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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Girls 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.
Red 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.
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.
Guilty Crown has a bold story and interesting characters. Sadly, action sequences fall apart into panned still images. Budget constraints have hurt many stories.
Mobile 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.
Parasyte – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yu-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.
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.
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.
Arpeggio 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.
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.
Maria 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.
Kiki’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.
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.
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.
No 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.
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.
Final 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.
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.
My 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.
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.
The 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.
Ghost 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.
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.
Lupin 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.
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.
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.
Requiem 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you like ghost stories? Ghost Hunt is TAPS (Ghost Hunters) with a Japanese twist.
Beyond 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.
Dusk 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.
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.
Sword 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.
Akame 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.
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.
High school love triangles within yet other triangles and comedy antics mark School Rumble. It is a fluffy show with heart and decent humor.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on a children’s book, for many Howl’s Moving Castle is Studio Ghibli at its best.
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.
The 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.
Last Exile is a great story set in a rusty steampunk world. With superb visuals and pacing, what more can you ask for?
Nausicaa 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
El 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.
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.
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.
One 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.
Code Geass takes mecha themes and doubles down on how mecha questions power and the conflict between ends and means.
For many, Robotech was the first exposure to mecha and anime. Robotech helped the popularity of anime grow in the US during the 1980s.
Mobile 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.
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.
Attack on Titan
The popularity of Attack on Titan surprised many. It is one of those few titles that appeals to those who avoid animation.
Welcome 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.
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.
Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies is a hard movie to watch. It tells a story of what happened to many Japanese children during World War II. It shows how animation can be serious and heart wrenching when done well.
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.
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.
Love, 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.
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.
Spice 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.
Fullmetal 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.
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.
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.
Rose 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.
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.
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.
Aside 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.
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
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
One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.
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]
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.
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
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]
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 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
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]
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.
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.
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’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.
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 ;).
[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 😉
[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.
[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 ;))
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.
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.
Despite 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.
Villains move stories. They motivate and challenge the hero. Strong villains require the hero to grow in fortitude and strength in order to confront them. Most stories require the hero to grown in power. Think of how Goku must train to get stronger in Dragonball Z. But villains can also challenge the hero to grow spiritually. Sometimes these villains become friends after the hero reaches a maturity level. Vegeta of DBZ, for example. Heroes react to what the antagonist does. Few heroes are truly proactive. Most of the time, they struggle to repair or survive the fallout the goal-driven antagonist creates.
This list contains typical villains and a few that may surprise you. Perhaps it would be better to call these characters antagonists. Not all of them are pure villains. No list can be conclusive. This merely includes a few villains that I enjoyed in various stories.
Giovanni – Pokemon
Giovanni leads Team Rocket, a group of Pokemon thieves that pester Ash and friends. He doesn’t appear often in the series, but he is always pressuring Team Rocket to perform. Giovanni had a childhood passion for Pokemon similar to the series’ protagonists. Over time, his passion morphed into an underground trade of stealing and selling Pokemon. He acts as a warning for how a hero can go astray. In the Pokemon games, his various criminal organizations pester you. Giovanni stands as the final Gym Leader before you challenge the Elite Four.
Holland Novak – Eureka Seven
Holland acts as more an antagonist than a villain. He’s on the side of the good guys, but his behavior toward Renton in the first half of the anime drives Renton to change. Holland takes out his pent up anger toward Renton’s sister on Renton. Holland’s actions drive Renton to leave the Gekko State, which also endangers Eureka. She sets out after Renton. Eureka Seven’s story is driven by characters more than plot. Because of this, Holland becomes one of the prime movers of the story through his actions. By the second half of the series, his influence has waned. His brother, Dewey Novak takes up the mantle of antagonist. Holland shaped both Renton and Eureka’s personalities through his friendship and through his contention. Holland shows how villains have degrees of antagonism. Even protagonists can take on the role of antagonist. Villainy is sometimes a matter of perspective.
Sasuke Uchiha – Naruto
Sasuke has a frenemy relationship with Naruto before becoming a traditional villain for a time. Traditional villains are ones that do everything in their power to reach their goals. The hero simply tries to stop him or is caught up in the aftermath of the schemes. In Sasuke’s case, his absence acts as one of the prime motivators of Naruto’s behavior. Naruto’s drive to bring Sasuke back to the Hidden Leaf Village directs most of his actions. Sasuke seeks to the avenge the murder of his family, which drives him to be consumed by the desire for power. Naruto’s relationship with Sasuke perhaps deserves the label of antagonist more than Sasuke himself. That relationship drives Naruto one way and Sasuke another. They both seek to improve their abilities partially because of their bond.
Gendo Ikari – Neon Genesis Evangelion
The father is a classic antagonist for heroes. The trope extends back to the first stories shared around fires. The coming of age story requires the hero to surpass his father. In Evangelion, Shinji is forced to follow his father’s puppet strings. Gendo is a cold and distant person, but at times some of his humanity shows through. His ideals drive him to the point where the ends justify the means. Despite his distance he loves Shinji, but he views that love as a source of pain. Like fathers in mythology, Gendo gives his son the means to surpass him. In this case, the EVA. Shinji remains trapped in his father’s web until the end. His father forces Shinji to face stark reality and causes him to retreat further into his cracked psyche. Gendo has a strange way of raising a son. As villains go, Gendo has few peers when it comes to planning and manipulation.
Ulquiorra Cifer – Bleach
In Bleach’s story, Ulquiorra isn’t the main villain. He’s a soldier following Aizen’s orders. However, he acts as a foil for Ichigo. Ichigo, as shonen heroes go, is impetuous, protective, and emotional. Ulquiorra is calculated, aloof, and logical. He cares little for his comrades. He represents a different ethos from Ichigo. Whereas Ichigo fights with heart, Ulquiorra fights out of necessity and duty:
“If this eye cannot see a thing, then it does not exist. That is the assumption under which I have always fought. What is this “heart”? If I tear open that chest of yours, will I see it there? If I smash open that skull of yours, will I see it there?”
Vegeta – Dragonball Z
Vegeta begins as a standard villain for Goku and friends to defeat. Soon after, he becomes a frenemy for Goku. This is a common relationship for villains in many stories. It comes from the idea that skills can be sharpened only through competition. Sasuke plays the same role for Naruto. Vegeta is egotistical and prideful, a contrast to Goku’s personality. Contrasting personalities are a common characteristic for foil antagonists. Depending on your perspective, you could say Goku is Vegeta’s antagonist because Vegeta strives to surpass Goku’s abilities. Usually, the hero needs to surpass the skill level of this antagonist. But throughout DBZ, Vegeta strives to surpass Goku’s skill level. After Vegeta shifts from being a standard villain, he stops driving the story forward and begins to react to the flow of events like the other heroes.
Kasumi Seizō – Samurai Champloo
Kasumi, Fuu’s father, only appears at the very end of the story. However, he drives Fuu, Mugen, and Jin’s journey. Fuu seeks revenge for Kasumi leaving her mother. Kasumi doesn’t actively drive the story, but Fuu’s view of him as a villain pushes the story forward. Villains do not need to be active in a story to drive it forward. Kasumi pushes the story of Samurai Champloo through Fuu’s desire to confront him. She builds up an image of the “samurai who smells of sunflowers”, an image that makes the confrontation scene poignant. This type of antagonist proves difficult to pull off because they lack a clear goal. They work best when the protagonist’s view of the villain drives them as in Kasumi’s case.
Naraku – Inuyasha
Unlike Kasumi, Naraku is an active villain. He represents the standard villain, the one that opposes the heroes directly. Naraku is a master of manipulation, and he is evil to the core. His selfish desires drive him to disregard all others. He seeks to break the bonds between people in order to turn them against each other. The malice between siblings, between lovers, and between friends taints the Sacred Jewel, which is his goal. When you think about it, he ranks among the most evil villains in anime. He goes out to destroy the relationships, lives, and souls of others for his own gain. He seeks to inflict maximum suffering and hatred instead of seeking to merely kill the heroes like most villains do.
A Bit More On Villains
Villains are the secret ingredient for stories. They set the conditions and environment the hero reacts toward. Most villains are active like Naraku and Vegeta. Sometimes the protagonist’s idea of the villain drives the story, such as Fuu’s idea of her father. Anime has diverse villains, from the father to the beneficial frenemy. Some villains are protagonists that act as a villain toward the story’s hero. Holland is a good example. Villains may drive the entire story or small segments of the story. But their entire job is to challenge the heroes to grow and move forward. Without them, we can’t have stories.
The hallmark of good fiction remains a good villain. Weak villains make for weak heroes. But it can be easy to fall into caricatured, Snidely Whiplash villains. My favorite villain remains Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka. He wins. He destroys the world and achieves godhood. This creates a fascinating dynamic for the game. Kefka follows the usual story. He begins as an experiment gone wrong, cracking his mind in the process. He becomes a power bent madman determined to destroy everything. While most of the Internet sees his desire to end everything for the “lols,” the final confrontation contains various hints to his ultimate motives:
Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?
Why do you build, knowing destruction is inevitable? Why do you yearn to live, knowing all things must die?
In these brief moments of lucidity, you see Kefka’s despair about the reality of impermanence. He despairs about death and being forgotten. All of this reveals a human side and hints that he sees himself as something of a nihilistic savior. He wants to destroy existence itself in order to spare people from its “meaninglessness.” These motives are hidden behind his mad raving about destruction, but these few lines reveal how he had lost hope and hint how he wants to spare people the pain of losing it. “Why do you yearn to live, knowing all things must die?” is a tragic line from a man who achieved ultimate power but remains haunted by his lack of hope and inability to understand it.
Only destruction retains its meaning because it is forever in Kefka’s twisted mind. Yet, because he had attained godhood, he would ultimately remain alone after everything was destroyed, leaving his suicide as the final act of destruction.
Motives aside, Kefka drives the story forward in a powerful way. He unites the first and second half of the game. The heroes must react to his goal. Strong villains create strong heroes. This is where Tite Kubo goes wrong. His villains, while powerful, lack the threat level of Kefka. Kefka kills millions. Kubo’s villains can’t even kill a single captain of the Soul Society. Think of how much more threatening Aizen would be if he kills the Head Captain, the most powerful being in Bleach’s world. Think of how this could be increased further if Aizen kills the Head Captain as if he was walking on an ant. This threat level forces the hero to ever higher heights. But Bleach’s weak villains make for weak heroes. Yeah, Ichigo has power, but power is not the same as strength. Bleach’s villains lack threat. We know the heroes will win. It is far more provocative when the heroes lose. Kefka wins and destroys the world. The best villains win, leaving the heroes to try to find a way to undo what the villain achieves.
Boobs, headlights, breasts, jugs, chichi. Modern American culture worships the breast. But American culture isn’t alone. Anime too has a special fixation on the breast. While I’ve already addressed breast symbolism in anime, I haven’t discussed why anime obsesses over breasts. At first blush, this seems like a simple answer: guys. Guys like boobs, and anime targets men. However, this isn’t entirely correct. Modern men like breasts, but for most of human history, the breast was associated with life, particularly that of a child, instead of sexuality (Domshy, 2003). Let’s first take a look at modern ideas of why men like breasts and then look into the traditional Japanese view.
Modern Man and Mammaries
Modern theories on breast fixation center on the idea of resource competition and biology. Scientists see the presence of large-breasted statues and cave drawings from the earliest period of human history as evidence for men’s focus on the female chest. Researchers see these artifacts across cultures (Chivers, 2012). It’s thought large breasts developed to keep men interested in women with children. They are a form of competition to attract men with resources. Basically, they work similar to how a male bird has colorful feathers. Breasts also mimic the shape of the backside which is a turn on for other apes (Miller, 2006). Larry Young, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, suggests men like breasts because stimulating a woman’s nipples releases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for strengthening affection. The chemical helps bond a lady to the man (Wolchover, 2012).
Breasts show off fertility. Men are said to prefer young women who haven’t had children, so traits associated with youth and virginity (in this case, never being pregnant) like a slender waist, wide hips, and large, firm breasts attract men. Now you might be asking yourself, if this is the case why don’t all women have large boobs? Because breasts are costly, according to many researchers. They take vital nutrients to create, and energy to carry around; they make the female body biomechanically less efficient (again, all like the peacock’s tail). Eventually, the sexual selection benefits are outweighed by the costs. So not all women have these. Women’s breasts, on average, are already very large by comparison to most primates. (Chivers, 2012).
Sounds like science has the reason sewn up, doesn’t it? Not so fast. While these explanations are accepted, some argue against breast attraction as a natural part of male sexuality. These arguments offer convincing evidence that men learn to be attracted to breasts.
Men Aren’t Naturally Attracted to Breasts?
The presence of large-breasted statues and paintings doesn’t necessarily point to a fixation on the chest for sexual reasons. The breast was the only means of nourishing an infant up until the 19th century. Because of this, a fixation on the breast as the symbol for life is a reasonable explanation for its prolific appearance across cultures. The idea that breasts were a way of competing for men makes little sense in light of cultural norms. Anthropologist Fran Mascia-Lees takes on this view and Young’s oxytocin argument by pointing out how not all men are attracted to breasts. She cautions: “whenever evolutionary biologists suggest a universal reason for a behavior and emotion: how about the cultural differences?” (Wolchover, 2012). For example, in some African and New Guinean cultures, women don’t cover their chest, and men show a lack of interest in the exposed bosoms.
What about breasts looking like a woman’s backside? This is a cultural projection of the West. Breasts don’t look like a lady’s backside without being squished together by bras and corsets. Both of which are Western inventions.
In Japanese culture, you also find a distinct lack of interest in the chest until the modern era. If you look at Japanese woodblock print from the Edo period, not a lot of attention is lavished on the breast. Artists rendered other body parts in loving detail, but they largely ignored breasts. Yoshihiko Shirakawa, an expert on woodblock prints states (Kozuka, 2013):
“It appears that men of the Edo period considered breast to be a tool for child rearing. They were not a sexualized part of the body. In shunga from the early Edo Period, men and women were depicted with largely similar chests. From the point of view of the artists, breasts really didn’t seem to matter.”
Shunga are pornographic woodblock prints. Typically, shunga shows small breasts when they show up at all. When breasts appear, they appear in scenes where a woman breastfeeds an infant. Only a few artists fixated on sexual scenes involve breast stimulation. Such behavior doesn’t appear across shunga.
Back here in the West, the erotic breast appears in a brief period during the 15th and 16th centuries. The French painter Jean Fouquet paints one of the first erotic breasts in Western art. He painted Agnes, the mistress of Charles the VII with a bare breast specifically designed to suggest her eroticism. During the 16th century, prostitutes would stand on the streets bare-chested as a form of advertisement (Domshy, 2003). However, in the United States, the breast didn’t become erotic until the 1940s. Miller (2006) argues that the science of breasts is a projection of this late cultural fixation and the boom in breasts as a form of advertisement. The arguments seek to validate what is an aberration or vested interest. In 1982, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons went as far as labeling small boobs as a disease. Because scientists live and grew up in a culture that fixates on breasts as a symbol for sex, they struggle to view breasts in any other way.
Anime and Breasts
All of that brings us back to anime and its breast fetish. Anime came out of the complex interchange of American culture and Japanese culture after World War II, the same time breast fixation developed in the United States (Miller, 2006). The United States had a large influence on Japanese culture. For example, the United States is responsible for the panty fetish we see in anime. It stands to reason that the US also influenced how Japan views female chests. On the opposite side of the coin, anime targets West. In order to make more money, studios need to make stories that have the widest appeal. This explains why you often see Japanese humor–falling flat, puns, and other jokes that are strange for Westerners–combined with breast hijinks. Both the US and Japan share the same fetish, so it’s common ground for marketing stories.
Culture becomes a self-perpetuating loop. That loops can make us think something is natural. Think about Chinese foot-binding. That was a practice in ancient China that forced women to have abnormally small feet by binding them so they couldn’t grow. It caused pain and even prevented women from being able to walk. But Chinese men at the time thought it was erotic. These small, 4-inch feet, hidden in elaborately embroidered shoes, became the focus of erotic fantasies. It shows nearly anything that is hidden can gain sexual attraction. Eroticism in humans starts in our large brains. It isn’t as hardwired as some people believe. In Japanese culture, the nape of a lady’s neck excites men. For most of us here in the West, the nape of the neck is about as sexy as a wrist — which was also sexy in feudal Japan I might add. During the Roman Empire, women considered the sweat of gladiators sexy.
This article doesn’t seek to validate objectification of women. Rather, I attempt to sketch some of the reasons why we have a cultural breast fetish. Culture directs the biological drive for sex. In this article, I focused on male sexuality, but culture shapes women’s ideas of eroticism as well. While genetics creates the foundation for attraction, culture determines how that attraction forms. But in all cases, culture fixates on individual body parts. Which body part depends on culture and time period. Anime focuses on breasts because it is a product of American and Japanese culture. The breast fixation in otaku culture will disappear once culture shifts to the next erotic body part. Perhaps elbows will be the next big fetish.