Rural Japan in Anime – Beautiful, Powerful, and the Root of Japanese Identity


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One aspect of anime that I find particularly interesting is the depiction, and use of the countryside. There are a number of series such as Durarara that focus exclusively on the big city, looking at under classes, dark dealings, and the more shadowy elements of society. But when a series is set in, or uses the countryside, we are often presented with a very different vision of Japan, especially if the series also focuses on school children (which a significant number of them do). While I specifically reference a number of anime that are clearly set in remote villages, or islands, the countryside is visible in many other series and films. Sometimes this happens as an afterthought, or, as is the case with series like Hyouka and Ano Natsu de Matteru, the countryside is either right next to, or in very close proximity to the school and characters houses. As such it is a recognisable element of many anime series, and plays a central part in creating a noticeably Japanese, and above all, ‘normal’ image that a Japanese audience can recognise, even if they have lived their lives in an urban area.

The countryside usually has a special place within the national psyche, representing something unique, distinct, and ‘genuine’, where the origins of a nation can be found, free from the corruption of modernity, and multi-ethnic world. The rural space is also one that evokes a picture of decline, of half populated villages mostly consisting of older people, while all those who are young and able have moved to the big cities in search of fame and fortune. This picture is as true of Japan as it is of the western world, and one that can be found in many forms of popular culture, especially anime and manga. In a century of urbanisation, a largely rural nation has become a predominantly urban one, with the post-war period bringing dramatic change resulting in many rural settlements being abandoned, and many on the verge of demographic extinction. It has also resulted in the loss of old knowledge and belief systems, often acknowledged in anime that deal with youkai, and other monsters and gods.

In Pom Poko and Spirited Away Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki explore the results of urbanisation and the loss of local and folk knowledge as it pertains to ancient beliefs and spirits. The Tanuki’s fight in Pom Poko is that of the countryside and tradition against the encroachment of modernity, and it is one that they largely lose. While Sen in Spirited Away embodies Japan’s urban youth and their ignorance of the past and Japanese tradition, so her journey through the intricacies of the bathhouse is to understand the power of Japanese tradition, and realise that the spirit world still exists. As such, we see in Takhata’s film, a sad, lingering attachment to something that has been swept up by the tide of modernity, and perhaps lost forever. Whereas Miyzaki appears to be musing on the role that one’s environment and culture has on understanding your countries history and culture. The spirits in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi are all from Japan’s traditions, but in a modern society with its technology and urban conurbations, they are physically cut off from the very landscapes that helped to create these traditions. The rural landscape is essential to both films, but is marked, either by its absence, or by its gradual, perhaps even inevitable decline in the lives of those who now live where it once existed.

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In more recent anime like Ushio to Tora, Ushio has to deal with a number of rampant Youkai who are either angered, or mistakenly freed by ignorant humans who no longer understand, or respect the old ways, and ultimately pay for their ignorance. The frictions within this, and other similar anime are caused by humans moving out of the countryside and into the cities, thus losing the connection to their ‘roots’, that essential, intangible element that links them to their country. Youkai are an important part of Japanese belief systems and tradition, and are often intimately linked to certain deities or Bodhisattvas. Because many of these deities are linked with farming in one form or another, many Youkai are connected with the historical past that can often be portrayed as purer, even more ‘Japanese’. As such they can come to represent a loss of knowledge and understanding in modern society – for example, in Pom Poko the Tanuki put on a Hyakki Yagyou (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons) that is mistaken for some elaborate PR exercise, or special effects performances by the residents of newly built Tokyo suburbs – without any knowledge or familiarity with older beliefs and traditions, these exhibitions can have very little effect on a modern population. Such a view is a rather romantic vision of course, and is one that buys into the notion that the countryside is somehow genuine, while city living is either fake, or at least, not as important. But, it represents an essential image that is constantly returned to when searching for Japan’s roots, as it is with many other countries and cultures. The past, and its perceived purity are ultimately romanticised and often portrayed as better than the present.

There are other visions of the countryside that are a little less combative, found in a significant number of anime such as Barakamon, Ano Natsu de Matteru, Gin no Saji, and Non Non Biyori, to name but a few. In all four the countryside is portrayed as a peaceful, if somewhat empty space, where time moves slower than in the city, and people are able to pursue their dreams without worrying about the incessant pressures often depicted in school anime set in or around a larger urban area. The vision of an Eternal Summer found in such anime suggests a yearning for that period when life appeared simpler, whilst also reinforcing the importance of youth in contemporary Japan, a country with an ageing population, declining birthrate, and mass exodus from the countryside to the cities. Such stories are imbued with a sense of impermanence, of mono no aware (the pathos of things), as the audience knows that despite their apparent timeless quality, the period must eventually end. Some of the characters in these series may remain, but there is often an unspoken acknowledgment that in order to continue their education, these individuals must eventually leave. Furthermore, the general lack of jobs and solid career prospects in rural Japan emphasises the urban spaces central importance in Japan’s job market and educational institutions. And while such a consideration is rarely explicitly voiced within such anime, it remains on the edge of conversations, an essential, but unsaid aspect of these individuals’ choices for the future.

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When talking about a country there are often two distinct visions invoked, that of the city, and the countryside. They are usually set against one other, as two sides of that country, one demonstrating how modern and intelligent the society is, whereas the other is symbolic of the populations roots, a place for its ancestors, culture, traditions, and other essential elements that make them who they are. The strength of a city such as Tokyo as a metaphor lies in what it symbolises. It illuminates many of the qualities commonly associated with modern Japanese communities: urban impersonality and heterogeneity, self-interest bordering on selfishness, and a lack of communal commitment and involvement. Such an image of the urban landscape offers a critique of contemporary Japanese society, alongside expressing a quest for the warmth and intimacy of the ‘traditional’ community. It is also an image that is familiar to anyone who has watched Akira, or Durarara – the city is impersonal, it is dangerous and unforgiving, a space that can swallow you whole if you are not careful. It is therefore the exact opposite of the countryside, and a place without tradition, culture, or ancestral roots, a space that is essential to modern Japan, but also one that threatens to swallow its population and cut them off from what makes them Japanese.

In Barakamon Hanada Seishuu is forced to move to the Goto Islands off the western coast of Kyushu because of his short and violent temper, although it also serves as a safe space for him to develop his calligraphy, away from the constant pressures and problems of the urban landscape. This suggests that calligraphy, or shodo, a traditional Japanese art form (originating from China like many other Japanese traditions) cannot be truly developed and refined within an urban surrounding, and that only by visiting the wider rural spaces of Japan can Hanada truly develop as a calligrapher. Hanada is the very definition of a selfish, impersonal individual who is only interested in his own work, and at the start of Barakamon, is willing to punch a well-respected calligraphy critic simply because they disagree over what it means to be a calligrapher. This conflict remains one of the central narrative tools throughout the series, showing how the man from the city has grown up in an impersonal setting that successfully alienates people, leaving them in their own little worlds, cut off from the sort of caring warmth that could help them through life. His first encounter with the islands is that of an empty space, without regular busses, and none of the conveniences that he has taken for granted during his time in Tokyo. The community he has been moved to, is far more laid back (almost ludicrously so) when compared to the city, and very little appears to faze them. Furthermore, Hanada’s main acquaintances, and the sources of the series many jokes (usually at the expense of Hanada) are the villages children. A small group ranging from seven-year-old Naru, to high school student Hiroshi, who all treat Hanada as a bit of a joke, while also introducing him to many new experiences that he would otherwise never discover.

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What is so striking about this cast is their age range, and their ability to take a cranky, cantankerous city dweller and gradually grind them down, smoothing out the wrinkles and creases that life in Tokyo have created. The many, spectacularly depicted moments of inspiration that Hanada has throughout the series are portrayed as being intimately tied to his experiences on the islands and his new lifestyle. As such the countryside is an essential element of this character truly discovering the joys of calligraphy, and moving away from the perfect copies that he had been producing in Tokyo. The warmth and intimacy of the ‘traditional’ community manages to crack the hard, but brittle outer layer of a city dweller, and turn them to something more essential, a true form of ‘Japaneseness’. That Handa is a well-regarded young calligrapher, somebody who practices a traditional, and important Japanese art form, the position, and significance of the countryside in his personal growth adds further weight to its narrative worth. We as the audience are supposed to look at these islands as the place that allowed Hanada to grow up, and mature as an individual, and as a Shodo practitioner. Thus further emphasising the Japanese countryside’s position as inheritor of true Japaneseness, the complete opposite of urban impersonality and heterogeneity, self-interest bordering on selfishness, and a lack of communal commitment and involvement.

There is another aspect to the depiction of the countryside in anime like Barakamon, the lack of children. While rural Japan often represents a space for tradition and warmth, it also evokes a picture of decline. During the last century of urbanisation, a largely nation has become a predominantly urban one, with local economies unable to generate the jobs needed to persuade young people to stay behind, offering only occupations in forestry, farming, and manual labour. This image of a depopulated rural landscape, filled with older people, while the youth moves to large cities in search of education, jobs, and other opportunities can be seen in a number of series like Barakamon, and most recently Non Non Biyori. Although we are never told otherwise, the children that congregate around Hanada in Barakamon appear to represent the village’s youth. The same is true of Non Non Biyori, although in this case the situation is taken to an extreme, neatly demonstrating many of the issues with depopulation in rural Japan, while still producing a funny, and enjoyable series.

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The series presents us with a very different image of the school space, one with a single class, and only five students that are all different ages. Such a setting presents a number of questions and issues to do with the rural space, and the place of Japan’s youth in the landscape. Much of the series humour, and many of the more heartwarming moments come from watching this small group of children play and wander around the landscape. They continually improvise, with games designed for a small number of individuals and age range. One scene that comes to mind is from the very first episode when Renge, Komari, and Natsumi are introducing Hotaru to the school, and the games they play. Simple games such as dodgeball suddenly look odd and out of place with only four people playing. More traditional games and clubs that we might associate with school generally require a minimum number of people (although it is also possible to play with less), and in a school with only five pupils they can become far more difficult, or even impossible to play, or consider. The result is a series of improvised games, such as using pens and rulers in a curious battle royal on the teachers’ desk, or merely exploring the landscape around them.

Another aspect of Non Non Biyori that is particularly striking is how apparently empty the landscape is. We know that there are families and farmers, the main cast all have a family, some with older siblings, but we rarely see them; in fact, other than a couple of minor appearances, the cast of Non Non Biyori consists of ten individuals, aged between seven (Renge), and twenty four (Kazuho). As such it seems safe to assume that these ten individuals represent the youth of the area. The series reinforces this through the use of landscape shots, often lingering on a particular image, be it a forested mountain, or the patchwork of fields in a valley. At some point a car, van, or train may go by, but other than that the landscape appears peaceful, and almost empty (although we know that cannot be the case). This image is further reinforced through Renge’s character, a fascinating individual with an active mind, but in some ways quite lonely as the youngest in the group and school. As we watch this seven year old wandering through the landscape, we are introduced to the wonders that it holds, but also the distances between places, and the comparative lack of people, especially when put next to other anime with similar characters and ages.

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Renge’s character also raises questions about what she will do when Natsumi and Komari eventually go to High School, likely following Renge’s older sister Hikage to the city. Indeed, one of Renge’s older sisters, Hikage has already left for Tokyo to attend High School, simultaneously demonstrating how important the small school to the community, and how few schools there are in the immediate region if she has to travel to Tokyo for High School. As the youngest Renge often feels all alone, almost as if the countryside forces her to approach life as if she has to do everything herself (recently demonstrated in her attitude towards learning to ride a bike without any help), and at some point may be the only pupil at school. Much of Non Non Biyori’s charm stems from Renge’s approach to life and her surroundings, always willing to try something new, or taking things to extremes (such as turning herself into a teru teru bozu: lit. shine shine monk, but often translated as good weather boy). But, as she goes about her daily life, we get to see how few people there are in the area, as well as realising that the main cast are the only children she can interact with. This is further enhanced by the apparent isolation of their village, with significant distances and travel times between places (busses every two hours, and a local shop that is a few miles from their houses), something that initially takes Hotaru by surprise. A similar image of an (apparently) empty countryside can be found in Gin no Saji, as various characters go through the issues of growing up in rural Japan with the expectations of carrying on their family business, and the harsh realities of losing cattle herds, and the ability to stay in school.

The rural space found in anime like Barakamon, Gin no Saji and Non Non Biyori is both powerful, and sad. The life depicted in these series passes at a more sedate pace than say that found in anime like Durarara, where anything and everything can change at the drop of a hat. The characters in these rural series live in beautiful landscape, and can happily roam around and explore the world they live in. The juxtaposition of the constantly changing, stressful, and (depending on the series) uncaring nature of the urban space with the romanticised warmth of the countryside and its quiet, and peaceful ways mirrors a frequently suggested oppositional contrast in the contemporary Japanese quest for ‘home’. In this contrast, the modern, urban-industrialised lifestyle is experienced with a twinge of regret and sense of loss, while remote areas become idyllic representations of a more pristine way of life, less corrupted by industrial dehumanisation, urban anomie, or western influences.

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For many school centric anime, characters appear to spend the majority of their lives in or around the school space. They have to join an after school club, study in the library, or take part in some other school activity that ensures their time at home seems merely to rest and eat. Many characters may live in small apartments, and although they live a ‘modern’ lifestyle, there are also numerous stresses and issues that they must deal with on a daily basis. By comparison, series set in rural Japan seem to focus less on the school space (assuming they are series with a younger cast) and more on the characters interactions with, and within their landscape. These settings have to look and feel remote, a slice of traditional life hidden away from the impersonal and dehumanising forces of urban life. The setting can also incorporate a warm familiarity and calmness that other series set in the urban space lack, almost as if they are presenting a lifestyle that others in Japan have forgotten about in favour of stressful jobs, lots of overtime, and very little chance to relax.

The use of extended landscape shots in Non Non Biyori, and following the central cast as they wander through their landscape, exploring new or well known places, and rarely seeing other people is perhaps one of the best images within anime of this vision of Japan’s rural spaces. Such imagery finds its way into any number of anime when main characters decide to go on a journey, or a holiday through Japan (Amagami SS, K-On, Hanasaku Iroha, True Tears, Hatsukoi Limited, Acchi Kocchi to name but a few), often with the express purpose of escaping from their current situation, or discovering something about themselves. Of course, the rural space is hardly in the past, or backwards in any way, with series like Non Non Biyori, Barakamon, and Gin no Saji demonstrating how modern the rural Japan is, with new cars, television, and the Internet. By equating rural areas with the traditional past, offers the opportunity for an audience to displace itself from its current surroundings. By fusing rural locations with tradition, such anime can offer the suggestion that one can be reunited with home, with community, and with the heart of Japanese identity. Embodied in the symbolism of rural community life is belongingness, nurturance, amae, motherhood, and Japaneseness. However, alongside this romanticised vision of Japan’s rural landscape, there is also an element of isolation and emptiness. The rural space is a complex one that is romantic, but also complicated, and its depictions found within anime demonstrate this complexity.

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

One Response to Rural Japan in Anime – Beautiful, Powerful, and the Root of Japanese Identity

  1. Pingback: AniWeekly 88: The E3 Effect - Anime Herald

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