Film Review | Enter the Anime: No use walking through this door

It may present itself as an eye-opening glimpse into Japanese animation, but Enter the Anime ends up being little more than a hastily put-together advertorial for Netflix’s anime backlog

It should come as no surprise that streaming giant Netflix, now available to a global audience, would want to build up a hefty back catalogue of documentaries, and neither is it surprising that a sizeable percentage of these documentaries derive from evergreen sub-genres within that umbrella, such as true crime, with its Making a Murderer becoming a widespread sensation whose implications even bled into the real-world legalities of the contested sexual assault case being placed under the microscope during that docudrama mini-series.

But documentaries do come in all shapes and sizes. In part, this is because they are a story-telling genre like any other, though the fact that they tend to be a lot cheaper to make by proxy when compared to their fictional feature film or series counterparts but also be a draw for the famously content-hungry, quantity-over-quality entertainment provider.

And when a documentary can serve as an extended promotional piece for your own back catalogue, that’s a win-win, right? Well yes, for Netflix, but not necessarily for the audience. Sadly, this is precisely what’s happened with Enter the Anime, the freshly-landed one-hour foray into Japanese animation.

Directed and presented by self-confessed anime newbie Alex Burunova, the documentary finds our bewildered guide starting out with a key question: how does a nation so seemingly ‘prim and proper’ produce such a vibrant, energetic but also multi-faceted and often ultra-violent style of animation and unleash it on the unsuspecting world? It’s a question whose loaded – not to mention cringingly broad-brush – implications are entirely too ambitious for a one-hour documentary, much less one that appears to have zero concern for proper historical context, a basic narrative thrust and a series of underlying motifs that aren’t re-heated national stereotypes.

To be entirely fair to the endeavour, Burunova and her collaborators appear to want to make a virtue out of the confusion and ambiguity that they’re faced with as they set out to explore anime. Each section is punctuated by Burunova resignedly announcing that she is ‘even more confused now than when she started’, and that ‘instead of answers, all [she] got were more questions’... and other cliche phrases to that effect.

It may have helped if she’d delved into the genre by plunging straight into its native country of Japan, instead of wasting precious time interviewing Adi Shankar, the clownish producer of Netflix’s admittedly brilliant video game adaptation anime, Castelvania. Shankar clearly fancies himself as something of an eccentric geek guru, and his arch proclamations are shot entirely earnest when a better film-maker would have juiced them for unintentional comedy gold. Instead, aided along by rapid-fire stylised cutting redolent of ‘MTV editing’, it makes him out to be a live-action cartoon: just the kind of anime hero that the documentary thinks it needs to walk us into this fascinating, not-so-new world.

This tells you all you need to know about just how shallow and glitz-obsessed the whole thing is, even when Burunova’s supposedly probing gaze finally does turn towards Japan. But once there, we are also regaled with gut-punchingly awful over-simplifications of Japanese culture, so bare-faced in their stereotypical observations to be downright offensive. Now, it does all serve a purpose: more often than not, for Burunova to fall into a swoon over the contradictory nature of a ‘quaint’ and ‘polite’ nation that ends up producing the madcap romps that characterise the plots, characters and feel of anime.

While the bulk of creators being interviewed here do manage to offer a worthwhile perspective on their projects and what they contribute to the contemporary anime landscape, their insights are not given their due since they just end up lumped into a formless soup, whose purpose is simply to allow for Netflix-featured anime to bob onto the surface at key intervals.

That it is all rendered in the cheap, fast-cutting method doesn’t help matters along at all. There is one key exception; Burunova’s interview with Naoko Ogigami and Masahito Kobayashi, the creators of the adorable stop-motion series Rilakkuma and Kaoru, in which an oversized teddy bear companion helps provides necessary emotional support to a young woman dealing with the hectic day-to-day necessities of life. Far from using cuteness – or to use the apposite nomenclature, ‘kawaii’ – as a cynical ploy to attract younger viewers ala Hello Kitty, the quaintly constructed world of Rilakkuma and Kaoru comes from a deeper place. “I think it’s important to take it easy,” Ogigami explains, “because if you are too busy, you might end up forgetting to be nice to others”.

Surely, a one-hour exploration of how such a project exists to contrast – for one thing – Japan’s overcharged office culture would make for a more worthwhile and enriching experience than the overstretched advert we got instead.

The verdict

Little more than a one-hour glossy advertorial for Netflix’s current anime back catalogue – with a couple of forthcoming attractions thrown in for good measure – Enter the Anime is a thin, poorly executed and hastily edited attempt at getting at the root of this enduring pop culture phenomenon, while also managing to smear offensive orientalist stereotypes about Japanese culture all the while.