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.
Cosplay sits as the best-known expressions of anime and manga fandom. Each year, fans spend countless hours designing and sewing their costumes and perfecting their impersonations. Many view cosplay, a contraction of costume play, as a Japanese import. However, like anime, cosplay comes from the interplay of American and Japanese culture.
Cosplay involves more than donning a costume. After all, people don’t consider Halloween costumes a part of cosplay culture. We can define cosplay as a performance art. It involves more than dressing up. It involves people taking on the physical and mental role of a fictional character (Bainbridge, 2013). Cosplay expresses a fan’s adoration of a character. In a study of cosplayers, over 70% of people surveyed became fans of a specific character because the character possessed traits the fans wanted to have as well. The fans expressed a desire to “get inside the skin” of the character. Many of the fans surveyed (79%) stated they learned to draw by copying commercially produced drawings of their favorite characters (Rosenberg, n.d.; Manifold, 2009).
We call people who dress up like this cosplayers. The focus on the word play in both labels emphasizes two points: fun and performance. Cosplay involves 4 points (Winge, 2006; Bainbridge, 2013):
Narrative – the personality and story of the fictional character
Clothing – the design of the outfits and the community surrounding this design
Play – mimicking the mannerisms of the character as accurately as possible
Player – the character and identity of the cosplayer
Cosplayers identify wth the personality and story of their favorite characters, and this is the main drive behind cosplay (Rosenberg, n.d.). It’s fun to dress up as someone else! It helps when you admire that character, even if it’s just a cool outfit you like.
Speaking of outfits, costumes define cosplay culture, and the community surrounding it. Many cosplayers take pride in sewing their own costumes. The cosplay community contains forums and websites dedicated to helping people learn how to sew accurate outfits. Accuracy matters in cosplay. Cosplay competitions judge entries based on the authenticity of the costume and how well the character is portrayed. This is where the “play” element kicks in. Fans fall on a spectrum from those who dress for fun to those who obsess over a character and try to recreate every detail. Detailed oriented people can spend thousands of dollars and spend endless hours tweaking their costumes. They practice poses and memorize dialogue in order to win competitions with prizes rarely worth the cost of the costume. However, fans do this because it is fun, and it wins the praise of the community (Winge, 2006; Caffrey, 2015).
Authenticity can be difficult to achieve which the cosplay values it. Many character designs feature physics defying clothing. Especially busty female characters. Other characters sport details or designs that can be difficult to mimic, such as Samus Aran’s suit. This touches on an important point, cosplay doesn’t limit itself to anime and manga characters. It encompasses American superheroes, Star Wars characters, Star Trek characters, and video game characters. This hearkens back to the origins of cosplays as we shall see.
I have to note that Renaissance fairs and war reenactments are not considered cosplay. These costume events seek to recreate historical reality. Cosplay focuses on fiction, much like a Shakespearian play focuses on fictional characters (Caffrey, 2015).
Cosplay and Self Identity
Essentially, an anime or manga cosplayer can be almost anyone who expresses his or her fandom and passion for a character by dressing and acting similarly to that character (Winge, 2006).
The community aspect of cosplay matters. Making your own outfit ties the cosplayer together with the greater cosplay community. Competitions and donning the character’s mannerisms acts as a way to express yourself and fit into the community. It’s not unusual to see Bleach’s Ichigo square off in mock battles with Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud or other crossovers. These impromptu skits, when done well, earn praise from other cosplayers and create a sense of belonging. Shared interests cement people together. Who you chose to cosplay as–the word acts as both a noun and a verb–creates a statement about yourself: your likes, values, and interests ( Bainbridge, 2013).
The character provides a (protective) identity for the cosplayer, which may allow for more confident and open interactions. Moreover, cosplay dress and environment(s) permit the cosplayer to role-play the character he or she is dressed as and engage in such social activities within a “safe” and “supportive” social structure (Winge, 2006).
Taking on the persona of a manga character allows the cosplayer to express their interests and act in ways they may not normally behave. A normally shy person who admires a boisterous character like Naruto has a reason to explore a different way of behaving in an environment that would encourage Naruto-like behavior. Narratives play an important role in building self-identity. Heroes and villains help us learn different ways of navigating through life (Manifold, 2009). Impersonating them gives us a chance to see what life is like through their eyes.
Of course, with all of this we can’t forget, cosplaying is fun. The age of cosplayers ranges from the usual teens to middle-age adults and even some senior citizens (Caffrey, 2015). Fun transcends age.
The Origin of Cosplay
Karen Schaubelt’s historic first cosplay group.
Now that we have cosplay defined and explained, let’s look at how it all started. Japan didn’t develop cosplay in isolation. Although, some elements of cosplay developed before its official birthdate in the 1980s. Fan cultures in the United States developed other elements which eventually merged with the Japanese to form cosplay as we now know. Let’s look at the Japanese side first.
Girls left a prominent mark on anime and manga culture, including cosplay. Shojo, or girls comics, laid the groundwork for cosplay through its full-body fashion illustrations. The post-WWII artist Junichi Nakahara pushed manga character design toward fashion with these full-body illustrations. He continued a trend started by the shojo artist Yumeji Takehisa who designed his own lines of clothing, stationary, and accessories. Shojo manga became a type of fashion magazine in addition to telling stories. Girls could buy clothing that matched their favorite characters. At the same time, girls shifted the types of stories and characters manga had through their fanfiction. Many girls would write, draw, and print their own manga to distribute at fan conventions (Kinsella, 1998; Brainbridge, 2013). This opened the door to fan-driven character identities and alternative story-telling. The combination of fashion and fan-written stories became important creative factors for cosplay.
On the American side of the equation, cosplay owes a debt to Star Trek. In the 1960s, the budget television show about explorers who “boldly go where no one has gone before” sparked an interest in science fiction. The first cosplayers dressed up as crew members and aliens from the Star Trek series at science fiction conventions. Comics book heroes like Batman and Robin mixed with science fiction at these conventions, which provided a medium for fans to don costumes outside of Halloween. American science fiction merged with shojo fashion to create cosplay in 1984.
American science fiction merged with shojo fashion to create cosplay in 1984. When Takahashi Nobuyuki, founder of an anime study called Studio Hard, attended the scifi WorldCon in Los Angeles, the costumes of trekkies impressed him. When he returned to Japan, he wrote about the costumes and the convention’s masquerade. In his articles, he encouraged his Japanese readers to add costumes to their anime and manga conventions. He coined the term kosupure, or costume-play, for these events because the Japanese word for masquerade means “an aristocratic costume party” which was far different from the costume competitions he saw at WorldCon (Winge, 2006;Caffrey, 2015). And so Western science fiction costume competitions merged with manga fashion designs to create cosplay as we know it.
Actually, the first known costume of a manga character appeared in the US a few years before Nobuyuki’s visit. In 1979 at San Diego ComicCon International, 6 fans led by Karen Schaubelt appeared in full manga costume. Schaubelt dressed as Captain Harlock and her friends dressed as other Star Blazer characters (Bainbridge, 2013). However, manga and anime characters didn’t become popular until after Nobyuki’s visit to WorldCon.
Despite anime fans viewing Japan as a wonderland of cosplay and cosplay shops, the practice isn’t acceptable. While Akihbara and Harajuku districts of Tokyo are famous for their daily cosplay and shops, the United States accepts the practice more readily. In fact, Winge (2006) writes: “In Japan, cosplayers are not welcome in certain areas beyond the convention, and some conventions request that cosplayers not wear their dress outside the convention.” Whereas here in the United States costumes are perfectly acceptable. I remember a few years ago I saw a pair of Klingons walk into a Burger King, and the restaurant erupted into smiles and oos and aahs.
In Japan, otaku suffer from negative stereotyping. Otaku culture lacks the same negativity in the US. It helps that the US has a long tradition of Halloween and masquerades like Mardi Gras. The popularity of Star Trek also helps with this. By the time cosplay began, Americans have been dressing up as superheroes and Star Trek heroes for over 20 years (Bainbridge, 2013). Japan hadn’t adopted Halloween until recently while the US has enjoyed it in some form since the nation’s founding.
American and Japanese cosplayers differ in a few areas. For example, American cosplayers perform onstage skits as part of cosplay competitions. Japanese cosplayers strike a signature pose or recite the motto of the character. American cosplayers wear their costumes outside of conventions and put on impromptu skits. Japanese cosplayers are not welcome outside of conventions because they are seen as individualists in a culture that focuses on community values (Caffrey, 2015).
Like anime, cosplay comes from a merging of American and Japanese media culture. The emphasis on fashion found in shojo mixed with American Trekkie and superhero costumes. While Nobuyuki encouraged cosplay in Japan, Americans were pulling manga into their science fiction conventions with Karen Schaubelt and her friends’ debut in 1979. Cosplay soon became a part of anime and manga fandom and a staple in conventioms across the world.
Bainbridge, J., & Norris, C. (2013). Posthuman Drag: Understanding Cosplay as Social Networking in a Material Culture. Intersections: Gender & Sexuality In Asia & The Pacific, (32), 6.
Caffrey, C. (2015). Cosplay. Salem Press Encyclopedia,
Kinsella, S. (1998) Japanese Subculture in the 1990s: Otaku and Amateur Manga Movement. The Journal of Japanaese Studies. Vol 24, 2. 289-316.
Manifold, Marjorie C. (2009) Fanart as craft and the creation of culture. International Journal of Education through Art Volume 5 Number 1 doi: 10.1386/eta.5.1.7/1
Rosenberg, R. & Letamendi, A. (n.d.) Expressions of Fandom: Findings from a Psychological Survey of Cosplay and Costume Wear. Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.
Winge, T. (2006) Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay. Mechademia 1, Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga. Pp. 65-76.
It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.
You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.
Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii] Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.
The Birth of O’iwa
In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]
O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836. http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034
The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan
The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.
Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.
But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.
This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?
The three horrors of O‘iwa.
The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of
discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.
O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare. As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.
Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.
O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.
Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.
Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice. “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.
At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.
One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.
But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]
Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.
… or another other scary creature?
However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.
The Burning Lantern
Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s. https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg
One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.
While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]
To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.
O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.
Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.
Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond
I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.
Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.
What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere. She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?
Notes and References:
[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.
[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.
[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.
[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.
[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.
[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.
[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.
Anime is a threat to American values. It injects foreign ideas into the veins of American culture, particularly American masculinity.
But then, American masculinity needs the medicine.
Let’s step back a moment and look at American values. The United States contains several core values: freedom of speech, rights of the individual, equality, achievement, social mobility, and competition (Doran, 2013). American masculinity revolves around individualism, competition, achievement, and sexual prowess. The core value of masculinity is quantity. More achievement, material, power, sex, and masculinity itself. American men raised on the idea that maleness is something we accumulate through action. It is something to be saved, like money. Like money, maleness can be lost. Guys who don’t try to climb to corporate ladder are not as manly as those who do (Tuck, 2003). This idea of American masculinity reaches back to Greek and Roman culture. Semen became the symbol for this idea. It made man masculine in the ancient West. Today, we substitute achievement for semen, but the links between achievement and man milk can be seen in the writings of the second-century physician Aretaeus the Cappadocian (Tuck, 2013):
[I]t is the semen when possessed of vitality which makes us to be men, hot well braced in limbs, hairy, well boiced, spirited, strong to think and act.
It is thought semen could also distract a man.In There’s Something About Mary, Ted (Ben Stiller) is told to masturbate before his date with Mary (Cameron Diaz) so he doesn’t have “baby batter on the brain”. The movie shows the American focus on sex. The scene reflects how men can’t speak with women without thinking about sex unless he takes himself in hand first. Sexual prowess underpins American masculinity. You see it in the way products are marketed to men. They are all designed in one way or another to enhance male performance. Even car commercials equate their design and performance with this currency view of maleness. A male isn’t something you are. It is something you earn and buy. In my area, many people consider stay-at-home fathers as strange and effeminate because they aren’t out earning bread like a man.
Conan makes a good stand-in for American masculinity.
American masculinity contains only one side. Gay men, for example, are portrayed as feminine. As if femininity is somehow wrong. One of the worst insults a straight man can endure is being called gay. It essentially calls him a woman. While this is insulting to gay men and women, the insult ties back to the values of maleness: sexual prowess, achievement, authority. So-called real men must be on top, sexually and socially. That is one reason why many parts of American culture find homosexuality abhorrent: gay men aren’t acting like “men”. Likewise, stay-at-home fathers fail to act as “men”.
These ideas extend toward male anime fans. Male anime fans who enjoy romantic comedies trouble those who think with chest hair. After all, American anime fans live inside American culture. Yet, male anime fans have access to a different perspective. Anime offers a different view of masculinity as we shall see.
Anime’s Softer Side of Manhood
American romantic comedies target women. Sex comedies try to appeal to men. These comedies, unlike romantic comedies targeting women, don’t focus on emotions and wishes (Newitz, 1995). Sex comedies fall in line with the American view of manhood. Anime, however, suggest American masculinity isn’t the only type of masculinity. Okay, yes, anime has many shows that play right into typical views of masculinity — the man dominating various girls. Anime romances represent a different type of heterosexual masculinity, one based on romantic feelings instead of sexual ability. They also break the equation American romance has: sex = love, love = sex. Newitz (1995) writes:
Anime offer to the post-sexual revolution generation stories which suggest that young men and women do not need to have sex in order to experience love.
Anime romances provide a way for American guys to enjoy a romance where the male character wants to fall in love rather than want to have sex. The passive nature of these male characters run against the masculine ideals of being a dominating, go-get-em leader. The male characters explore a tender side of manhood. They are free to experience love and emotions normally considered feminine. Look at Love, Chunibyo, and other Delusions.
The story centers on the growing emotional connection between Yuta and Rikka. Over the course of the anime, Yuta backs Rikka away from sex and other physical shows of love on several occasions. He wants to develop a deep emotional bond with her. If the story was American, he would have taken her to the sack instead of telling her not to worry about such things. These types of romantic comedies move manhood away from what is between the legs and toward the nobility of love and empathy. These stories often have a character who represents typical masculinity, a character that gawks at the ladies and is otherwise focused on sex. These characters serve as a backdrop to show how much better a male focus on emotion can be. They also fail to understand the main male’s focus on love. It speaks to how many men feel about society. Only a few express their disdain for the male focus on sex.
Waifu and Love
Waifuism came from needs of men to experience love outside of the sexual dimension. Condry (2012) quotes:
For people who have grown up with the “common sense” that love equals the 3-D World, it may be impossible to convey the point I’d like to make: 3-D love is like the Edo era’s shogunate government. Throughout that period, everyone thought that the shogunate would continue forever. It was almost impossible to imagine another kind of government, and floating in this vague understanding, all of a sudden, the black ships appeared…Now, the love revolution expanding in Japan is easiest to understand in terms of Meiji Restoration. For a long time, everyone expected the commonsense belief that “love = 3-D world” would continue, but it has begun to be destroyed by the appearance of the moe phenomena.
Waifuism comes from a dissatisfaction with the cultural norms of male love. A guy can’t have sex with his waifu. This allows him to experience love outside of social sexual expectations.
Sex is Fine, Just Not as a Core Value
Sex isn’t the issue with any of this. The focus of American culture on sex and accumulation as the defining characteristics of masculinity damages men. Anime’s message that it is okay to be a guy and want to experience romantic love undermines American culture. It shows how it is okay to be a heterosexual guy and not focus on getting between a girl’s legs. In fact, many of these anime stories reveal how seeking emotional connections over physical is superior.
Some anime seek to reinforce traditionally dominate male roles. And anime still has problems with objectifying women. However, anime is one of the few mediums that provide an alternative to American macho values. This doesn’t stop men from being the target of insults and bullying. Male anime fans that enjoy romantic comedies have the same problems as men who enjoy Hollywood romantic comedies.
American masculinity has come under threat by women and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. These threats make those who hold these traditional values louder and more insistent. However, many men who grew up watching anime live in ways that reveal a softer, stronger side of being male. And these men are raising sons of their own. With time perhaps the one-sided view of manhood will fade.
The Focus on Community and Cooperation
Aside from the focus on sexual prowess, anime also undermines the American ideas of individualism and competition. Many parents raise American men to compete. Competition and individualism are kissing cousins. When you view yourself as a self-made product, you will naturally feel drawn toward looking out for oneself first. The US teaches competition (and the greed that results from it) is good. We have the mistaken idea that competition makes people more productive and achieve more. Of course, we measure achievement in terms money and other possessions. Even in team situations, competition rather than cooperation takes focus. People jockey for position or to stand out from their peers, and companies reward such behavior.
American manhood focuses competition: having more money, having a bigger home, having a hotter wife, having more loyalty to a sports team. Then you have anime. Anime focuses on cooperation and community. Every great hero has a posse of friends who helps him achieve. While there is some competition, it isn’t the same as here in the US. Competition in anime centers on improvement for both people — the drive to get stronger. It doesn’t involve stomping on people as you climb. I wrote more about this idea in my Goku Versus Superman article. Anime undermines this aspect of American culture by showing how no one is truly self-made. Each person has a support system. Even if sometimes they are unaware of that support system. For example, public services like police, fire protection, roads, air quality, water quality, and other infrastructure form support systems so-called self-made business people don’t consider in their views. In a similar way, anime heroes have invisible and visible support systems. Anime heroes measure their manhood by how well they return value to those support systems.
Dragonball Z‘s Goku is a good representation of manhood. Goku can’t achieve any of his victories without the help of his friends. He is also a father who isn’t afraid to express his love for his son.
Anime provides a welcome alternative to traditional American masculinity. We internalize value systems without realizing it. Anime and other media allow us to see a different perspective, and that perspective can reveal the unhealthy aspects of our value systems. American men often live one-dimensional lives. We fail to get in touch with our “feminine side”. Even calling these male emotions feminine seeks to denigrate both. It is good not to focus on sex in a relationship. It is good to want to love someone and embrace those emotions. It is good to stand against competition and individualism. If enough men stand up for the other side of manhood, we may be able to achieve a better balance. If women refuse to associate with men who are driven by sex and competition, perhaps some of these men may discover the side they are missing.
Or maybe we should just require everyone to watch anime. That just might work too.
Condry, I (2012). Love Revolution. Recreating Japanese Men. University of California Press. 262-283.
Doran, C., & Romie Littrell (2013) Measuring Mainstream US Cultural Values. J Bus Ethics. 117. 261-280.
Newitz, A. (1995) Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly. 49 (1). 2-15.
Tuck, G. (2003). Mainstreaming the Money Shot: Reflections on the Representation of Ejaculation in Contemporary American Cinema. Paragraph, 26(1/2), 263.
While I watched Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions, I began thinking about how the series illustrates the difficulties of coping with reality. Everyone has different ways of coping with their problems. We avoid, fight, deny, and face demons within and without. Reality is tough. It’s hard to face death. It’s hard to face loneliness, loss, and love. Love, Chunibyo, though odd, has a lot of human elements.
Zach already reviewed the first season. During the second season, Yuta’s old friend, Satone, appears and strains the relationship he has with Rikka. The story follows how Yuta and Rikka continue to grow closer through various challenges.
Both seasons use the Japanese slang term chunibyo (or chuunibyou) to describe Rikka’s tendency to live in a fantasy world. During the first season, we discover she does this to avoid the pain of her father’s death. She continues to live a fantasy of her own making because of the difficulties of living in a dull, repetitive world full of stress. This centerpiece of the anime spoke to me.
As a teen, I didn’t LARP (Live Action Role Played) as Rikka does; however, I used fantasy to help me cope with bullying and other issues. I was the pimply, nerdy kid the jocks targeted. Diablo 2 and books provided a way to escape my lack of a school social life. The number of hours I spent on the game–I don’t want to think about it, but I was an addict. Eight hours was a light day of gaming. I used the game to avoid the aspects of myself I disliked or found uncomfortable. I used the game, and others, to avoid feeling deaths in my family.
This behavior prevented me from facing my issues. Avoidance doesn’t work. Problems do not go away because we ignore them. They must be faced and worked through. Eventually ,Rikka faces her father’s death. While this doesn’t stop her from living in a fantasy world, it changes why she uses the fantasy world. No longer does it become a sanctuary. Instead, it becomes a way for her to live with more awareness and wonder. Avoidance makes problems fester. Eventually, you must face your issues.Otherwise, they will pounce on you…likely during your final moments in this world. Best to take care of them on your terms rather than let them dictate the battlefield.
But how do you face demons inside you? How do you face soul-gnawing loss?
Mental Training Exercises
Stop running and face it.
This hurts. A lot. Agony will pierce your heart, and the longer you run, the more intense the pain. Your first reaction will be to shut it out, to run. When the pain grips you, it is hard to remember that the pain will pass after it runs its course. But it will. Everything is temporary, including pain.
Embrace the pain In America, we are taught that pain is bad, that pain is evil. Life changing events are painful. Growing up physically hurts. Having a child hurts. Losing a parent hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. If it didn’t, it would mean we didn’t care. It would mean you are not changing. Change hurts. But we can’t avoid pain. Find someplace quiet and sit with the pain. Don’t act on any of the impulses. Just sit. It will pass. Everything passes with time.
Watch your feelings and thoughts Acknowledge your anger, sadness, and joy. Don’t act or let yourself fall into them. Watch them as if you sat on a riverbank, watching the water roll past. Listen to what they are saying, but don’t dip into the water. It is hard not to get caught in the torrent. Notice how your thoughts move. Look at what they are saying. Ask each one these questions:
Why are you saying this?
Is this logical or reasonable?
Often we already know the solutions to problems if we listen to what is going on beneath the torrent.
Forgive yourself Forgive yourself for being human and having these thoughts. They don’t make you a horrible person. They make you a person. Few people lack demons. I have many! But you can make peace with them if you take the time to listen.
Thoughts are Thoughts In the moment, we can forget thoughts are just thoughts. They can’t harm us unless we act upon them. Mindfulness–being aware of your present moment, inside and outside of you–helps. The torrent of thoughts you experience feel overwhelming, but they are only thoughts. Thoughts come from your behavior, worldview, environment, and level of mindfulness. Change these and your thoughts will change.
None of this is easy. Most people use entertainment to drown out their uncomfortable, racing thoughts. However, you can only be truly content if you learn to sit in silence with yourself. When you first do this, it isn’t pleasant. Your mind will be a torrent. “This is dumb. I’m bored. This won’t help.” Anxiety will hit you. When I first started mindfulness practices, anxiety was a severe roadblock. However, even a few minutes counts. Stick with it. Pain tells us something is wrong. It is a friend. Listen. With time it becomes easier and even pleasant. After a certain point, your day will feel off without a few quiet moments to sit and have a silent conversation with yourself.
Backsliding and the Anime Hero Within
After you do this, you will find yourself like Rikka: falling back into old habits. You will start avoiding things again. You will be a chunibyo again. It takes practice to change your behavior. And time.
In modern society, we want easy fixes. I see library patrons get angry with technology after only a few minutes of encountering a problem. Modern society has trained us to be impatient and avoid discomfort at all costs. This is childish. Life requires patience and perseverance. It takes years to overcome some inner demons. Others we have to make peace with and accept. There is no magic cure or pill. Hard work is the only course.
Fantasy worlds have their place. In small amounts, escapism is good for the mind. However, if you live anime, video games, or are a chunibyo, you need to look at why you are avoiding reality.
There is no shame in needing help. Some problems can’t be faced alone. Rikka needed Yuta. Yuta needed Rikka. No one lives without the help of others. If your problems make you consider harming yourself or others, talk to someone. Every anime hero becomes a hero through the help of his friends and community. Look at how much help Rikka and Yuta get from their friends! Talk to a close friend, a pastor, a doctor, or a teacher.
If your thoughts lean toward suicide or violence and you live in the United States, call these mental health hotlines.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST 1.877.726.4727
You have an anime hero within. We all do. But like all anime heroes we have to work to unlock our hidden powers of mindfulness and compassion. We have to train hard like Goku and Ichigo. And like them, we have to sometimes seek help in that training. American heroes lie to us. They are born heroes or become them through some freak accident of fate. Heroism doesn’t work that way. Heroism comes from facing inner barriers–demons–and training to overcome them.
Are you training to face life like an anime hero? If not, why are you waiting to start? Go out and train your mind!
One among many orientalist[i] stereotypes of Asians is that they are masters of imitation (or adaptation) but lack original creativity (or invention); an assumption which looks ridiculous when one spends just a little time studying any given Asian culture, I would say. Rather, I spot the tendency to imitate (instead of inventing) in modern popular culture (of any country). And I ask myself: Is the idea behind this that nothing is so easily, quickly and cheaply made and so sure to sell as something the audience already knows and enjoys? So, why create something new when you can just adapt something known?
Of cause, in practice, it‘s not so simple. According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, an ‚’adaption‘ is either ‘the process of changing to suit different conditions’ or ‘a film, book, play, etc. that has been made from another film, book, play, etc‘.[ii] In other words, ‘adaptation’ signifies either a general process of transformation, or the specific result of such a process in the area of modern media. I will consider the first for a bit before going into the detailed consideration of some examples of the second.
The Long History of Adaptation
Japan has been ‘adapting’ cultural practice and information for centuries, most notably perhaps Buddhism, which reached the archipelago via China and Korea and became an integral part of Japanese spiritual life, branching out into various indigenous schools. The form of Buddhism Japan is most known for in the west, Zen, originated in China but was, in common opinion, completed in Japan. Subsequently it has strongly influenced the ‘way’-based arts from budō (warrior arts: karate, jūdō, kendo, etc.) to shodō (calligraphy) to sadō (the tea ceremony).
Along with Buddhism, writing in Chinese characters came to Japan, and they made possible an influx of Chinese ideas from poetry and philosophy to popular culture. Similarly, from the first encounters in the sixteenth century Western technology and knowledge began trickling into Japanese culture, until the Meiji Restauration 1868 started a metaphorical torrent of ‘Westernization’. What’s interesting about these broad historical processes is that even if they were, for a long part, attempts to replicate the ‘foreign’ concept as closely as possible, sooner or later a hybrid form developed as the result of ‘changing to suit different [i.e. Japanese] conditions’. In writing, the Japanese developed the two kana syllabaries to suit the flexion of their language. In poetry and philosophy, Japanese styles and concepts rivalled with Chinese ones or were synthesized with them. Western technology was and is applied to Japanese issues, from firing Western guns at rebelling samurai in the Seinan War (or Satsuma Rebellion) 1877, to the construction of the multifunctional Western-style bidet toilet, with in-built Otohime, in our day.
A page from the yomihon novel Jiraiya Gouketsu Monogatari.
To my mind, this far-reaching adaptation is not a negation of original, creative and inventive thought, but the proof of it. I will try to demonstrate this by looking at pop culture, since that is, as you might have noticed, my field of interest.
Jiraiya, the Toad Ninja
A long time ago in Song-era China, there was a thief known as 自来也 , because every time he broke into someone’s
Woodblock print of the kabuki adaptation of the same scene.
house, he left this graffito on the wall, which basically said ‘I was here‘. The Japanese reading, incidentally, is ‘Jiraiya‘. His story was first told in Japan in a popular novel by Edo-period writer Kantei Onitaka in 1806 and served as a basis for the fantastic story of ‘another’ Jiraiya, now written ‘児雷也‘ (Young Thunder). In the Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, The Tale of Gallant Jiraiya, he is the son of a samurai family fallen to intrigue, who learns toad magic from a hermit to fight his foes, a snake-magic using villian named Orochimaru among them, aided by snail-magic-wielding princess Tsunade. The novel was illustrated by well-known woodblock artist Kunisada, with images so iconic they informed the design of the kabuki stage adaptation of the work.[iii] This performance, in turn, provided the basis for colour woodblock prints of the actors in these roles, comparable to a modern movie poster.
Latest incarnation: ‘Pervy Sage’ Jiraiya from Naruto
In other words, the story and its title character were adapted from Chinese legend to novel to illustrated literature (a potential manga precursor?) to kabuki theatre, to popular art. Characters based on Jiraiya the toad-magician-ninja have come up in Japanese pop culture time and again, to the present day – most well known is probably his ‘pervy sage’ incarnation in the Naruto franchise.
Modern ‘Media Mix’-Society
Speaking of franchises. A great number of today’s anime are themselves adaptations of manga or light novels, and they in turn inspire games, movies, and even more novels or manga – from fanfiction/dōjinshi to fully commercialized spin-off series (One Piece’s Chopperman and Naruto’s Rock Lee, both comedy manga, come to mind). The simultaneous advertising of different incarnations of the same characters and plot has been called ‘Media Mix’ – it is very noticeable in the well-known Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, for example, where movies, anime and other products related to the manga series are advertised between chapters. There are a great many examples, both successes and failures, of a story changing format over the years, one of which I will look at later.
Alternatively, stories are remade in the same or a different form, as we know from western comic books and movies. A special example of this dynamic is the
Poster for the Kitaro live action movie (2007)
children’s anime GeGeGe no Kitarō, based on a 1960s monster manga by legend(ary) writer Mizuki Shigeru, which has seen a new incarnation, with the same characters and similar plots, in almost every decade. The title sequence alone shows how the series was updated time and again, from the uncanny old voice and black- and white animation of the first series to the electric sound of the 80s, to the ‘sexy teenage idol’ makeover in the 2007 live action movie.[iv] Kitarō in the last version, portrayed by half-Japanese actor Wentz Eiji, looks quite different to his animation precursors, but his silver hair is the call-back to the character’s very first manga appearances – which makes it hard to decide, of cause, which is the ‘original’ text being adapted. By the way, with all the intertextuality, genre conventions, tropes, audience pandering and suchlike going on, you’d have a hard time finding an ‘original’ to many a popular anime anyways…
The Live Action Dilemma
Manga/Anime-to-movie adaptation is a big topic, of cause. Live-action movies have the potential to leave a really big impact – they can be amazing and epic, such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films (that is not to say these are flawless). A good adaptation captures the spirit of the source material while giving it a new turn in a new medium. Ideally, it can both be appreciated by fans of the original and function as a gateway to new audiences. Some Western-produced anime-to-live-action-adaptations, however, have failed on both accounts, being badly planned, badly written, badly acted catastrophes, such as the infamous Last Airbender[v] and Dragonball movies. This seems to have played a major part in the genesis of the ‘Hollywood can’t do anime’ prejudice. It may come as a surprise to the adherents of this theory, however, to hear that a quite close adaptation of the Rurōni Kenshin (Samurai X) manga to a live-action movie in 2012 (with 2 sequels in 2014) was produced by none other than Warner Bros.
Kenshin, as shown in the 1995-99 anime.
Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurōni Kenshin was first published in Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1994-9, and was adapted into a long-running anime series, several OVAs, and (in 2016) even a Takarazuka women’s musical. The plot revolves about travelling swordsman in the early years of the Meiji era, Himura Kenshin. He fights for those in need with his reverse-bladed sword, in order to atone for the numerous assassinations he had performed as a member of the imperial loyalists in order to bring the feudal military rule of the Edo government to a close. In other words, the story is set within the complex historical events of the late 19th century in Japan, and its main character, however good-natured and cute his day-to-day personality, has committed murder countless times. Despite his vow never to do so again, driven to revert to his old self more than once, though he indeed never kills again. In a manga, it is possible to combine such complex ethical questions of atonement, the structure of the human psyche and the working through of traumas with light-hearted slapstick comedy, or to unite precise historical circumstances with flashy costumes and weaponry, but in a live-action movie, this could seem disrespectful or nonsensical. So how did the film crew go about this?
The Strength of Kenshin
In a first, thankful decision, director and cast were kept Japanese, preserving the historical feeling of the manga. Director Ōtomo Keishi
Satou Takeru as Himura Kenshin, 2012.
had previously worked for NHK to produce period dramas such as Ryōmaden, where some of the later Kenshin actors appeared as well. Thus the production team is historically and culturally grounded, and therefore able to treat the source material with the appropriate know-how. Art film director Hoshino Keiko even suspects that the long wait (13 years since the end of the manga) for a live action adaptation happened because until Satō Takeru, there was no actor able to perform the lead role.[vi] In contrast, both the Dragonball and the LastAirbender movie disrespectfully changed the ethnicity of the main characters, which angered fans and made the cultural context of the story seem paradox. For example, how come Katara and Sokka in the movie are two white kids, but their clan remains an Inuit-style tribe? Rurōni Kenshin does make some changes to its characters, but not in such a nonsensical way.
Instead, two to three manga antagonists are combined in one character, and the same goes for storylines, a smart move to combine many good scenes from several volumes of manga in a single two-hour film. Apart from the introductory text, all relevant background information is given by characters in dialogue, so it doesn’t feel forced. Furthermore, while the film re-shuffles lot of incidents and plot elements from the manga, they are still the backbone of the plot (pleasing the fans), and the resulting narrative is coherent and logical (so that those new to the story are able to follow).
The comedic tone of many of the manga’s scenes surfaces several times in the film, mainly through the music, which sets the mood brilliantly. For example, it aids the establishment of Takeda Kanryū as the cruel and threatening, yet also ridiculous main villain. Some of the comedic elements in the characters of Kaoru, Yahiko and Sanosuke are also incorporated, most memorably the scene where Sanosuke interrupts a fistfight he is having in a kitchen to share a meal with his adversary, or the misunderstanding-ridden, slapstick-y first meeting between Kenshin and Kaoru, which is highly reminiscent of the source material.
Sly and ‘foxy’: Megumi in the anime.
The two most overt changes regarding characters are the transformation of Takani Megumi and the exclusion of Shinomori Aoshi. In the manga, Megumi is a clever, perhaps even sly, woman (often compared to a fox) who makes informed choices; in the film, she appears more like a traumatized girl. Whether this has been done to accentuate Kaoru as the more reasonable female character, or for the sake of casting another young and popular actress, or for an altogether different reason, I cannot say.
Takani Megumi, as portrayed by Aoi Yuu
Likewise, there are several possible reasons why Shinomori Aoshi was cut from the plot. With so many iconic characters already featured, he might just have been too much of a distraction, but more importantly, there can only be one climax to the movie, and in the Rurōni Kenshin movie, this is clearly the fight between former assassin Kenshin and still-assassin Jin’e. A true-to-manga portrayal of Kenshin and Aoishi’s suspenseful duel would simply not have fit into the storyline. Jin’e also was an adversary Kenshin had great trouble defeating, but more than that, the emotional stakes were much higher, making for the more interesting scene – which is probably why, for the film, Jin’e was included in the Kanryū-plot in the first place. Moreover, the popular character Saitō Hajime play a minor but important role in the movie despite not appearing in the manga until much later. Between Saitōs aloofness and Jin’e’s ability, Aoshi would have felt redundant – though for Aoshi fans, this may have felt like stuffing in Saitō to the detriment of Aoshi.[vii] While some elements of Aoshi’s character have been transferred to the film-version of Hanya, like his mild concern for Megumi and his very fast short-sword-technique, this only leads to further changes, since it creates a character (now names Gein) who is quite different in personality and looks (model with a burn scar rather than hideously disfigured ninja) to the source material’s Hanya.
In the end, though, Rurōni Kenshin is an example for a successful adaptation despite these minor issues. The original manga has been treated respectfully. While its feel and atmosphere, characters and plot, visuals and emotional stakes are transformed as to leave lasting impact on the big screen, they survive this, for the most part, without losing their essence. Again, this evidences a transfer process impossible without clever creative thought.
Movie Poster for Rurouni Kenshin (2012)
I might come back in summer to the topic of adaptation and transfer/transformation, and discuss a different example, one befitting the time of year when scary tales are told to induce pleasant shudders against the heat – the cultural impact of O-Iwa, the female avenging ghost. But until then, I close my musings on the topic. Thanks for reading!
Notes and References
[i] The concept of orientalism – the construction of the ‘orient(al)‘ as binary Other to the ‘west(erner)‘, and how it informs discourse on the subject of anything ‘oriental‘ – was developed by Edward Said in his eponymous book (1978). See this website. If you’re short on time, here’s the wikipedia entry.
[iii] I compiled this information from various dictionaries on kabuki, such as Samuel L. Leiter’s New Kabuki Encyclopedia and its Japanese source, the Kabuki jiten, as well as Engeki hyakka daijiten (Great Encyclopedia of Drama), Kabuki tōjō jinbutsu jiten (Dictionary of Kabuki Characters); and the Koten bungaku daijiten (Great Dictionary of Classical Literature).
[v] I am aware that Avatar The Last Airbender is not a Japanese production and thus not an anime in the literal sense. But its look, cast and atmosphere are paying massive tribute to Asian culture and anime storytelling.
[vi] Katsura, Chiho; Hoshino, Keiko & Urazaki, Hiromi: „Katsura Chiho no eigakan he ikō. Tsukurite-tachi no eiga-hyō [Let’s go to Katsura Chiho’s Cinema. Film criticsm by those who make them“. In: Shinario, 68.11, 2012, 52-68, p. 62.
[vii] Shinomori Aoshi IS featured in the following films (Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends), however.