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.
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 ;))
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.
Anime girls get sharp criticism for being unrealistic. Few women can naturally achieve the enormous breasts and narrow waists many anime girls sport. Breasts are fat deposits (sexy thought eh?) so big boobs naturally come with bigger ladies. Silicon and flukes of nature (blessed or cursed depends on perspective) make for exceptions to this rule. But anime isn’t the only medium that has unrealistic and damaging portrayals of how girls should look. Ever check out the bust, waist, and hip measures of a Disney Princess?
Let’s look at Jasmine from Aladdin and Morgiana from Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Notice the tiny feet and ankles of Jasmine compared to Morgiana’s. I didn’t know Arab culture practiced foot binding, did you? Her legs have to be tiny under those billowing pants. Jasmine also lacks a waist compared to Morgiana. Disney princesses are infamous for their Barbie proportions. Morgiana, on the other hand, has a more natural waist size. Although, it is not completely natural. Jasmine’s bust size doesn’t match her waist. Someone that thin wouldn’t have much in the way of breasts. Morgiana’s bust better matches her waist size. The exaggerated hour glass is common in anime girl design, but it isn’t as extreme as Disney.
Let’s look at a more extreme pair.
Okay, Leafa from Sword Art Online isn’t that extreme as anime goes. She is busty, but she doesn’t go into the upper limits. I am trying to keep the design comparisons limited to main-stream characters. Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an unusual design for Disney. Disney released the movie through a division to distance itself from the film because of the extreme content of the film. Jessica Rabbit has the same proportions as Jasmine. Again, Disney studios must have a foot binding fetish. Jessica’s feet are tiny. Disney also must have something against women having rib cages. Leafa has probably a larger cup size (or two) compared to Jessica, but Jessica’s bust looks larger against her stick waist. I would guess Jessica’s cup size is around a C in American measurements. Her lack of a rib cage makes this a tough call. Leafa’s is a D-cup at least. Jessica’s legs are twice as long as her upper torso. Leafa has more natural leg proportions. The two character’s sex appeal aim at different audiences. Jessica has something of a prostitute’s glamour to her. Leafa has the whole girl-next-door vibe. The design fits well with what each character does in their respective stories.
I can continue with some other comparisons, but I think you get the idea. Disney females share the same body design: one similar to Barbie: unnaturally thin waist, tiny feet, abnormally long legs, large breasts. Anime girls tend to have more naturalistic proportions. This isn’t to say that their waists, busts, and other measurements are realistic. They are not. Anime is notorious for an obsession with large breasts, after all. But they are closer to reality than Disney’s designs.
So Why Does Body Type Matter?
We know this is fantasy so why does body proportion matter? Well, first it is interesting to see how anime and Disney design has parted. Anime was inspired so heavily by early Disney animation that it could be considered a branch of the Disney style. In the early days of Disney, female characters looked more natural. Snow White has realistic proportions. However, in the early-1990s Disney’s style turn a turn with Jasmine becoming a template for non-white girls. Over time, Disney picked up many of its designs from anime even as anime moved toward a more natural female body type.
These changes in anime and Disney affect our ideas of beauty. Beauty is a reinforcing loop. Disney designs started because society found women with small waists and large busts attractive. The designs then reinforced these ideals and made them ever more extreme. Certainly, guys are to blame for this. Men are programmed to seek out the best body types for having children. That means we like big breasts (well, some of us. there is a large group of guys out there that prefer small ones), small waists, and large hips. Big boobs suggest better fat stores for winter. Small waists exaggerate both breast and hip size. And large hips suggest both fat stores for famine and a better pelvis for carrying and birthing children. These assessments are unconscious. It’s not like guys today look at a lady and think, “now she can last through a lean winter!” The norm of small waist and large boobs extends into photographs of models and celebrities. A few erasure swipes in Photoshop shaves off a few inches from the waist. A quick cleavage shadow makes a bust look bigger. All together, this creates an environment where girls feel pressured to appear a certain way (guys feel similar pressures). Many ladies I’ve spoken with have expressed this as an unconscious pressure and a nagging feeling of inadequacy. Disney princesses introduce this feeling during childhood. Advertising solidifies this to sell products that purportedly fix the problem.
I am by no means blaming women with the next statement: if women ostracized men with big breast attraction, the emphasis will decrease. Likewise, if men who favor small-busted women (or women with smaller hips) would speak out, the ideals would change. I am merely stating that both genders have influence over the way we see the body. Yes, it is wrong to view men and women in this way, but it is a part of being human. Railing against this hard-wired tendency does little good. Instead we should focus on making this mechanism healthier. Ideals are formed by consensus. Luckily, the current consensus is changing. There are movements in advertising and media toward more natural female body types. However, there is a backlash against women who are naturally thin and match the current ideals. This backlash, though expected, doesn’t help the situation. It perpetuates continued body-image problems, just in the opposite direction.
The point is, popular culture has some roots in biology and in expectations placed on people by society. Anime girl design and Disney princess design are a result of this and reinforces these ideals.
Male body-image feels similar pressures. I decided to focus on women because it is the largest source of controversy. Men are not as objectified as women in American and Japanese society. Although, this is changing.
Now I have to ask, what would you like your children to watch? What ideals do you want them to have? Disney princesses play passive roles. They mostly wait for the man to save the day. Even the more active ones like Jasmine end up relying in the guy. Granted, anime has the same problem, but at least anime has many stories like Moribito where the female lead characters do not need to rely on men. Despite needing rescued, Rukia from Bleach is also a capable fighter in her own right.
Anime’s designs are better than Disney’s when it comes to body image. Outside of the ridiculous cup sizes (which do have symbolism associated with them), anime has body types that are closer to reality. This alone is important to consider.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Disney’s animation. Their character designs need work, particularly their female designs. Disney has good moral messages in its movies. However, anime has surpassed Disney in design, characterization, and other areas. Anime character design more appealing than Disney. Disney characters often look like aliens.
The tragedy of Disney female design is the waist. Simply making the waist larger would do much to improve the naturalism. Oh, and don’t forget the foot binding. The feet are too tiny!
The success of movies like Frozen is helping American studios move closer to naturalism. We will never see completely naturalist bodies in either American or Japanese animation. Animation is, after all, about fantasy. But designs with natural proportions will go a long way toward improving female body images and shifting male ideas of female beauty.
Anime and manga are storytelling mediums equal to movies and books. Anime has more flexibility and one unique strength that movies cannot have.
Anime and manga are a style of their own, just like Cubism or Pointillism. Some people lump anime into the “Superflat” art movement because of the flat nature of anime art. But whatever you want to call it, anime is valuable. Back in 2001, animation cells from the anime Princess Mononoke– animation cells were once thought to be trash–sold for thousands of dollars (Watson, 2001).
Anime storytelling roots extend far back in Japanese art, but the years after World War II marked the beginning of anime as a storytelling medium. Unlike American cartoons, anime focuses on realism in image and movement. This realism started with the “God of Anime” Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka wrote over 150,000 pages of story, covering every genre and age group (Watson, 2001). He set the groundwork for anime’s breadth. In contrast, most animation in the United States is produced for and watched by children (Halsall, 2004).
Themes of Anime
“Anime is complex and multifaceted, fabulous storytelling combined with extraordinary animation.”
The wide appeal of anime makes it hard to define, but anime stories typically follow the following themes (Halsall, 2004):
Technology (or magic) vs. humanity.
Problems of technology (or magic) vs. whatever is trying to destroy the world or city.
Good vs. Evil. In a person or in a society.
Rite of Passage. A child growing to adult or a person becoming a better, healthier person.
The challenge of living with other people.
However, anime is more than its stories. Anime is a medium, a tool for stories. A medium conveys information. Oil painting is one type of medium. Comic books are another. The techniques of anime– its flatness, large eyes, animation style–are similar to the composition, paints, and techniques used to make paintings. Lately, we’ve seen anime turned into live-action movies. Attack on Titan is one example. Story and medium (the word media is the plural of medium, similar to datum and data) are separate. Attack on Titan isn’t an anime, it is a story that happens to use anime as its medium. This sounds nitpicky, but the distinction is important. Stories can be shared across many different media. A book can become a movie, inspire a painting, or become a comic book. Each medium has strengths and weaknesses that affects how the story works.
Many people, myself included, have problems with “anime.” But it isn’t anime we have a problem with. It is the stories that ruffle us. Many of the stories in anime are poorly paced and told. However, this has little to do with anime as a medium. Live-action has poor storytelling too. A poor story dressed up with blockbuster actors or excellent, vibrant animation is still a poor story. Now, I am not saying anime doesn’t influence stories. Every medium has limits. A live action movie can’t portray the outlandish things drawn media can. That is why movies rely so much on computer animation for transforming robots and creating vast environments. But no matter how shiny the special effects or how well known the actress, a poor story is a poor story. The medium can’t save it.
Anime’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Now that we have story and medium separated, let’s talk about strengths and weaknesses of media. Some media lend themselves better to certain stories. Live-action features recognizable faces and names that can capture a story. Anime has a different strength: unique characters. Whereas Clark Gable will always look like Clark Gable no matter what character he plays (I am a classic movie fan), an anime character will appear only once. That character will only belong to a certain story. Sure, other characters may resemble the character, but Eureka will only appear in the Eureka Seven universe–OVAs and other retellings are still a part of a story’s universe. Just look at American comic books for examples of this! This uniqueness gives anime an advantage over movies. Once the story is over, the character will not appear again. Spencer Tracy appeared in many movies. Ichigo only exists in the Bleach universe.
This makes the death of characters in anime crash down on us. They are dead in a stark, final way. Sure we can rewatch the series or write fan fiction, but when a character dies in anime or the series ends, the character will not appear again. Movies envy the finality of an anime character’s death. Even characters that live on, the finality of the viewer’s parting with them can’t be matched by movies. Samurai Champloo‘s ending is a good example of this wistful parting of character and viewer. This is the greatest strength of anime’s storytelling.
Because it is a drawn medium, anime tells stories that requires live-action to splurge on special effects. Think about the Lord of the Rings movies and their extreme sets and computer animation. Middle Earth took a lot of effort to create on the screen. Contrast this with what a painting can do. Anime enjoys the “suspension of disbelief” that movies have to work at achieving. Because movies feature living people, we have to stretch our ability to believe what we see. However, anime, because it doesn’t seek to replicate reality, enjoys more leeway. We can believe weird stuff when it is drawn easier than if it was live. We expect reality– and anything that looks real–to behave in certain ways. Violating those ways can shock us out of a story. Books and movies have to work hard at building worlds that can have odd stuff, like magic, without shocking us out of the story. Anime and comics can blast us without too much worry.
Perfect Blue shows the high level of storytelling anime can achieve.
Anime’s techniques contains its weakness…at least for America. Because Americans associate animation with childhood, anime has limited appeal. And this limited appeal limits the type of stories that make it to the United States. Teens and twenty-somethings dominate anime’s US audience. This means companies send stories that appeal to this limited audience. This forces the medium into a niche that has proven difficult to escape. In turn, this also encourages lower quality storytelling. Expansive adult stories, like Ghost in the Shell, are rare because American adults are not socialized to view anime as a valid storytelling medium.
Certain stories fit best in certain media. The elements of the story may be best handled by the techniques of a certain medium. Take Lord of the Rings. Because of the themes and general believable nature of Middle Earth, the story favored movies. There is a bad cartoon of The Hobbit. Now, imagine One Piece as a movie. I really can’t see the odd world translating well to live-action. It would lose what makes One Piece One Piece.
The main point to take away from this is the separation of story and medium. Anime isn’t the stories. Anime is the method of telling those stories.
Halsall, J. (2004). The Anime Revelation: How I Learned to Love Japanese Animation and Changed Our Teen Video Collection Forever. School Library Journal, 50(8), S6.
Watson, L. C. (2001). Japanimation: breaking down the boundaries. Art Business News, 28(4), 72-74.
Japanese has around 1,200 onomatopoeia divided into 3 families (Kadooka, 2009.; Inose,n.d. ). That’s around 3x more than English has. Onomatopoeia are words used to represent calls of animals, sounds of nature, sounds of people, and other sounds (Alilyeh & Zeinolabedin, 2014). Luckily, manga doesn’t use all of these sound words. However, it’s common for manga to leave these sound words untranslated. First, it’s expensive to edit the sound effects and replace them with English. English words can mess up the flow and impact of the story. Next, English lacks most of the sound effects found in Japanese. So manga readers have to learn these words. This actually means manga readers have an edge over traditional book-readers.
Manga is called a multimodel text. This simply means it takes many different skills to read. Manga readers have to understand some aspects of Japanese culture to get the references. You have know how to read the overlapping images and text. Not to mention good manga is read right to left. Now add in Japanese sound words and words English lacks like shonen, shojo, and maiko. Manga encourages a variety of skills, from image interpretation to the Japanese language, that reading traditional prose cannot do. Manga readers have better developed multidimensional thinking than traditional readers because of the complex cinematic language of the medium. Manga readers are comfortable with seeing different languages and looking up the meanings of words. They are more aware than the general reader about cultural differences between countries.
Understanding Japanese Sound Words
With all that in mind, let’s look at how Japanese onomatopoeia work. There are 3 families and 5 classes. Families group words together by what sounds they mimic. Classes group words by their structure, how the words themselves look and sound. English sound words have the same families and classes. Let’s look at the families before we get into the more technical classes (Inose, n.d.):
Giseigo: These words mimic voices of people and animals.
ワンワン wanwan (bow-wow);
キャア kyaa (aaaah).
Giongo: Words that imitate sounds.
ザアザア zaazaa (the sound of rain, English lacks a true equivalent)
バキッ baki (crack)
Gitaigo: words that represent something visual or a feeling.
ニヤニアヤ niyaniaya (smiling ironically)
We will look more into gitaigo later. These are not true sound words but they appear in both anime and manga. I will use katakana for sound words, but you may also see them in hiragana and kanji. Onomatopoeia are mostly written in katakana. Katakana is used to write loanwords like television, テレビ (terebi) and to make words stand out.
Okay, so let’s go into the classes. There are 5 classes that categorizes word structure (Kadooka, 2009).
Bare stem – this is the root of the word. Think of the word study. Stud is the stem. Study becomes studied in the past tense. Studying is the present perfect tense. A word stem is the basic version of the verb.
Japanese sound words in this class use the stem like hana
Altered Reduplication – repeats the first word with a slight change. Think bow-wow. ガサゴソ gasa-goso (a rattling sound).
Doubled Base – repeats the base sound of the word. Think rattattat.
Reduplication – repeats the sound. Think pop-pop. コロコロkorokoro (something rolling) This is the most common class of sound words.
Miscellaneous – catches all the other words that don’t fall into the previous groups.
So why do you need to know this? It can help you determine which words are sound words and which are not while you read. Sound words can have degrees and knowing the class helps you determine if the words are related:
ハタハタ hatahata – the sound of something fluttering in the wind
パタパタ patapata – the wind is stronger than in hatahata
バタバタ batabata – the wind is stronger than in patapata.
They words retain the same Reduplication and Doubled Base (ata). This is pretty technical. But knowing these classes can help you know, at a glance, if the word is an onomatopoeia.
キュアアツ – kyaatsu
Words Representing a Sight or Feeling
Gitaigo aren’t unique to Japanese. We have them in English too: smirk, wink, grin. Gitaigo clarify or emphasize expressions or feelings a character has. One of the most common is じーっ, jii. This means “stare” and is often used with a character, well, staring at another or the reader. Gitaigo become a part of anime’s visual language. They are not meant to be read as much as seen. Mimetic expressions, as these are called, are common in Japanese language. These expressions sometimes appear in anime.
Words that translate to headache and other internal feelings make it clear what a character is experiencing. Manga isn’t able to describe internal feelings like prose can. In a novel, you often sit inside a character and watch events through their eyes. In manga, you are an outside observer. Gitaigo allows authors to clue readers in on internal feelings. They work the same way as writing “Timothy rubbed his throbbing head.” We can see the character rub their forehead, but we may not know it is because of a headache instead of an itch without gitaigo.
Japanese Sound Words Guide
This chart is by no means complete, but it should help you learn some of the more common onomatopoeia found in manga. The chart uses katakana, but you may see the same words in hiragana. I then provide the transliteration in English and its rough translation.
Gitaigo are in bold. The table is sorted by katakana to help you find the phrase by its first letter. This guide doesn’t contain every sound effect.
First Kana Letter
イヤア or やあ
burn (as in sunburn)
gurgle / stomach growl
drift / flutter
thump (hitting sound)
ピンポン or ぴんぽん
brrrr (shivering with cold)
vrooom / zooom
stick (as in sticky)
Aliyeh, K. & Zeinolabedin, R. (2014). A Comparison between Onomatopoeia and Sound Symbolism in Persian and English and Their Application in the Discourse of Advertisements.International Journal of Basic Sciences & Applied Research. Vol., 3 (SP), 219-225.