Does anime promote an orientalist view of Japan: or, a case of ‘lost in cultural translation’? – Part 1


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When viewing anime, it is possible to see how it, as a cultural medium, promotes an orientalist view of Japan with its astonishing visuals, along with the numerous exotic and strange creatures and creations. Anime as a Japanese cultural commodity incorporates elements of the country’s history, society, and culture into its myriad stories and settings that range from the historical through to contemporary scenarios, and near future, along with fantasy settings that take their influence from a mix of traditional Japanese culture, dystopian and cyberpunk settings. It is therefore a very broad medium, and one that has become increasingly popular in the west, with films like Akira and Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (spirited Away) garnering significant critical acclaim (Ebert, 2002; Maslin, 1990; Mitchell, 2002; Horwitz, 2002; Turan, 2002). It has been argued that Japanese culture is ‘odourless’ (Douglas, 2002; Koichi, 2002), one without cultural or social roots, a form of ‘soft power’ that can change its form or shape depending on where it is. Koichi (2002) argues that anime doesn’t look Japanese, describing this aspect of Japanese culture as ‘mukokuseki’ (something or someone lacking any nationality), thus implying that anime lacks racial or ethnic charactertics and therefore cannot be culturally embedded (Koichi, 2002; 317). If the characters within anime are a part of mukokuseki, then there is a necessity to add something else that embeds anime within its culture and society. The use of historical events (in the case of Akira), or cultural artefacts (in the case of Sen to Chihiro) can be viewed as an attempt to ground these films in a very specific time and place. Sato (2004) suggests that, according to Japanese intellectuals, Japanese traditional beauty, which ‘resides in subtle layers of mysterious darkness is being wiped out by the flood of bright electronic lights of western technology’ (Sato, 2004; 343). This attempt to regain the ‘harmony of Japanese culture’, and a unique Japaneseness further reinforces animes’ promotion of an orientalist view of Japan by highlighting the essence of the orient in western imagination (Sato, 2004; 341). Anime emphasis Japan as a place of romance, exotic beings, and haunting memories and landscape, while also further stressing the distinction between Japanese culture and that of the west (Said, 1978; 1).

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Orientalism:

The Orient is an invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, and haunting memories and landscape, Orientalism is therefore a way of coming to terms with the orient, and understanding it within a western socio-cultural and historical framework (said, 1978; 1). Said (1978) argues that the Orient holds a special place in the western imagination, it is an integral part of European material civilisation and culture, furthermore he suggests that Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ‘ontological and epistemological distinction’ between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’ (Said, 1978; 2). Anime promotes an orientalist view of Japan through its presentation of remarkable experiences, exotic beings, and romantic stories; the worlds we see in anime see far more fantastical than those in the west and reinforce notions of Japan as a place of the exotic ‘Other’ (Gilroy, 1987). Anime further promotes an orientalist view of Japan by providing a glimpse into another world through the visuals that films such as Akira and Sen to Chihiro employ, along with the use of American dubs (Newitz, 1995). Furthermore, anime also suffers from being ‘lost in cultural translation’, where the historical, and socio-cultural meanings and significance of anime are lost or overwritten through the process of adopting or adapting the work into another culture and language.

As we look at the proliferation of Japanese goods and the popularity of anime we see numerous strands and narratives interweaving to create an increasingly complex picture of anime and its current popularity within the West. It is possible to suggest that the increased popularity of anime like Akira and Sen to Chihiro is partly due to the idea of watching the ‘other’ (Gilroy, 1987), with the curiosities that appear on screen, and the exotic, but simultaneously familiar narrative producing a spectacle that is at one and the same time bizarre, but also recognisable. Reviews of Sen to Chihiro and Akira draw attention to the exotic or fantastical and how such themes fit into their broader narratives, but in doing so much of the socio-cultural and historical significance of the stories that these films tell is glossed over for the outlandish and weird (Ebert, 2002; Maslin, 1990; Mitchell, 2002; Horwitz, 2002; Turan, 2002). Furthermore, because so much of anime is wrapped up in historical, along with socio-cultural signifiers, much of what can be labelled as Orientalism can also be viewed as a case of lost in cultural translation. Without a clear understanding of the visuals and what they may represent in Japanese culture and society, much of the meaning in anime such as Akira and Sen to Chihiro is therefore lost, with the exotic and fantastical visuals remaining as a marker of a wondrously different culture and cultural medium.

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Lost in Cultural Translation:

Akira and Sen to Chihiro use a wide variety of influences from other cultures, but their central stories and main characters remain rooted within Japanese cultural and social traditions. Bradshaw (2003) suggests that Sen to Chihiro has its roots in other classic literature, more specifically Homer’s Odyssey, Drazen on the other hand (2003) argues that Miyazaki is clear about the films origins, talking about the importance of Japanese folk tales such as ‘Suzume no Oyado’ (Sparrow’s Inn), ‘Kachikachi Yama, and ‘Momotaro’ as the main influences for the film (Drazen, 2003; 278). Sen to Chihiro’s aesthetic look and imagery had a vital role to play in its success both at home and abroad. The film was not sold through an essentialist or pure image of national identity, but rather through its broader spectrum of hybridised identities such as the mixture of Japanese and Western styles of architecture, décor and costumes (Denison, 2001; 331). It is easy to see why Peter Bradshaw (2003) talks about the many ‘western influences and resemblances’ that he argues Sen to Chihiro incorporates into it’s the Wizard of Oz, and The Secret Garden, Bradshaw (2003) is situating Sen to Chihiro within a specific western context. However, in doing so Bradshaw (2003) draws attention to the films exotic and fantastical qualities, while simultaneously alienating it from its origins. While it is possible to see the numerous other cultural references and influences within Sen to Chihiro, to Miyazaki it is Japanese folk-tales that ultimately provide him with the ideas and setting for the film.

Akira’s post-apocalyptic world and its portrayal of corrupt government and the increasing dissatisfied populace are all a part of the dystopian archetype. Akira is also grounded in it’s own culture and society, with the use of biker gangs or bôsôzoku, along with four main historical signifiers, which are juxtaposed to underscore the corruption and degradation of contemporary Japanese society, creating a historical ‘pastiche’ (Standish, 1998; 63). The story of Akira is culturally embedded, linking elements from Japanese history and exploring them in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting, therefore, to fully understand the significance of the story and the numerous characters and sub-plots it is necessary to have a basic knowledge of Japan’s post-WWII history. Throughout Akira there are also references to the Tokyo Olympics (1964) and the politic unrest and student demonstrations of the 1960s against the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo). These demonstrations in particular are a constant presence, and Akira frequently switches between the main characters of Tetsuo and Kaneda to provide aerial shots of protests and the militaries response and retaliation.

Neo-Tokyo is a city on the verge of collapse, a city that has forgotten about the tragedy of war and a nuclear holocaust, one where the politicians spend more time arguing amongst themselves than trying to run the city. As Nezu, one of the politicians who has also been providing information for a terrorist group, but is nonetheless corrupt and amoral describes Neo-Tokyo as an ‘overripe fruit’ (quote taken from English dubbed re-master, 2003). Neo-Tokyo is a city that embodies the history of Japan and the problems that its society has faced over the last century, it is a society that is shown to be morally bankrupt, full of corruption and one that has forgotten the past for the sake of progress. However, much of what is historically and culturally significant in Akira would be lost on casual viewers, with the bike chases and frenetic action taking precedence over a plot that is historically bounded and feeds on the socio-cultural and political importance of the issues that it explores. Through the Colonel and the politicians we see a signifier for pre-war Japan when the military were growing increasingly powerful, while the political classes and industrialists grew weaker through constant infighting (Standish, 1998). Akira’s representation of the Colonel according to Standish is constructed as a portrayal of General Amani, the War Minister in Prime Minister Suzuki’s cabinet of 1945 in the highly successful film Japan’s Longest Day (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, directed by Okamoto Kihachi, 1967) (Standish, 1998; 63).

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In particular, the importance of the initial explosion and subsequent destruction of Tokyo, representing the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is essential to a further understanding of the film and how it is situated both culturally and historically. The destruction that Japan saw because of these bombs has left a lasting scar on the landscape in the form of a giant crater that overshadows Neo-Tokyo in its entirety, a grim reminder of the past destructions that the country and city has had to face. When Akira, the most powerful mutant child, and Tetsuo becoming metaphorical nuclear weapons with the ability to once again destroy Tokyo and all that surround it. The central powers that the military are playing with are therefore the ones that ultimately lead to their ruin and the beginning of a war that has long since passed (Standish, 1998; 63).  But, even as the Colonel and Dr Onishi (who is in charge of researching the mutants) continue to try and harness the power that Akira and Tetsuo have, an act that appears to bear a striking resemblance to the behaviour that Japan exhibited during the Meiji restoration, and later pre-WWII. As Anderson (1983) points out, despite the terrible sufferings ‘imposed on the peasantry by the ruthless fiscal exactions required to pay for a munitions-based programme of industrialisation, was certainly due in part to the single-minded determination of the oligarchs themselves’ (Anderson, 1983; 96). In this respect it can be argued that Otomo, through the Colonel and his single-minded attempt to control the power of Akira is demonstrating the dangers of aggressive nationalism and what it can lead to.

Whereas Akira presents a dystopian near-future society that is both Japanese, while also global, Sen to Chihiro uses culture and history to demonstrate a central conflict between the old and the new. The use of architecture and clothes in Sen to Chihiro differs from Akira; they help the viewer to differentiate between one set of ideas and ideals and another, reflecting the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastic’ through their use and importance (Denison, 2001; 331). The gaudy and exotic bathhouse, for example, is a site of fantasy, one that is treacherous and untrustworthy, full of conspicuous consumption and waste. However, Zeniba’s European style house is one that invites a sense of the authentic and trustworthy, it is a place with sparse furnishing, but also one that feels warm, homely and safe. Miyazaki is attempting to draw attention to Japan’s historical past and folk traditions through this and other films, but in doing so also draws the viewer’s attention to the myriad of strange creatures that such a history includes.

The differences in architectural styles help to reinforce the essential problems that Miyazaki is portraying in the film and in particular in Chihiro’s character. For Miyazaki, Chihiro is an ‘all-too-modern ten year old’, jaded, cynical, and lacking any passion for life, a character that no longer understands, nor cares about the varied cultural background of Japan (Drazen, 2003; 277). The film focuses on the tricky nature of diverse cultures and attitudes in modern society, while also looking at the negative aspects of consumption in industrialised societies (Napier, 2006; 288). In Yubaba’s bathhouse she has changed and become a hard working individual, utterly different from the spoiled ten-year-old who we see in her parents car. It is in the simple, thatched rural home of Zeniba that Chihiro finally breaks away from this life of conspicuous consumption and is given the advice that allows her to free her parents and Haku (Yubaba’s servant and a river spirit/dragon) (Denison, 2001; 331). Furthermore, the transformation of Chihiro from lazy modern child to one who works hard for the sake of others suggests that an essential element of Japanese culture and society is slowly being lost, something that would arguably reinforce Miyazaki’s assertions that Chihiro is ‘too-modern’ (Drazen, 2003; 277).

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This transformation is shown in the animation and through the growth of Chihiro over the course of the film; at the beginning of the film she, like her parents is controlled by the hyper-consumerism that Miyazaki comments on as being detrimental to Japan, but, but losing her name and becoming ‘Sen’, she loses an essential connection to the modern world and her family. By losing her name Chihiro becomes a part of the spirit world, and must integrate herself into the lifestyle of a bathhouse worker. The importance of names and what they mean is one of the central concepts of Sen to Chihiro, with the bathhouse workers all being given a name that also denotes their job – for example, Kamiji translates as ‘boiler geezer’ and describes his temperament as well as the position that this characters holds in the bath house – further reinforcing the importance of language in creating strong links to a particular culture and society. A key example of this difference in language can be found in Sen to Chihiro’s title and how much of its meaning is lost in cultural translation, which in turn means that the film has already lost one of its key points before ever being shown in the west. The title ‘Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi’ contains a pun that highlights a significant duality in Chihiro’s name. ‘Sen’ is another way of pronouncing the first character in the name ‘Chihiro’, so in a sense, Chihiro is one person and Sen is another (Drazen, 2003; 277). This differentiation between names is used to demonstrate the transformation that Chihiro undergoes as ‘Sen’, from a jaded and cynical modern girl, into someone who works hard and looks to the future, while also remembering the past, but because it is a linguistic pun, it is lost long before the film is translated into American, and at this point it no longer has a place in the film or the title.

The central conflict of Sen to Chihiro, with its portrayal of modern culture as self-destructive and greedy, draws attention to the ‘strange’ or ‘outlandish’ aspects of ‘traditional’ Japanese culture, and by putting these elements in direct opposition to modern, consumerist culture, further reinforces notions of Japan’s uniqueness or ‘nihonjinron’. Through this conflict, Japan is arguably portrayed as a country where ‘wage-slave men’ (The Economist, 2002) exist, and a place where the destructive nature of materialism threatens to destroy Japan’s link to it’s past. By extension, it can therefore be argued that anime is an exotic cultural product that allows the west to look into Japanese society and see the curiosities and eccentricities of its culture and people. The term ‘wage-slave men’ (The Economist, 2002), along with the depiction of life within Yubaba’s bathhouse reinforce a commonly held view of a Japan where everyone works themselves into exhaustion. The characters’ idiosyncrasies and how they fit into their socio-cultural context, along with the films deeper meanings, are therefore largely lost on a western audience that lacks a more nuanced understanding of Japanese society and culture. As Drazen (2003) points out, the ‘basic outlines of the story translate well, even if the cultural specifics don’t’ (Drazen, 2003; 279), but, because the cultural specifics do not translate properly, we are left with a wonderful film that further reinforces notions of the exotic ‘Other’ (Gilroy, 1987), of a strange culture and society that is utterly different from our own.

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In Sen to Chihiro the boundary between the old and the new is shown through Chihiro’s development from the lazy, modern girl in the back of her family’s modern Audi, into a hard-working and more thoughtful individual through her integration into Yubaba’s bath house and her interactions with the denizens that reside there. In Akira however, this difference is arguably subtler due to its cyberpunk aesthetic and the dystopian society that it portrays; it is through language and the bright and dynamic visuals, along with the Japanese language (in the case of the original or subbed version) where we see the most significant differentiation between the old and the new. It is therefore the most overtly Japanese aspects of anime that help to situate them as a cultural product of Japan, as Maslin (1990) points out in her review of Akira, ‘even when delivering the most dire pronouncements, these characters speak with such a decorousness that helps give this pop-obsessed films its distinctly Japanese tone’ (Maslin, 1990). This differentiation between the old and the new, with the more traditional and linguistic aspects of anime portrayed as the most obviously Japanese, further demonstrates animes’ potential to promote an orientalist view of Japan.

Furthermore, by talking about anime, and in particular films such as Akira and Sen to Chihiro as if they were art house rather than commercial successes, anime is portrayed as something special, as ‘non-GM’ and ‘organic’, thus putting it in direct opposition to the western animation industry (Bradshaw, 2003; Ebert, 2002; Mitchell; 2002). While describing anime as ‘non-GM’ as opposed to the ‘GM’ animation of the west puts these cultural mediums in opposition, it simultaneously feeds into what McKay (1997) calls a ‘grand narrative of homogenisation’, whereby anime is judged in opposition to western popular culture instead of on its own merit (McKay, 1997; 14). By subsuming anime into a broader global culture it becomes part of a system that arguably undermines the collective practices of ethnic cultures, and instead reinforces established attitudes and ways of viewing Japan by drawing attention to the exotic and fantastical at the expensive of the social and cultural (Clarke, 1991; 74). The symbolism employed by Akira and Sen to Chihiro are therefore lost and overshadowed by the films visuals due to a lack of understanding among western audiences.

Both films are grounded in Japan’s history and culture, but such references and signifiers are lost in cultural translation, and the wider messages and ideas that these films explore are eclipsed by their portrayal of the exotic Other. Sato (2004) argues that the Japan we see in numerous cyberpunk anime is one where the future already exists, Japan is therefore a ‘Disneyland’, a focal point where history and locality cease to exist (Sato, 2004; 340). It is possible to view anime as a cultural artefact, however, it is also hard to appreciate the ‘Japanese’ elements without knowledge of the country’s culture and lifestyle. Through this ‘grand narrative of homogenisation’ (McKay, 1997; 14), it can be argued that the yearning for another culture that is evoked through the ‘consumption of its cultural commodities’ (Koichi, 2002: 35) such as anime creates an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983). This yearning tends to lack an understanding of the socio-cultural complexities of these products and where they were produced, further highlighting the roles that cultural imperialism and Orientalism play in the continued popularity of anime in the west (Koichi, 2002; Said, 1978; Said, 1993).

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

3 Responses to Does anime promote an orientalist view of Japan: or, a case of ‘lost in cultural translation’? – Part 1

  1. omo says:

    I mentally do a replace whenever you say “anime” I insert “Akira and/or Spirited Away” because it seems only fair to not characterize a very broad medium (as you said) by just two high profile motion pictures. It’s a major, major issue.

    • illogicalzen says:

      My arguments can easily be used for anime in general, I just stuck with two specific case studies otherwise the essay/post would be far too broad, and wouldn’t really be making any real points. I do however stick by my arguments and there is enough evidence to suggest that anime does promote an orientalist view of Japan.

  2. Animecommentary says:

    Hmmm, never really though about the “lost in translation” aspects of Sen to Chihiro and Akira. Then again, I’ve been studying Japanese culture, and can recognize some of the distinct cultural elements present in both. The scene at the Olympic Stadium in Akira particularly speaks to the protagonist’s disassociation with a decade that saw immense prosperity; Akira is lashing out against a subconscious reminder of the decimation that the war brought to Japan. When the story picks up, gangs rove the streets, engaging in violent clashes, while the “older” generation (in charge of the government) is locked in a political divide that leaves said gangs to their own devices.

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