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School of Arts and Sciences

Sensei for Anime

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Professor Susan Napier explains why anime and manga are not just for kids

Professor Susan Napier

by Dana Guth, A17

It takes some professors years of schooling to discover their chosen fields. For Professor of Japanese Studies Susan Napier, all it took was a haiku in middle school.

"My mother took me to see the East Asian exhibits at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and I started reading and writing haiku all the time," says Professor Napier, whose classes include Japanese Film, The World of Japanese Animation, and The Cinema of Apocalypse. "I was so enchanted by the poetry, the art, and the literature. I couldn't get enough."

Susan Napier with doll
Professor Susan Napier with a plush Totoro doll from Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki's film My Neighbor Totoro. (Matthew Healey for Tufts University)

It's that passion that launched Napier into her lifelong study of East Asian culture, inspiring four published books, and a teaching career at The University of London, University of Pennsylvania, and The University of Texas at Austin before coming to Tufts in 2005. The daughter of two Harvard University European studies lecturers, she dove headfirst into the world of East Asian culture as a sort of high school "rebellion" before earning three Harvard degrees of her own.

"I spent my senior year of high school in Tokyo, living on my own and supporting myself," says Napier, who has lived in Japan at various periods totaling eight years. "I realized I didn't want to stop learning about that culture."

Now, Napier helps Tufts students do just that. From Asia in the Mind of the West to a seminar on Hayao Miyazaki, the critically acclaimed director behind such films as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, her courses explore the philosophical nuances and cultural themes portrayed in Japanese art, especially manga and anime.

"[Japanese] stories are incredibly imaginative; there's nothing formulaic. There's beauty and sentiment. They show concerns about the world, the environment, and human nature," she says. "Sure, these films discuss Japanese events and philosophy, but they're universally accessible. People are picking up on that."

One of her most in-demand (and, admittedly, favorite) classes is The Cinema of Apocalypse, because it not only examines important and exciting films but also explores major social issues such as nuclear proliferation and climate change. In class, students dissect the world-ending scenarios of films such as Dr. Strangelove and Armageddon. Napier's next new course will offer a look at animation in general—not just Japanese works, but Disney films, South Park, and Betty Boop. "I want to show how multifaceted animation is," says Napier.

Susan Napier
Professor Susan Napier poses in front of posters related to her work in Japanese film and animation. (Matthew Healey for Tufts University)

"Animation can lead to discussions about politics, gender roles, satire, and the nature of cinema itself,"

For Napier, the greatest reward in developing these courses is drawing such a wide variety of students. "You just can't teach these things without attracting the most interesting students. I love opening up this world to them," she said, adding that she routinely welcomes majors in just about every field, including biology, English, philosophy, engineering, computer science, and child study and human development.

Napier attributes student interest in her courses to the booming popularity of Japanese anime post-9/11, as young Americans stretch outside their comfort zones for a darker alternative to Hollywood's happily-ever-after narratives. Unlike when she began teaching, her students today grew up with anime. "Now, everyone knows popular manga and anime series such as Naruto and Sailor Moon—they are almost mainstream," says Napier.

Napier credits director Hayao Miyazaki for his role in bringing mainstream audiences to the genre, and assigns student projects that focus on his use of music, art, religion, gender, and symbolism. Miyazaki has introduced moviegoers all over the world to the culture of Japanese storytelling and Napier calls him "one of the greatest animators who ever lived."

"Twenty-five years ago, I'd say ‘I'm working with Japanese anime' and other people would hear ‘cartoons,'" she says, pointing out that today's youth grows up with animation as a popular television and film niche. "Even my colleagues thought it wouldn't last."

Quite the contrary: Napier recently returned to Japan to work on her next book, a definitive examination of Miyazaki's work, tentatively titled "The Last Utopian," which she calls a "film-by-film analysis of his work as a director and auteur. I'm interviewing subjects across the country to examine how he blends emotion and technology, and how this forms his legacy after retirement," explains Napier.

Her book Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle (2001) was the first published English-language piece with a scholarly focus on anime. She has also authored From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West (2007) and The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (1996).

Napier is also developing a science fiction course, and she gives several talks a year on anime around the world. This spring, she will travel to Wales as a keynote speaker for the first conference ever on Studio Ghibili, the production company behind Miyazaki's films. "This work is just so beautiful, so fascinating," she said. "It's wonderful to hear students say, ‘this really makes me think.' That's all a [professor] could ask for."