Book Review: The Science of Anime by Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg

When I heard about The Science of Anime, I was intrigued. After all, a lot of anime is near-future science fiction, and an entry examining the real-world uses of anime technology is sorely needed. One of the authors, Robert Weinberg, wrote me and offered me a preview copy. Who was I to refuse?

The Science of Anime is a quick read, with around 250 pages, much of which is in big print and large spacing. Although they don't point out their audience, it's written almost certainly with a middle school reader in mind, and the technical jargon will probably pick up high schoolers as well. Weinberg and Gresh do reach beyond that level, though; for example, there's a section of about four pages about stable orbital points that goes into mathematical equations far beyond the understanding or interest of any casual reader who hasn't gotten a high school diploma.

For the typical 14-year-old anime fan, The Science of Anime might seem fascinating. Most fans that age don't know enough about either topic to nitpick. However, as a thirty-something with lots of anime experience and graduate studies in some of the areas they discuss, I found the book frightfully biased and woefully under-researched. Granted, I am not a scientist, nor have I studied science in some time. However, I've seen a great deal of the anime discussed in the book, and the flaws that pop up in their summaries made me wonder whether or not the authors had actually seen the anime in question or double-checked their research. For example, since when was Akira considered a flop on its initial release in Japan, as Gresh and Weinberg claim? I was in fandom at the time of its release, and I know just how often this movie showed up on magazine covers coming out of Japan. The Internet Movie Database lists that the film grossed six times its cost in Japan, not counting any international business. You can argue that IMDB has bad figures, but then take what Susan J. Napier's Anime: From Akira To Princess Mononoke has to say: "Akira was number one at the box office the year of its release in Japan." Napier teaches Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas. Who has the most credibility?

But let's take some more examples. In discussing Robotech, the authors describe the third segment of the show (taken from Mospeada) completely incorrectly. Their description of Metropolis misses the heart of the movie's finale. Or take Akira. The authors take evolution as "the basic underlying theme of the film" while stating that the film's plot has logical holes. Well, maybe those logical holes exist because they were attempting to see the film as a discussion of evolution! The story of Tetsuo and his gaining psychokinetic powers has to do with experimentation, not evolution. The ending of the film, one of its most controversial points, involves Akira taking Tetsuo to his own new dimension -- at least as it is understood in most circles -- which would have fit into a different chapter in their book. But Gresh and Weinberg have a habit of eisegesis, the practice of reading into a text or a film what they want it to contain.

The authors also have a bad habit of bringing simplistic and argumentative views into areas that are not their forte. For example, in the chapter on artificial intelligence, the authors boil down into a couple of sentences what the Old and New Testaments of the Bible supposedly have to say about the soul. As a student at seminary, the Bible is the area of my expertise, and they have it amazingly wrong. And though they seem to leave open questions about the soul in the chapter on artificial intelligence, in the discussion on evolution they use intimidation tactics to try and convince their readers that creationism and the ID (Intelligent Design) movement are completely illegitimate. I believe people have the right to their opinions on evolution and creation, of course; I myself am not averse to the idea that God created the universe over a long period of time. However, the arrogance of the authors shows a real ax to grind in certain areas.

The greatest difficulty in reading this book is not in learning some new things. Indeed, there were a lot of interesting points that Gresh and Weinberg made, and I would say I got something out of it. The problem is, what of it can you trust? When I kept finding errors about anime I'd seen and philosophical arguments I knew, I lost any sense that I could believe what I was reading. I can handle someone disagreeing with me, but you've got to get your facts straight, and the authors didn't.

After finishing the book, I looked up the duo on Amazon and found that they've co-written a number of books combining science and pop culture. This is just the latest in a line of their books ranging from The Science of Superheroes to The Computers of Star Trek. (Amazon even lists an upcoming book by the duo for 2007 called The Science of Stephen King!) Looking at it, the situation makes sense -- Gresh and Weinberg are cashing in on pop culture sensations by doing a little bit of research on each one and sticking some scientific concepts on top.

I don't doubt that these two may indeed like the subjects they discuss; Weinberg's worked on quite a few American comic books, and so this might be something closer to his heart than I imagine. But when books by Susan Napier and other serious anime students are easily available on the market, they're the better choice. I've taken Helen McCarthy to task on some questionable material in The Anime Encyclopedia before, but those are small qualms about little details. In comparison, The Science of Anime has serious problems.

It's difficult to trash a book that's been offered to you by one of the authors, as was done in this case. When I review anime, I'm talking about the work of folks halfway across the world who will likely never read a word I say. Negatively reviewing someone's work that sought you out to read their's harder. But that should tell you just how much I think you should avoid The Science of Anime. If you really want to read about anime, start with Napier's Anime, McCarthy's Hayao Miyazaki, or even Patten's good (if repetitive) Watching Anime, Reading Manga. You'll get a lot more mileage out of those titles.