The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation

Alan Cholodenko (ed.),
The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation.
Sydney: Power Publications, 2007.
ISBN: 9 78 0909952 34 1
AUD$59.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Power Publications)

In the anthology The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation, Alan Cholodenko has brought together an eclectic array of scholarly approaches to animation. Conceiving of animation as a term that is both macro and micro in its function, the word moves from embracing anything as broad as the concept of life, being and movement to the specifics that deal with the practice of creating and collating a series of static images on film, digital and other technologies in such a way that they appear to conjure the perception of movement – the illusion of life. As the title of the book suggests, this publication is a sequel of sorts to The Illusion of Life, which was published in 1991 and was, at that point, as Cholodenko observes ‘the world’s first book of scholarly essays theorizing animation’. Just like its predecessor, which was inspired by ‘The Life of Illusion’ animation conference, The Illusion of Life 2 took its lead from ‘The Life of Illusion 2’ – the second conference on animation held in 1995 in Australia.

Cholodenko’s epic Introduction presents a fascinating overview of the dramatic shifts (for the better) that have occurred, both in the practice of animation and in its historicisation and theorisation, since the release of the first anthology in 1991. “What has happened”, explains Cholodenko “is a quantum increase, expansion and diversification in animation production, distribution, exhibition and consumption around the world” (15): this included the increase of U.S. and Japanese animated features, the boom in ‘hyperhybrid’ special effects in live action films that rely on computer animation, and the enormous interest that’s developed in television animation for kids – and the birth, as a result, of tv stations such as the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. A valid gripe is also pitched against Film Studies, which has “regarded animation as the most inferior and inconsequential form of film or not a form of film at all, rather a form of graphic art” (24); as Cholodenko correctly observes, what is often forgotten is the fact that film itself is a form of animation. This anthology aims to rectify this neglect by following in the steps of like-minded movements that are occurring internationally that aim to advance and embrace Animation Studies as a serious field of scholarly endeavour: the popularity of the annual conferences held by the Society for Animation Studies and other international conferences, the increase in book publications on the subject, and the publication of journals that focus on areas dealing with a range of animation practices and approaches have all aided in expanding the field dramatically.

The sixteen essays in this anthology focus on a broad and fascinating array of approaches and subject matter. While space doesn’t permit me to focus on all the essays, I will, at least, focus on a few that highlight the range of approaches covered in this anthology. Japanimation is rightly placed under the spotlight as a key and driving advance in contemporary animation: Kosei Ono’s essay ‘The Long Flight of Manga and Anime: The History of Comics and Animation in Japan’ provides a coherent overview of the key strokes in Japanese manga and animation history (also drawing attention to the close relationship that exists between the two forms), from the early animations of Kenzo Masaoka, to the much-adored manga and animations of Osamu Tezuka, to the equally loved animated features of Hayao Miyazaki. Pauline Moore’s essay ‘When Velvet Gloves Meet Iron Fists: Cuteness in Japanese Animation’ explores the captivating emergence of the ‘cute’, or kawaii, factor in anime, placing the aesthetic firmly within the context of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Moore explains that “It can be seen retrospectively as a moment of reanimation, a rebirth, albeit in a mutated form” (119), themes that find their way into Japanese manga and anime. For Moore, the three stages of cute (the ‘cute’ Disney influence of the 1940s; the ‘hypercute’ period of the 1950s-60s most associated with Tezuka; and the ‘acute’ and darker anime and manga of recent times) are uncanny re-visionings of the horrors of atomic warfare, the Occupation and the imposition of U.S. culture (including Disney animations) on Japan; kawaii was the result of Japan’s ‘adoption and adaptation’ to this enforced ideological – and artistic – agenda.

Turning to animated flesh of a different kind, in ‘Pronoun Trouble II: The Missing Dick’, Richard Thompson analyses Bob Clampett’s Warner Brothers cartoon The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) which stars the epitome of all stardom – Daffy Duck. Thompson provides a meticulous analysis of the cartoon, highlighting Clampett’s own brand of reflexive engagement with films of the time. Drawing heavily on “a world view and set of values commonly called hardboiled”, which was at its peak in popularity during the release of Clampett’s cartoon, the adventures of Duck Twacy (albeit in a dream), follow similar themes to those explored in films like Citizen KaneLaura and other ‘empty quest’ films. Thompson tells us that, “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is one of many which call attention to the hollowness of answers, the final results of achieving a mission, completing a search” (223) – the difference is that, using animation’s ability to distort and deny the laws of physics, Clampett exaggerates this world, therefore bringing to the surface the hysteria that underlies the hardboiled film’s dark and secret-riddled spaces. In ‘Logistical Space: Flight Simulation and Virtual Reality’, Patrick Crogan turns to the digital realm. This is an essay loaded with details about the ways animation affects the fabric of our everyday reality in astounding and pernicious ways. Crogan journeys through the amazing and seemingly harmless and ‘fun’ advances in digital film and game effects and suggests that flight simulations have become a new technology for the animation of virtual realities. Exploring both the military and non-military application of such digital imaging technologies, and developing Paul Virilio’s writings about war, he makes some profound observations about the startling connections between entertainment technologies, the military, war and animation.

In his contribution, ‘De Anime’ William Routt shifts the direction, taking the word ‘animation’ back to its Greek origins and to Aristotle’s treatise De Anime. Routt explains that “For Aristotle, life was not the movement of a thing but the internal or psychic cause of that movement: its soul. In these terms, then, animation would seem to be the representation of the effects of soul” (175) – and so begins a journey that explores the ways in which the manga Battle Angel Alita (the supposed ‘static’ version of its animated cousin) evokes the sensation of being alive and capturing the soul – that state that generates a higher level of life. Concerned with similar explorations of animation as a philosophical concept that focuses on the idea of ‘endowing with life’ (and its related state, ‘endowing with motion’) in his essay ‘Speculations on the Animatic Automaton’ Cholodenko widens the parameters of the discussion to encompass the Pygmalion and Promethean myths of classical times, the eighteenth century automaton creations of Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre-Jacquet Droz, and the fictional animated lives generated by mad science in the writings of Mary Shelley. Through automaton examples that, in their depiction of illusion of motion also appear to conjure an illusion of life, he argues persuasively that film itself is precisely such an automaton that merges the animistic and mechanistic to become an ‘animatic automaton’.

These and many of the other essays in this anthology open up a diverse and insightful understanding of animation, what it means to animate, and how academics can open up further critical and theoretical avenues through which to investigate this area of study that deserves so much more attention than it has had in the past. This reason alone makes The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation a canny, engaging and challenging text worthy of academic – and non-academic – attention.

Angela Ndalianis,
Melbourne University, Australia.

Created on: Monday, 3 December 2007

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

Angela Ndalianis is Research Professor in Media and Entertainment Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. Her research focuses on film and entertainment media. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), Science Fiction Experiences (2010), The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (2012) and the edited books The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2009) and Neo-baroques: From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster (2016).View all posts by Angela Ndalianis →