relationship between Japanese and American popular culture. He explains how much each country’s art and entertainment culture has influenced the other in an interweaving tapestry of history, art, and inspiration. At a time when the question of cultural appropriation is still a provocative subject, Kelt’s book reminds us of how fruitful cultural interchange can be.


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Hayao Miyazaki

By Hayao Miyazaki, Jessica Niebel

Book cover of Hayao Miyazaki

Why this book?

This gorgeous catalogue is an event in itself that commemorates an even more interesting event, the fact that the brand new Museum of the Academy of Motion Pictures chose as its first special exhibition not the work of an American director, and not the work of a live-action auteur but the work of a Japanese animation director who lives and creates thousands of miles from Hollywood. The catalogue is not only beautifully illustrated with scenes from Miyazaki movies and reproductions of many of Miyazaki’s storyboards, but also contains some excellent essays by the exhibition’s curators, including Jessica Niebel and Daniel Kothensculte. The curators draw on their film and art expertise to give insightful, sensitive readings of the director and his contributions to the world of cinema.


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Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts

By Wolf Burchard

Book cover of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts

Why this book?

Another catalogue (sorry!) but also another opportunity to delve into a rich and beautiful world, this time not Miyazaki’s but the world of Walt Disney and the European Rococo as seen in a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At first glance, this pairing seems an unlikely juxtaposition since the ornamental art of the Rococo flourished in the 18th century. As the beautifully illustrated catalogue and excellent essays by the curator Wolf Burchard amply demonstrate, however, both Walt Disney and the many superb artists who worked for him drew creative and aesthetic inspiration from all aspects of Rococo art. These range from decorative anthropomorphized teapots (think Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast) or the flamboyant costumes and hairstyles of the period, (illustrated in a mesmerizing scene from Cinderella) to Fragonard’s exquisite painting “Girl on a Swing” that shows up briefly but memorably in Frozen 2. This catalogue shows how richly beneficial cultural interchange can be.


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Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons

By Hannah Frank

Book cover of Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons

Why this book?

This is a book for animation aficionados who really want to think about the nuts and bolts of animation. As someone with a tendency to revel in the world building of the finished product of animation, be it a Miyazaki movie or a Disney film, this book re-orients me to the materiality of the medium itself. And yes, traditional animation is a material medium! Frank looked at thousands of animation cells, literally frame by frame, and in her book provides us with a glimpse of the enormous labor, expertise, and occasional mistakes that go into creating even a seven-minute short subject. She brings back from the past the many women who were the inkers and in-betweeners in American animation studios and makes us realize the enormous effort (and tedium) that went into producing the fluid and flexible cartoons that Hollywood is known for.

Along the way, Frank touches on the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the fascination with montage evinced by European and Russian critics such as Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein to enhance her analysis of the subtleties of a seemingly simple art form. This book is a powerful theoretical treatise that is not an easy read, but it is an important one for those who want to think about animation in general.


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Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

By Steve Alpert

Book cover of Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

Why this book?

And here is your dessert course! 

Fluent in Japanese and with a background in Japanese literature, Steve Alpert worked initially at Disney in Japan and then for a number of years at Miyazaki’s Ghibli Studio and writes about his experiences in this delightful and frequently hilarious book. He gives us fascinating details about Miyazaki and his fellow director Takahata and producer Suzuki, especially in relation to what are perhaps the two most famous of Miyazaki’s movies, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

The chapter on Princess Mononoke is particularly interesting as it includes a detailed and very funny account of negotiations between Ghibli and Disney as to how to translate the film’s elegant Japanese script and complex worldview into something that could be understood by an American audience. The Disney executives keep asking Alpert “Who’s the bad guy?” and seem unable to cope with the answer that “There is no bad guy." Not only does the book provide a window into the world of Ghibli, but it also engages with some of the significant and frustrating culture clashes that can still occur in our rapidly globalizing world.


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