Does anime promote an orientalist view of Japan: or, a case of ‘lost in cultural translation’? – Part 2


Cultural Imperialism:

Sterling (1990) argues that Japanese ethnicity happens to embody no element of historicity or locality in the American eye, and that the cyberpunk films such as Akira are effectively a part of a globalised, and arguably Americanised culture (Sterling, 1990; 72). This argument is therefore suggesting that Japanese anime lack historical imperatives and are no longer grounded in local culture, they are instead a product of a globalised, and arguably, Americanised culture. In this respect the exoticism and ‘otherness’ of anime has been integrated into a broader Americanised culture as a form of cultural imperialism, thus allowing Japanese cultural products to be viewed as something weird and wonderful, while also maintaining a sense of familiarity (Said, 1994; 200). The use of ‘new’ and ‘traditional in anime like Akira and Sen to Chihiro helps to differentiate between one culture and another, creating a boundary between globalised and Americanised culture and the traditional overtly ‘Japanese’ culture. The ‘new’ technology demarcates a modern, consumerist Japan that is obsessed with gadgets and neon; this cultural imagery of technology has, as McKay (1997) argues, ‘come to dominate our iconography of (American) modernity’ (McKay, 1997; 16).

Sen to Chihiro also draws upon a broad, globalised culture through its inclusion of distinctly western or ’modern’ fashions and architecture alongside the obviously and overtly Japanese aesthetic. To suggest that Sen to Chihiro is a uniquely and wholly Japanese product would therefore ignore the central tensions between Japanese cultural identity and otherness that appears to implicitly call into question the viability of ‘Japaneseness’ in a changing world (Napier, 2006; 288). Akira and Sen to Chihiro are Japanese in language and their anime medium, but both bring together numerous influences from outside of Japan. When watching Akira, much like Spirited Away, there are numerous references and ideas that can be linked to a globalised culture, thus suggesting that while anime does promote an orientalist view of Japan, its influence and reasons for its continued popularity remain complex. Akira, while a post-apocalyptic film set in a classic dystopian society, is also a commentary on Japan past and present with numerous cultural references that may be lost on a western audience, but are recognisable to the Japanese. However, the vast cityscapes and way the society is constructed and portrayed lacks context, often mimicking those dystopian, smog-shrouded skyscrapers of Blade Runner.

Akira’s society is Japanese, but can also be viewed from a broad global perspective, with many of its dystopian themes applicable to western culture and society. Furthermore, Neo-Tokyo lacks distinctive landmarks, and it is possible to transpose other vast metropolises like Los Angeles or New York onto this cityscape (Isolde, 1998). However, the gang violence and portrayal of a society on the verge of collapse, portrays Japan as a country of ‘exotic primitivism conjoined with high-tech supremacy’ (Sato, 2004; 335). While the story of Akira may have certain universalities, its visceral action and self-destructive society is something almost alien in western animation, and although it is a complex story, the exotic nature of this film further promotes an orientalist view of Japan. The uniqueness of anime as a cultural and social medium within a western setting further promotes notions of Japan as the exotic other, a place where technology and philosophy meld and form new, exciting and dangerous creations, and in doing so reinforces the ‘American perception of Japan as the future’ (Park, 2005; 62).


By mentioning well known western names such as Disney (Sen to Chihiro), The Matrix (Akira), and John Lasseter (Director in charge of Sen to Chihiro’s English dub as Spirited Away), anime is situated within a familiar ‘Americanised’ culture, while still maintaining its exotic visuals. Because the culturally, socially and with the American dub, linguistically specific elements are largely lost what remains for a western audience are exotic and strange films that provide a glimpse into a culture that seems entirely different from our own. The films are therefore viewed outside of the cultural and social contexts within which they were made, with the inclusion of western names used to market them in a broader globalised market. Without a clear and broad knowledge of Japanese culture and society it is impossible to properly translate these ideas; what western audiences are therefore viewing is their own interpretation of Akira or Sen to Chihiro, and instead of understanding the significance of its setting, revel in the difference and exoticism that appears on screen. The selective use of strange and wondrous imagery in advertising and reviews of these films further reinforces an arguably repressive attitude towards anime, with the differences accentuated to create a cultural identity that is both exotic, but seen through the familiarity of western culture (Said, 1994; 200-201). Also, by explicitly drawing attention to the exotic worlds and bizarre creatures that are a distinctive part of anime like Akira and Sen to Chihiro, reviews of these films further demonstrate how much of the original meanings and ideas are lost in cultural translation, while also reinforcing ideas of Cultural Imperialism and Orientalism (Said, 1978; 1994).

Furthermore, by linking anime to well known western stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Homer’s The Odyssey, The Secret Garden or Blade Runner, films like Akira and Sen to Chihiro are linked to a global culture, while much of their original cultural and social significance and mean is lost. As Said (1975) argues, each text is a collection of influences and other texts that the author knows about or has drawn influence from, to simply describe the author (in this case Miyazaki) as a producer of work, rather than a compiler of influences from other text, sub-texts, pre-texts, paratexts or surtexts (Said, 1975; 58). Because many of the original influences and cultural or historical references are lost in cultural translation, a western audience will focus on the films perceived influences along with the eccentricities and other exotic elements that anime like Akira and Sen to Chihiro portray. In doing so anime becomes divorced from its reality, with other cultural and social influences transposed onto its text, thus reconstituting differences into a specific identity (Said, 1993; 201). Through the mixture of cultures and influences, we see that Akira and Sen to Chihiro are reflecting the broader, hybrid nature of Japanese culture and society (Denison, 2001). The exoticism found in anime like Akira and Sen to Chihiro help to sell these films in the west, with the hybridised nature of Japanese with an American dub presenting a sense of familiarity while allowing the visuals to remain. There is therefore a danger in essentializing anime as exotic and different by ‘reconstituting difference as identity’ (Said, 1993; 201); anime becomes a portal into an unknown and exotic land. By focussing on the more fantastical elements of these films, while also specifically mentioning the western cast, film critics are alienating anime from its social and culturally context and are therefore taking part in a form of cultural imperialism (Said, 1993). This then is part of the reason why anime continues to promote an orientalist view of Japan, although the reason for this are complex and nuanced, and are not solely because of anime as a cultural medium. 57693 ogino_chihiro sen_to_chihiro_no_kamikakushi studio_ghibli

The themes of nihonjinron, along with the conflict between the old and the new, the east and the west, are reinterpreted through Sen to Chihiro’s American dub and become a way with which western audiences can look into the traditional, and exotic culture of Japan. These films are situated within a globalised, or ‘Americanised’ (Koichi, 2002; Napier, 2007) culture through the use of American voice actors and directors names in reviews and official advertising. In doing so, Akira and Sen to Chihiro are integrated into a ‘familiar’ culture, while still maintaining their exoticism and the notion of watching the Other (Mitchell, 2002; Horwitz, 2002). It can be argued that through the process of dubbing anime the films are re-appropriated by western culture and changed into something other, something different. Much of the historical, cultural and social links and references are arguably already lost through the process of cultural translation, but by changing the language and, by extension the script, we are presented with one set of visuals but numerous stories. This differentiation between languages and films is most pronounced in the treatment Sen to Chihiro got in Japan and the west, most specifically America. In Japan, Sen to Chihiro was sold using its Japanese assets, with a lot of focus on the denizens of Yubaba’s bathhouse. The films use of language, graphics and its portrayal of the fantastical all took on important roles in selling Sen to Chihiro as a truly ‘Japanese’ product. By translating Sen to Chihiro into English the ‘cultural points of reference’ were changed, with the most overtly exotic elements accentuated, while the most subtle or culturally and socially embedded aspects were changed or ignored (Denison, 2001; 30). John Lasseter explains how he approached the re-dubbing of Sen to Chihiro for its American release as:

We added a few words here and there just to inform someone of what they’re looking at, but tried to weave it in in a way that was very natural. And the goal was to have these characters be good – good acting, great casting, but also to have them be speaking American. So when you listen to it, it is just natural. Natural American English coming out. And we’re so proud of the English version of this movie. (Lasseter commentary for the UK Spirited Away DVD, 2004)

By changing the language and dialogue and by localising it with phrases and references that would be familiar to an American audience, Sen to Chihiro is no longer socially or culturally embedded. The historical, and socio-cultural relevance of Sen to Chihiro is therefore not only lost through the process of cultural translation, but also through this change in language that allows western audiences to look at this other, fantastical and exotic world through the comfort of their own language and cultural framework. Through this commentary we also see that Lasseter views English, or in his case ‘American’, as the preferable language to view this film in by naturalising Sen to Chihiro for the US, and by extension the English speaking world (Denison, 2001; 33). The importance of the English language in Lasseter’s version of the film fits into Short’s (2001) argument that ‘English is required to be competitive in global markets’ (Short, 2001; 130). In this respect, not only is America physically (naval bases in Yokohama and Okinawa), but Lasseter, by re-writing the script for Sen to Chihiro and releasing the film as ‘spirited Away’ is reconstituting it for an American audience.

The importance of an American dub outweighs the beauty of the animation in an attempt to naturalise the more exotic or ‘oriental’ aspects of the films, and fit them into a known cultural and social framework. As Said (1994) agues, the ‘inclusive cultural forms dealing with peripheral non-European settings are markedly ideological and selective (even repressive) so far as ‘natives’ are concerned’ (Said, 1994; 200). While Said (1994) is talking about Europe, his remarks resonate of a particular attitude towards anime and the apparent lack of importance that the overtly Japanese aspects of anime have in globalised and Americanised markets and popular culture. The English release of Sen to Chihiro (as Spirited Away) in particular lacks, or arguably ignores the importance of language and culture in an attempt to localise it for an American audience, and because of this, all the culturally and socially embedded jokes and reference become little more than evidence of the films oriental origins (Denison, 2001; 34).

680179Akira (1988) SS5


The question of whether anime promotes an orientalist view of Japan is a complex one, especially when anime remains a part of an increasingly globalised culture, and frequently uses external influences and ideas in its stories. It is however possible to suggest that anime promotes a re-imagined view of Japan through its exotic visuals, outlandish creatures, romantic stories, and worlds where fantasy and reality meet. Anime is a culturally, socially and historically embedded medium, frequently referencing classic tales, ideas and the history of Japan in its stories, however, much of the significance that such references carry may be lost in cultural translation. In a western context anime loses its socio-cultural links and significance, with audiences and critics referencing their own culture, and often superimposing their own influences onto it’s myriad of works. It is possible to watch anime through your own cultural references, but, without a nuanced understanding of Japan, much of the meaning within anime will be lost or subsumed within the mediums visuals, thus reinforcing the notion of Japan as a strange and exotic country. There are elements of Orientalism that continue to operate in this transnational world, with the increasing flow of eastern culture and in particular anime to the west demonstrating a continued fascination with the east as a place of the exotic ‘Other’. By adopting anime for western audiences, not only are the socio-cultural and historical links lost, but also the anime in question is further alienated from its cultural origins. What remains are the exotic visuals that western audiences can watch from the safety of their own socio-cultural framework. Through this process of Cultural Imperialism (Said, 1993), anime is reorganised and localised for a (predominantly) American audience, one that arguably lacks a nuanced understanding of Japan and is instead content to watch anime as a portrayal of the exotic ‘Other’ (Girloy, 1987). There is therefore a danger in essentialising anime as exotic and different, and by ‘reconstituting difference as identity’ (Said, 1993; 201), anime becomes a portal into an unknown and exotic land. Anime does promote an Orientalist view of Japan, but it is through processes of Lost in Cultural Translation and Cultural Imperialism, and how anime is adapted and adopted for western audiences. 44177 sen_to_chihiro_no_kamikakushi studio_ghibli


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

5 Responses to Does anime promote an orientalist view of Japan: or, a case of ‘lost in cultural translation’? – Part 2

  1. SmithCB says:

    (Relatively) Quick comment. While interesting based on the references used, the further I went in Part 1, the less I read and increasingly tended to quickly skim. Then I went to Part 2, expecting a partial resolution to my concern. That is, all but a couple of references are at least 10-15 years old, discussing the impact of the anime at that time. I agree with the issue of broad-brushing Japan with the impressions from anime, but I’d really like to see what people think ten years or more later after Spirited Away, etc. Would those authors still feel the way they do if they wrote those articles again? Were the impressions back in 2002 like those of early futurists, expecting flying cars and moon colonies by 1980, or have we seen the influence of films like you mentioned taking hold in a real way that is visible and quantifiable?

    Keep up the good work.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Just because the work I have referenced isn’t immediate or published within the last couple of years doesn’t mean that they are suddenly redundant, quite the opposite in fact and they remain relevant to the topic even now. By dismissing them and simply suggesting that unless we only look at work that has been published in the last couple of years you ignore all of those ideas and attitudes that help to demonstrate peoples initial reactions to anime at that point in time. Ideas and attitudes change, but they have to start from somewhere, and that is as important as where the current ideas and ways of thinking are at this point in time.

      • SmithCB says:

        Maybe what I meant to say is that the picture is incomplete. Reactions at the time and based on the prevailing wisdom is important and a good read on the potential spreading influence of anime into the West and the perceptions that are left. I’m just saying that, with the passage of time, have these ideas remained, changed, expanded, etc? An example is the ‘British Invasion’ of the 60’s rock bands. Who were these upstarts to come to our shores and push aside our young American bands with their new and different ways of making music? At the time, there was much talk and debate. In retrospect, it was a good development, and the contributions of those bands and individuals are seen much differently now. A Kansas City radio station that originally used their call letters (WHB) to state, categorically ‘We Hate Beatles’, changed their tune only a bit more than a year later and shouted ‘We Honor Beatles’, so over time the effects and the perceptions changed.

        I’ve only heard in passing an issue concerning Sakurasou No Pet concerning the making of a Korean dish in one of the episodes, and how it set off howls from ‘purists’ about bringing in a (paraphrasing) ‘bad dish’. Ideally, the merits of the series (and I do like it) will endure past short-term issues like these despite the current emotional tide, and in the long run, the series will stand on its own merits. Anime is changing in style and approach, and the change is bi-directional, so the perception over time is changing. I’d be interested in getting a ‘State of the State’ of anime. Just sayin’….

        • illogicalzen says:

          The reviews of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi and Akira are certainly of their time, but that is why they are important, they demonstrate the reactions of people and what they think of the films when they were released. If we just ignore their views then we are ignoring something essential about culture and peoples reactions to it, we cant just ignore the past because it was written in the moment without time to reflect on the work. This isn’t how this sort of writing works, and considering this is a piece of academic work I consider their views and reviews to be as important now as when they were first written. This is partly because we cant always continue to look back on peoples ideas and in retrospect ignore or dismiss them because they ‘didn’t have time to really explore the work’. Anime might change over time, but many peoples attitudes and ways of looking at it often remain the same, which is precisely why I have written this piece and why my argument remains relevant. As for it being an incomplete picture, thats just life, if your looking for perfect answers you might want to think of something else to do because you aren’t going to get them, what we can do is simply revisit ideas and attitudes and see how they fit in todays society and culture. Your looking for something that doesn’t exist, and certainly shouldn’t dismiss the sources I’ve used simply because they were published 10 years ago.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hello! I’m actually working on a paper about Orientalism and anime, and I was wondering if your bibliography included all the sources that you used in the posts. I don’t recall seeing Koichi on the list, so I was wondering if you could direct me to any more sources that you found interesting, or if I could see your full list of sources! Thank you.

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