The complex nature of anime


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There are many anime series every season that are labelled as ‘bad’, or ‘rubbish’, with numerous bloggers, or people on twitter talking about how stupid they are, and how boring characters or stories may be. I do think that many anime are often mislabelled, with people taking their lack of cultural understanding to mean that a series is badly written or directed. Perhaps people forget that anime is Japanese and therefore incorporates aspects of the countries history, culture, and social norms. This may seem a little odd since it is fairly obvious that anime is Japanese, but perhaps western audiences have become so used to watching anime, that the notion of a culturally and socially embedded medium is either ignored, or never springs to mind.

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 has been argued that Japanese culture is ‘odourless’, one without cultural or social roots, a form of ‘soft power’ that can change its form or shape depending on where it is.

There are also arguments that anime doesn’t look Japanese, with this aspect of Japanese culture described as ‘mukokuseki’ (something or someone lacking any nationality), thus implying that anime lacks racial or ethnic charactertics and therefore cannot be culturally embedded. 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 anime (look at the numerous series set in the Sengoku period, and those set during the final years of the Shogunate), or cultural artefacts and religious beliefs as found in series that focus on, or incorporate these elements into their story (an example of this would be Red Data Girl with its focus on Japanese religion, or the recent Uchouten Kazoku which explores the animist culture of Japan) help to ground anime in specific times and places. Furthermore, we also have the social, cultural, and political aspects of anime, with slice-of-life series often exploring deep-seated social ideals, anxieties and attitudes.

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The wide variety of themes explored in anime today exemplifies contemporary Japan’s complex cultural identity. Their mise-en-scene span futuristic stories involving cyborgs, dystopian futurscapes and space operas, through to European-style fantasy worlds, along with nostalgia-laden visions of Japan in the 1950s and 1960s when everything seemed to be better. Anime is deeply engaged with two interlinked trends that have dominated Japanese society over recent decades, that of kokusaika (internationalisation), and furasato (hometown). These trends, while appearing to represent opposite trajectories, actually ‘exist coterminiously as refractive processes and products, and […] together they index the ambiguity of Japanese national identity and its tense relationship with cultural identity (or identities). Recent trends in anime, with a focus on stories that take place in, or around the Japanese school highlight the complex nature of Japanese cultural and social identities as tradition and state ideology clash with a varied and complicated society. This trend in anime clearly resonates with the experiences of the audience, suggesting that the themes anime engages with are important to a substantial section of the population.

The commercial character of culture causes the difference between culture and everyday life to disappear, and as the borderline between culture and empirical reality becomes more and more indistinct, the socio-cultural tensions of society begin to play out in its cultural commodities. The focus on everyday life in anime points towards the depiction of a liminal space that both mirrors society, whilst also presenting a dream like world that appears to be free from the complexities of everyday life. School is of particular importance to representing the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, a place where the social and cultural norms of Japan are taught, and a place that has become central to broader Japanese society. The education system also serves as a central means with which to socialise the next generation.

By focussing on Japan’s youth, anime internalises the complex nature of the kokusaika/furasato dichotomy, and presents us with a view of a society that needs to change and adapt to contemporary themes of globalisation and change, while simultaneously searching through its historical past for a time when true ‘Japaneseness’ (nihonjinron) existed. Anime that takes places in a school appear to exist in a timeless dream world, removed from the constraints of reality, a place to re-live a time that never existed, one free from the rigidity of everyday life. Despite this, school centric anime continues to explore tales of the transition into adulthood. Furthermore, by situating itself within the liminal period between childhood and adulthood, such anime can investigate the complex nature of education, family, and gender roles within Japanese society.

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In a society as rigidly structured as Japan’s, the articulation of difference in anime is a complex, on-going negotiation that ‘seeks to authorise cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation’. The power that Japanese cultural tradition bestows is a partial form of identification and excludes the complexities of everyday life, which are largely suppressed in order to maintain social cohesion. School focussed anime offer a break from social rigidity, and, in restaging the past it introduces other cultural temporalities into the invention of tradition. Anime presents past events in a way that can stop the flow of time and permit a Japanese audience to relive a reconfigured past. This allows anime to address latent conflicts in society through the creation of a space that enables a release of emotions and feelings, and by a reorganisation of time and space making formally unthinkable ideas and solutions thinkable.

Anime is a form of ritual consumption, a clear and deliberate break from daily routine, leading to an integrated vision of the world and ones place in it, and generating ontological security even when it expresses a hegemonic model. Watching it involves participation in a rite of passage, away from and back to the mundane via another taken-for-granted, but nonetheless significant immersion in the otherworldliness of the medium. The mundane world visible in anime, together with the dream world of high school and junior high, provides us with a glimpse into the intricacies and socio-cultural complexities of everyday life in. Anime brings together contemporary debates, and pertinent themes of gender, gender identities, the role of family, and the position of education in Japanese society, weaving them into a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes. The characters in school-focussed anime are often dysfunctional, incapable of existing outside of the groups that they create in school. By focussing on this type of character, anime suggests the need to question social norms, while highlighting the varied and complex nature of society.

But herein lies one of the main problems with anime and anime fandom outside of Japan – much of these cultural, social, political, and religious elements in anime may be lost on those without the knowledge to understand their mean and importance. If we take any school anime for example certain common complaints levelled against this genre (or perhaps sub-genre) of anime is how similar they all are, and how such series lack originality. While it is certainly true that school focussed anime may look incredibly similar, and often are – incorporating the same sorts of ideas and scenes, there are also more subtle undercurrents in many of these series. The criticisms of series like Uchouten Kazoku lacking any real conflict can also be linked to the complex nature of the Tanuki and Tengu in Japanese myth and folklore.

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In folklore the tanuki is a bit like the plump, comical brother of the fox, equally prone to mischief and shape-changing and the deception of humans. Often considered the same animal as the mujina, it is blamed for all sorts of ghostly occurrences. It seems to have a hedonistic side, constantly on the prowl for saké, food, and women, and is known to disguise worthless leaves as money to obtain those things. It also seems quite good at turning itself into inanimate objects, such as the tea-kettle in the famous story of the Bunbukuchagama. Tanuki are also seen to be somewhat gullible and absentminded, as we see in Uchouten Kazoku and even Ghibli’s film Pom Poko. The lack of conflict in the series can partly be attributed to Tanuki nature, and their constant searching for a good time. That Yasaburou’s father was eaten by people he befriends doesn’t automatically create conflict and force him into a quest for revenge does not mean that the series lacks conflict, but that this was a natural occurrence, and has he constantly reinforces through monologues, is part of being a Tanuki.

Series that focus on more complex issues like religion, or situate their story within the strict social and political norms of Japanese society can be the hardest for people to understand. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding can be interpreted as the series being badly written, or badly directed. Series like Uchouten Kazoku, Red Data Girl in particular bring together specific beliefs and elements of Japans historical, cultural, and religious past. These series are so culturally embedded that it may be difficult, or even impossible in some cases for those outside of these systems to fully understand or appreciate what is happening. If you have some understanding of the subjects that they deal with, then they are easier to understand, but for many others, such series may simply be interpreted as poorly produced. It also sadly means that such series are easier to criticise as poorly produced due to themes that they can explore or incorporate.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as a poorly produced/written, or directed anime, because they clearly exist. Red Data Girl, while a series that incorporates the complexities of Japans religious systems is still a problematic series, one that crams five full novels into a mere 12 episodes of animation. In a similar fashion there are numerous school-focused series that have dull characters and a story that never seems to go anywhere. But, it seems that many anime fans forget about the place that anime has in Japanese culture. Anime is part of a wider set of cultural and social influences, a medium that brings together the cultural, social, and political beliefs and attitudes of Japan, whilst also incorporating Japan’s historical and religious pasts into its stories. It is therefore easy to see how certain themes and attitudes that anime explores can be lost on those who are not Japanese, or who do not have a more nuanced understanding of Japanese culture and society. I would therefore argue that when people say that a series is bad, it might be exploring subtle, more culturally embedded ideas and ideologies that can be lost on those who do not know what they are looking at.

Taste is inherently subjective, and people are free to like and dislike what they want, I just believe that many anime fans (especially those in the west, although other countries can be equally as guilty) forget about how culturally embedded anime is. I have also specifically focused on anime that are either set in or around a school, usually the ones that can be labeled ‘Slice-of-Life’, and series with a religious, cultural, or historical setting or themes. This is because while all anime is embedded within the Japanese cultural tradition I feel that these genres benefit more from a more in-depth understanding of Japanese culture and society, and are therefore prone to criticisms from those who may not have such an understanding. Many may not be particularly well produced regardless of this, but I still feel that when people criticise such series for being bad, or perhaps poorly written, it is also a matter of lacking the knowledge and understanding to read into what such series explore. This isn’t a bad thing, but merely a result of watching a cultural product that deals with ideas and attitudes, which are not always easy to fully understand or even notice. This is basically what anime is, a cultural product that is often significantly more complex than some people might admit. As for specifics, I have written a few posts in recent months exploring elements of school life, family, gender-roles, and also one about orientalism, and Lost in Cultural Translation.

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

3 Responses to The complex nature of anime

  1. I humbly think that knowing and understanding why certain things function in a certain culture doesn’t (necessarily) lead to accepting/ not judging the messages and concepts of an anime. The use of folklore as a theme in an age that mythology isn’t such a vital part of people’s lives seems as an attempt to intrigue interest to something exotic coming from the past or an effort to remember national roots. Anime are not only products of a certain culture but of exceptional individuals who are (expected to be) different than the average populace. Taking these two sentences in mind, I suggest that having mythological creatures as protagonists doesn’t automatically justify all the directional decisions including the messages sent, especially since the viewers are meant to identify-empathize with the protagonist and the ‘good guys’.

    “That Yasaburou’s father was eaten by people he befriends doesn’t automatically create conflict and force him into a quest for revenge does not mean that the series lacks conflict, but that this was a natural occurrence, and has he constantly reinforces through monologues, is part of being a Tanuki.”

    One may say that especially due to tanuki’s prankster nature, it’d be more expected to have retaliations of the mischievious kind, but what we have is a more human sketch of tanuki society.

    • illogicalzen says:

      While you make good points, I still stand by my assertion that much of anime is lost in cultural translation. We might think that there should be retaliation, but perhaps to many Japanese the actions of Yasaburou makes absolute sense, which goes to the heart of my post, anime is Japanese, and there are times when certain aspects of anime may not make sense to anyone who hasnt grown up within the culture and society.In the case of Tanuki, being pranksters doesn’t mean they would retaliate, and in many stories involving Tanuki, they might be too drunk to retaliate, and by the time they think about such things they have already moved on. Similarly, the use of folk lore doesnt always mean a look at exceptional individuals, often its a look at very normal individuals who arent meant to do anything other than be normal.

      This doesnt mean that there cant be problems with an anime’s writing, direction, animation, etc – but what I would still argue is that when you see western fans criticise anime, it may be the case that the series is actually too culturally embedded for people who do not know what they are watching to understand. They can still dislike the series, but its acknowledging the impact that Japan’s cultural tradition has on anime that is important here, and that the nuances and subtleties needed to fully understand certain series are missed.

  2. Pingback: Meta-criticism: Where I Think Anime Criticism Could Improve | Fantastic Memes

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