The Hidden World Of Anime
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by John Gosling
© Atsuji Yamamoto/Tokuma Shoten/MOVIC/Sony Music Entertainment (Japan)
Inc. English Language Version ©1993 Manga Entertainment Ltd.
This article aims to scratch away a little of the paint and peek beneath
the acetate to see what makes anime so different from Western animation,
but rather than cover the usual ground, I want to take this opportunity
to speculate on some of the more unusual possibilities for cultural influences
on anime, starting with the rich legacy of theater.
The kage-e, or shadow puppets of the 17th century are one obvious
precursor of Japanese animation. Indeed, pioneer animator Noboro Ofuji worked
in silhouette animation for much of his life. His most ambitious work was
probably the 70 minute shadow film Shaka no Shogai (The Life Of Buddha,
Joruri & Kabuki
Another probable antecedent is the joruri, or puppet theater, now
more commonly called bunraku, after the name of the Osaka theater
that by 1909 was the only remaining venue for performances. For a time,
though, joruri was more popular than kabuki, with the dolls acquiring all
manner of refinements during the 1730s, such as moveable eyes and articulated
fingers. The dolls also came to measure some 1.2 meters in height, which
required three men to operate. It is not easy to show a direct connection,
as the puppet theater was on the decline well before the advent of filmed
animation; but the artistic roots are undoubtedly there, and Ofuji was working
with three dimensional puppets in the 1930s. Kihachiro Kawamoto also produced
a great many outstanding puppet films in his career, such as Demon
(1972) and House Of Flame (1979).
Certainly you can spot joruri-like puppets in modern anime. In the second
Vampire Princess Miyu OAV, "Puppet Festival," a young man
is turned into a puppet by a demon with whom he has fallen in love. You
can also see joruri puppets brought to life in the 3x3 Eyes OAV (original
animation video) episode called "The Descendent."
As for the influence of kabuki, just watch an anime character giving a speech
or monologue and you will often see that the whole body is used to express
his or her sentiments. The character assumes a series of stylized and exaggerated
postures, which in spirit echoes the philosophy of the kabuki actor, who
from an early age is trained in dance and other techniques to use the entire
body as a medium of expression. It seems unlikely that animators are making
a conscious effort to mimic kabuki, but keep in mind that after the Second
World War, many kabuki actors made the transition to film and television.
Clearly, they would have had to tone down their performances, but I suspect
that enough of the essence of their art leaked through to influence the
early pioneers in television and film animation.
I can offer further evidence to support my argument by taking another element
of anime which is almost universal to every production and comparing it
to a key component of kabuki. I refer to the mie, which is the climatic
moment in a kabuki play when the leading player strikes and holds a dramatic
pose with crossed eyes, often to the rapturous applause of the audience.
There is another version of the mie called the kimari, which is essentially
the same thing without the crossed eyes, and I propose that you can see
something similar taking place in most anime productions. Pay particular
attention to the opening credits (especially those anime which feature a
group of heroes) and you can't fail to miss the posing and posturing that
takes place. Good examples can be found in the opening credits of Otaku
no Video (in fact it goes on all the time in this OAV), Gunbuster
© 1988 Soeishinsha Inc./Pony Canyon Ltd. English Language version:
©1996 Manga Entertainment Ltd.
To stretch a point, it is perhaps worth speculating that the comic interludes
called kyogen (mad words), which were sometime performed between
noh plays and have since become a theater form in their own right, may have
had some parallel in the little humorous skits that occasionally are featured
at the end of anime productions. I can immediately think of at least three
distinct examples, and there are undoubtedly others. To see what I mean,
take a look at Video Girl Ai, Gunbuster again, and Blue
So what about more modern influences? Let's start by looking at the role
of women in anime. By this I mean the female characters who populate the
stories, because with few exceptions, Japanese women have yet to make an
impact behind the camera, unless of course you count painting cels. There
are, however, an incredible number of strong female characters in anime,
so many in fact that there must be some specific reason. It certainly can't
be a manifestation of women's lib, because in Japan there are an awful lot
of lift ladies with university degrees. To understand why it is that women
are so often key characters in anime, I think you have to look at the Japanese
home, and specifically the relationship between children and their mothers,
particularly male children and their mothers.
Let's imagine how it might be for a boy (let's call him Kyosuke) growing
up in Japan. His farther is a salary-man, up at the crack of dawn for the
daily commute, and back late at night after entertaining his business contacts
at a karaoke bar. There is no male role model in Kyosuke's life, and so
the emphasis shifts to his mother. It is she who packs Kyosuke off to school,
solves his problems, dries his tears and keeps the pressure up for exam
success. In a climate where women call their seldom seen husbands "oversize
garbage" and "wet leaves," because they stick to everything
and are hard to sweep up, is it any wonder that boys fixate on their mothers
and make them super heroines?
Of course, there also exists an equally large school of animation that treats
female characters disgracefully. Terms like "Lolita complex" are
frequently cited, and I am sure a psychologist could find many reasons for
the contradictory portrayal of women in anime, but perhaps better than looking
for excuses it is simpler to admit that sex sells.
Let us return to our original thread now, and add a sister for Kyosuke;
we can call her Akane. If we follow them to school we can uncover yet more
cultural influences that have crept into anime. For example, if Akane has
hair that is not the typical black of most Japanese, she may be required
to bring a letter to school from her mother confirming it has not been dyed.
I think it not unreasonable to assume that the reason you see so many anime
characters with hair that is anything but black, may well hark back to these
draconian school days and a deep desire to be blond. This is a hard argument
to support as most animators are male and were probably not so worried in
their youth about putting highlights in their hair, but a lot of anime now
is based on shoujo (girls) manga, and oddly colored hair is just
as prevalent. What I can say with confidence, is that most animators had
a really bad time at school, because in no other art form do you see so
many schools getting blown up, burnt down, trampled by monsters and in general
spectacularly trashed. There may be cause for grievance, as Japanese schools
are anything but relaxed, and in admittedly extreme examples, children have
been killed or injured by overzealous teachers in the cause of discipline.
Rather bizarrely, there is a subgenre which seems to exult in portraying
Japanese schools as places of torture and degradation, most notably those
stories from the pen of manga artist Go Nagai, who essentially created the
movement with his Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless School) stories and took it
to its zenith in the rather unpleasant Kekkou Kamen. There are any number
of anime productions that take a similair tack, such as Be Bop High School
and Ultimate Teacher.
Matters of Technology
Assuming he survives, we now follow Kyosuke on to university, where we might
discover some curious motivations in the area of career choice. One of the
more fascinating aspects of anime is the way it has become entwined with
the Japanese obsession with technology. In researching this aspect, I have
spoken to one Japanese university student who was motivated to get into
robotics because he liked robot animation and he is probably not alone.
Japanese society has undergone two major upheavals because of technology,
both at the hands of a foreign power.
The first was in 1853 when the American Navy brought to a close Japan's
200 year period of self-imposed isolation. The second came with the atomic
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In both cases Japan bounced back from
defeat and embraced the superior technology of their enemy as a way to match
and surpass them. The very idea that Japan would embrace atomic energy may
seem strange, but one need only look to the work of Osamu Tezuka to see
how quickly atomic energy was given a friendly face in Japan. Tezuka was
the creator of Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom), a manga about a robot
boy who used his powers to right wrongs and protect the innocent. In 1963,
it became Japan's first domestically produced anime TV series, made under
Tetsuwan Atomu was just the beginning. Science fiction became the predominant
force in anime during the 70s and 80s, and the robots (or mecha as
they are called) rapidly got bigger and better, eventually reaching the
stage where people (and especially children) were able to climb inside and
pilot them. Perhaps there is something comforting about being cocooned in
a form-fitting machine or mechanized body armor, especially for the Japanese,
who have staked so much of their future on technology. Certainly anime such
as Patlabor (Giant Police Robots) radiate a feeling of kinship and
loyalty between man and machine that I find highly motivating; and one need
only look at the way Japan is forging ahead in the technological arena to
see how anime is in tune with developing trends. It is perhaps significant
that Japan is the only country in the world seriously interested in bipedal
robot research, and when you look at the walking, running and leaping robots
of anime, you can perhaps understand why. There may never be such machines
in reality, but don't tell the Japanese that.
So here I conclude this brief preamble through the hidden world of anime.
Some of you might think it has been more fancy than fact, but anime has
roots that run deeper than anything you will find in a Disney film. Anime
stories still feature ghosts and monsters of myth and legend, and temples
and traditional religion figures prominently, often quite comfortably intertwined
with science fiction. With anime, not only do you get the feeling that you
are looking at something with a heritage, but something that is continuing
to evolve, responding to the changes in society and attempting to weave
a consensus between the old and new. Long may this continue.
John Gosling is a freelance writer living in England. His major credits
include numerous anime video reviews for the magazine MangaMania and
an article on the use of factual space concepts in anime for Spaceflight,
the journal of the British Interplanetary Society.
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