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The Hidden World Of Anime

John Gosling looks at some of the differences between Western and Japanese animation, as well as speculating on the various cultural influences seen in anime.

Ultimate Teacher. © 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, 1961).

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.

Vampire Princess Miyu. © 1988 Soeishinsha Inc./Pony Canyon Ltd. English Language version: ©1996 Manga Entertainment Ltd.

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 and Moldiver.

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 Seed.

Modern Influences

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.

School Days

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 Tezuka's supervision.

UFO Robot Grandizer

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.