Category Archives: Anime

Read our anime reviews and explore various aspects of anime. We examine character personality and aspects behind the drawings. Why are there various anime stereotypes? What do common anime design conventions mean?


What is a Postmodern Anime? What Does Postmodernism Mean, anyway?

Postmodernism is one of those stuffy words you see thrown around the Internet. It’s slapped on architecture, education, movies, and even anime. But what really is postmodernism? How can an anime be postmodern?

Despite it’s name, postmodernism has nothing to do with being modern. I rather dislike the word modern because every age thinks itself modern in respect to a previous age. Modern most often equals current or advancing. Postmodernism deals with viewpoints more than time periods. Postmodernism critiques Enlightenment ideas (the rule of law, the principles of reason, economics, equality, and other ideas). Postmodernism concerns itself with finding truthfulness rather than Truth. That is, a universal unchanging truth. Unchanging truth seeks to see if a commonly held truth is really true instead of being simply useful for right now. Whereas postmodernism asserts some truths are better than others for achieving certain goals (such as the rule of law for creating a stable society), but outside those goals the truths may not be useful (such as using Newtonian mechanics to get a child to eat peas). Postmodernism doesn’t concern itself with a single Truth (Jackson, 2007). Don’t confuse postmodernism with relativism. Relativism is the idea that all interpretations of truth are equally valuable and good. Postmodernism doesn’t hesitate to call out some ideas as wrong.

Postmodernism is characterized by its focus on deconstruction. It seeks to take ideas and views apart to see what makes them up, why they are held, and whether or not they are valuable. For example, postmodernism focuses a lot on the line between culture and society. It sees the two as one and the same rather than two separate things as old views state. Cultural signs and media shape our sense of reality. Media is a lens, not a mirror as Enlightenment ideas assert (Strinati, 1993). In turn, media is shaped by our view of reality. It creates a feedback loop. Ideas and labels distort our view of reality to the point where we become unaware of the distortion. Postmodernism attempts to call attention to how this happens and why.

Postmodernism focuses on what are called meta-narratives. These are the big ideas societies and people tell themselves as true. They end in -ism. Marxism, Capitalism, Stoicism, and Nationalism are a few.  And yes, postmodernism itself is a meta-narrative.

So what does all of this have to do with our anime hobby? Well, as a product of (and influence upon) culture, anime and anime  fandom is subject to postmodernism’s gaze. Without realizing it, most anime bloggers engage in postmodern analysis. We write about the meaning and influences anime has. We take apart anime messages. Doing so takes apart societal and cultural messages such as how men and women should relate to one another. Anime that deconstructs a genre and looks at it–its themes, stereotypes, design, artwork, plots, dialogue–can be considered postmodern. Several spring to my mind: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill la Kill, and Ouran High School Host Club.

Evangelion tears apart the mecha genre to examine its long running themes, tropes, and conventions. It takes these atomized sections and puts them together in a way that changed the genre. It shifted the narrative. Kill la Kill satirizes fan-service and the fashion industry. Ouran High School Host Club tears apart the tropes of shojo stories and satirizes them. It breaks them down to their bare elements and pokes fun at how they are seen as attractive. All three call attention to the labels both genres use. Ouran High School Host Club uses every visual language word available in shojo to reveal the unnaturalness of the genre. But it also points out how it is okay to have fun with fantasy (which is another deconstruction of our preoccupation with hyper-realism). Kill la Kill has its own unique visual style that eschews modern, glossy animation.

Any anime that tears apart a closely held idea or points out how the idea is a product of culture can be considered postmodern. Shin Chan reveals how product advertising targets and shifts children’s perspectives. “Action Bastard” takes innuendo and shows how children eat media messages without fully understanding what those messages are saying. It points out how parents are not concerned about these messages either.

Postmodernism isn’t modern. Tearing apart ideas in an effort to see how truthful they are isn’t isolated to current society. Every society practiced this through arts and satire. Ideas hit points where people take them for granted and mistake them for reality. Whenever this happens, a meta-narrative appears to remind people not to confuse idea for reality. Stoicism, Marxism, Capitalism, and other meta-narratives began as a form of postmodernism. They were a reaction to previously held ideas. They deconstructed the ideas they disagreed with and built a counter idea from the bricks. The only difference is how postmodernism focuses on the demolishing process instead of building a new house afterward. The ideas postmodernism present are valuable. They help us see how anime genres can be presented differently. Postmodern anime change the genre they deconstruct just as Evangelion changed mecha. Postmodern bloggers look to tear about themes and stories in order to understand them. However, postmodernism can’t become a system like capitalism or Stoicism. It is a toolbox.

Postmodernism seeks truthfulness rather than a single Truth. Postmodern anime seek the truthfulness of their genre rather than becoming the defining symbol of their genre. Ironically, they often become the defining symbol of their genre in the process.

References

Jackson, L. (2007). Nietzsche and the Paradox of Postmodern Education. Philosophical Studies In Education, 3851-59.

Strinati, D. (1993). The Big Nothing? Contemporary Culture and the Emergence of Postmodernism. Innovation In Social Sciences Research, 6(3), 359-374.


Keijo!!!!!!!! Review

I loathe fan-service. The only exception to this was Kill la Kill, but with that series the fan-service was satirical. So when I started watching Keijo!!!!!!!! –I think I counted the right number of exclamation marks in the title–I often asked myself “What am I watching?” I’ve seen the popularity of the show in my anime blog feed so I decided to check it out. Well, I found the fan-service in this series rather painful. At times it was satirical, but most of the time it tried to titillate. The anime also features all the elements of anime that can get annoying when overused. And overuse it did.

For those who haven’t seen the show, it follows a cadre of girls as they attend a school dedicated to teaching keijo, a sport similar to sumo that requires the women to use their busts and butts as weapons. They race, as they call it, on platforms floating in a pool. Of course, that requires them to wear skimpy bathing suits. The audience, mostly men, gamble as the teams of women smash and rub against each other. At times, this becomes more sexual than athletic. The story involves the characters becoming friends as they train and face an opposing keijo school.

Okay, let’s start with what I liked about the show. I liked how the show focused on women without male influence in the story. It shows how women can be strong athletes. The sport of keijo pokes fun at sports. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m not a sports fan. The show pokes at how ridiculous sporting events can be and how much training it takes to be an athlete, even for a sport as ridiculous as keijo. I mean, baseball is a game that involves a ball being hit with a stick. When you think about it, its pretty ridiculous. I also enjoyed some of the comradery between the women. Finally, for a show full of fan-service, it features a variety of female body types, and all of them have what it takes to compete at the game.

Keijo is meant to be a comedy, but it joked without a smile. The show took all of anime’s tropes and stuffed them together. For example, the girls would yell their attacks, which all had silly names, amid seizure- inducing flashes of light. While the anime tries to pass itself off as a sports-anime at first, these attacks come straight from shonen action stories. You’ll see butts with spiritual demon dogs emitting from them, summoned butts filling the air, and other over-the-top attacks. All with names that try to be funny but end up making me cringe such as the obvious “Bust to Bust Attack” and “Vacuum Butt Cannon.” I don’t know. I guess I’m an old prude, but the early-teen humor grated. Some of the late attacks are downright painful. I mean, who would twist their nipple and breast and then let it drill into other? One attack that did leave me chuckling at the absurdity of it all used a hardened nipple to grab an opponent’s swimsuit and pull off a move from judo.

The animation style is well done aside from impossible poses. I have to give the series that. The animators took care to animate the softness of breasts and butts–too much care, but it’s understandable considering that is the focus of the show’s visuals. Again, the variety of female body types surprised me. Of course, the self-conscious small-breasted girl trope had to appear. For once I’d like to see a small chested girl have confidence and not care about her bust. Not all women “lacking” assets lack confidence or fret over their chests.

This pose is impossible. For a girl to pose like this, her spine would have to have to corkscrew. Scenes like this reveal how Keijo! focuses more on fan-service than on sports competition. It’s interesting to note how large bottoms have become popular in anime compared to anime from the 1980-2000. Consider Faye from Cowboy Bebop and Misato from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Oddly, this interest has allowed anime females to develop body types that come closer to nature.

Anime likes to take strong, female characters and make them less threatening to male audiences through fan-service. Perhaps it’s because my hormonal teen years are long behind me, but efforts to make female characters attractive by showing their skin does the opposite. Intelligence, inner strength, compassion, and virtue makes characters appealing. The most memorable anime characters I know of don’t flash skin or, at the least, don’t plaster their skin all over each episode. Balsa from Moribito, for example.

Keijo! is meant to be a fluffy, ecchi romp aimed at boys and young men. And it has many good messages–self-discipline, friendship, persistence, female-strength–but it leverages anime’s negative tropes to the hilt. Anime’s focus on female skin, silly attacks, and stereotypes hurts its ability to extend beyond its core Western audience. Okay, I get it. It’s meant to be fantasy and fun. I also like a fluffy comedy time-to-time. But the preponderance of silly and immature anime stories damages anime’s ability to be taken seriously in the West. Fans know it can achieve near literary levels of sophistication, but the market reacts to what people watch and buy. Western fans need more diversity in anime–yes, anime already has some diversity available, but it could use more.

Yes, I’m ranting a bit here. I enjoyed some moments of Keijo!, but it too often turned around and ruined those moments. That appears to be a trope of anime too. It can’t allow itself to convey a message or reach an apex of tension without interjecting something to deflate the blimp. Keijo! is pretty creative in its portrayal of sports and how outlandish sporting events can be. I mean, look at sumo. Two giant men crash into each other in an effort to push each other out of a sand ring. Keijo! satirizes the arbitrary rules of sports well. We forget that the games can be anything we make them to be. Well, all of that aside, I often repeat myself here on JP. Much of what makes anime anime also keeps it from becoming a widely accepted form of storytelling. I criticize anime because I want more people to experience the ability to animation to tell stories in ways live action can’t do. I want mature-storied animated movies to break records here in the States as they do in Japan. Until anime gives up some of its tropes, and the western community pushes for more mature stories, anime will continue to remain a niche genre, one subject to ridicule and misunderstanding. Stories like Keijo! have a place, but anime has far more potential to inspire and tell stories beyond fan-service and fluff.


Anime’s View of Men

Anime has a dim opinion of men. Anime’s misogyny gets a lot of ink, but men suffer from their own issues in the medium. Many parts of the medium look at men as sex-driven, impulsive, and deadbeat. In many slice-of-life anime, the father isn’t around. While this reflects the unfortunate reality of the Japanese salaryman, it is also a slight on men. It shows how men do not place much importance on the family. To be fair, earning the family’s way is how many men express their affection for the family, but society feels the lack of a male presence in families. When anime fathers do appear, they are often zany and weird. Bleach’s crazy dad, Isshin Kurosaki provides a modern example.

The meathead and the pervert pervade anime’s portrayal of men. The meathead is the impulsive, headstrong hero who charges head first into everything. They win while the thoughtful, introverted males take supporting roles. They do not “get the girl.” I won’t touch on the issue with women being the reward for a hero in this article. Speaking of being sex driven, the perverted male appears throughout anime. He appears in two forms: the comedic extreme and the underlying focus on sex that afflicts many protagonists. The comedic extreme has the guy obsessing over panties, breasts, butts, and sometimes the nape of the neck.   It becomes a consuming part of his character and his chief motivation. The Comic Artist and His Assistants provides a good example. Yuki Aito’s fetish for panties drives every aspect of his personality. According to the story, it was the reason he became a manga artist. His obsession extends to his interactions with the female cast and becomes the source of his problems. This type of man lives in the comedy and ecchi genres, but the perspective leeches into other genres. Men who focus on sex, the “get the girl” motivation plays into the dialogue most men grow up with. Women come to those men who conquer; intimacy–that is, emotional intimacy rather than sex–isn’t considered manly. The fact I have to qualify the word intimacy because of its close association with sex points to how society skews relationships.

In any case, many male characters have perverted tendencies. Nosebleeds symbolize this. Nosebleeds stand in for male arousal, and some characters practically hemorrhage. The lesser symbol for perverted tendencies, the blush, doesn’t get as much attention as the nosebleed, but when a male character seems a panty flash (the most common cause), he will blush. This reaction shows a latent preoccupation on sex. If the character didn’t have it in his mind, he wouldn’t react. Honestly, this would be a nice change of pace. Anime assumes all men have a fetish for panties or are turned on by women’s underclothes. More asexual male heroes would be a welcome change.

The focus on sex that runs through male anime characters reflects societal views on masculinity. Western culture views men as sexually motivated and focused. To be a man is to be dominating and sexually active. He must chase, and she must withhold. American men and women are raised with his dichotomy. Manhood and sex drive connect, and “real” men seek sex instead of intimacy. Magazines aimed at men focus on sexual prowess. Car commercials have strong phallic imagery (a car driving into a tunnel) and dominance imagery (driving fast and controlled along a curvy road–curvy roads recall the curves of women, after all).  This perspective infects anime. The other side of masculinity– gentleness, self-control, love, tenderness, thoughtfulness, compassion–get little attention in society and in anime. Just look at all the meathead, impulsive shonen heroes.

Why not? Why are these qualities of manhood not emphasized?

Many of them overlap with feminine ideals. Misogyny dictates anything that is feminine is of lower status. For another, they are not conducive to consumerism. These traits of (true) manhood come from self confidence. They undermine the need to look to the outside for fulfillment. They also counteract misogyny. They show how men are capable of being motivated by ideals higher than sexuality. Removing the sex drive from the center of masculinity prevents men from feeling the need to own women and dominate them. It removes one of the major sources of insecurity: sexual prowess. If a man can’t perform sexually, he isn’t a man.

Nonsense. A penis doesn’t make the man.

Aside from this, impulsiveness characterizes men in anime more than anything else. A character with self control makes plotting more difficult for the writer. Impulsive action makes plots easier to write. A character can act based on a simple motivation–such as protecting his friends. The writer then plots the consequences. But a thoughtful character with self-control would think through his actions first. This means the writer needs to come up with consequences neither the character nor reader could foresee. Granted, most people act from impulses than thoughtful consideration.

Luckily, some anime shows the true face of masculinity. Goku from Dragonball Z shows many of the best traits of manhood. Although he still suffers from impulsive behavior. Goku shows fatherly love toward Gohan and shows little interest in sexuality. He is compassionate toward his friends and enemies. His ability to train hard shows his self-control. Another example: Holland from Eureka Seven develops into a father figure. He lacks self-control in the beginning of the story, but he grows into a stronger man — one of control, gentleness (toward Talho), and compassion. Holland remained thoughtful throughout the series despite anger overwhelming him at times.

Anime writers can keep perverted characters if they add depth to them. For example, Miroku from Inuyasha has perverted traits (he loves to rub women’s bottoms), but he balances this with gentleness, thoughtfulness, and compassion. Miroku continues a traditional character from Japanese literature, the perverted monk. However his interest in the ladies isn’t a consuming factor of his personality. It doesn’t drive his every action like many characters. Throughout the series, the group relies on Miroku’s knowledge, and his compassion for those who suffer drives him. He shows tenderness and concern for Sango, the demon hunter. In one of his best scenes, Miroku wishes Sango a happy life when he thinks she plans on leaving to marry a lord. The sincerity of his wish, along with his suppressed inner pain, shows how much he cares for her. Miroku provides a good example of the middle road. Perversity can work for comedic effect, but it doesn’t have to be a motivating factor of a male character.

Culture’s focus on the sex drive as the defining characteristic of maleness insults men. Men are more than walking penises. Sex isn’t as important as society makes it out to be. Anime would benefit from revealing the true side of masculinity with more thoughtful, tender, and compassionate male characters. Moving away from meatheads and impulsive behavior would improve anime stories and provide better fictional role models for male anime fans.  Don’t get me wrong. Many anime have great values and excellent characters, but there is room to improve.  The stories we consume shape our perspectives of reality. A shift toward thoughtful, quiet, and controlled male characters (like Jin in Samurai Champloo for example) would show young anime fans a different side of manhood. Perhaps such a shift would also reduce the misogyny present in anime and Western culture. Misogyny, after all, comes from traditional, macho values.

Manhood involves more than conquering, violence, and sex. It involves softness, tenderness, confidence, quietude, thoughtfulness, other-centeredness, and other traits not represented in modern views of manhood. Anime, more than any other medium, provides a view of these traits if only it would step away from the tired male tropes on which it clings and embrace the side characters, the introverted men, and the other types of men already present in their stories.


Top 100 Anime. The Good, the Bad, and the Influential

Ah yes, another top 100 list. Every anime blog must have one right? While most anime lists include anime the writer likes, this one contains many I didn’t like at all. However, their importance and popularity demands they have a place. I have seen at least a few episodes or scenes from nearly every anime on this list. As with any top 100 list, there is a lot of subjectivity. Many more deserve a mention but without watching (or knowing about) them I cannot make a judgement. These anime are ranked by impact, popularity, and importance. Their representation for good and bad anime habits also influenced their rank. Anime has many bad habits that can be traced all the way to Astro Boy, filler being one of the main issues. Over time, anime developed its own stereotypes and tropes. I tried to include shows that best represent these bad habits and story-telling stereotypes. The worse they are, they better they ranked as a representation of the bad. I considered making a separate list for these, but everything needs to be understood in context, so I settled on combining them with the good. This list has a bias toward newer anime; I ranked them higher because more fans are familiar with them than anime from the 1980s and  1990s. This is an image heavy post.

100KekkaishiKekkiashi

Kekkaishi plunges us into the world of Japanese folklore and cake. You can’t forget cake. Kekkaishi starts slow with far too many cake jokes before it picks up. It’s world is interesting and features many monsters and creatures from Japanese myths and legends.

9911 Eyes11 Eyes

There is a trend in fantasy stories to pull elements from role playing video games. Overt mentions of experience points and leveling up makes you wonder if the anime is yet another world within a video game. 11 Eyes has some of this, but it is a case study in how execution and lack of time can hurt a story with potential.

98girls-und-panzerGirls und Panzer

Sometimes anime combines two of the furthest possible ideas together. Girls und Panzer takes school age girls and combines it with tank warfare. The ridiculousness of the idea illustrates how anime isn’t afraid to experiment.

97Red Data Girl IzumikoRed Data Girl

Shinto ideas sit at the heart of Red Data Girl. It is a fair watch, but like many high school anime it is hard to take the threat seriously amidst the high school backdrop.

96paranoia-agentParanoia Agent

Baseball bats and street assaults? Strangely enough victims of the attacks find their lives improved after the attacks. If you like psychological mysteries this is a show for you.

95Guilty Crown InoriGuilty Crown

Guilty Crown has a bold story and interesting characters. Sadly, action sequences fall apart into panned still images. Budget constraints have hurt many stories.

94mobile-suit-gundam-seedMobile Suit Gundam SEED

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED was my introduction to Gundam. SEED takes place when humans on earth, called Naturals, are different from those who live in space, the Coordinators. Like other mecha, expect a twisted plot mixed with philosophy and moral dilemmas. Gundam remains popular in Japan, and SEED introduces the franchise to a new generation.

93parasyteParasyte – the Maxim

Parasyte explores what it means to be human and the roles humans play in the environment. A race of creatures called parasytes begin to take over humans. They like to take over the human brain so they can completely control the host. Shinichi Izumi’s right arm is taken over by one of these parasytes. The characterization of Shinichi makes this anime stand out. He is believable and lacks the usual boneheaded shonen personality (impulsive, overly protective, and action oriented). Shinichi acts like a normal person with doubts, weaknesses, and resolve.

92Barefoot_Gen_1_DVD_coverBarefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen follows Gen Nakaoka and his family in Hiroshima during the last years of World War II. It is a look at what people endured (such as food shortages) and the after effects of the nuclear explosion that ravaged the city. Barefoot Gen was among the first manga (the anime came much later) that portrayed the horrors of war and nuclear destruction.

91KimbaKimba the White Lion

Kimba the White Lion comes from Tezuka Osamu, who is widely regarded as the father of anime. Kimba focuses on the need for understanding to bridge the gap between human and animal worlds. Disney is accused of drawing heavily from the story when they created The Lion King.

90ghost-in-shell-innocenceGhost in the Shell: Innocence

Section 9 is sent to investigate a series of murders involving gynoids, sex android. Innocence offers a tangled crime drama laced with references to Zen and philosophy. The movie proves anime can be mature, but its philosophical dialogue can be hard to follow. It challenges viewers to pay attention and think.

 

89fairytailFairy Tail

Fairy Tail is one of the most popular series in recent years. It doesn’t break new ground, but it shows how fantasy stories still have a place in modern storytelling.

88soul-eaterSoul Eater

Soul Eater’s unique art style makes this anime come to life. The strangeness from the moon to the character designs shows how anime can break expectations. Not to mention the characterizations and storytelling have interesting twists on common anime tropes.

87berserk-1Berserk

Berserk’s dark feel shares similarities with the Dark Knight. Set in feudal Europe, this series is a welcome respite from anime’s focus on high school and teens. It provides a nice diversity away from Japanese centric fantasy based on samurai or futuristic police.

86rurouni-kenshinRurouni Kenshin

Rurouni Kenshin is many anime fan’s first exposure to samurai and Japanese culture during the Meiji Restoration. Fill with good fights and good plot (canon plot anyway), Kenshin leverages its setting in ways that make it feel authentic. However, Kenshin, like many anime, suffers from filler arcs that hurt the story and characterization.

85Yu-gi-ohYu-Gi-Oh
Yu-Gi-Oh popularized its namesake card game with American children. For many, this series was among their first exposure to anime. Like Pokemon,Yu-Gi-Oh ran on Saturday morning and after school cartoon line ups. This allowed the show to be seen as a cartoon rather than an anime. This association allowed Yu-Gi-Oh to avoid some of the negative ideas the word “anime” may have had for some parents. For a long time, anime was associated with extreme violence and sexuality. Yu-Gi-Oh proves the ability of anime to be a diverse way to telling stories.
84digimonDigimon

For many Digimon appears to be a knock-off of Pokemon. Digimon proved to be popular in its own right. Like Yu-Gi-Oh, it provided exposure to Japanese art styles and animation styles for many young Americans. Pokemon,Yu-Gi-Oh, and Digimon are the modern “gateway drugs” to an interest in anime, much like Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and Voltron did in previous decades.

83cardcaptorCardcaptor Sakura

The magical girl genre, since Sailor Moon made it widely popular, often comes off as stale and formulaic. Cardcaptor Sakura breaths new life into the genre. The series targets an audience often forgotten in the West: girls. However, Cardcaptor’s story and characters offers a little for everyone, much like Disney movies are watched by all genders and ages.

82arpeggio-of-blue-steel-ars-nova-submarineArpeggio of Blue Steel

Arpeggio of Blue Steel features a storyline centered on battleships and submarines. Quite a difference from the usual big robots. Each ship’s AI system is represented by a cute girl (after all ships in the West are female in gender). Arpeggio deserves a place on this list because of how it could be loosely called a mecha (without the robots) and creates a plausible world without international trade.

83Porco_Rosso_(Movie_Poster)Porco Rosso

Studio Ghibli takes a human cursed to be a pig (and who happens to be a pilot) and tells a story set in the 1930s. The time period between World War I and the rise of Hitler is often glossed over. The story is human: trying to let go of the past. Porco Rosso is often forgotten in the list of Studio Ghibli films. It is well worth a look.

80maria-virgin-witchMaria the Virgin Witch

Maria the Virgin Witch has many, many problems. But it is on this list because of how it plays with Western ideas of witch craft. Maria is a young witch loved by those who know her, feared by those who hear of her, and hated by the church. Maria’s resistance to the church and the will of heaven (represented by the archangel Michael) speaks to our modern relationship with traditional religion. It handles this rather ham-fistedly, but it still has an interesting story and perspective.

 

79kikis-delivery-service-posterKiki’s Delivery Service

Most of Studio Ghibli’s films lack world-shattering stories. Instead, they focus on a single person. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows Kiki on her flying broomstick as she grows into adulthood. The theme has been trod many times, but we each have to go through the same transition. Kiki’s Delivery Service gushes with Ghibli’s vibrant animation.

78slamdunkSlam Dunk

Slam Dunk is one of the most popular series in Japan during the 1990s and early 2000s. The story helped popularized basketball in Japan. Like many anime, this is a high school coming of age story.

77nanaNana

Nana tells the story of two women with different personalities who become close friends. Nana is one of the rare josei Western releases. Most anime aims at high school and college age audiences. Nana and those like it aim at older adults.

76no-game-no-lifeNo Game; No Life

No Game; No Life adds to the trend of video game based stories. Both main characters are intelligent and calculating, which is a welcome change over the usual hotheaded impulsive heroes anime favors. Some of the anime’s oddities (such as the too close relationship between brother Sora and sister Shiro) may turn off some fans not used to anime’s proclivities.

75Crayon_Shin-Chan_AnimeShin-Chan

Shin-Chan is what happens when a kindergartner mixes with Family Guy. Full of sexual humor and childlike innocence, this anime is a funny romp on the playground. The art style is straight out of a 4 year-old’s drawing book and may be off putting for some. But the style lends a childish flavor to the antics. Don’t expect high humor or satire here.

74final-fantasy-vii-advent-children.11228Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Final Fantasy VII stands at the heights of video gaming for many. Advent Children revisits the characters and breaths stylized realism into blocky polygons of yesteryear. The level of detail and realism contrasts against Western computer animated films targeting children. Animation lends itself to fantasy better than live action.

73gunslingergirlsGunslinger Girl

Gunslinger Girl takes teenage girls and makes them into cyborgs and gives them guns. The anime could fit into the world weaved by Ghost in the Shell. What sets this anime apart is the use of classical music to convey the feelings and thoughts of the characters.

72totoroMy Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is one of those rare films that doesn’t use conflict and threat to move the story forward. It leverages exploration and situations. It has life-like little girls and human situations. Its sense of wonder and magic returns us to childhood for a time.

71summer-warsSummer Wars

Summer Wars raises modern concerns about computers and artificial intelligence. Well written and full of humanity, the story contrasts a vibrant virtual world with a vibrant family life.

70The_Girl_Who_Leapt_Through_Time_posterThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is yet another coming-of-age story with imagination and pleasant design. Makoto, being a fairly typical teenage girl, uses her powers to travel through time to help her get perfect grades, avoid being late, and other little things…until she learns her actions can hurt others.

 

69ghost-shell-sacGhost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Ghost in the Shell tells of a future that is more plausible than Star Trek. Theft, rape, and murder continue with technological twists. At its heart, Ghost is an adult crime drama similar to NCIS and Law & Order. For many, it stands at the pinnacle of what anime can do with adult storytelling.

68madoka-magicaMadoka Magica

Magical Girl anime typically do not feature dark themes and death. From its inception Madoka Magica was meant to be something different. The developers went out of their way to disguise the dark themes in the expected innocent, frilly magical girl facade. Madoka deconstructs the magical girl genre in similar ways that Neon Genesis Evangelion deconstructed the mecha genre.

67lupin-thirdLupin the Third

The longevity of Lupin speaks for itself. The manga released back in 1967, and the story in print and on screen remains strong today.

66Fruits_Basket_Box_SetFruits Basket

Fruits Basket relies on characterization to keep fans interested. Their emotions and desires shine through the artwork. Fruits Basket, like many shojo, provide a alternative look at the action heavy anime the West usually sees.

65trigunTrigun

Trigun is one of those strange mash ups. Science fiction and the wild west. The mix proved more popular in the United States than in Japan.

64Requiem for the PhantomRequiem for the Phantom

Child assassins are a favorite anime theme. Requiem for the Phantom adds another favorite: amnesia. The anime is based on a visual novel, Phantom of the Inferno. You can read my thoughts on it in this review.

63slayersThe Slayers

The Slayers is one of the most popular anime from the heyday of the 1990s. The art style may not be to many modern fans’ tastes, but the Slayers is one of those a student of anime need to see.

62FLCLFLCL

FLCL is less a show and more an experience. The layers stuffed into each short episode attempts to capture the complex frenzy of modern life. You need to be well versed in Jungian psychology to catch all the symbols stuffed into each scene.

61escaflowneThe Vision of Escaflowne

The Vision of Escaflowne flopped in Japan but was a worldwide success. The anime suggests a disconnect between Japanese tastes in stories and the rest of the anime market during the 1990s.

60ClaymoreClaymore

Most of the time female warriors wear skimpy armor. Claymore bucks this trend(Clare’s is form fitting, though). Claymore has great action: sudden and violent without the yammering anime is prone toward.

 

59monster-animeMonster

Monster is a complex story with good pacing and still avoids the nonsensical tangle complex anime fall into. Series like Monster show how anime is a great storytelling medium.

58moribitoMoribito

Moribito tells a story of motherhood. Balsa is an older woman with experience behind her. This dynamic is a welcome change from most fantasy stories.

57The Sacred BlacksmithThe Sacred Blacksmith

The Sacred Blacksmith is best described as middling. What it does right: avoid running the breast jokes into the ground. The anime doesn’t break ground, but it provides an example of where anime stagnated in recent decades.

56The Melancholy of Haruhi SuzumiyaThe Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was one of the most popular anime back in 2006. It sparked an online phenomenon of parodies and other videos. The anime revealed how storytelling is two directional.

55Spirited AwaySpirited Away

Spirited Away has grossed more in the box office than any other anime to date. Popularity cannot be underestimated when it comes to importance and impact.

54perfectblue1Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue gets into your head. This psychological thriller follows Mima as she poses nude and as rape victims for magazines. The story has a distinct Hitchcock flare. It shows just how good anime can be when it sheds its high school immaturity.

53Mazinger ZMazinger Z

Mazinger Z popularized the giant robot genre back in the 1970s. It is the first time a character piloted a giant robot from a cockpit. It was also the first time a female robot appeared. The anime laid the foundation for later mecha anime.

52macrossMacross

Macross is a mecha series that tries to avoid black and white thinking. It’s antagonists are not inherently evil unlike other mecha at the time.

51Ghost HuntGhost Hunt

Do you like ghost stories? Ghost Hunt is TAPS (Ghost Hunters) with a Japanese twist.

50Beyond the BoundaryBeyond the Boundary

Beyond the Boundary is a fair anime that provides another look at how anime plays up male fetishes. On a positive side, it handles small gestures well and has a female lead with steel in her character.

 

49Dusk Maiden of AmnesiaDusk Maiden of Amnesia

Anime ghost stories can be gripping when done well. Contrast is the key, and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia uses anime style humor to accent its dark moments well. The cinematography of this anime lends to the creep factor well. Some of the shots have a distinct Hitchcock feel.

48burst angelBurst Angel

Burst Angel would be a much better anime if it modeled itself after crime thrillers like Ghost in the Shell rather than mix in teen-angst found in mecha focused anime.

47sword art online 2Sword Art Online

People either love SAO or hate it. Sword Art Online helped popularize the trapped-in-a-game genre. If anything, this new genre shows the importance of video games in modern culture.

46Akame Ga KillAkame Ga Kill

Akame Ga Kill straddles the fantasy and trapped-in-a-game genres. While most of the time it stands firmly in fantasy, some of the battles and dialog come from video games. The humor of the series comes at terrible times and clashes rather than accents the dark themes present in the story.

45Shuffle!Shuffle!

Harem series like Shuffle! flirt with the outright ridiculous. However, Shuffle breaks from the pack with a heartfelt story. Some of this is because it is a seinen anime as opposed to an ecchi or shonen harem story.

44School RumbleSchool Rumble

High school love triangles within yet other triangles and comedy antics mark School Rumble. It is a fluffy show with heart and decent humor.

43howls moving castleHowl’s Moving Castle

Based on a children’s book, for many Howl’s Moving Castle is Studio Ghibli at its best.

42Mushi-shiMushi-shi

Thought provoking best describes Mushi-shi. Episodic is another word. The story looks at the relationship we have with the natural and spiritual world we often do not see.

41The World Only God Knows - CastThe World Only God Knows

A harem with a heart describes The World Only God Knows. Watch as an aloof, awkward video game dork is forced by a demon from Hell to break out of his shell and use his skills in dating sims to cast out evil spirits.

40Lavie, Alvis, and ClausLast Exile

Last Exile is a great story set in a rusty steampunk world. With superb visuals and pacing, what more can you ask for?

 

39Nausicaa of the Valley of the WindNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was written by Hayao Miyazaki. The movie cemented Studio Ghibli’s place as a major player and even inspired chocobos in the Final Fantasy video game series.

38ChobitsChobits

Cute female android. Check. Awkward situations with a horny but good-hearted college man. Check. Chobits leads the viewer on a journey to discover love and humanity.

37Wolf's RainWolf’s Rain

Thought provoking dystopia best describes Wolf’s Rain. The story is complex (and confusing) but the dark themes and music by Yoko Kanno are excellent.

36Ergo ProxyErgo Proxy

Dark themes and menacing artwork brings this dystopian story alive. It is gothic like a cathedral: darkly beautiful but also vibrantly lit by the sunlight of its characters.

35Hellsing UltimateHellsing Ultimate

Forget Twilight and sparkly vampires. Hellsing Ultimate is a trip over the edge of psychosis. It bleeds with violence to the point where the story becomes secondary. Much of its brutality seeks to highlight to darkness of bored immortality.

34Ellis and Nadie El Cazador de la BrujaEl Cazador de la Bruja

It isn’t often you see an anime set in Mexico. The focus on female protagonists and a believable Wild West feel sets this anime apart.

33barakamonBarakamon

Stories without violence come as a relief. Barakamon follows a stereotypical dramatic artist on his journey to a small rural island to rediscover his muse. The focus on simple life and relationships makes this story a nice watch.

32gurren-lagann-simon-niaGurren Lagann

Gurren Lagann handles suspense right. It’s story is clear and comes with great twists. Surprising for a mecha. Add in a coming of age story that doesn’t involve high school and you have a winner.

31one-week-friends2One Week Friends

Friendship can be difficult and in today’s society it is a commodity. One Week Friends shows just how valuable friendship and relationships are and how much work they can take.

30Bleach Friendship Meme QuoteBleach

Bleach has become a Goliath in the shonen world. Despite its problems, it is a solid action anime in the same vein as Dragonball Z. Bleach suffers from character bloat, filler, and breaks in tension thanks to poorly timed comedy and flashbacks. Despite these problems, it has engaging characters and is worth a look.

 

29Code GeassCode Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion

Code Geass takes mecha themes and doubles down on how mecha questions power and the conflict between ends and means.

28RobotechRobotech

For many, Robotech was the first exposure to mecha and anime. Robotech helped the popularity of anime grow in the US during the 1980s.

27GundamMobile Suit Gundam

Gundam fever strikes many as one of Japan’s strange interests. Mobile Suit Gundam remains one of the most popular anime series in Japan, inspiring giant robot statues and more. It set the standard for all mecha to follow.

26Naruto Anime BlondeNaruto

Naruto remains one of the most popular anime series in the United States. Its popularity has helped make anime legitimate and a staple in American childhood.

25attack_on_titan_wallpaperAttack on Titan

The popularity of Attack on Titan surprised many. It is one of those few titles that appeals to those who avoid animation.

24Welcome to the NHKWelcome to the NHK

Hikikomori becomes more common as relationships become more difficult. Welcome to the NHK examines the trend through the eyes of a sufferer.

23Space DandySpace Dandy

Space Dandy continues the family of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Space Dandy suffered from too much hype, but it continues the episodic antics Bebop and Champloo popularized.

22grave-of-the-firefliesGrave of the Fireflies

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21Princess MononokePrincess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was the first animated film to win the Japan Academy Prize. Many consider the film as a landmark in animation because of its quality and complex, adult script.

20akira-movieAkira

Back in the late 1980s, Akira first showed how animation can carry adult themes. Akira sparked renewed interest in anime in the United States during the 1990s.

19Dragon_Ball_Kai_Poster_ArtDragonball Z

DBZ, as Dragonball Z is often called, is the father of modern action anime. While some get tired of hearing this, DBZ set the standards for action anime that followed. DBZ Kai does away with filler and holds to the original story.

18 

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Kill la Kill tackles anime’s bad habit of fan-service and transforms it to a symbol of a strong woman. Kill la Kill is a satirical look at our relationships with clothing.

17Host-Club-ouran-high-school-host-clubOuran High School Host Club

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16Edward Elric Fullmetal AlchemistFullmetal Alchemist

Although Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t follow the manga, the characters break away from the standard shonen type. Edward uses intelligence more than brawn. In Brotherhood, he falls back into the standard impulsive meathead shonen stereotype.

15Chūnibyō_Demo_Koi_ga_Shitai!_BD_&_DVD_volume_1_coverLove, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions

Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions looks at chunibyo, or a reluctance to grow up. The anime is full of heart but avoids being overly sentimental. As these stories go, it is well balanced and worth the watch.

14Astro BoyAstro Boy

Astro Boy deserves a place here as the first anime. Astro Boy started some of anime’s bad habits, such as filler. Despite this, Astro Boy has its place in history.

13Death Note's MisaDeath Note

Death Note dominated anime for a time with its popularity. It spread across the internet through fanfictions and garnered a cult-like following. Its dark themes and questions about morality (such as the question of ends and means) hit home with many.

12Spice and Wolf 2Spice and Wolf

Economics doesn’t get enough attention as a plot device. Spice and Wolf sometimes delves too deeply, but the adult relationship and banter between Holo and Lawrence elevates this story. Sadly, it looks unlikely the anime will be concluded.

11Fullmetal Alchemist BrotherhoodFullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

FMA: Brotherhood remakes the first series and follows the manga closer than the original. Brotherhood provides an accessible entry point for those looking to start watching anime.

10Ed from Cowboy BebopCowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop remains a classic. It is the best anime to introduce the medium to those who have doubts. Many who hate anime like Cowboy Bebop.

 

9Eureka SevenEureka Seven

Eureka Seven shifts the mecha genre while retaining tradition. The bright colors and surfer theme break from the usual dark colors and themes found in most mecha. While the story retains the grandiose plot, the relationship between Renton and Eureka is the focus.

8Rose of VersaillesRose of Versailles

Rose of Versailles is one of the most important stories for women’s roles. In the story, Oscar François de Jarjayes takes a role typically reserved for male characters. She doesn’t lose her identity to her male love interest like other stories of the time period the story released.

7Samurai ChamplooSamurai Champloo

Samurai Champloo stands as the spiritual sequel to the classic Cowboy Bebop. It’s strange mix of hip-hop and Edo period Japan. In many regards Samurai Champloo surpasses Cowboy Bebop.

6Shoujo.Kakumei.UtenaRevolutionary Girl Utena

Revolutionary Girl Utena breaks expectations of female leads. Utena wants to become the Prince instead of the princess. It is a deconstruction of shojo stories and introduces girls to a different perspective of femininity.

5Neon Genesis Evangelion Asuka Langley SoryuNeon Genesis Evangelion

Love it or hate it, Evangelion changed anime and mecha. It deconstructs and examines the mecha genre. It then rebuilt the pieces into a story people still analyze and debate.

4sailor-neptune-uranusSailor Moon

Sailor Moon is the Dragonball Z of the magical girl genre. It set the standards for every magical girl that followed. Sailor Moon showed young girls they too can be powerful and heroic.

3Inuyasha_trioInuyasha

I have a soft spot for Inuyasha. It was my first exposure to anime (unless you count Voltron). Inuyasha is well paced and avoids most of the pitfalls of anime, such as filler. It introduces you to Japan’s deep ocean of folklore and legends.

2One Piece

One Piece captures childhood for many. It is the best-selling manga series in history. Popularity creates impact, and few stories have had more impact than One Piece in the lives of fans.

1Pokemon
pokemonAside from Astro Boy, Pokemon is the most important anime. This is especially true of the United States. Pokemon may have begun as a video game, but it jumped mediums to television and books without any problems. For many Americans Pokemon defines childhood. Its messages of friendship, perseverance, loyalty, and hard work appeals to parents. Its bright colors and cute characters appeals to children. People around the world recognize Pikachu. What makes Pokemon significant is how it isn’t considered anime. It is simply a cartoon. This shows how anime has gone from being a niche market to a part of the American childhood.  Pokemon remains the most popular anime franchise. It opens doors toward mainstream acceptance of the medium and raises generations on the art style. This makes Pokemon a gateway for more interest in anime.

Influenced By – I: Daoism and Onmyōdō

Influenced by: Daoism and Onmyōdō

With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).

The Way of Yin and Yang

…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.

Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang Symbol

In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.

The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery.  Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.

Some Background on Daoism

Lao-Tzû

One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.

Lao^tsu Lao-tzû statue China

Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.

Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉

 

“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]

Five Elements

 

five phases elements dao tao relation transform destroy fire water earth wood metal

The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.

Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.

 

Daoists’ goals and means

So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]

Meditation and Outer Alchemy

Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.

Sexual Alchemy

One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.

Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism

One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.

Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]

The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office

Shikiban divination board onmyoudou

Shikiban divination board

The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.

It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]

Shikigami

Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding.  However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]

The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half.  Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]

Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.

The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.

Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype

Seimei Shrine Jinja Kyôto Abe

Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.

Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.

The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness  of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]

From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond

Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]

From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.

Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists

Names

 

Sousei no onmyouji poster Benio Rokuro

The main characters.

Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a  seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]

 

Monsters…

The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.

…and Spells

purification Sae talisman spell sousei no onmyouji

The purification talisman.

When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.

Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.

Heavenly Guardians

The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.

What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.

Miko – Child of Prophecy

In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]

Benio legs kegare Basara

Benio’s kegare-granted legs.

Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.

A Theory

Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.

I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).

Notes, References, and Image Sources

[i] Blofeld, John. Taoism. The Quest for Immortality. London & Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, Mandala series, 1979, available online https://de.scribd.com/doc/204085686/John-Blofeld-Taoism-The-Quest-for-Immortality. As an introduction, another of his books on Taoism, such as The Secret and the Sublime (1973), also makes an interesting read. For an introduction to the more philisophical aspects of Daoism, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/.

[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.

[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉

[iv] cf. Blofeld 1979.

[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.

[vi] Blofeld 1983:80.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Concerning this, see also Hayashi Makoto & Mathhias Hayek, „Editor’s Introduction: Onmyōdō in japanese History“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013, 1-18. 5-6.

[ix] For an in-depth description of the reception of Daoism in Japan, see Masuo Shin‘ichirō, „Daoism in Japan“, in Kohn, Livia (ed). Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 821-42.

[x] See Masuo Shin’ichirō, „Chinese Religion and the Formation of Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013. 19-43.

[xi] Masuo 2013.

[xii] Masuo 2000:824.

[xiii] Masuo 2013:35.

[xiv] Pang 2013:100.

[xv] Pang 2013:104.

[xvi] An argument made by Pang, Carolyn, „Uncovering Shikigami. The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō“, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 99–129.

[xvii] Pang 2013:110.

[xviii] Pang 2013:117-8.

[xix] Shigeta Shin’ichi. „A Portrait of Abe no Seimei“. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 77-97. 78; 87.

[xx] Shigeta 2013, esp. 84.

[xxi] Shigeta 2013:93.

[xxii] Discussed in detail by Hayashi Makoto, „The Development of Early Modern Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 151-67.

[xxiii] Masuo 2013:22.

[xxiv] Masuo 2013:26.

[xxv] As mentioned in this Japanese-language documentary.

[xxvi] Masuo 2000:824.

[xxvii] Masuo 2013:21.

[xxviii] Pang 2013:109-10.

[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.

[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))

Image sources in order of appearance:

yingyang: https://image.freepik.com/freie-ikonen/yin-yang-ios-7-symbol_318-34386.jpg

Laotzû Statue: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Statue_of_Lao_Tzu_in_Quanzhou.jpg

5 Elements: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xing#/media/File:FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance_02_plain.svg

Shikiban: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/slideshows/rikujinshikiban-master.jpg

Seimei photo: my own archive.

Twin Star Poster: https://myanimelist.cdn-dena.com/images/anime/3/77328l.jpg

Purification Spell: https://josefcd904.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/twin-star-23-11.png?w=736

Benio’s legs: http://65.media.tumblr.com/7e67877a73df6a19068251c32c83e809/tumblr_oc34dm5WAy1vysie1o1_1280.png

 

 


One Punch Man Impressions

one-punch-man Who knew boredom and apathy could be so entertaining? One Punch Man, so far, has plenty of all three.

Saitama approaches superheroing as a hobby. What’s his main problem as a part-time superhero? Outside of supervillains attacking during grocery store sales, Saitama struggles with being too powerful. One Punch Man explores what happens when a superhero attains the apex of power and is no longer challenged. I’m watching the series on Toonami, and I haven’t seen every episode yet. So these impressions may change.

Anime heroes strive to become stronger, faster, and better. But what happens when they can’t get any stronger? What happens when they get powerful enough to kill Superman with a single punch? What happens when there is nothing to strive toward? One Punch Man answers with boredom and apathy. Saitama gets more excited about a sale than a villain appearing. Although he hopes one villain, some day, will provide the rush only a challenge can bring. Throughout anime, shonen heroes pit themselves against villains and obstacles in order to prove their power level and to feel a rush. Saitama no longer has villains that can do this. One punch ends it. He avoids the contrivance we see in Dragonball Z and Bleach of holding back power and slowly increasing it. Those shows use that method to build tension. In One Punch Man, villains follow this contrivance and expect Saitama to do the same. Only Saitama lacks hidden power reserves. He’s power incarnate. He also scoffs at the verbose speeches shonen characters love. Despite his boredom, he can’t turn a blind eye to crime, but he lacks the protection instinct we see in shonen heroes. He doesn’t proclaim  he will protect people. He simply does it, but he does it on his own terms and cares little about the fallout. Apathy stands at the core of his character.

saitama

For someone like me who has grown tired of shonen tropes, One Punch Man stands apart. At the core of it, superheroes are rather ridiculous. They don spandex and face impossible creatures. I knew One Punch Man was something special when I saw the first villain: a lobster man in underwear. I know, I know. Superheroes are meant to be fantasy, but they struggle with power creep that leads them to ever-more ridiculous scenarios. One Punch Man reveals this with its quirky events and mashed up freaks.

When you look at classic fantasy, the heroes rarely achieve god-level powers. Yet, when they do, the story twists in a way that makes those powers worthless. Take the Wheel of Time for example. Rand slowly gains stronger abilities in the story’s version of magic. He eventually wields the strands of reality itself. But despite having these god-level powers, he finds himself faced with a foe he can’t vanquish. Namely, because he shouldn’t.  Superheroes, on the other hand (and I’m mostly looking at shonen heroes), rarely find a villain they shouldn’t vanquish, as opposed to unable to vanquish.

I’ve never been much of a comic book superhero fan. I do, however, enjoy shonen heroes to a degree. Shonen heroes are made, not born like most comic book superheroes. I prefer the communal effort of shonen heroes. They become heroes through their effort and the help of their friends. Saitama, like American superheroes, is self-made. He trained to become powerful, but unlike Goku and other heroes, he trained alone. He achieved his power in the American way (more or less) than the communal Japanese way.

one-punch-man-punchDespite how much I beat up on superheroes, I enjoy American superhero movies (but not the comic books), but comic book heroes are predictable. They will win. When they die, they don’t stay dead.  After all, their properties are too valuable. One Punch Man satirizes this with a few lines of dialogue here and there. Death is one of the best parts of shonen. When a hero dies, they die. DBZ notwithstanding. The finality of this increases tension and shocks the reader. In some cases, this would the equivalent of Superman dying, and DC announcing there will be no new Superman comics. Ever. One Punch Man pokes at this through its lack of tension. Saitama will always win. The story lacks any type of struggle. Sure, Superman will struggle a little, but in the end, he too will always win. Even when he loses and “dies” he still returns in a later installment. One Punch Man takes this lack of tension inherent in the structure of most superhero comics and runs with it.

Okay, this post has meandered quite a bit. I’ve gotten away from writing personal posts like this, so I thought this would be a good break. While I enjoy satire, it proves difficult to discuss because discussing it makes satire lose its impact. It becomes dry and dull.  I could tell you how Saitama pokes fun at superhero and shonen hero tropes in various scenes, but it’s better for you to watch it for yourself. If you are a fan of shonen like Bleach, give One Punch Man a watch. If you are a fan of American superheroes, give One Punch Man a watch. It may not be for everyone, but this is one story that points out just how ridiculous the modern hero narrative can be.