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Influenced By – I: Daoism and Onmyōdō

Influenced by: Daoism and Onmyōdō

With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).

The Way of Yin and Yang

…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.

Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang Symbol

In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.

The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery.  Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.

Some Background on Daoism


One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.

Lao^tsu Lao-tzû statue China

Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.

Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉


“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]

Five Elements


five phases elements dao tao relation transform destroy fire water earth wood metal

The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.

Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.


Daoists’ goals and means

So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]

Meditation and Outer Alchemy

Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.

Sexual Alchemy

One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.

Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism

One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.

Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]

The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office

Shikiban divination board onmyoudou

Shikiban divination board

The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.

It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]


Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding.  However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]

The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half.  Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]

Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.

The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.

Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype

Seimei Shrine Jinja Kyôto Abe

Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.

Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.

The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness  of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]

From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond

Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]

From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.

Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists



Sousei no onmyouji poster Benio Rokuro

The main characters.

Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a  seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]



The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.

…and Spells

purification Sae talisman spell sousei no onmyouji

The purification talisman.

When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.

Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.

Heavenly Guardians

The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.

What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.

Miko – Child of Prophecy

In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]

Benio legs kegare Basara

Benio’s kegare-granted legs.

Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.

A Theory

Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.

I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).

Notes, References, and Image Sources

[i] Blofeld, John. Taoism. The Quest for Immortality. London & Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, Mandala series, 1979, available online https://de.scribd.com/doc/204085686/John-Blofeld-Taoism-The-Quest-for-Immortality. As an introduction, another of his books on Taoism, such as The Secret and the Sublime (1973), also makes an interesting read. For an introduction to the more philisophical aspects of Daoism, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/.

[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.

[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉

[iv] cf. Blofeld 1979.

[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.

[vi] Blofeld 1983:80.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Concerning this, see also Hayashi Makoto & Mathhias Hayek, „Editor’s Introduction: Onmyōdō in japanese History“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013, 1-18. 5-6.

[ix] For an in-depth description of the reception of Daoism in Japan, see Masuo Shin‘ichirō, „Daoism in Japan“, in Kohn, Livia (ed). Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 821-42.

[x] See Masuo Shin’ichirō, „Chinese Religion and the Formation of Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013. 19-43.

[xi] Masuo 2013.

[xii] Masuo 2000:824.

[xiii] Masuo 2013:35.

[xiv] Pang 2013:100.

[xv] Pang 2013:104.

[xvi] An argument made by Pang, Carolyn, „Uncovering Shikigami. The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō“, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 99–129.

[xvii] Pang 2013:110.

[xviii] Pang 2013:117-8.

[xix] Shigeta Shin’ichi. „A Portrait of Abe no Seimei“. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 77-97. 78; 87.

[xx] Shigeta 2013, esp. 84.

[xxi] Shigeta 2013:93.

[xxii] Discussed in detail by Hayashi Makoto, „The Development of Early Modern Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 151-67.

[xxiii] Masuo 2013:22.

[xxiv] Masuo 2013:26.

[xxv] As mentioned in this Japanese-language documentary.

[xxvi] Masuo 2000:824.

[xxvii] Masuo 2013:21.

[xxviii] Pang 2013:109-10.

[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.

[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))

Image sources in order of appearance:

yingyang: https://image.freepik.com/freie-ikonen/yin-yang-ios-7-symbol_318-34386.jpg

Laotzû Statue: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Statue_of_Lao_Tzu_in_Quanzhou.jpg

5 Elements: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xing#/media/File:FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance_02_plain.svg

Shikiban: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/slideshows/rikujinshikiban-master.jpg

Seimei photo: my own archive.

Twin Star Poster: https://myanimelist.cdn-dena.com/images/anime/3/77328l.jpg

Purification Spell: https://josefcd904.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/twin-star-23-11.png?w=736

Benio’s legs: http://65.media.tumblr.com/7e67877a73df6a19068251c32c83e809/tumblr_oc34dm5WAy1vysie1o1_1280.png



Musings V – Adaptation in Japanese (Pop) Culture

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.

Jiraiya Monogatari vol 6

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

Jiraiya kabuki Danjuurou

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.


Naruto Jiraiya toad magic

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 Kitaro live action movie (2007)

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.

Ruoruni Kenshin Himura anime

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 Rurouni Kenshin

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 Last Airbender 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.

anime Megumi Takani

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 rurouni Kenshin movie live action

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.

Kenshin live action movie poster

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.

[ii] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/adaptation.

[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).

[iv] 60s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9boVDep-diw, 80s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bwOON3-1bY , movie trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX08cqhv0Kg . The animated series itself addresses this in the 40th anniversary special episode, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64BK6EQW3Qo

[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.

Musings IV: Japanese Idioms, and why it is a good idea to know some.

Perhaps you’ve been so lucky never to have prayed into a horse’s ear (uma no mimi ni nenbutsu), but I bet someone has once looked at you with white eyes (shiroi me de miru) until you felt like your stomach was boiling (hara ga nie-kurikaeru yō).

Yes, those are Japanese Idioms. I’ve had a class about them last semester, so I thought I‘ll share my acquired wisdom with you ;). As with everything Japanese, they come in a couple of different categories. And like in any language, mostly you can’t quite guess what they’re supposed to mean. So, I’ll first talk about the different types and then I’ll tell you why I think, all in all, they are worth the bother of learning them. In the process I’ll introduce you to some interesting ones, anime examples included.

What are Japanese idioms?

The most commonplace word for idioms is kotowaza, which I like because it sounds like ‘word-skill’, and that is exactly what the person listening to you will think you have if you can use some idioms appropriately. The more technical term would be kanyōku (phraseme), but for non-university contexts, I guess that’s a ‘snake-leg’ (dasoku) type of fact – pretty much superfluous. An idiom can be a whole sentence, making it essentially a quotation, though in many cases the source is lost,[i] or it can be a compound of words which functions as a part of speech, and that’s how most of them work.

So, you can have idiomatic compounds to use as nouns, adjectives and adverbs or verbs. What makes them idiomatic is that fascinating/annoying ability they have, as

I mentioned above, to mean something else or something more than what the individual words mean. Sometimes you can guess at the meaning based on the images used (that would be idioms based on a simile) but often enough you can’t (when the idiom metaphorical, or when refers to a historic or fictional context unknown to you).

So, read the first paragraph again. The last one might be easiest to guess, but perhaps I just feel like that because there is a very

similar idiom in my first language. If your stomach is boiling over, that means you’re seething with fury. And you might have seen a depiction of ‘looking at someone with white eyes’ in an anime – it means looking at someone as if you didn’t know them, mostly out of disdain.

The first one, a prayer in a horse’s ear, is one of my favourite Japanese idioms. It’s just such a funny image and it perfectly conveys that sense of futility which grabs you when you try to persuade someone, knowing it won’t work.[iii] This one also has some cultural flavour; a nenbutsu is an invocation of Amida Buddha. According to the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Japanese Buddhism, trusting in that invocation alone can assure your salvation by Amida Buddha after your death. So as I see it, the nenbutsu is kind of the cup-ramen of religious practices. The horse still won’t benefit from it though, making it the prime example of good intentions wasted.

The heavy stuff: 4-character-idioms

Back to the types of idioms: There is one pretty tricky category call yoji-jukugo, idioms consisting of 4 kanji characters, which are usually quotations (often titles) of ancient Chinese fables and moral tales. For example, there’s koketsu-koji, ‘Tiger’s den, tiger cub”: if you don’t enter the tiger’s den, you won’t get its cub. The story goes that a Chinese diplomat was sent as an envoy to the court of another king. He was treated favourably, but only for a short time, since that king was also offered an alliance with the Huns. As a reaction to the slight, the Chinese diplomat called his men, said these words, and they went to murder the entire Hun delegation, resulting in the king accepting the alliance – most probably because he was worried about his own head. So koketsu-koji means you need to undergo risks to achieve something, particularly in order to best your competitors.

Something you might hear student say during revision time is shiku haku, ‘4 sufferings, 8 sufferings’, an allusion to the Buddhist concept of ku. Such suffering is: being apart from loved ones, being among people you hate, not getting what you want, and physical illness – sounds like a day in the overcrowded library a week before exams/essay deadlines, doesn’t it? Not all yoji-jukugo are based on Chinese culture, however. Isseki, nichō is a literal translation of ‘[killing] two birds with one stone’, and it means the exact same thing.

Idiomatic wildlife

Let’s stick with the animals for a moment. As in Europe, animals have been given certain character trains in their folkloristic appearances. Horses feature as typical gregarious animals, since sheep did not play much of a role in old Japan. Thus, ‘if one horse goes crazy, a thousand horses go crazy’ (ippiki no uma ga kurueba senhiki no uma mo kuruu). As in a sudden stampede, crowds of people tend to follow the rest. Cats are greedy – ‘giving gold to a cat’ (neko ni koban) is the Japanese version of ‘pearls before swine’ – and foxes are tricksters, capable of transforming into humans and bewitching people. ‘Being pinched by a fox’ (kitsune ni tsumareru) means being disbelieving one’s eyes, because the situation feels like surreal, like a fox had put a spell on you. Speaking of foxes, the Japanese term for sunshower is kitsune no yomeiri, ‘the foxes’ bridal procession’, because it is said that foxes enjoy this kind of weather. And who wouldn’t like to see a bridal procession of magic foxes?

The kirin (not the beer, and not a giraffe either, but a mystical creature best described as a dragon unicorn) represents grace, so if ‘even a unicorn stumbles’ (kirin no tsumazuki) that means we all make mistakes. Monkeys are clever (at least in some of the stories) and try to solve problems, whereas dogs tend to attempt a violent solution, therefore they are mortal enemies; consequently, if two people absolutely cannot stand one another, they have ‘a relationship like dogs and monkeys’ (ken’en no naka).

Usage and adaptation

Two more examples, both with anime references, rejoice! Once, the idiom chimimōryō ga habikōru came up in a text on Japanese companies’ troubles in India. I could not only suggest ‘all hell Nura Rikuo, 'master of pandemonium'broke loose’ as a viable English equivalent; I also knew the term chimimōryō referred to ‘the evil spirits of rivers and mountains’, a form of (to borrow Michael Dylan Foster’s term) pandemonium. And not just because I have read his splendid Pandemonium and Parade with much more fun that you’d expect from a scholarly work. No, whenever I hear chimimōryō, I think of one of my favourite anime, Nurarihyon no mago, which features the grandson (and eventual successor) of the supreme commander of the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, who also counts ‘master of Pandemonium’ as one of his titles.

Also, if you’ve watched or read Rurōni Kenshin, you’ll probably know another 4-kanji-idiom (yoji-jukugo). Remember Sōjiro, the cute boy assassin who managed to break Kenshin’s first Reverse-Bladed Sword, and how he never shut up about ‘If you’re strong, you live, if you’re weak, you die’? That’s basically jakuniku kyōshoku, ‘the weak are the meat the strong devour’. I’ve seen that translated as ‘survival of the fittest’, but first, ‘fit’ doesn’t mean strong and second, the idiom has this sense of the strong preying on the weak, and remaining strong because of this injustice, which seems lacking in the Darwinian phrase.

Anime also lends itself to visual puns and depictions of idioms (or people misunderstanding them). Unfortunately, I cannot think of even a single example of this, possibly because I hardly ever watch slice-of-life and High School comedy anime, which I assume are the most fertile ground for such visual puns. If anyone reading this knows of an example, feel free to share it in the comments!

Translation issues

Anime Blogging Stress

As with all cultural references, idioms are notoriously difficult to translate. Do you take the closest English equivalent, if there is one, and loose the ‘Japanese/Chinese flavour’ in the process? Do you keep it literal and hope that the reader can guess at the meaning from context? Do you provide a footnote (or headnote in case of anime subtitles)? My own preference is a mixture of the first and second approach. I would try to find a similar English idiom and tweak it a little, so that a bit of the original wording and context is transmitted as well. For example, there is the yoji-jukugo ‘the fox borrows the tiger’s authority’ (koka-ko’i or kitsune, tora no i wo karu). According to the Chinese story this is based on, the tiger was devouring all kinds of animals, until he one day caught the fox, who said to him: “Don’t you dare eat me, for the Heavenly Father has made me master of all animals. If you don’t believe me, just follow behind me and observe. The animals will see me and flee.” The tiger believed him and did as he was told, walking behind the fox. The animals saw the two of them and fled. But tiger, not knowing they were running away from him, thought they feared the fox. (From the sengoku-saku/Zhan Guo Ce, written in the second century BC and detailing the history of the Chinese Warring States Period (5-3rd century BC).) So, the idiom refers to people who borrow the power or authority of others in order to boss people around.[ii] Now, as a translation I would suggest ‚a fox in a tiger’s skin‘, because like the ‚wolf in a sheep’s skin‘, the fox assumes the airs of a different type of folkloristic animal in order to deceive others. A reader, I think, will be able to infer that, since a tiger is much grander and more dangerous than a fox, the fox is doing this to appear greater than he is, and voila – the story has been brought across.

To sum up: idioms are examples of a ‘living’ language. They are transmitted over the centuries but still applied in modern contexts, even anime, and sometimes they change: the phrase kamonegi is an abbreviated version of kamo ga negi wo seotte kuru, ‘the duck arrives already carrying spring onions’ (to season it with), which is a way of saying you received something good without working for it. However, Japanese exchange students stressed that they knew the abbreviated version much better. In this way, idioms are one of the aspects which make a language vivid and interesting; but you wouldn’t want to misuse them. So, my recommendation to language learners is to pick up a choice few you find interesting, for future use. And if you come across one in the future, try to find out what it means: there might be a nice story behind it.

I close this edition of my Musings with many thanks and to my Japanese grammar teacher and my classmates!

Notes and references:

English-Japanese idiom lists:: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/30-awesome-japanese-idioms-start-using-english/http://www.linguanaut.com/japanese_sayings.htm

[i] If there is a source, you would call it an aphorism. English has a lot of ‚idioms‘ which are actually quotations from Shakespeare, for example.

[ii] http://sanabo.com/words/archives/2002/09/post_2904.html

Musings III: On the Use of Premodern Japanese in Anime

Hard but hardly useful?

As a master student of Japanese Studies, I am obliged to concern myself not only with modern popular culture and anime but also with the subject of Premodern Japanese. To be precise, I’m learning to read texts from the Edo period and older which use bungo, or premodern grammar. I’m also doing  ‘Kanbun’, which is basically a Japanese trick of reading ancient Chinese using said grammar. It’s quite cool to think about all the yōkai legends I’ll be able to read once I’ve mastered bungo, and to realize I have just understood a story written in China in 200 BC (!) – but the practical, everyday applicability of Premodern Japanese does seem rather limited. However, I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t found

A back door.

Pop-cultural products – anime, manga, and video games – do actually use premodern Japanese, here and now. In many cases, admittedly, the use only barely qualifies as ‘premodern’, and it is mostly done to give the show a bit of an “ancient” feel. In this way, it is similar to the drawing style of historical anime which sometimes evokes murals, picture scrolls, or woodblock prints. An interesting example, in both aspects, is the 2010 anime Katanagatari, which is set in a parallel universe’s version of feudal Japan. In the opening narration, a text appears in wild brushstrokes, which uses the premodern negation auxiliary ‘nu’ instead of modern ‘nai’. Katanagatari 1 opYet the sentence ends with the modern ‘atta’ (‘there was’) instead of a proper premodern form (such as ‘ari-keri’)… and even ‘nu’ is still used in modern Japanese, albeit rarely. So producers can assume that everyone will understand it, whereas ‘ari-keri’ would probably confuse people. This reminds me of the way ‘samurai’ in anime sometimes use ‘de gozaru’ for ‘to be’, to showcase the period the story is set in. It can be assumed that even viewers unfamiliar with the word will understand its meaning quickly, as it is used in exactly the same way the modern alternative is.  So far, so unsatisfying.

Gods and Monsters and the Prayer of Purification

Then I watched another episode of Noragami Aragoto (2015), the second season of the Noragami anime which continues the story of a hardly known Japanese deity, Yato, his sword-which-is-actually-a-dead-soul Yukine, and their friend Hiyori. They vanquish monsters and try to evade the battle goddess Bishamon-ten, who holds a grudge against Yato. Yato 1

Now, as Yato was making the little speech he always delivers before slaying a monster, to my infinite delight, I made out the premodern auxiliary ‘mu’, one of the functions of which is to signify intention.[i] 

Both the language style and the repetition of the speech before every showdown give these monster extermination sequences an aura of ritual. And premodern language patterns tend to survive in the formulaic speech of rituals, as Western Christians may have experiences themselves – think of  the Catholic Lord’s Prayer, which still uses the second person singular pronoun ‘thou’ and corresponding verb inflection.

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if Noragami isn’t referencing norito prayers here. Norito are the ancient prayers of Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, and one of the oldest forms of Japanese preserved.[ii] Since the main characters of Noragami are Shinto gods and their regalia, it wouldn’t be surprising if the makers had taken some inspiration from the actual Shinto prayer of purification when they devised the little speech Yato makes before purifying (i.e. slaying) monsters. A strong hint for this is the word Yato uses for Japan, Toyoashihara-no-nakatsu-kuni (something along the lines of “The Country Amidst the Plains of Plentiful Reeds”). The term is based on Shinto legend; it is one of the names given to Japan in the Shinto creation myth, if I am not mistaken. (This should be verifiable in the English translation of the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Things), Japan’s oldest chronicle, but I am still unable to get my hands on a copy.) The term used for Heaven in the series, Takamagahara, originates from the same mythology. Finally, Yato also uses the same words for spiritual pollution (kegare) and cleansing (harau) as the prayers do. There are even a number of Kanji visible in the background during the sequence, but never long or clear enough to actually recognize them. I wonder if they are taken from a religious text?

In addition, Yato himself has definitely seen the Edo era (based on the clothes and buildings seen in his flashbacks), and would be able, perhaps even likely, to fall back to premodern speech patterns when under stress or in a repetitive situation – no matter how contemporary (and jerk-like) he usually acts.

The common suspects and the odd one out

I asked around for suggestions of other anime with potential use of bungo, and among those recommended were a few I had actually seen already, just without realizing – Ayakashi and Mononoke (2006/2007), Mushishi (2005-6), and Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014), for instance. The first three can all be placed the context of historical (horror) fiction and/or monster-fighting fantasy; thus I assume the use of bungo can be attributed to the feel of magical/religious ritual and historical flavour I described above. I have also looked at two series I hadn’t come across before, Shōnen Onmyōji (2006-7, about the grandson of the famous Feng Shui magician Abe no Seimei) and Otogi Zōshi (2004-5, another dark historic fantasy which also features Seimei), and these also fit the bill. The aforementioned Hōzuki no Reitetsu is a bit of a special case, though. Set in present day, it portrays an unlikely oni (demon) named Hōzuki and his calm in the face of the daily struggles which come with his post as chief secretary of Enma Daiō – the King of (Buddhist) Hell.[iii]

Hōzuki is a very episodic and intensively intertextual comedy series which playfully joins Eastern (and a bit of Western) religion and folklore with a parody of modern trends and pop culture. Many of the jokes will go over your head if you don’t have some basic knowledge of Buddhism, Japanese folktales and literary classics. And modern Japanese pop culture. And koalas.

Well and sometimes, in the middle of all that, you’ll get some bit of bungo. For example, in episode 3, during a big sports tournament between the Chinese and the Japanese afterlives, the legendary beauty and poet Ono no Komachi pens a short waka poem for the title character. So basically, Hōzuki no Reitetsu opens up a third dimension of the use of bungo in anime: as an ironic citation in a postmodern (con/inter)text. And at this point, I’ll close my musings on the use of premodern Japanese in anime, at least for the time being.

Notes and References:

[i] See the beginning of this clip from episode 5 of the original series for reference.

[ii] For the following, I have mostly used this website  and outgoing links.

[iii] The opening introduces the 272 Hells of Buddhism, but the only version on YT is in pretty bad quality, see here. For those interested in the matter, Matthew Meyer’s yōkai anthology The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits includes a very interesting and intensely readable description of Hell (Jigoku).

Musings II: Magical Girls, or, Empowerment VS Sexism

Magical Girls puzzle me; they make me feel intrigued and desperate at the same time. That is not just because of my, admittedly, relatively limited experience with shōjo (‘[for] girls’) anime genres – until recently, I preferred adventure fantasy, which is sadly, but undoubtedly, shōnen (‘[for] boys’) material of the most popular order. No, Magical Girls confuse my sense of feminism and empowerment because I have experienced some as assertive, active, self-reliant girls, who are nevertheless trapped in the a spiderweb of the male gaze, where they are stripped (quite literally) of their agency and self-reliance and turned them into consumable sex objects. Voyeuristic cinematography contradicts narrative content.

I am going to explore this paradox dualism in the context I noticed it, the anime Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid, which is the fourth anime series in the Nanoha franchise.[i]  Rather than Nanoha herself, who is an adult and military officer by now, the show focuses on Nanoha’s adopted daughter Vivio and her friends. They are Magical Girls for sport and practice Strike Arts (a system of magical martial arts) with enthusiasm. Thus the series constitutes a crossover between the genres of Magical Girl and Sports anime, portraying the life and hobbies of school children in a world of both advanced technology and magic. Through the sport, Vivio befriends the mysterious streetfighter Einhart Stratos: like her a young girl linked to a historic era of magical war. They visit a training camp together, and eventually the four girls compete in a tournament.

The series portrays the girls’ interest in martial arts with surprising nonchalance, although it is made clear how sweet and loving and caring Vivio is despite her fierce punches. Vivio01-martial arts0102Their training programmes contain jogging, sprints, sparring, and other activities which could be considered unfeminine, but they are never criticized for it. Indeed, the only slight criticism dealt out in the series is directed at Einhart, who takes fighting rather too seriously and has to learn over time how to relax and have fun. Overall, the girl’s determination to excel as athletes and magicians is received with admiration by parents and other adult figures.

Even more surprising and progressive I find the fact that Vivid portrays a queer family, or at least something that comes very close to it. vivio01-queerfamily01The initial Magical Girl, Nanoha, became close friends, after a few duels, with a fellow Magical Girl named Fate back in series 1. Subsequently they fought together in the magical military, and when they began to take care of Vivio in series 3, they shared the responsibility for her as well, although the relationship with Nanoha is clearly Vivio’s most important social bond. Still, she considers both women her mothers, and no eyebrows are raised at this arrangement; neither among her classmates nor any of the adult cast (which, admittedly, is mostly made up of Nanoha and Fate’s female friends and co-workers). Right to the end of the first episode, I was astonished how progressive this anime seemed to be.[ii]

However, the other side was yet to come. As in (to my knowledge) all Magical Girl anime, the transformation sequences, in which the girls assume their battle costume and/or body, are a central part of the show, and as Vivio transforms into her battle form, feminist viewers are in for a kick to the gut. The camera caressingly sweeps over her behind twice, while her clothing dissolves, piece by piece, until she floats naked in the dark, hugging her magic device to her chest in a cringeworthy close-up. As her body magically matures to adult form and becomes enveloped in a ‘barrier jacket’,  her breasts are featured in two more close-ups.[iii] SHE. IS. NINE. I would find such blatantly sexualizing imagery disturbing in any case, but it is exponentially viler if the victim is a grade-school child. This catering to the lowest impulses in certain male viewers (a ‘taste’ known as lolicon, Lolita complex) was nauseating – and it started me researching. There must have been something I was missing, something to explain this jarring contrast of empowered girls and these most despicable objectification they undergo as they access their power. Well. Here is what I found.

Susan Napier addresses the problem of sexualisation in her (highly recommended) study Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. She describes shōjo, girl characters in Japanese media, as ‘characterized by a supposedly innocent eroticism based on sexual immaturity.’[iv] While such pandering to the shadier corners of the otaku  (obsessive [usually male] fan of anime and video games) demographic seems most unsavoury to me, a bit of research into Magical Girl transformation sequences on youtube convinced me that it is also something of a genre tradition, featured in varying degrees in these series, even if they seem primarily designed to entice preteen girls into buying merchandise,[v] rather than being made mainly for otaku (the initial broadcast time gives a hint about the intended audience – for example, the summary episode 12.5 of Vivid ran between ten at night and four in the morning, according to the website).[vi]

The global tendency to show women as sexual objects was described as the concept of the ‘male gaze’ by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. She explains these patterns of objectification in western mainstream movies in reference to Sigmund Freud’s theories, with special focus on a) the concept of scopophilia or “pleasure in looking” at an image/character, and b) the process of identification with an image/character.[vii] Although the female form evokes desire, it also reminds the viewer unpleasantly of castration anxiety,[viii] Mulvey argues. I wonder if part of the Magical Girls’ objectification is a kind or reassuring reverse of this – powerful, self-reliant girls seem threatening, so they are displayed de-humanized as a ‘fetish object’ for an erotic gaze,[ix] in order to numb the feeling of threat they may evoke. In addition, Mulvey observes how the spectacle of the female body ruptures the narrative,[x] and indeed, the transformation sequences clearly occur outside the normal space and time of the story, in a timeless void; the action pauses to accommodate the show. This strategy also casts the viewing male as the one controlling time and narrative development.[xi]

However, Mulvey’s analysis is based on western cultural production and as such only applicable to Japanese material with certain restrictions. Anne Allison notes this in her analysis of the set-up, fetishistic display of female bodies even in anime and manga actually aimed at children, which she links to a discourse of passive spectatorship and control of both self and other: ‘the positioning of males to be masterful viewers but passive and consuming actors’.[xii] Therefore, such depictions of women serve as titillation for adult men and as an education about their later roles for children.[xiii] The Magical Girls’ transformation sequences can thus function as reassurance to male viewers that women will eventually stay put in their place as sexual objects – even if they wield magical power in their adolescence – and as an instruction for girls to conform as they mature. Fittingly, Susan Napier defines shōjo – the Japanese girl character – as ‘liminal identity between child and adult’[xiv], a special existence where transgressions are possible, as long as the traditional female identity is resumed with adulthood. The Magical Girl genre additionally places this temporary freedom in a fantastic setting,[xv] which further emphasizes the unattainability of real-life, lasting power and equality for women. Kumiko Saito notes how in early Magical Girl series, ‘the magical freedom of adolescence’ seems to be a prelude to ‘the gendered stage of marriage and motherhood’ – in other words, freedom is possible only outside restrictive gender roles, to which the early Magical Girls return at the end.[xvi]

In the Nanoha franchise however, magic – and the power and freedom from gender role restrictions associated with it – is permanent, as demonstrated by adult magical girls like Nanoha and Fate, and their shared parenting of Vivio. In addition, the military provides career opportunities not just for magicians but, to some extent, for regular women as well: they crew spaceships, work as technicians or fly helicopters, and even those who serve as administrators or personal secretaries are depicted as competent and dedicated to their profession, not as women only working to find a husband to settle down with.

Kumiko Saito traces the unholy union of children’s show and erotic ‘fanservice’ to the 1980s, where tropes of action and science fiction became incorporated in the genre – indeed, the extended transformation sequences of Magical Girls seem related to the mechanical device-setup sequences from shōnen anime.[xvii] Thus, she also locates the introduction of the objectifying male gaze (using the exact term) in this period, which alleviates the anxiety potentially generated by gender-bending plot elements, in the same way the fantastic setting downplays female agency.[xviii] In concurrence with Saito’s observations, a union of sexual and mechanical fetishism is very clear in the first three series of the Nanoha franchise, where the transformation sequences combine the above-mentioned sexualized scenes with shots of the Magical Girls’ staffs assembling.[xix] (Vivid is a different case because the main characters are either fist-fighters or use small melee weapons). The same fetishizing fragmentation is applied both to the girl’s body and to her mechanical weapon. This genre convention is not only ‘one of the most effective ways to show the details of the toy’ or costume most Magical Girl anime want their child audience to buy; it is also described by Mulvey as a means to turn a (woman’s) body into ‘a perfect product’, commodifying her.[xx] This process sanitizes the castration anxiety evoked by the female body because it ‘is fetishized into a phallic substitute, thereby turning the male’s attention away from the lack in her body and toward the fetish that is made of her body.’[xxi] The double substitution of body-as-fetish and weapon-as-fetish, I would argue, amounts to an overcompensation – along the lines of  “If Magical Girls need that much: magic, transformation and weaponry, to be badass, than surely we have nothing to fear from normal women”. Female objectification and fetishism alleviates men’s own fear of their powerlessness in society.[xxii]

As Allison also points out, the limited (western) view of power Mulvey’s theory is based on – powerful viewer vs disempowered object of the gaze – fails to take into account both the passive role of the spectator and the power of active female sexuality, non-heterosexual lifestyles, and ‘forms of power, influence and authority that real women and real mothers in society exert.’[xxiii] Both the first and the latter two are present in the world of Vivid. However, the almost exclusively female society depicted in the series – also a common feature of Magical Girl shows creating ‘a pseudo-lesbian community in which girls enjoy a carefree everyday life’[xxiv] – can be understood either as a positive statement, that women are self-sufficient and in no need of men, or as a relegation of female independence to a utopia, as something only possible when men are removed from the picture. In addition, it creates a virtual harem for the otaku audience to choose the type of girl they prefer. Without interference by male characters, they can dream of having unlimited access to any and all of the girls on display. And there we go again with this oscillation between progressive and regressive facets which makes Magical Girl anime such a puzzling subject for me.

In the end, though, I want to read the story positively. By relegating males to the voyeuristic audience, the series transports the message that girls can fight, not for a male teacher, father or love interest, but for themselves, to reach a sense of fulfilment or to prove themselves – the same reasons which motivate the shônen heroes I usually engage with. Like women in our still sexist society, the girls are subjected to a sexualizing gaze, which violates their personhood even if they are unaware of it, but they struggle on nevertheless. In my opinion, any viewer decent enough to recognize them as full characters is bound to recognize their sexist treatment as injustice because of the contrast to how they are portrayed and act in the remainder of the show. I have voiced my horror at the child-abusive imagery above and now I want to focus on the fact that gendered characteristics and gendered genre conventions are mixed and disrupted, which leaves room for hope. Where the child-woman as ‘Battling Beauty at once fulfils the criteria for the [male audience]’s desires and [becomes] a figure that promises to liberate femininity’ from the very restrictions of gender which distort her portrayal,[xxv] there is potential for positive change, I believe. And on this hopeful note, I would like to end my musings on Magical Girls, at least for the time being.

Notes and References:

[i] This anime is an irregular Magical Girl show due to its strong borrowing from ‘male’ genres and its pitch to an adult audience, as evidenced by its late-night broadcast schedule. This was already very well explained here: http://www.animenation.net/blog/2012/03/23/ask-john-what-exactly-makes-lyrical-nanoha-more-adult-oriented.

[ii] For those interested in gender-bending and cross-gendered characters in the context of shôjo, I recommend Kotani, Mari, ‘Metamorphosis of the Japanese Girl: The Girl, the Hyper-Girl, and the Battling Beauty’ in Mechademia, 1, 2006, 162-169, and the Saito article (see note 5)

[iii] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTiwaZ9VLrI, from 0:30 onwards, if you have the stomach.

[iv] Napier, Susan J., Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, New York, Palgrave, 2005 (updated edition), 148.

[v] Saito, Kumiko, ‘Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society’, Journal of Asian Studies, 73.1, 2014, 143-164, 144.

[vi] http://nanoha-vivid.tv/news/index_cat.html?cat=Onair

[vii] Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Visual and Other Pleasures, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1989, 14-16.

[viii] Mulvey, 19.

[ix] Mulvey, 21.

[x] Mulvey, 19.

[xi] Mulvey, 20.

[xii] Allision, Anne, ‘A Male Gaze in Japanese Children’s Cartoons, or, Are Naked Female Bodies Always Sexual?’, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 2000, 31, 32-33, emphasis mine.

[xiii] Allison, 33, 47-48.

[xiv] Napier, 148.

[xv] Also mentioned by Saito, 143.

[xvi] Saito, 148. She goes on to discuss how in the 1990s, domestic concerns even invade the magical experiences of the Magical Girl, 157.

[xvii] See also Saito, 152.

[xviii] Saito, 145. She refers to critic Saito Tamaki for the claim that ‘anime and manga are produced and consumed within an imagined autonomous world of representations detached from what we generally recognize as reality’, 146.

[xix] Those of Nanoha and Fate come with moving, transforming parts and contain a revolver cylinder or a machine gun magazine from series 2 onwards; for an extreme example of the double fetish, see their dual transformation sequence from the movie version of series 2 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFuYTiUDxl0 .

[xx] Mulvey, 22.

[xxi] Allison, 38.

[xxii] Allison, 39.

[xxiii] Allison, 39.

[xxiv] Saito, 159.

[xxv] Kotani, in relation to Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon, 168.