Which Borders Would That Be: French and Chinese Voices and Anime

Theorizing Anime: Invention of Concepts and Conditions of Their Possibility

International Symposium at Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

Nov 16–17, 2019


“It is the power each of them has to translate what he/she perceives in his/her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes his/her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other. This shared power of the equality of intelligence links individuals, makes them exchange their intellectual adventures, in so far as it keeps them separate from one another, equally capable of using the power everyone has to plot his/her own path. What our performances – be they teaching or playing, speaking, writing, making art or looking at it – verify is not our participation in a power embodied in the community. It is the capacity of anonymous people, the capacity that makes everyone equal to everyone else. This capacity is exercised through irreducible distances; it is exercised by an unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations.”

—Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator

A particular dialogue exists within the Anglo-Saxon/Japan academic community exploring the field of Anime. It replicates a close-knit web-like model also at play in the study of other genres producing if not a singular voice, then a robust one whose borders are academically universal which would stand for english. They also share other characteristics such as having rarely been translated into other languages except English yet often relying on French/Continental theory. We would argue that other methodologies, including French and Chinese readings and discussions outside of that bilateral dialogue, set up an alternative reception of anime aesthetics and narratives.

While several leading anime scholars rely on French theory (in fairness, let’s not forego mention of Anglo/American peers such as Haraway, Butler or Morton), what appears absent here is an unmediated French voice, and what it has contributed to Anime studies without overtly relying on english material. This is notably the case outside of academia through exhibitions, monographs, magazines and events such as Japan Expo. In a number of ways, it replicates the foundations of films studies in France, by entertaining a belief in returning to the source of the material, the director, or the studio as auteur.

This constellation of voices constitutes an array of models that would find its foundation in the French auteurist model of the fifties, when journals such as Cahiers du Cinema and Positif signaled a partition in film readings between themselves and cinema scholars from Henri Agel to Georges Sadoul. This model relied on two methods of analysis, the first focusing on mise-en-scene and how it served a thematic world the director was creating. The second was about going to the source, to the director’s voice, creating in the process a universally different way of discussing cinema through the constitution of an archive of interviews with filmmakers, which would find its purest incarnation in the Andre Labarthe-Janine Bazin series, Cineastes de Notre Temps. This applied as well to such magazines’ relationships with Japanese cinema. Cahiers and Positif, in the fifties, championed their respective favorite directors, Cahiers had Mizoguchi and Positif, Kurosawa. In time both directors would be embraced across the board. But more importantly, at that time, next to no information about Japanese cinema was making its way to Japan, including in Japanese. And had there been, none of those critics would have been able to read and translate it. Their initial chronology of Japanese releases by noted directors such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa was aleatory and fabricated, approximated. Their culture, according to Jacques Rivette, mattered less than their ability to speak the language of cinema.

Animation movie Porco Rosso, 1992
French release 1995

Anime in France makes an appearance in the early seventies, dubbed versions of Tezuka titles, but more importantly with the arrival of Goldorak on French television in 1978. It doesn’t generate however any discussion of anime. This will have to wait until the mid-eighties and the arrival on children tv programming of Club Dorothee, which will screen everyday episodes of Dragonball. This is a turning point in the beginning of acknowledging the specificity of its aesthetic, from drawing to animation, as well as its fragmented narratives. Nearly a decade after, in 1995, Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso will have an unfortunate theatrical release in Paris. The film community doesn’t get it, the Anime one doesn’t connect yet, unlike Otomo’s Akira released theatrically in Paris in 1991. It will trigger a number of vocations that have endured to this day in France.  Fans will become critics, distributors, exponents of the genre, and while reproducing in many ways the Cahiers model of identifying a style and wanting to do interviews, they pay attention to the chronology, some began to learn Japanese, and would go on to launch their own journals, such as Animeland, while established journals acknowledged anime and manga Eiga filmmakers as auteurs. In the nineties, noted film critics from different journals would gather around the magazine HK Extreme Orient which celebrated the advent of Asian cinema (Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Japan including anime). In 1999, the first edition of Japan Expo was launched in France, a celebration of Japanese pop culture which has invited mangakas, Jpop idols and anime creators and directors to meet with fans in Europe, as well as meet with critics and scholars for interviews. 

Moebius & Miyazaki
Exposition Miyazaki-Moebius, 2004-2005

Over the last three decades, French universities have included both manga and anime in their curriculum. It has been the object of discussion in academic venues as well as la maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris, and film festivals. Mamoru Oshii was in competition in Cannes in 2004. It’s worth noting that since Ghost in the Shell, Oshii has embarked on a dialogue with other Asian cultures, notably China and Korea. And in the last 2 decades, Oshii would become an TV anime series and online content developer, game creator, manga artist, while remaining a film director. This is a model that China would run with in the process forging a new model which nibbled away at the spectator’s emancipation.


What’s being called Chinese anime has enjoyed a boom in the last decade or so. In the first half of this year, the most popular one of them, Soul Land, was viewed 3.75 billion times online. Many of these works are adapted from the webserials telling Chinese fantasy stories around the same time when these stories are adapted into manga, if not earlier, with only a few following the Japanese manga-anime model. Most of the Chinese animes are exclusively streamed online except for the more successful ones, which are much less welcomed on TV and in movie theaters than online when they tried. For example, The Legend of Qin was first animated in 2007 and shown on TV. Not proper for children being one of the reasons, in2014 it was taken down and moved to one of the three major online streaming platforms, Youku, and remains popular till today. Once successful, the animes will be further on adapted into browser games or mobile ones which would also become hits of the moment. As such, the anime, manga, and game are packaged together, stemming from the same ip and targeting at the same group of audience who are usually teenagers.

Visually, these works resemble their Japanese counterparts with a slight Chinese-style twist, for example, in clothes design or the color scheme. Although obviously lack of originality and maturity, the Chinese anime nonetheless has been well received domestically, as it coincides with the nationalist discourses in both governmental propaganda and the fan communities. Since the early 2000s, the central government decided to boost the local productions and promulgated protectionist regulations against the import of foreign animations. Animation’s cultural significance and economic potential suddenly attracted much more attention than before, and the window made by banning imported titles provided great opportunities for the Chinese animators who used to take subcontracted orders to start their own business and make works for the Chinese audience. The techniques largely remain Japanese or American, but the transplanted Chinese elements are nonetheless enough for the fans and media to celebrate the rising of Chinese anime. When the Japanese version of the popular manga-anime, Fox Spirit Matchmaker, made its way to Japan in 2017, five years after the original version’s first episode came out, many fans were very keen to follow how each episode was received despite the language barrier for them to reach the information, and discuss about the possible reasons when the reviews by Japanese audience were not ideally positive.

Manga anime Fox Spirit Matchmaker, 2015–

Enjoying a huge market as they are, the online anime, manga, and games are nonetheless very much subculture and lack of that kind of positive energy consistent with the grand narrative to enter the officially recognized distribution realm, namely the TV programs and movie theaters. Some surely tried to cross the border to produce feature-length movies and live-action drama series, but with few fruitful results. As a matter of fact, these sections are very much compartmentalized, each section enjoy their own territory, aesthetic, and resources of reference. In general, the vision and taste of the audience are narrowly shaped within each section. TV animation programs often tell animal stories for young children and only the most popular ones might make the move to cinema; whereas the animation films, supposed to be the standard-bearer of Chinese animation, are often adapted from the limited number of classic legends with numerous adaptions already, such as the story of Monkey King. The visual style of these recent animation films inevitably presents a mixed aesthetic of Disney, Pixar, and Japanese anime, which are fundamentally not Chinese. In the 2019 blockbuster Ne Zha which made 700 million dollars overall, the younger Ne Zha is very Pixar and the teenager Ne Zha especially in battle scenes is a constant reminder of Japanese game titles like Final Fantasy. Among other derivatives of the same story, the 2003 one is more Disney Mulan-esque. Both have moved far away from the 1979 animation which was more originally Chinese aesthetic-wise despite the bold appropriation of the Hokusai waves.

Animation movie Ne Zha, 2019

Like mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were also once major OEMs for Japanese and American productions. Currently, both are rather tolerant with imported titles and Taiwan has had a number of co-productions with Japan, but they also suffer from lacking competitiveness comparing to the imports due to the small scales of domestic market, human and financial resources, etc. Within the limited space left, both actively explore themes related to Chinese history and the local culture, notably the indigenous culture and daily life in Taiwan, and the themes related to hybridity and anxiety rooted in HK identity. On the other side of the border, mainland China’s identity searching efforts are mainly dwelling in revisiting the classic legends, with only a few independent animators trying to find their own languages that are far from becoming systematic. These works are hardly marketable in spite of the awards they might win, as they are considered as arthouse and highbrow and not fitting in any of the sections that we mentioned before. Even under the nationalist agenda, the celebration of “created in China” has not opened to such opportunities for intellectual adventure.



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