‘Animating’ society


Anime is a fascinating cultural artefact, with over 50% of Japanese studios producing animated works instead of live action, thus demonstrating a shift in the Japanese studio system from live action films of the 1950s and 1960s to one focussed on anime as its primary product. This shift to the animated medium means that anime is arguably one of, if not the best way with which we can explore Japan’s depiction of its own society and culture. The wide variety of anime, ranging from early morning children’s shows through to late afternoon/early evening series focussed for families and then onto edgier, often darker series for teenagers or those in there twenties is astounding. Such wide variety of series and anime’ broader appeal puts it in an important place within contemporary Japanese culture; whereas traditional culture such as Sa-do, Kyu-do and Ka-do have been refined over centuries and are the very basics of Japanese culture, anime is a relatively recent phenomenon, starting in 1963 with the release of Osamu Tezuka’s legendary Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy). Furthermore, whereas traditional culture is often focussed on the self, a form of meditation and a path to Zen enlightenment, anime provides a fascinating and important means with which we can view Japanese society and culture, along with the issues that are important at any given time.

Tezuka and many of Japans early animators were strong admirers of Disney animation, and even now the presence of America and its influence of early anime is widely known. However, in terms of story complexity and adult orientation, anime has taken a very different direction to western or Disney animation that has tended to focus on films for children of a certain age. As the popularity of anime increased it brought in an increasing number of talented animators, directors and writers at the same time as the Japanese film and television industry became increasingly formulaic and at times boring. Since Tezuka’s original series, anime has also gone through a series of shifts, both stylistically and thematically, with anime of the 1970s and early to mid 1980s featuring more upbeat, even idealistic stories that went have in hand with the optimism of the boom years during Japan’s bubble economy. The 1990s and early 00s saw the rise of intellectually sophisticated anime, with series like Anno Hideaki’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (1996-1997), and Miyazaki Hayao’s film Princess Mononoke (Mononokehime, 1997) presenting sophisticated and questioning narratives, along with a further increase in animation quality and clarity. This period, while characterised with increasingly complex philosophical works such as Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Mononokehime also coincides with Japan’s great recession, and the end of the bubble years.

The idealism and optimism of the earlier decades gives way to series and films that begin to question the basics of society and culture, often focussing on far darker visions of a society that has collapsed in on itself and remains supported by corruption or government oppression. Ghost in the Shell for example is partly an exploration of Japan’s place in a globalised world and how it should or could survive now that the bubble has burst and Japan’s place as an economic powerhouse is questioned. Miyazaki Hayao on the other hand explores what has been lost in Japan’s precipitous rise to the heady heights of its bubble economy, with Mononokehime problematising Japan’s attitude towards its own history and countryside, and perhaps suggesting that through all of the technological advances Japan has lost something essential about its cultural and social identity. That this period of increased narrative complexity and the use of philosophical, social and cultural questions also coincided with anime’s increasing popularity on Japanese TV and cinema further reinforces its importance as a means with which we can explore Japanese society and culture. However, there has recently been another shift, with the complexities of the 1990s and early 00s being left behind and a period where anime often ceases to question the underlying problems of Japanese society, but instead focuses on and presents us with a vision of a society that never existed.


This is not to say that anime has lost its narrative complexity, far from it – the medium retains the intricacies and use of overarching narratives mixed with smaller story arcs as it as always done. Furthermore, their remains a significant number of anime, both films and TV series that explore Japanese society and culture in all of its complexities. However, we are beginning to see an increasing number of series, often focussed on high school or junior high school life that neither questions nor fully explores society or culture. Anime since the mid 00s has become increasingly depoliticised with series often focussing on the ordinary school lives of its main characters, often with adults taking a backseat role, or in some cases not appearing even once. The use of school as a major setting in anime is important since education is one of the major pivots around which Japanese society revolves; it is a key place for socialisation and where social and cultural values are instilled in the next generation. It is also an important place when we take into consideration Japan’s current moral panic surrounding its increasingly ageing society along with the low birth-rate that have sparked a political and social debate about how it should be dealt with.

To many commentators, particularly the Japanese, anime is described with the word ‘mukokuseki’ (‘stateless’) to suggest that anime lacks a national identity, thus allowing it to influences from other cultures to create something that is both exotic, but also familiar. In a revealing discussion between critic Ueno Toshiya and directors Oshii Mamoru and Ito Kazunori, Oshii talks about anime being without ‘furasato’ – it is without a hometown, a place where it can be culturally or socially rooted. In saying this Oshii seems to be rejecting the whole debate of nihonjinron or ‘Japanese uniqueness’ and suggests that in many respects anime can bring together references, ideas and attitudes from around the world to create something that is both Japanese, but also not Japanese. Anime can therefore reflect Japanese society and culture in its use of settings, language and attitudes, but instead of producing a highly accurate rendition of society in all of its ugly glory, anime provides is audience with a vision of something different, a Japan outside of the norm where your wildest fantasies can exist. This attitude feeds into the increasing de-politicisation of anime, with series merely using Japan as background and largely ignore the political, social and cultural problems that Japan may be facing today. Furthermore, by focussing on Japanese youth and often entirely neglecting the older generation it is as if Japanese animators and directors are deliberately neglecting their generations, they are perhaps unwilling to look at what they, and those around them have done to their country, so instead we see a focus on the intricacies of daily school life, a place that exists outside of everyday Japanese society, a garden of Eden if you will, free from the temptation and corruption that daily life may bring with it.


Oshii’s argument that anime is ‘mukokuseki’ and that it lacks a ‘furasato’ becomes problematic when we see where many anime series are set and how Japanese language and society are used in the creation of narratives and characterisations. It may be true that many anime take place in a fictional, often fantastical land, with characters drawn in an ‘un-Japanese’ way, and featuring a variety of different hair colours, but by that same token, many other series are set in and around Tokyo or other areas in Japan. The school as a place of socialisation and a key part of Japanese life features prominently among many anime, with the number of such anime steadily rising in the last ten years. If anime were truly mukokuseki, or stateless, then it arguably the case that such series would be few and far between, and that the state of Japanese society, including situation anime within it wouldn’t be explored to such the extent that it is. That anime is described as mukokuseki does however bring up numerous questions about the mediums ability or perhaps willingness to truly explore the social, political and cultural intricacies of Japan as a nation and its people. The statelessness of anime is perhaps more to do with the way characters are drawn, because in terms of setting, many anime series and films like Pom Poko, Hanasaku Iroha, and Summer Wars are deeply embedded in the history and culture of Japan. Oshii’s central argument that anime is a world unto its own does seem largely correct, especially in recent years with the number of anime that neither reflect, nor question Japan’s current social or political situation. Indeed, in many ways anime is becoming increasingly de-politicised, with more series focussing on the minutiae of school life rather than explore more complex political and philosophical narratives.

Recent trends show a move towards anime that depict an ideal, a society without pain or hardships, and one where the only real problems are to do with romance and exam results. They also portray an empty society, with series like Amagami SS, Da Capo and Fortune Arterial showing us a world that often seems devoid of life save for high school students. This doesn’t mean that such series are not Japanese, far from it, they are clearly embedded within Japanese social and cultural norms, especially when it comes to the hierarchical structures of Japanese society, as can be seen through the use of honorific’s and the recreation of Japanese school life in fine detail, even when the school may seem more at home in a European country than Japan. This also doesn’t necessarily mean that anime has completely moved away from exploring more complex issues, but more that, while anime like Summer Wars, Hanasaku Iroha and Papa no Iukoto wo Kikinasai  present us with a different view of Japan, there are now significantly more series that forgo the complexities of philosophical and political debate to create a Garden of Eden (or perhaps Shangri-La may be more appropriate) where everything is perfect. Furthermore, even when anime series and films do begin to question the central tenets of Japanese life, they all seem to fall back upon well tread norms in anime, with the central cast almost exclusively made up of young girls and occasionally boys in high school of junior high. This dependence on Japanese youth to tell a story is intriguing and rather troubling, especially when we look at the current problems with Japan’s ageing population, coupled with the perceived inability of Japan’s older generation to continue to help Japan as time goes by.


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

4 Responses to ‘Animating’ society

  1. That was a great overview of what makes anime so much fun. I think that most anime tends to be set too deeply in Japanese culture these days. For example, the high school setting is so overused that I cringe whenever a school fair is mentioned.

    • illogicalzen says:

      Anime has always been deeply link to Japanese culture and society, even the most ridiculous science fiction anime involving robots and time-travelling owe a lot to the country they are created in. It’s just we are now seeing more anime set in a school setting, I have my own theories why that is mind you, and I do find such series rather fascinating for a variety of reasons. But you cant remove anime from Japanese culture, which is partly why I disagree with Oshii’s comment about anime being mukokuseki.

      • True, but I find that the school setting just lends itself to too much repetition. This could just be because I’m a fan of fantasy stories, so I prefer more exotic settings. But, if they can make a high school setting as interesting as Girls und Panzer, then I have no problem.

        Basically, I prefer seeing a nation’s culture in the characters and story lines than in the settings.

        • illogicalzen says:

          Well, we clearly have different attitudes towards anime – I certainly like storylines and characters, but the settings can tell you as much, if not more than the story about Japan in this case, its how the characters interact within the setting that interests me. The characters and story are also important, but without the setting or ‘context’ their actions become meaningless and you learn very little about a culture and society – in the case of high school anime it is what we see, and what we dont see that can tell us about Japan. If the school setting is being overused, then we must ask why its being used so often in recent years, what is being shown, and what that tells us about Japan at this point in time.

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