Few Japanese words dominate otaku lingo as the word senpai. Senpai, often mispelled as sempai, sometimes appears more as punctuation to speech than a proper honorific. It also has a distinctive submissive flavor. Senpai (せんぱいor 先輩) is an honorific used to address someone who is superior to you in status. Honorifics are parts of speech used to denote relationship and social status relative to the speaker. English’s closest equivalents include Mr., Ms., Mrs., and Sir/Ma’am. Honorifics attach to the end of the person’s surname (kincaid-sensei). A few stand alone as you see in the famous otaku phrase:
Please notice me, senpai.
The phrase comes in a few variations such as “I hope senpai will notice me.” It refers to the speaker’s desire for a mentor or someone from a higher grade level to admire them or fall in love with them. I can’t point to a specific anime/manga and claim it started the phrase. Rather, the phrase encapsulates a common storyline in romantic anime/manga. In such stories, a character pines after someone in a higher grade (a senpai) who doesn’t show any signs of knowing who the character is or tries to ignore the character. This ranges from romance to seeking friendship.
For many teen otaku, the phrase captures their struggles with relationships and their social awkwardness. The stereotype of the socially backward recluse holds true for some members of the community–unless you count their online socialness. Many of these stereotypical otaku possess great online social abilities and run successful blogs. In any case, the “I hope senpai will notice me” phrase appeals to many who struggle and worry about their social lives. Many of the struggles found in anime and manga, and the ubiquity of the high school setting, mirror the same struggles of fans. The awkwardness of awakening sexuality. The struggle of growing into adult responsibilities. The struggle with learning the dos and don’ts of socialness.
Many introverts identify with the fading-into-the-background aspect of the phrase.I think back to my own high school years and see how my own struggles fall into the scope of the phrase. I wasn’t much of a socialite, but then I’m still not. Social ability differs from social proclivity. While I like to fade into the background (and can’t as a library manager), back in high school it was frustrating to be looked over in everything but my grades. My intelligence became my plea of “Please notice me, senpai.” Looking back, I cringe. I value my privacy and solitude now, but back then it often frustrated me that I couldn’t break out of my shell and be noticed. I didn’t have a particular senpai. I succumbed to the extrovert bias that infects American society. In some ways, introverts in American society struggle. Social America-senpai ignores the need of introverts for recognition and respect for our different nature. “Notice me, senpai” well captures the struggle of many people.
Although honorifics are ancient, the phrase is recent. According to Google Trends, the first blip of searches for the phrase appears in August 2012.
As you can see, interest in the phrase spikes as the otaku community latches onto it. Phrases like this became part of a community’s defining language. Language within a subculture separates those who are in and truly get it from the wannabes. Jargon also expresses sentiments and common experiences efficiently. “Please notice me, senpai.” can be read as a painful plea or as a comedic meme or both, depending on circumstance. But for those not initiated in the otaku culture (I make no claims to being an initiate), the phrase appears alien. The phrase makes fun of popular culture and lets mainstream culture-senpai notice otaku culture. Perhaps not in a positive way, but mainstream culture still notices.
The phrase also has a sexual component. In some cases, the person seeking to be noticed will flaunt themselves using the tired tropes of fan-service: “accidental” peeks being among the most common. While I doubt this happens often within otaku life, the Internet shows this as a part of the phrase. If you search for senpai you’ll see sexualized fan-service poses. This means people have made the connection between the honorific and sexuality. Within anime, a female character will sometimes use her looks as a means to be noticed, so the association is built into its popular foundation. This sexuality is neutral. You’ll see it in heterosexual and gay and lesbian contexts. Anyone of higher social status relative to you can be a senpai. Some stories play on the idea that a senpai has more experience (read:sexual experience) than the protagonist who is sexually innocent.
As for the honorific itself, senpai is half of a male social relationship. Kohai forms the other half. Strangely, Japanese women are not as aware of this social relationship as men are (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002). The senpai-kohai relationship is a give and relationship. The senpai dominates the kohai who must follow his orders. The senpai’s opinions are absolute, and the senpai’s social standing improves as he gains more followers. As you can tell, the structure originated in feudal Japan, but to a certain degree this continues in the corporate world as well. As for the kohai, he benefits from his senpai’s mentorship, experience, and social standing. Kohai receive jobs, social positions, and emotional support from his senpai. These relationships form some of the most important and lasting relationships between Japanese men (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000).
Anime glosses over this relationship because of its fixation on high school. Parts of the relationship remain in anime, however. Upper classmates are expected to mentor lower classmates, and lower classmates follow the orders of their senpai as if the orders came from a teacher. Sometimes the lower classmate, the kohei, benefit by associating with a certain popular senpai. Some of the popularity rubs off on them, so to speak. But anime likes to show the senpai-kohei relationship as mostly one-directional. The lower classes serve the upper. It makes for a convenient source for tension within a story as unfair senpai stir resentment that needs to be tamped down, lest social norms be violated.
“I hope senpai notices me” acts on many levels within otaku culture but has little to do with the origins of senpai in feudal Japanese society. Like with most online cultures, the word senpai develops its own set of meanings independent from its purpose as an honorific. While some may view this as a negative, it is how language works.
Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2000). Gender-role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 309-318.
Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in a Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. 443-452.
The best way to get to know someone isn’t in conversation. Instead, look at their bookshelves. Your books and DVDs reveal much about your personality, interests, and tastes. My bookshelves are a little messy and eclectic. You will find everything from history to religion, from science fiction novels to video games on them. As books and movies and games turn toward digital, we lose the pleasure of displaying our favorites. Part of the culture of the book (and of the movie) is displaying them. The sight of classic leather covers, the vibrancy of artistic dust jackets, brings as much pleasure as reading. Books and movies are part of your decor. You can use bookshelves as accents or make them central to the room’s look.
Public libraries have many ways of organizing information. The Dewey Decimal System is used for nonfiction. Manga is organized by title or author in most libraries. Anime is alphabetized by title and by genre in some libraries. Organized manga looks great on the shelf, but what’s the best way to organize it? Do you go the library route or make up your own system? Well, it depends on how much you have. Large collections benefit from the library’s alphabetical author method. The problem with this method comes from the different trim sizes some manga has. Some manga are larger than the standard 5.8 x 8.2 inches, 14.732 x 20.828 centimeters. This can make your shelf look uneven. So one way around this is to separate the books by trim size and then by author or title. Of course, serials look great when organized by volume.
A manga collection at a public library. Notice the space on the shelves that allows for expansion.
Most manga collection I’ve seen online lack breathing space. It’s vital to leave room to expand on each shelf. If you don’t leave breathing space, you will have to shift the entire collection to make space for new series. Breathing space helps the collection avoid feelings of claustrophobia and gives an area to display your figures, plants, or art. I like to use breathing space to display the cover art of books. To do this, you can purchase inexpensive photograph stands at your local dollar store. standing a book without a stand can warp the spine over time, so don’t do it! Breathing space requires you to have a lot of shelving, but it is worth it because of the ease of expansion and nice presentation.
Speaking of presentation, less is more. I’ve seen book collections (including mine) that look cluttered despite being organized. Some collectors try to show off too much at once. Take a look at this collection:
The collection has too many figures. They obscure the spines of the manga and make the shelves look busy. Japanese aesthetics follow the less-is-more philosophy. A single flower in a vase gets more attention and appreciation than two thick bouquets. A single wall hanging grabs the eye better than a dozen pictures on a wall. When you mingle your figurine collection with your manga, use this less-is-more philosophy. If you have breathing space on each self, display one to two figurines on each shelf. You may display three if you have long shelves, but don’t cram them. The open space around the figure will draw attention to the figures. If you have a large collection, store them and rotate what is on display. This lets your collection remain fresh. Whenever possible, use groupings of three. Three and multiples of three please the eye.
This collection could use breathing space and bookends. See how the third shelf on the right leans books? This is hard on their binding. But the books are flush with the edge of the shelf. This is good presentation.
Your anime DVD collection can follow the same organization method as manga. Libraries organize DVDs by title. You can organize them by series. If you have the space, you can display the cover art of our favorites. Spine labels on DVDs are much smaller than manga. Alphabetizing anime by title makes them easier to find. Genre is another option, but this can be difficult to determine. Some series can straddle genres. High School of the Dead, for example, straddles ecchi and action genres.
Avoid stacking manga on top of shelved books like the above image. This can damage the binding of the books over time. It also looks bad. Avoid direct sunlight. It fades covers. While it is difficult, try to purchase manga that has the same trim size. This helps your presentation and makes shelving easier. I know, I already said this but different book sizes shelved together annoy me. My public library has tiny, thin books shelved with fat hardcover books, and it makes it hard to find the thin books. It’s also ugly.
Invest in bookends. A good bookend reduces wear on your books by preventing shelf sliding. You can also customize bookends if you are crafty. Good bookends are not cheap, but you only need to buy a good bookend once. When shelving books and DVDs, try to keep them close to the opening rather than pushing them against the back. Books neatly lined up and flush with the shelf’s opening looks more inviting than having to reach into the shelf. Just remember to dust behind the books. Dust bunnies like to procreate behind book stacks. The exception to this rule is when your shelving has display lighting. Then you will want to scoot the books back against the back wall.
The image on the left is one of my bookshelves. Please pardon the poor quality of the image. The middle shelf is my Legend of Zelda showcase. I have more Zelda stuff, but I resist placing them all on display at once. See how the three pieces are pleasing? The drawing of Link’s shield is from my younger sister. Absent a bookend, I opted to use my writing notebooks as one. It’s not ideal, but it doesn’t look bad. It’s something you can keep in mind too, but don’t stack the end books too high. Stair-step the book sizes instead. It looks better, and its less of a pain when you want a book from the stack. My organization still needs work, but a book collection is a lifelong work in progress. I wanted to offer my shelf as an imperfect example of everything I’ve discussed. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be pleasing.
The presentation of your library is part of the enjoyment of collecting. A well presented, organized collection spruces up a room and reveals how you value what you own. An organized, neat exterior encourages an organized, calm interior. You can’t be as calm in a cluttered environment as you can be in a neat, organized environment. Your collection is a part of you. Show it well.
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.