ANS 372 – Napier
December 11, 2000
Justification for Anime Fandom
Anime has developed a poor reputation in America as pop culture trash heavily loaded with sex and violence. Though anime that fit this description exist, they represent only a small percentage of what is produced. Anime exist in all genres, from romance to science fiction to historical, and are created for all age groups and both genders. In fact, animation is one of the most important artistic mediums in Japan today, particularly because animation allows for special effects that live-action Japanese films (lacking the huge budgets of Hollywood blockbusters) cannot afford to produce. Anime and its cousin, manga (Japanese comics) are a primary form of Japanese cultural expression and are growing in popularity internationally as well; for the first time, the cultural imperialism represented by Hollywood as a challenger. All of these factors make anime a significant subject of study – not only does it represent an alternative to the American cultural discourse represented by Hollywood, but it also contains sophisticated works of art in their own right.
Of course, not all anime are works of high art. The academic assumption that pop culture is not worthy of serious study, however, is being questioned as anthropologists in particular are pointing out how much can be learned about a culture from studying its popular media. Dr. Hiroshi Aoyagi, a symbolic anthropologist, has worked in recent years on idol culture in Japan – the media industry that trains, debuts, and manages teen idols, mostly singers. Aoyagi draws parallels between this practice in Japan and ritualistic practices in other cultures, where religious and social ceremonies are performed in order to bring the community together and imprint its members with their cultural identity. As traditional institutions break down as a result of modernization and industrialization, Aoyagi argues that the mass media is fulfilling this function more and more, and that the nationally-known teen idols in Japan are in fact playing the all-important role of performing their culture for their audiences. In a lecture given at the University of Texas at Austin, Aoyagi discussed teen idol culture in detail, noting the precision with which young girls are trained in performing a very specific version of adolescent femininity – their dance moves are carefully choreographed, their modes of dress carefully designed to evoke both femininity and a certain childlikeness, their public personas crafted to build a sense of personal, almost familial affection between idol and audience. In many ways, the idol is a modern version of the geisha, a woman whose art is to perform a highly stylized and artificial interpretation of ideal feminine beauty. This pop culture phenomenon provides an important window into the cultural values of the Japanese, including gender roles, aesthetics, and cultural values (the notion of the nation as family, for example).
Anime's image as full of sex and violence is also highly exaggerated. Much of this myth dates back to the notorious importation of Legend of the Overfiend into the UK in the 1980s. This animation is downright pornographic, and because it was one of the first animations that Western distributors chose to sell in Europe, for many people it was also the first anime they ever saw or heard about. This unfortunate incident has stuck in many people's minds, leading them to unfairly associate all anime with this rather extreme and unusual example. As mentioned above, pornographic and erotic anime hardly dominate the medium, which includes children's films like Miyazaki's delightful My Neighbor Totoro (currently distributed in America by Disney), Takahashi's wacky romantic comedy Ranma 1/2, and Takahata's heartbreaking tale of World War II Grave of the Fireflies. Anime's range is equally as broad (and perhaps broader) than that of Hollywood films, and though the flexible nature of animation lends itself to fantastic tales, films also exist that would satisfy the most down-to-earth art film fan. Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday is an excellent example of this last category – a psychological portrait of a young woman coming to terms with her identity and her alienated childhood in the nostalgic setting of the Japanese countryside. The scripting is sophisticated, the characters well-developed and believable, and the animation stunning. Finally, however, one must remember when watching anime that the Japanese do have different sexual mores than Americans. The Shinto religion includes fertility rites involving sacred representations of genitalia, and Japanese art both high and low includes erotic prints that are not considered obscene, but beautiful. Further, while Americans tend to shield children from representations of sexuality for as long as possible, sexuality is seen as a natural part of life in Japan, and representations of the human body are often considered acceptable fare for young children. Thus, representations of sexuality in anime should not be considered signs of immorality, but rather as evidence that these narratives come from a different culture whose value system is not identical to our own.
Finally (and this is the reason that I was first attracted to anime), anime contains works that are sophisticated, thought-provoking, and beautiful, easily rivaling and sometimes surpassing the best of American film. Particularly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, Japanese anime are unmatched for pure skill in narrative – unlike in America, where the fantastic is narrow-minded considered "just for children," the Japanese use fantastic elements freely in stories for adults, thus accessing science fiction and fantasy's rich ability for articulating philosophical, political, and religious ideas in an environment removed from everyday life. This separation often allows the audience to explore the ideas thoroughly without the didactic quality that fully realistic ideological films can take on, as well as emphasize and heighten their emotional engagement with the characters by portraying epic figures and situations.
Princess Mononoke is one of the best examples of skillful, high-content fantastic anime. A blockbuster film in Japan, Mononoke explores the conflict between nature and technology without fully taking either side. The film is also notable for its strong female leaders. Lady Eboshi, leader of an iron-working town, is competent, intelligent, and powerful. She is not, however, the stereotypical Disney villainess, destroying the forest for profit alone; instead, her use of technology is portrayed explicitly as benefiting the people of the town. Her aims are humanitarian and utopian, and she herself is compassionate and fair to her people. Opposing her is San, a fiercely independent creature of the forest and adopted daughter of the wolf god Moro. Though the people of the town see the forest as aggressive, San and the animals of the forest see the town slowly destroying their precious home through mining and are determined to fight back. Both sides have justifiable grievances; both sides care deeply for the protection of their own groups. Into this conflict steps Ashitaka, a Christ-like figure who is able to act as mediator and bring balance between the forest and the town. Though critics tend to focus on Miyazaki's strong, capable, intelligent female leaders (role models superior to almost anything in American film, despite America's supposedly more liberated women), Ashitaka is equally important in presenting a masculine figure who is strong and an excellent fighter, but also gentle, fair, and peace-loving. In refusing to take sides, Miyazaki has created a film that avoids the tired Western trope of good vs. evil and explores the issues of technology and nature in a way that accepts and celebrates both while proposing ways that the two might live in greater harmony. This implicitly political narrative, however, is mixed with a set of unusual characters, a compelling fantasy world (complete with the disturbing but incredibly compelling image of the man/deer-like Forest Spirit), and a ravishingly lush and beautiful natural setting. Complex and challenging, Mononoke is both an excellent introduction to the anime world and a strong example of its capabilities.
Anime is beginning to shake its undeserved reputation for sex and violence and is coming into its own as one of the primary exports of Japan. In other countries, it is already successfully competing with Hollywood for the film-watching market share, and there is hope among fans that it will do so in America as well. Simply put, anime offers a higher-quality, more intelligent, and occasionally exotic product that can be incredibly exciting to the tired narratives and stereotyped characters of many Hollywood films. Films like Perfect Blue and Neon Genesis Evangelion have dared to try experimental film techniques and exploit the unique flexibility of animation to produce narratives unlike any a Western audience has ever seen. For all of these reasons, anime is an extremely worthy object of study, and may become more so as Japan aggressively spreads its innovative and rapidly changing artistic culture to a world hungry for something new.