Food For Thought I: The puppetry of the animated artifice

Before we indulge in what is no doubt to be a veritable feast of the mind, I wanted to give a brief site update due to a change of circumstances for me – I have recently got a full-time job! It’s a contract and will go through till the end of August. I’m looking at 50-60 hour weeks on top of other commitments. As a result, I will not be able to devote as much time to my blog. That is not to say I will be ending, or even postponing, it. No, sir. What I decided was to undergo a series of shorter posts called Food For Thought (not very original, but nonetheless):

This will be a sporadic series of short posts aiming to proffer bite-sized chunks of insight and perhaps even generate some discussion. Whether it be something interesting I’ve read or a thought that has occurred to me, this series will play out as (hopefully) intelligent filler between my longer, more in-depth posts – something to keep the ball rolling, I guess. These posts may or may not be on the topic of technology.

So without further ado:

Every anime character is a technological body.


And I’m not just talking cyborgs and androids. Let’s pick an example, any example… Yui from K-On! say – why not? Yui is a technological body. How, you ask? Let’s take a look:

Christopher A. Bolton’s article ‘From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater’ aims to investigate the performative aspects of anime’s portrayal of the artificial body by comparing Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell with the Japanese puppet theater, an earlier form of popular drama and representation of the mechanical body (Bolton, 2002: 730).

But how the fuck is Yui a mechanical body?

She is a representation – an illustration – on celluloid, as all anime characters are. Bolton states that ‘any treatment of technology in the narratives or images of anime must also take careful account of the technology of the medium itself, specifically the way that all anime bodies – human and machine – are artificial and the specific language (visual and verbal) of their representation’ (Bolton, 2002: 765-766). The animated medium becomes one of performance and representation; a forum where ideas of the body are exchanged, machinc interactions with the organic. Indeed the medium becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan would remind us.

'Hey the medium IS the message! I totally get it!'

But what does this say about our own world?

By ‘hooking in’ to this technology, that is participating in the circuit of DVD-DVD player-TV-viewer, we are ourselves cyborgs, a part of the network of high-tech representations. ‘[W]e are not so different from the puppet god or ruler that acts as the puppet’s audience’ (Bolton, 2002: 767). The medium itself creates a space for thought. It is the social implication of the medium that becomes mirrored by the content.

Japanese puppet theater

Similarly, the puppet theater exists as the manipulation of representative bodies distanced from the real. And ‘[l]ike viewers who have become absorbed in the puppets and stopped seeing the manipulators, we must periodically step back and be reminded of the performance’ (Bolton, 2002: 766).

But isn’t it the same with any dramatic visual medium? Isn’t it all performance-based?

It's all in the performance.

Yes, but the dream factory of Hollywood more often than not aims to conceal the performance and has more of an advantage in doing so. Anime and puppet theater, however, hang their obvious representations out for everyone to see. And even when animation does do an incredibly detailed and skillful job of representing reality, maybe consider the graphics of the Final Fantasy games, it seems even more likely to draw attention to itself as an illusion. So animation, and puppet theatre, seem condemned to an artifice of obvious artificiality, the more real the representation, the more illusory the product. And that’s how Yui – and all anime characters – are technological bodies, celluloid souls.

So real, so fake.

Discussion Points:

a) How aware of anime’s artifice are you when you are watching anime?

b) And how, if at all, does this affect your experience?


About shumbapumba

Would-be intellectual keeping my brain busy. View all posts by shumbapumba

14 responses to “Food For Thought I: The puppetry of the animated artifice

  • ghostlightning

    I could never forget it. I have never felt so immersed that animation ceased to be a set of moving illustrations such that the characters became “people.”

    Perhaps this is due to my own perceived artifice in the most “realistic” dramas (my favorite TV shows being The Wire, then Friday Night Lights). Sure I love the characters, but they never let me forget for too long how they are objects of fiction and all the artifice that entails.

    Just as telling, are all these “unscripted” programs that are branded as “reality” TV — whose artifice comes off as even more jarring.

    Even further, the news. So much of it is packaged as gritty truth but in turn are entire castles of spin and sensationalism.

    All of these are products of prodigious artifice. Anime at times is precisely my preferred format of entertainment precisely because it cannot hide its artifice, and seem more authentic to me that way.

    • shumbapumba

      I just finished watching the whole series of The Wire! Amazing. But on to the issues at hand…

      The reality TV point is an interesting one and raises questions into our own ‘realities’. You could ask: aren’t many encounters in everyday life acts of performance? After all, identity is performance; we act out who we are (and who we are not): enhancing, exaggerating, concealing. And yes, the news, too – exaggerating, concealing. Everything indeed seems illusory – we are stuck in The Matrix :/ – and I agree that it is almost refreshing to watch a medium that does not attempt to hide its artifice – its obvious artificiality makes it authentic. I like that. Great insight 🙂

      • ghostlightning

        Performance? Yes, but there’s us performing for our conversant, our contacts, etc. then there’s a performance in a reality show wherein it’s pre-edited and pre-filtered, produced, etc. by the time viewers can set their filters on it.

        There is a production POV in the ‘reality’ show that we viewers are consuming, making the contestants’ performances secondary.

        To clarify:

        1. Daily life — our performance is a one-person show produced by the performer and consumed directly by the immediate contacts.

        2. Reality show — individual’s performances are coaxed, edited, manipulated, and produced by an external POV that presents it for mass consumption.

    • shumbapumba

      I think the performance here has several layers. Firstly there is the layer of identity as performance (as is the case with everyone in their everyday encounters). Secondly, there is the performance in the presence of the camera where one’s self-awareness (or lack there of which seems more common in the types on reality programming) performs to a larger audience – certain traits are enhanced, diminished, concealed, etc. And thirdly, the manipulation of the performance by the networks/editors/directors/etc. Taking the performances and tailoring to network needs. So yes, I agree.

      Reality TV – while painful – is interesting from an analytical standpoint. 🙂

  • omo

    I don’t think Hollywood is particularly better at concealing it. That is, Pixar or Dreamworks’s or anyone else’s animated works have the same issues as Japanese animation. Of course, live action is different, medium is the message, as they say. And Spirits Within is, for all practical purposes, the ultimate example.

  • Valence

    I’ve thought about this before as well.

    The more illusory the product, the more we start to think that these objects are actually real. They may be representations of say, object X or person Y, and we start to be compelled, for a moment, to believe so. That is how good shows succeed- by enthralling the audience through masterful depictions and puppetry.

    • shumbapumba

      Read your post :). it’s something I guess everyone who has a critical approach to texts will encounter and analyse at some point. For me it’s all about relatability and believability. I mean, authentic characters and emotions can exist within an artificial artifice, obviously. And that’s kind of what it’s all about, representing some sort of emotional/dramatic conflict. The surface elements, or ‘look’, can lend itself to the conflict/representation in one way or another, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s underneath that counts. Crafting inner beauty for a show haha. Of course a healthy dose of outer beauty doesn’t go astray either (one thing anime has in spades ;)).

  • Catherine Meyers

    Hello James,

    After reading this post I think your blog is really interesting, might as well ask, if you are interested in a link exchange with my blog directory, so people get to know of your thoughts and work.
    Let me know if you are interested.


  • TheBigN

    I think one thing that I keep in mind is also the fact that even though we know that what’s on screen is illusory, we disregard it up to a point. One example is like you mentioned with The Spirits Within and omo with Pixar materials in that as it becomes more lifelike, we also note how “unlife-like” and “mechanical/plastic/artificial” characters and their mannerisms are. Maybe that’s a unconscious self-defense mechanism in a way.

    Another form of disregarding things is what I think was noted “hypermovement” by someone else, where techniques like camera angles and time dilation/shortening can make scenes more dynamic,but more unrealistic, as in “time doesn’t work that way” or “no human has a visual perspective like that”. I think.

  • abscissa

    I have a strong stong inclination in dualism. I always maintain that there’s a difference between mind and body. So in terms of what I’m seeing, non-real and real images create their own distinct illusions. Also, being able to discern the type of substance that I’m seeing creates order and disorder on how I define things which highly influences my viewing experience. Thus, anime and live-act offer different levels of surrealism and viewing experience to me.

    • shumbapumba

      My inclinations are towards a more holistic approach towards binary splits like mind-body (it’s my Deleuze and Guattari upbringing ^^). But of course, dualisms can be useful in organising things and your comment is very logical and offers a good explanation on the topic. Cheers 🙂

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