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?
Dragonball Z’s Goku provides a good example of an anime role model. Some scoff at the idea of a fictional character being a role model, but in many cases fictional characters make better role models than sports stars. It doesn’t matter if the character doesn’t exist in reality. If anything, a fictional character is even more influential because our minds have to create the character. Animation, prose, and graphic novels involve the audience. They invite us to enter the story in ways live action and standard role models cannot. Imagination takes the character and builds it deep within the mind. This makes fictional role modals like Goku influential. They become a part of our way of thinking.
Goku shares many similarities with Superman. However, Goku is a more identifiable character and a better role model than Superman. Goku must struggle to win and to improve his skills. Just like us. Modern society pushes us to improve. To level up. To get stronger in our various skill sets. Those that do not are eventually left behind in promotions and even employment. As a librarian, I daily see the results of those who didn’t try to get stronger: unemployment, damaged confidence, and a blaming attitude. Most struggle to function in a world of rapid technology change. Goku shows us how to go about the never ending quest to improve.
Optimism. Goku remains optimistic no matter how daunting the challenge. Goku doesn’t doubt he can do it. He only doubts how he will do it.
Faith. Goku has faith in his abilities, in his ability to learn and improve. We sometimes forget we have the capacity to improve with enough work. It takes a lot of faith to believe in ourselves when we face life’s challenges.
Friends. Goku is not a self-made man. Despite the perpetual American lie, no one is self made. It takes a good circle of friends to help us improve our spirits. Goku only improves so far when he trains alone. Only when he seeks help from others can he change his limits. Likewise, without his friends he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this.
Satisfaction. Modern society encourages us to work hard and consume products in order to climb the social ladder and become happier. Goku is satisfied with the pursuit of improvement. He doesn’t seek happiness through products or through his power level. He seeks challenge to try his spirit, not so he can fill some emptiness inside. Seeking to improve merely so we can make more money is a fool’s errand. Consumption doesn’t satisfy. It dissatisfies. Goku enjoys the small things and the journey of improvement.
Purpose. Goku doesn’t seek power to lord it over others. He wants to try his abilities to decide if he has improved or not. He doesn’t pursue power. He just does his own thing.
Goku is a father. He cares about his family and their safety drives him. He enjoys spending time with his son Gohan and sharing a common interest in the martial arts. Good fathers are involved in their children, but they don’t attempt to force their children in a certain direction. Gohan wanted to learn martial arts. Goku didn’t train him until Gohan expressed that interest (and the story forced Gohan to study).
Goku is loyal to his wife and a generally upstanding guy. Many would claim he is old fashioned. I am a firm believer in so-called old fashioned values. Values of honesty, integrity, stick-to-itness, loyalty, selflessness, balance, and patience. Goku is all of these. He is also communally focused.
Let me stand on the soap box a moment.
American society worships individualism. Individualism is the idea that the self has more value than a community. It pushes the lie of self-reliance and independence. Reality is a communal affair. Self-reliance ignores the many communal factors that shape us. For example, many business owners consider themselves self-reliant and independent. After all, they started a business so they can work for themselves. However, they ignore the societal aspects of their business: roads for customers to travel, a safe environment, running water, and various other infrastructure. No one person can build all of these on their own. Too much individualism rots our sense of reality. No one can be truly self-reliant, unless they are in some survival situation alone in the mountains or on an island, and even then a good portion of the tools they use were made by others.
Goku isn’t a self-made man. He is a product of his culture, his friends, and his enemies. If you look to Goku as a role model, he has helped shape who you are. While he is fictional, he adds to the fabric of your identity just the same as your parents and friends. Like business-owners who take roads and safety for granted, we can be unaware of how stories and characters influence us. Goku can be a role model without our knowledge. The stories we consume change our perspectives. The human body uses everything we eat to build itself. The mind uses every bit of information to build itself. Garbage makes for a poor mind and body. Consuming primarily role models like Goku gives the mind higher quality building materials than consumerist, individualistic messages.
Change the messages you consume, and you can change your perspective.
Who are you role models? What building materials do you consume?
Sex is one of the most powerful and controversial words in the United States. People blush and giggle. People wince. It is a taboo subject that sells everything from cars to dollies. Sex is a sin, and it is an obsession in American society. All of this influences how sex is perceived by American manga and anime fans. Japanese aesthetics, sexuality, and gender ideas may seem unnatural to us with our “universal” concepts of sexuality and gender (Comog, 2005). However, our views of sexuality and gender are far from universal. They come from our culture. Anime and manga provides a safe way to explore different sexual perspectives. As you can tell, this discussion isn’t safe for work.
American culture associates sexuality with identity. Traditional Japanese society doesn’t wrap identity and sexuality in the same way. Manga and anime inherited this tradition. For example, in traditional Japanese culture men could have homosexual interests. However, this didn’t override their duty to have a wife and raise a family. Homosexuality was just a small part of who they were instead of being one of the defining pillars of their identity. See this article for references and more information. In the United States, sexuality is a defining part of a person’s identity. Anime and manga explore different sexual ideas because it is only a small part of a character’s identity. Sailor Moon, for an example, contains lesbians, transgender characters (female to male), and cross-dressing characters. However, the story doesn’t play up these proclivities as defining identity markers. They are just a part of the character’s overall personality. This ties back to tradition. Homosexuality was a small part of being a samurai. Likewise, transgender and cross-dressing played a part in kabuki. Kabuki began as an all-female production–women would dress as men–until the Tokugawa government stepped in. The government stipulated kabuki had to be all-male because it was “safer for the viewers and the performers alike.” This meant males would play female roles. Many of these men became sex symbols for samurai men with their blurred homosexual and heterosexual interests (Darlington, 2010). The gender-bending stories we see in manga trace to this tradition.
While Japan doesn’t make sexuality the defining part of a person’s character, it is a factor. It put it simply, Japanese tradition views sex as a part of normal life (Comog, 2005).
Japanese Obscenity Laws and Censorship
Tradition has limits, however. As Japan westernized, it adopted some of the West’s ideas of obscenity. Article 175 of the Criminal Code makes the sale and distribution of obscene material a criminal act. Yet, Japan has a constitutional provision for the freedom of expression. This creates similar tension to what we see in the United States. On one hand, you have the desire for uncensored expression of ideas and views. On the other hand, you have the desire to not see material you consider damaging or offensive.
Japan also has a constitutional principle of public welfare, which includes sexuality morality, as defined by the Supreme Court in two cases from 1957 and 1969. The cases defined public welfare as an idea “shared by an average person of good sense, a sense of modesty and shame.” Sex in Japanese culture, though normal, is considered a private affair. This view, coupled with the definition of public welfare meant obscenity became defined by the artistic merit of a work compared to its level of intended sexual stimulation. Basically, if a manga didn’t intend to sexually arouse someone with a beautifully drawn page, it was safe. But if the artwork fully intended to make you horny, it was smut. In other words, the regulation settled on forbidding explicit portrayals of adult genitals and pubic hair. The side effect was the rise of sexual metaphors–tentacles being the most famous. However, throughout the 1990s, the law allowed nonexplicit, nonsexual depictions of adult genitals (Zanghellini, 2009).
Nothing in the law concerns itself with underage nudity. This led to an over-representation of children or child-like characters in manga and anime. Erotic genres used this as a loophole and adapted the kawaii designs of girl’s comics. Many of these stories are essentially child-porn by American standards. The characters may be adults or of legal age, but they certainly don’t look that way.
In the 1950s and 1960s, female artists took over the girl’s comic genre from male artists. Their new, cute designs and more diverse storylines introduced an association with beauty and cuteness with morality. Protagonists were beautiful and cute. Villains were not (Zanghellini, 2009). Erotic genres took these designs to circumvent censorship. The side effect was the development of the lolita.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed a law in 2010 that obligated businesses and residents to recognize materials depicting sexual acts of minors as harmful. The regulation stated such materials prevent children from developing a healthy attitude toward sex. Yukari Fujimoto, a professor of girls manga and gender at Meiji University in Tokyo, claims the opposite. She claims the censorship of sexual material hurts children and teens. It bars them from stories that help them cope with their desires and the realities of sex. She claims exposure to sexual material at an early age reduces the chance of committing sexual crimes. She thinks children should gradually learn about sex and censoring manga would prevent this (Fukada, 2010).
The Benefits of Sex in Manga and Anime
Fujimoto’s argument brings us to the benefits of sexuality as seen in manga and anime. The debates surrounding censorship center on harm. Advocates of censorship desire to control exposure of sexual imagery because they see it as harmful. On the opposite side are those like Fujimoto and those who make profit from the sale of sexual content.
The growth of manga and anime here in the States makes this debate important. From 2002-2004, North American manga sales grew from an estimated $60 million to $135 million. Sales peaked in 2007 at $210 million (Brienza, 2014). Even with sales declining, manga remains an important part of the American social fabric. As a small town librarian, I see steady interest in manga, and I see hesitation. Some libraries have banned manga, anime, and books about manga in the past:
A parent of a 16-year-old son was offended by sex scenes in a history called Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, by Paul Gravett. Under pressure, the California library pulled the book. The Chair of the Board of Supervisors stated the library must do more to “protect children from inappropriate books and other materials” (Oder, 2006).
Manga still has association with porn because of its different sexual perspective. Outside of hentai, sex in manga differs from American porn. In many cases, manga’s sexuality is “powerful, vivid, and deeply emotional.” Because Japan lacks “the Eurocentric Christian notion of sex as polluting or dangerous, most manga present sex as physically and emotionally desirable for men and especially for women. (Comog, 2005).” American culture feeds men the idea that they need to be dominating and stoic. Sex is something to be enjoyed because it feels good and because it is “manly”. Manga shows how the emotional aspects of sex isn’t just for women. Powerful moments of tenderness and an openness to emotional connection are masculine. They are more masculine than the usual “male” narrative of dominance and control.
Whereas American porn reduces people to their genitals, many manga and anime stories focus on the exchange of emotion between characters. Again, I am leaving hentai out of this. Part of the appeal of porn is its taboo, dangerous nature. What is forbidden by law or religion becomes desirable. Christianity, for that matter, recognizes this in the book of Genesis. Sex in manga teaches the beauty of deep relationships, and how sex can enhance that connection.
In the 1980s, ladies comics targeting 25-30 year olds gained popularity. These comics presented women’s desires and alternative role models for adult women who were most often housewives. Early ladies comics showed sex as positive and women who enjoyed it. They focused on the female point of view which helped women accept the reality of their sexuality. However, the stories featured post-marriage problems and the darker side of sex. Amane Kazumi’s Shelter deals with a mother who is beaten by her husband. After the death of one of their daughters in an accident, the husband’s violence escalates. The wife and her eldest daughter escape to a shelter for battered women. The story follows her recovery and how she regains her confidence and independence (Ogi, 2003).
Manga allows people to explore stories, different sexualities, and different cultural perspectives. Gender-bending stories allow people to escape rigid social roles and imagine what it is like to experience life from the opposite gender’s view. Manga allows readers to explore alternative sexual identities and controversial issues about sex without feeling threatened or exploited.
Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and Dojinshi
Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and dojinshi are unique aspects of manga. Yaoi, BL (Boy’s Love), and yuri began as dojinshi, or self-published comics. Better known as fan-fiction, they became genres in their own right. Each tell alternative relationship stories and provide alternative views of sexuality. Yaoi and BL are written by female artists for female readers. BL focuses on the relationships between bishonen, or beautiful boys. While yaoi features explicit relationships between men. Yaoi is an acronym for the Japanese “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi.” – “No build-up, no foreclosure, and no meaning.” It is also a backronym–a deliberately formed acronym that fancifully explains the origins of the acronym: “Yamete! Oshiri ga itai!” — “Stop! My ass hurts!” (Zanghellini, 2009).
Yaoi may feature homosexual relationships, but it isn’t aimed at males. Manga of that type are called bara. Japanese homosexual men dislike yaoi because of its unrealistic relationships (Zanghellini, 2009). When yaoi and BL appeared in the 1970s, it shook the male-dominated world of manga. It appeared just as kawaii designs and women began to take over shojo. Yaoi raised eyebrows with its explicit sexuality. BL flew under the censorship radar of the time because of its underage characters. Bishonen are basically the male version of Lolita.
Because of the gender roles of the time, young women were better able to to imagine idealized strong, independent characters if they are male. Manga like Sailor Moon would later change this, but yaoi and BL remained popular among female readers. Despite its content and initial resistance by male mangaka, yaoi was more acceptable than yuri. Yuri, literally translates to ‘lily’, deals with love between girls, which is a taboo subject. While we know women Japanese history, particularly in the Edo period, had sex and relationships with each other, it is not something discussed. Yaoi fell within accepted samurai practices. The most famous yuri manga, Revolutionary Girl Utena broke ground by placing a female character in the role of a male. Utena doesn’t want to be male. Rather she seeks to embody the virtues male characters typically embody: courage, strength, and compassion. The story completely flips the traditional narrative. Utena along with Sailor Moon and other stories, including yaoi, changed the narrative of female sexuality and gender role. They break the Judaeo-Christian narrative that dominates American culture.
The Male Side of Manga Sexuality
Most studies focus on the benefits of manga reading for women and girls. Manga allows Japanese girls to break from their rigid gender roles. It allows American girls to explore taboo sexualities and different cultural perspectives. However, men see many benefits as well. As I mentioned previously, manga allows boys and men to safely explore feelings of affection, tenderness, and other emotions typically reserved for women. Masculinity in America and in Japan is one dimensional. Society expects men to be go-getters, controllers, and sexual conquerors. Some of the issues in American society concerning homosexual men centers on the idea of sexual conquest. Men are expected to go out and “get” women. Gay men defy this cultural norm. They are seen as being “got” rather than “getting.”
Gender-bending stories such as Ranma 1/2 use comedy to explore the different dimension of masculinity. In the story, a boy becomes a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Comedy stories like Ranma 1/2 stimulates the imagination and helps male readers consider other possibilities for manhood.
Manga also breaks the equation American romance has: sex = love, love = sex. Newitz (1995) writes:
Anime offer to the post-sexual revolution generation stories which suggest that young men and women do not need to have sex in order to experience love.
Look at many shonen stories. Male characters often fall in love with female characters, but they never get down to banging like they would in American television. When they finally do, such as in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, it is off camera, and the story clearly shows the consequences: children. Pregnancy and children are a reoccurring theme in manga sexuality. Fatherhood is lauded, unlike in many–perhaps most–American stories. Goku is a dad. Even the goofiest fathers are still active in the lives of their children. This provides an example for male readers of an alternative to the “dead-beat” dad issue found throughout the United States: fathers who have little or nothing to do with their children. It also contrasts against the Japanese salaryman who is never home because of their work schedules.
Manga provides escapism, titillation, and–most importantly–a different perspective. Sex is a part of the human experience. It is wrapped up in identity, morality, and taboo. Sex will continue to spark controversy and provide a means to explore different culture and gender perspectives.
Brienza, C. (2014). Sociological Perspectives on Japanese Manga in America. Sociology Compass. 8 (5) 468-477.
Comog, M. (2005). Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the US: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists. Contemporary Sexuality. 39 (3). 1-6.
Darlington, T. & S. Cooper (2010) The Power of Truth: Gender and Sexuality in Manga. Manga in Depth. 157-172.
Fukada, T. (2010) Child sex in ‘manga’ – art or obscenity?: Graphic but healthy, free speech. The Japan Times
MacWilliams, M. (2008). Japanese Visual Culture 40-42.
Newitz, A. (1995) Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly. 49 (1). 2-15.
Oder, N. (2006). Manga history pulled from PL. Library Journal, (9). 14.
Ogi, F. (2003). Female Subjectivity and Shoujo (Girls)Manga (Japanese Comics):Shoujo in Ladies’ Comics and Young Ladies’ Comics. Journal Of Popular Culture, 36(4), 780.
Zanghellini A. (2009). ‘Boys love’ in anime and manga: Japanese subcultural product and its end users. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23(3) 279-294.
Zanghellini, A. (2009). Underage Sex and Romance in Japanese Homoerotic Manga in Anime. Social & Legal Studies. 18 (2). 159-177.
Yona of the Dawn takes place in a fictional kingdom of either the Heian period or in China. The dress and names have a distinctly Chinese style, which is rather unusual for anime. The Heian period of Japan featured a strong interest in Chinese culture. The elite classes–this period was before the samurai–adopted Chinese mannerisms and styles. That’s why I’m not entirely certain to the setting.
In any case, Yona of the Dawn is a coming of age story. Yona is cast out of her comfortable, sheltered palace life and becomes a penniless vagabond protected by her long-time time guardian Son Hak. They traveled to the Village of the Wind, Hak’s hometown. Soon after, Yona encounters a seer who tells her of her destiny–to gather the incarnations of the legendary dragons and save the kingdom.
Yona of the Red Dawn is something of a reverse harem. Yona surrounds herself with various types of anime male tropes: the perverted ladies man, the beautiful boy, the childhood friend, the shy boy, and the wild boy. Although, the story is clear about which she prefers.
The anime is a bit on the weepy side. Yona spends a lot of time tearing up, but gradually she grows as a character. The biggest problem with this series is the pacing. It feels uneven. At times Yona will regress and then shift forward into her more confident self. However, you can’t expect a princess to go from sheltered to warlord in a single quick montage. The anime does a good job of realistically charting her progress despite being a little uneven. People will regress at times.
The anime suffers from time constraints and a too large cast for the allotted episodes. Many of the characters are trope sketches. Character tropes are useful for conserving time, but they can sometimes be a crutch that prevents character development. In this case, the tropes act as crutches. In Yona most of the time is spent on Yona and Hak, the other characters see little screen time comparatively. They often remind us of what trope they represent: “I am a beautiful boy” is one such line.
Yona of the Red Dawn is a refreshing change from the usual high school schluck. They story draws the historical-fantasy world well. The Chinese aesthetic is a little odd with Japanese language, but it would only bothers those who focus on history. At times modern slang leeches into the subtitles. These phrases feel out of place and break the suspension of disbelief.
As for the anime quality, it is fair. Action sequences remain consistent. Unlike some anime, they rarely reduce to panned still frames. Music is forgettable.
Scenes like this, though meant to be a break from the darker themes, hurt the story’s pacing. It jarred me from the spell the anime attempted to weave. While it helps with characterization, the jarring factor of these scenes made them annoying for me.
Yona spends much of its time exploring class roles. Yona comes from the highest elite class that shelters its members from the lower classes. When she runs into suffering for the first time, the event shakes her world view. The story is similar to what Siddhartha encountered. Siddhartha–later known as Buddha–was a prince shut away from the suffering of the world. He lived in a harem with beautiful women and far away from material needs. One day, he traveled outside the walls of the palace and encountered his first view of sickness and death. This encounter forever changed his outlook and eventually led to him becoming the Buddha and inspiring millions to live with a compassionate outlook on life. The story portrays Yona as having similar potential.
While it seems silly to say an anime like Yona of the Dawn carries valuable lessons, stories are how we learn. One of the most common questions people have as they age deals with suffering. Why does God allow suffering? The answer is quite simple as this anime and the story of the Buddha reveal. Suffering teaches compassion. Without suffering people cannot grow in empathy. Yona and Buddha both were self-centered while shut away from the suffering of others. Only when they see suffering and experience it themselves do they realize compassion. Suffering unites people through its common experience. It breaks down the superficial barriers we put up between ourselves and others. Yona of the Dawn handles this theme well. Yona’s heart expands as she encounters people from different walks of life and perspectives. She suffers, but her soul grows.
Anime characters sure yell a lot. They yell their names or demand to know their opponent’s names. They yell their attacks.
Anime fans don’t think too much of it, but for those new to the medium this is just weird. However, there are a few reasons why anime has these conventions. Manga’s limitations is one factor. Samurai practices from the time they were mercenary headhunters is the other factor.
Most anime stories started as manga. Manga does a good job at showing action, but as a still-imge medium, it has limits. Sometimes panels become muddled when authors try to show a flurry of action. Because manga is typically black and white, characters can look similar to each other. To fix these issues, mangaka have their characters announce themselves and yell the names of their special attacks. In the flurry of action lines and camera angles, a reader can get confused and lose what is going on. By having announced signature attacks, the reader can have an anchor. This helps clarify who is attacking who. Name announcing and yelled attacks help a page’s flow. Manga page layout is meant to be read in two ways. First, it is read as a whole. The reader looks at the entire page to glean the gist of events. Then it is read panel by panel. The order of the panels depends on the overall layout. The back-and-forth shouts between the villain and protagonist helps the reader determine the order of the panels. The shouts form a cause and effect relationship between the characters’ actions.
These conventions carry over to anime despite not being necessary. Anime uses color and design to better distinguish between characters. It is also linear. Anime can only be “read” one direction, unlike a page of manga. Conventions that make sense in manga’s limitations appear silly in anime. However, there are times when shouting an attack helps clarify what is going on. It can lend a finality to the confrontation when the attack is a “finisher.”
Shonen stories love the exchange of names between fighters. This is sometimes so important that characters will refuse to fight (or stop a fight with) someone who doesn’t give their name. For those of us in the West, this seems silly. Our military heritage stresses killing or subduing an opponent above all other concerns. Our military history teems with nameless casualties of war. We practice total war. That is, complete destruction of an enemy and their ability to make war. Rome can be thanked for that. When Rome finally destroyed its rival city Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), Rome razed the city, killing and enslaving the entire population of the city. Roman soldiers even plowed salt into the soil just to prove their point.
Japan had its own version of total war that appeared at various times through its history. However, Japanese military tradition focused on individual conflicts of honor rather than complete destruction of a rival. Casualties remained relatively low in conflicts between Japanese states (O’Neill, 2003). In the early years of the samurai, rivals would face off in well-mannered duels rather than as enemies. This is similar to how duels were handled in Victorian England and colonial America.
Samurai would ride to the enemy’s front lines and call out his lineage and accomplishments in the hopes of finding a worthy opponent. One medieval war epic idealizes this custom (O’Neill, 2003):
Ho, I am Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki, descended in the fifth generation from Gongoro Kagemasa of Kamakura, renowned warrior of the East Country and match for any thousand men. At the age of sixteen . . . receiving an arrow in my left eye through the helmet, I plucked it forth and with it shot down the marksman who sent it.
Early samurai gained honor by collecting the heads of their challengers. This allowed their lords and fellow samurai to see the people they defeated. The more honor an opponent had, the more honor you gained when you killed him. Over time these customs faded as armies grew in size and foot soldiers from the peasant class began to dominate the ranks, but the ideals continued in literature. And it is from this literature manga pulled the habit of battlefield introductions.
Bleach and Naruto serve as good examples of this literary convention. Battles often begin with a name exchange. Sometimes they even go as far characters arguing about how will pair off with what villain. The bluster associated with this jostling goes back to the bluster of samurai announcing their accomplishments. This is one reason why action anime seems oddly chatty during fight scenes. It also helps readers understand what is happening.
So next time you watch Inuyasha yell Wind scar or a prebattle name exchange you can thank the first samurai.
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.
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.
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.