What I’m about to discuss has been gestating in my head for a little while, ever since I finally caught a showing of the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha movie a couple weeks ago. It was my first exposure to anything Nanoha, and I was blown away, really just beside myself with excitement… But I felt that I didn’t have the right language to discuss it.
So I exchanged a few e-mails with the incredibly helpful Ghostlightning, read some books, did some meditating. Now I feel prepared to talk.
Note: This one’s going to be long.
“One way to imagine super flatness is to think of the moment when, in creating a desktop graphic for your computer, you merge a number of distinct layers into one. Though it is not a terribly clear example, the feeling I get is a sense of reality that is very nearly a physical sensation.”
When Takashi Murakami made this claim in “Superflat Manifesto,” he wasn’t inventing a new aesthetic from nowhere; he was describing the state of the world as it currently exists.
To borrow an example (in a slightly different context) from Hiroki Azuma and Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, consider how you’re reading this entry right now: On a web browser, which is just one window of many on your computer desktop. This window might be on “top” of everything else, but the entirety of it exists on a flat computer screen, in a thin layer of light-emitting liquid crystal. In a graphical user interface, there are multiple, potentially infinite layers, but overwhelming flatness: Superflat life in a perfect nutshell.
This is also an excellent way to describe anime. Thomas Lamarre, in his new book The Anime Machine, says that one critical feature of animation, which distinguishes it from cinema, is that animation builds each frame out of multiple layers of cels stacked on top of each other. Background, foreground, and different character drawings can each exist in the same frame while remaining completely separate from each other.
Thus, a person viewing animation experiences not just the linear, cinematic motion of what happens from one frame to the next, but also the lateral manipulation that occurs in the space between cel layers, which Lamarre says is equally important. But that said, animators do it all on computer now, and in the end we queue it up on Video Player Classic and experience the total product. So again, it adds up to a kind of superflat.
Okay, now that we’ve laid groundwork for discussion of anime, let’s get into the deeper stuff: Magical girls.
Cutie Honey was the original transforming magical girl. I can’t remember where I read that—Manga! Manga!, perhaps, or it could have been something by Susan Napier. Anyway, the grand irony of it is that Cutie Honey isn’t magical (her powers are technological) nor a girl (she’s a robot). But in her we see the basic beginnings of Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Pretty Cure. And in the above video, we see the particular properties of animation creating a captivating, vibrant opening sequence, full of motion achieved mainly via the manipulation of cels. (Incidentally, I feel that this visual manipulation within flat-space is what makes the Gainax remake so charming.)
Of course, Cutie Honey is also very titillating. This was a magical girl show made for boys, after all, with nudity and violence and all that good stuff. So in practice, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is only the latest in a history of such shows. Still, Nanoha is an unusual anime, not just because it paradoxically has such strong initial trappings of a girls’ magical girl show (e.g. the TV show logo, the character designs, the cute outfits), but also because it embeds its masculinity so deeply in the product, within the animation itself.
“Magic, and the theory and practice of aerial combat. I will teach you everything.”
- Raising Heart, Nanoha the Movie 1st (Note: Written from memory)
From watching the movie, I see the maleness of Nanoha a number of obvious ways. There are panty shots and nude transformation sequences, certainly, but what also caught my eye was the mechanical, technological nature of their magic. A bright, shiny transformation sequence is juxtaposed with Nanoha’s uniform being literally screwed into place on her body like a full-coverage chastity belt (echoes of the recent Iron Man film come to mind). Meanwhile her magical staff shifts like a Transformer, all clicks and sliding of precision metal parts.
But there is another masculine element in play, simultaneously subtler and much more bombastic than the rest: The Itano Circus.
For those who don’t know, Itano Circuses are a staple of mecha anime battles, in which a large number of missiles are depicted launching at once and zooming toward their target with long trails of smoke. The missiles usually fly about in dynamic patterns, and the targets (usually mecha or planes) have to dodge these missiles with a series of acrobatic dodges and weaves. I think that gives the general idea, and TV Tropes has a perfectly serviceable entry on what they call the “Macross Missile Massacre.” But in the end, there’s simply no better way than to show you what I’m talking about:
The video is quite long, and you don’t have to watch the whole thing. I’m just using it as a visual reference. But the key point is that the Itano Circus is the ultimate illusion of dimensionality: a kaleidoscopic thrill ride through the superflat landscape of anime “space.” Ichirou Itano made this technique famous in the original Macross series in 1982, but there is evidence that he used it even earlier, as an animator for the 1981 Gundam movie and the 1981 video for Daicon III. Eventually, of course, this would all make way for the generation-defining short film made by Gainax in 1983 for Daicon IV:
This one you really ought to watch in its entirety, when you have the time. It’s beautiful, and as I said, it set the tone for otaku culture up to the present day.
The Nanoha movie has some truly gorgeous fights: Flying, spinning death duels in the clouds and in the ruins of abandoned cities. Unchained from the limitations of a television broadcast budget, Nanoha Takamachi and Fate Testarossa are allowed to really go at it. And one of the most prominent aspects, I felt, was the use of the Itano Circus, mainly in the form of wave after wave of smart plasma orbs.
This is unique, because as I said, the Itano Circus is almost entirely used only in mecha anime, not magical girl shows. We’re talking about missiles shooting, penetrating giant machines with large explosions. If you don’t mind my comparing it to sperm approaching an egg, I believe the Itano Circus is a very masculine visual. Even the Daicon IV video, with its sexy bunny girls and nonstop action, is essentially a long love letter to male-oriented sci-fi fandom.
The fact that Nanoha makes use of this technique, then, is huge. We’re talking about the introduction not just of masculine-friendly visuals or otaku fetishism, but of a distinctly masculine understanding of space. The invisible gap between cels, which is so vital to the nature of animation, has been configured toward a male audience, making Nanoha profoundly tailor-fit for the men who watch it.
There are further places I can go with this topic. For one, I skimmed over the more “obvious” ways that Nanoha appeals to masculine sensibilities, and I’m sure there are other anime series to be discussed in this vein. But this entry, more than anything I’ve written before, is an experiment, hopefully to be built upon later. I’m content to end it here and see what you think first.
And now… Now, I’m going to take a short break. I’ll be back by the end of next week. Take care, everybody.