One night as I scrolled through Netflix, I stumbled across Midnight Diner: Tokyo, a half hour show that focuses on, well, a midnight diner. The tiny eatery sits in one of the many narrow alleyways of Tokyo, well off the neon main streets. As you may suspect, some interesting characters appear in the late, late hours. Based on a manga, this live-action show centers on the small, but cozy confines and the lives that drift in an out of the space. The diner’s owner, simply called the Master, offers only one item on his menu, pork soup, but he will make anything upon request as long as he has the ingredients.
These requested dishes brings together the various diners, and as an added bonus at the end of each episode, the show explains how to make each dish. As you may suspect, the diner has regulars that appear in various episodes. An elderly gentleman named Chu becomes almost a part of the diner’s furnishings. Visitors include young women, transvestites, high-powered businessmen, and even porn stars. The Master acts as a sounding board, listening to his visitor’s stories and offering advice when asked. He possess a sad warmth, and he doesn’t reveal much about his personal life. At least, he doesn’t during the single season Netflix has. But the show offers hints. Interestingly, the diners don’t really attempt to learn much about him. They are engrossed in their own affairs, which is realistic from my own experiences working with the public. Despite the Master’s relative quiet, the show has a pleasant mix of sadness and happiness. Episodes end on a happy note, which I found a welcome reprieve from the often overbearing shows that fill television nowadays.
The Master refrains from interfering with the hi-jinks of his customers. He prefers to disappear into the background and listen, sometimes facilitating conversation with a well-placed treat or drink when conversation slows. He only intervenes in one episode when a comic duo beings to fight. For the Master, his restaurant is a place of sanctuary.
Throughout the season, small bits of philosophy and life-lessons spice the stories, such as the idea that a good day must follow a bad one. A few central themes keep reappearing, however. Although they are not overtly stated, they reside in the subtext of the diner’s purpose. First, the show urges us to be introspective as we grow older. Time passes swiftly, and it does us well to take time to dwell on memory. The second subtext ties together with this idea: to carve out small pleasures in the daily routine. It’s easy to lose sight of what gives life meaning as we go about the daily routine of work and home life. The small pleasures, such as a good hot-pot meal, lend meaning and help prevent the slide toward drudgery. The Master seeks to provide a small area of pleasantness for this very reason. He often offers food on the house for people who are obviously down or having a bad day.
The final theme of the diner involves togetherness. People from all walks of life sit elbow to elbow in the small, not-quite claustrophobic confides of the diner, sharing in conversation and food. The diner acts as a sanctum of connection between people who would normally just walk past each other without a thought.
Midnight Diner is a pleasant show you need to watch. A few of its episodes are odd, but then it is a Japanese show with different sensibilities. It often ends on an upbeat note, tinged with a touch of reflection. Its themes and focus on connecting people is needed in our divided society. You’ll notice throughout the show that people don’t chatter on cell phones. Rather, they sit next to each other, enjoying food and conversation. You’ll see quiet visitors who sit back and enjoy the banter of the old men. You’ll see the prim and proper sit next to transvestites with brightly dyed hair. All the while the Master works to make the conversation smooth with his food. Regular customers will bring treats to share with the Master and whoever is at the diner at the time. At the center of it all is the idea of connection and pleasantness, even when people disagree with each other.
That, perhaps, is the lesson we Americans need to learn the most.
Anime and manga uses its own visual language to show a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. The visual language isn’t always easy to understand for those new to the medium. Some expressions, such as happiness, are easy enough, but how do you show a character has an upset stomach from anxiety? What about dismay?
Anime and manga uses a minimalistic style to build character expressions. The style, thought to be influenced by Walt Disney, pulls from Japan’s own art history. Namely, it pulls from ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. These woodblock prints used Japan’s minimalistic portraiture it inherited from China and made the images widely accessible to the public. The simplicity of the style (which is by no means easy to achieve) allows manga artists to quickly suggest emotion, but the simplicity has limitations not found in more detailed styles. In response, a visual language developed to overcome these limits–sweat drops, beady eyes, popping veins, and other stylizations. The problem is how this language, like any language, has to be learned. Luckily, visual language plays on how the mind understands images.
More than the Face
Facial expressions aren’t limited to the face. We know body language influences how we understand a person’s intentions, but anime takes it further and uses hair and backgrounds to show expressions. Cowlicks and hair accessories are common additions to expressions. Background patterns flavor an expression.
For example, the base expression above is a happy laugh. Her eyes are closed and the upward sweep of her eyelids lend to the feeling of happiness. Downward sweeps tend to look sad. The upward sweep suggests how human eyes crinkle and close when we laugh or smile. But how do we express even more happiness? We could exaggerate the smile more, but after a certain point it moves from happy to unnerving as we pass beyond the bounds of natural expression. So manga artists added backgrounds. The middle image uses stylized flowers and butterflies to increase the happiness level. She’s feeling light as a butterfly and as happy as a spring flower opened to the sun. The movement of the icons behind her makes it feel as if she is shaking her shoulders as she laughs (and all without the typical motion lines). The third image replaces the butterflies and flowers with hearts; she is feeling happy and loved. Backgrounds flavor expressions to the point where I consider them as much a part of the expression as the mouth and eyes.
Cowlicks work similar to backgrounds. Most of the time they clarify and strengthen what the character is feeling. Let’s look at a few examples.
Cowlicks work similar to a dog’s tail or cat’s tail. Surprised or shocked expressions appear even more, well, surprised or shocked when a cowlick sticks up like an antenna. If this was a video, the cowlick would quiver. Of course, this only works after a neutral cowlick pose has been established. Antenna hair won’t look like shock if the hair is always standing on end. Cowlicks can animate independent of the character’s facial expressions, betraying the true feelings of the character. This allows the author to show when the character is hiding their true feelings from other characters. There isn’t a set standard for how cowlicks show expressions, but generally they droop when a character feels sad. They will twitch much like a divining rod when a character is curious and spin when the character is confused. Of course, antennas are common. At times, antennas are combined with spinning to show alert curiosity or confused shock, depending on the situation. Context matters with all expressions.
Anime and manga fans will see these expressions as self explanatory, but for some people, the simplicity of the face still requires a little deciphering. Think of these expressions as building blocks. Anime character design has interchangeable parts that can be combined to create complex emotions. Eyes and mouths are the most important aspects. Because the style uses few lines, even a slight change in a part of a mouth line can create a different expression.
The style also likes to exaggerate these standard expressions to the point they become stylized, even for an already stylized visual language. First, let’s look at standard expressions.
Neutral expressions serve as the baseline for a character. Some characters always wear a smile, for example. They don’t always show natural temperament. Some characters use a certain expression as a way to hide their inner feelings.
Introverted characters tend to have what some would call sadder default expressions or, ehem, a “resting bitch face.” Both of which are demeaning and come from a bias toward a bubbly extrovert exterior.
Happiness has, perhaps, the most variation of all expressions. There are various degrees of happiness, from a slight grin to over-the-top manic joy. Happiness can also develop a creepiness to it when a smile extends far outside of normal boundaries. This can mean the character is plotting something devious. Smiles can hide emotions. In fact, this is a common theme throughout slice-of-life and romantic anime. A slight tear in the corner of the the eye can suggest how much the character hurts behind the smile. Now add in background as we’ve discussed, and you can see how sometimes an anime smile isn’t as straightforward as it appears. The character’s neutral expression also factors into the smile. A default smile means the character has to use larger smiles to show their happiness (or hide their pain). Whereas a smaller smile on a “sadder” neutral expression can mean just as much as a large smile on a bubbly neutral face. And the larger smile may well hide larger pain in the “sadder” neutral character.
Context matters, and anime comes from a culture that focuses on subtext. The Tale of Genji and Snow Country are good examples of how subtext tells the story within Japanese literature. In both stories, there doesn’t appear to be much of a plot. However, the plot happens in what is not said or done. Everything is implied or indirect. Characters rarely say what they mean or truly feel. Anime uses this tradition as well within its dialogue and its expressions.
Anime sadness depends on the eyebrows. When a person is sad, the eyebrows will arch at forehead, and the eyes will close to various degrees. The more closed they become, the more tears will flow. Of course, in some scenes, the eyes will remain open, but more naturalistic anime will have the eyes close when the character cries. The angle of the eyebrows, mouth, and eyes are what denote sadness. Happy tears will keep the upward arch of the eyes and a smiling mouth. The eyebrows also won’t meet in the middle of the forehead as we see above. The mouth and the amount of tears determines the degree of sadness. I drew these examples with the girl biting her lip, but full on crying often involves a “laughing” mouth with its corners tapering downward rather than upward. Its a matter of what you want the character to portray. Fighting the tears, as the above examples do, shows more inner turmoil than full-on, open-mouthed crying. She is trying to resist an overwhelming emotion. It depend on what your story needs. But because anime and manga uses few lines, each one counts; you need to think carefully about how each line contributes to your goal.
Anger is closely related to sadness–eyebrows matter. The eyes and mouth can be similar, but the eyebrows angle down, forming a V at the forehead. The eyes will also scrunch. If you compare the eyes of my examples, you will see they are similar to eyes in the smiling examples, but the eyebrows shift the expression of the eyes. Like sadness, the mouth determines the degree of the expression. Lips pressed tight, represented by a horizontal line, can show inner tension. The character is getting close to exploding or suppressing their feelings. In the other example, she is dressing down another character. Her mouth is open and teeth are exposed, suggesting threat. Notice how the corners of the mouth angle down. Sometimes upward corners can send mix messages to the viewer, like the character is amused while angry. It depends on what you want to portray. Teeth can lend threat to the expression, which is why sometimes you will see fangs as part of more stylized expressions of anger. Teeth suggest the character wants do bodily harm–the more pointed, the more harm.
Anger can be combined with tears in the corners of the eyes for more subtext. Tears can mean the character is hurt or she is the type of person who cries when angry. Guys too can cry when angry. Blind rage requires a more stylized depiction.
Anime and manga has a habit of breaking from naturalistic expressions in order communicate what the character feels as clearly as it can. For those who aren’t used to the visual language, the abrupt deformations can be jarring and confusing. It can include characters suddenly growing larger than other characters, growing enormous heads, or becoming big-headed dwarfs–known as chibi. Most of the time, it involves exaggerating the standard expressions we’ve examined.
Manga and anime also uses visual accent marks to shift the stylization or standard expression. The popping vein and sweat drop number among these marks. They work similar to how accent marks above a letter shifts how its pronounced. That’s why anime’s images are called a visual language. They speak to us in the same way words do. In any case, let’s look at some examples of stylized expressions and how visual accent marks can shift the character’s emotions.
Most stylized expression deal with the eyes. Anime eyes are already far from being natural looking. Large eyes are used throughout modern anime because of their expressiveness. They feel innocent and offer a wide range of emotion as they open and close and stylize as in the above examples. Empty circles show a character is overwhelmed by events or another character’s stupidity. It suggests the character’s mind has shut down. Dead eyes appear when a character is completely and utterly overwhelmed by events. Beady eyes show shock. The human pupil enlarges when a person is stressed or afraid. Anime eyes typically have large pupils, so beady eyes simulate this response by drawing only the pupil. They also look as if the character’s mind has shut down, just like the overwhelmed and dead expressions. The last expression hearkens back to Warner Bros Looney Tunes. The character is feeling dizzy, as if the world is spinning. A floating spiral near the head, as shown in the example, sometimes appears to emphasize the sensation.
Anger- Popping Vein
Variation of “Sick”
Most of the time, a popping vein supplements an anger expression, but blind rage is a common way of showing anger as well. Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist often has this expression. The character is literally blind because of the lack of pupils. Sometimes the mouth become stylized as a box-shape and fangs will sometimes appear too. The popping vein, or cruciform, is one of anime’s most common accent marks. It represents the vein that pops out in some people’s temples as their blood pressure rises. Of course, anime will place the veins over the hair, on the hands, and other spots. Popping veins are a step between standard anger and blind rage. They will sometimes appear in a neutral expression to show increasing irritation or anger. Usually the character explodes after two or three popping veins appear.
Sickness, or anxiety, is an obscure accent image. Vertical lines descend from the forehead to show how a character’s mind feels heavy or how they are feeling ill. Sometimes blue or purple coloring joins the lines. Sometimes this accent is used to show depression. It depends on context and the normal behavior of the character. I added a few squiggled lines to clarify the sick feeling a little more. Most of the time, the forehead lines will stand alone. They can appear over the character’s hair.
The sweat drop shows distress. It appears across all expressions, including happy expressions and angry. In our case, our it accents our shocked expression. Our girl had seen something she wishes she could unsee. The length and size of the sweat drop suggests the level of distress. It will grow as the feeling increases. Sometimes, you will see a series of small sweat drops that increase as the distress increases. You’ll see the sweat drop when a character witnesses another character acting annoying, perverse, and generally out of sorts.
Many people new to anime get confused about the seemingly random nosebleeds characters experience. Nosebleeds are visual shorthand for perverted thoughts. Female characters have them, but male characters are best known for having them. It’s not unusual for a guy’s nose explode into a fountain of blood when he sees a scantily clad lady. The sudden explosions are suggestive of–well, to put it academically–seminal discharge. The association of sexual arousal with a bleeding nose allowed artists to show the feeling on the face (and avoid censorship of male arousal and the inability to obviously show female arousal). Because anime focuses strongly on facial expression over body language, the nosebleed makes sense. The nosebleed uses a part of the face that has few expressions associated with it. After all, with the eyes and mouth already working overtime, they couldn’t clearly show sexual arousal without causing confusion with other expressions.
Embarrassment is the only common expression that uses the cheeks. Well, to be fair, we could consider this expression related to the eyes. Embarrassment usually appears close to the eyes, but we will count it as a cheek expression. Embarrassment involves a series of lines or a splash of red on the cheeks. It has various exaggerations despite being stylized already. The red tone can spread across the entire face, or the character’s skin from the neckline up can turn red to show their extreme embarrassment. This is a common expression in romance or action stories with romantic elements. Embarrassment can combine with other expressions, both standard and stylized, to create embarrassed anger, embarrassed sadness, and other combinations. Sweat drops and popping veins can also combine with it to add distress or irritation. As you can see, manga allows characters to express complex emotions through visual sentences across the character’s face. But this only works for readers who are familiar with the language. It can become a confused muddle otherwise.
Fanged, cat-like mouths appear most often on female characters. These types of fangs don’t associate with anger, which can be confusing. Rather, the character is feeling catty–mischievous. The difference is how the mouth takes on a cat-like appearance, but this doesn’t always happen. Feeling catty also associates with a female feeling sexually aroused or having perverse thoughts and enjoying how her target squirms under her attention. You won’t see embarrassment mix with cat fangs. The character is feeling too confident for that.
This expression shows why the nosebleed became associated with sexual arousal. The mouth is overloaded with expression, so cat-fangs can be confused with anger or some other emotion if the reader isn’t familiar with the character’s personality. Sometimes you will see guys feeling catty, but most of the time such men become chibis to show their perverse antics.
The last common exaggerated expression is the tear fountain. This is a reference to Looney Tunes and other American animation styles that feature this exaggeration.
Fountains or streams of tears erupt from the eyes, but it is used for comedy effect rather than express serious sadness. Tear fountains disappear as fast as they appear in most cases. The fountains go from the spurts as the example shows to the more common streams down the cheeks. This exaggeration doesn’t intensify the emotion. Naturalistic tears are sadder than this, whereas most other exaggerations increase the feeling. Instead, this expression allows authors to show funny sadness or fake tears, allowing naturalistic tears to retain their meaning.
Anime and manga have other expressions that involve body language that aren’t readily understood by new viewers. They combine with the facial expressions we’ve examined. Sometimes you will see series specific expressions, such as in the Tales video game series, that build on anime’s common expressions. Authors often have their own visual languages, such as in the long-running One Piece series, but those special vocabularies are beyond the scope of this article.
Children and immature characters use akanbe. It involves pulling down one lower eyelid and sticking out the tongue. Its a childish gesture similar to thumbing the nose and waggling your remaining fingers. Akanbe is a corruption of akai me, or red eye–referring to the red of the shown lower eye lid.
The word orz represents the pose rather than naming it. The pose is that of complete defeat. The person collapses to their hands and knees under the weight of an event. The posture sometimes involves a sick expression.
This odd expression involves the character abruptly transforming into a pencil sketch or some other primitive cut out shape. This expression is used for extreme surprise, shock, or feeling dumbfounded. This typically shows up as a comedy relief and in reaction to something another character says or does. Usually only the audience is aware of the shift, but sometimes even the other characters notice the shift in look for more comedic effect. It is, perhaps, the most stylized of all anime expressions. It resembled modern abstract art.
Anime’s Visual Language
Visual language seeks to tell a story using images that create a type of standard alphabet. For the most part, anime has its own standard alphabet of expressions as we’ve examined. Large eyes, simplified noses, simplified ears, simplified mouths, and other features all serve as visual words that can take a little practice to read. Many of them are easy to understand, but some, like the nosebleed, aren’t readily understood. Anime’s style lends itself to flexibility and variety despite appearing familiar. That’s why it’s a language. Familiar words combine in unique ways, or they may combine in well-known, even cliched, ways. But the words themselves remain the same, just as anime’s few nose designs remain the same. If you are drawing your own characters, experiment with the language. Combine the visual words or exaggerate them. The visual words I discuss here aren’t the only ones available to you. You can also make up your own language like many mangaka and video game series have done.
Drawing in the style is akin to writing by hand. Some people have better calligraphy than others, but as long as the words are legible, the message can be understood. So too with visual languages like anime and manga’s language. A poor-quality anime drawing can still communicate the feelings of a character as long as the visual words are present and in the correct positions. The point of language is to communicate an idea or an experience to another, whether the language is vocal or visual.
Anime’s visual language includes words beyond the facial expressions we’ve examined. Akanbe and orz are just a few of those words. Poses of various types, scenes of electric power lines, and other common conventions of anime expand the language. Many of these visual words have changed over the course of anime. After all, languages change, but the end goal remains: to tell a story. And storytelling is what unites us across cultures and languages.
In a certain Japanese village there grew a great willow-tree. For many generations the people loved it. In the summer it was a resting-place, a place where the villagers might meet after the work and heat of the day were over, and there talk till the moonlight streamed through the branches. In winter it was like a great half-opened umbrella covered with sparkling snow.
Heitaro, a young farmer, lived quite near this tree, and he, more than any of his companions, had entered into a deep communion with the imposing willow. It was almost the first object he saw upon waking, and upon his return from work in the fields he looked out eagerly for its familiar form. Sometimes he would burn a joss-stick beneath its branches and kneel down and pray.
One day an old man of the village came to Heitaro and explained to him that the villagers were anxious to build a bridge over the river, and that they particularly wanted the great willow-tree for timber.
“For timber?” said Heitaro, hiding his face in his hands. “My dear willow-tree for a bridge, one to bear the incessant patter of feet? Never, never, old man!”
When Heitaro had somewhat recovered himself, he offered to give the old man some of his own trees, if he and the villagers would accept them for timber and spare the ancient willow.
The old man readily accepted this offer, and the willow-tree continued to stand in the village as it had stood for so many years.
One night while Heitaro sat under the great willow he suddenly saw a beautiful woman standing close beside him, looking at him shyly, as if wanting to speak.
“Honourable lady,” said he, “I will go home. I see you wait for some one. Heitaro is not without kindness towards those who love.”
“He will not come now,” said the woman, smiling.
“Can he have grown cold? Oh, how terrible when a mock love comes and leaves ashes and a grave behind!”
“He has not grown cold, dear lord.”
“And yet he does not come! What strange mystery is this?”
“He has come! His heart has been always here, here under this willow-tree.” And with a radiant smile the woman disappeared.
Night after night they met under the old willow-tree. The woman’s shyness had entirely disappeared, and it seemed that she could not hear too much from Heitaro’s lips in praise of the willow under which they sat.
One night he said to her: “Little one, will you be my wife—you who seem to come from the very tree itself?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “Call me Higo (“Willow”) and ask no questions, for love of me. I have no father or mother, and some day you will understand.”
Heitaro and Higo were married, and in due time they were blessed with a child, whom they called Chiyodō. Simple was their dwelling, but those it contained were the happiest people in all Japan.
While this happy couple went about their respective duties great news came to the village. The villagers were full of it, and it was not long before it reached Heitaro’s ears. The ex-Emperor Toba wished to build a temple to Kwannon in Kyōto, and those in authority sent far and wide for timber. The villagers said that they must contribute towards building the sacred edifice by presenting their great willow-tree. All Heitaro’s argument and persuasion and promise of other trees were ineffectual, for neither he nor any one else could give as large and handsome a tree as the great willow.
Heitaro went home and told his wife. “Oh, wife,” said he, “they are about to cut down our dear willow-tree! Before I married you I could not have borne it. Having you, little one, perhaps I shall get over it some day.”
That night Heitaro was aroused by hearing a piercing cry. “Heitaro,” said his wife, “it grows dark! The room is full of whispers. Are you there, Heitaro? Hark! They are cutting down the willow-tree. Look how its shadow trembles in the moonlight. I am the soul of the willow-tree! The villagers are killing me. Oh, how they cut and tear me to pieces! Dear Heitaro, the pain, the pain! Put your hands here, and here. Surely the blows cannot fall now?”
“My Willow Wife! My Willow Wife!” sobbed Heitaro.
“Husband,” said Higo, very faintly, pressing her wet, agonized face close to his, “I am going now. Such a love as ours cannot be cut down, however fierce the blows. I shall wait for you and Chiyodo—— My hair is falling through the sky! My body is breaking!”
There was a loud crash outside. The great willow-tree lay green and disheveled upon the ground. Heitaro looked round for her he loved more than anything else in the world. Willow Wife had gone!
So why do I study anime? I’ve had many people ask me why, considering all the other topics I’ve dabbled in. My first response is why not? But the question is valid. Why study something like anime or movies when there are other, more important topics. Anime, like movies and literature, is an extension of our current point in history. People design commercial products to reflect the interests, tastes, sexualities, aesthetics, and concerns of an audience. Anime acts as a time capsule for the otaku community. Movies and books act on a wider segment of the population than anime, but both contain what people find interesting as escapist entertainment or ideas that resonate. However, anime focuses on the age group I’ve focused upon as a librarian: teens and young adults. At least, it does in the United States. As anime fans grow up, we may see a demand for adult stories instead of the usual teenage fare. I know of many older fans in their 60s and 70s that enjoy Studio Ghibli films and anime like Cowboy Bebop more than most current anime, but they still find a few stories they gush to me about each season.
If you compare anime from the 1980s to now, you will see differences in animation style, dialogue, and stories. This reflects the differing expectations and interests of the audience and the change in technique by studios. On the other side, we also see more fan-service today, which reflects the shift in the community’s outlook. I would argue some of that is the shift we’ve seen in relationships in general. With today’s hookup culture, divorce rates, and alternative relationships like waifuism, fan-service caters to a different form of escapism. Granted, I’m speaking only about anime available in the United States.Of course, anime is an international medium that starts in Japan, so it will reflect Japanese audience sensibilities. However, we live in an interconnected world with overlapping ideas. Those overlaps appear in anime. They act as a small window to view a community’s psychology.
Authors tap into cultural language, and anime has its own language. Anime reminds me of the jargon in computer science and library science. Only those well-versed in it can completely understand all the acronyms and strange words. We have an international overlap and a willingness of the anime community to adapt to Japanese customs and language. Anime from the 1980s and 1990s, in many ways, lack the Japaneseness we see in current anime. We see cultural references like Shinto festivals, shrines, mannerisms, and jokes more often now. This shows an expanded awareness among Western anime watchers. Otherwise, these stories wouldn’t sell. In my article about 4Kids Entertainment, I pointed out how Pokemon was localized–rice balls were called donuts and similar things–but today you don’t see that same level of localization. In fact, outside of dubbing and subbing and a few jokes you see little at all. That shows quite a difference in cultural awareness.
That’s quite a bit to tease out of anime, isn’t it?
The complexity of anime’s interplay with the audience and international culture makes it tough to write about. I can’t, in a single article, cover every nuance. That’s why I write in a way that builds upon previous articles. This can get me into trouble sometimes, however. For example, my article “Anime Undermines American Masculinity” has received some fire for overgeneralizing and ignoring how anime encourages misogyny and more typical masculine behavior in addition to being an elitist East vs. West argument. However, I intended the article to sit in the greater context of JP. I’ve covered all of those issues in previous articles (misogynyhere and here), so I intended “Anime Undermines American Masculinity” to cover a topic I hadn’t yet touched in my framework. Of course, we don’t consume the Internet in that way. We consume it piecemeal, so people will see my click-baity title, skim just that article, and draw conclusions without knowing the greater context the article fits within. No single blog article can cover all the nuances of a topic like anime or literature or even video games. But blog articles fit into a website’s greater context, and within that context, my over-generalization problem falls away. I even state in the article that not all anime supports an alternative masculinity, but as these things go, people didn’t see those sentences. I had already covered the criticisms around the topic if people read beyond a single post. However, even a negative conversation is still a conversation that gets people thinking.
I say this not really to gripe (okay, a little), but rather point out the problem of studying anything complex and writing about it online. Academic journals begin their arguments with pages of how their study fits within context, but I can’t really do that here. Regular readers would get bored and passersby would skip over it anyway (just as I sometimes skip over those sections in academic journals). The nature of the Internet also comes into play. People often don’t fully read articles–I don’t either. People mostly comment and discuss with what they disagree or dislike. It’s human nature to focus on the negative. It takes work to notice the positive–I see this in myself as I study. I tend to focus on anime’s problems instead of what anime does well.
So why study anime? I study and read about all kinds of topics in addition to anime: Japanese history, the Roman Empire, 1st Century Christianity, Zen, Science (I love astronomy), art, writing, classic films, psychology, economics, Japanese folklore, gardening, and just about anything else that catches my interest. But, you see, all of these things are interconnected. Often in my research for JP, I will find ideas that trace back to the Roman Empire (because Roman culture still underpins our Western thought processes), and these ideas interact with Japanese ideas found in anime. If you study one topic, you will touch on all.
Most of all, studying anime is fun. I get to pull from my animation background and use my librarian research muscles. So why do you write about anime? What do you get from it or enjoy?
Let’s talk about men and eating disorders and, of course this being JP, anime/manga. Eating disorders result from what’s called body image disturbance, a fancy term that means you don’t like how you look. It’s well known that women struggle the most with this: 60% of American women suffer from body dissatisfaction. But 30% of American men suffer from it too (Chisuwa, 2011). Negative body image helps cause eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and exercise. Yes, exercise–excessive and compulsive exercise–falls under the eating disorder category. I want to focus on the male side of this problem. This side of the problem is often ignored. In fact, male eating disorders remains less studied than female in Japan (Chisuwa, 2011). Of course, I can’t discuss this topic without speaking a bit about women too. After all, women are 10 times more likely than men to develop an eating disorder (Goddard, 2014).
The Differences Between Male and Female Eating Disorders.
Men and women react differently to the pressures that cause eating disorders. Negative body image, social pressures, gender roles, perfectionism, and media push on people to achieve often impossible ideals. Those ideals, however, differ by gender. Women feel pressured to be thin; men feel pressured to be muscled. They also focus on different body areas. Women fret about their butts and thighs more than any other parts of their bodies. Men worry about the upper body, their chest, arms, and abs (Cordes, 2016). Male body ideals require strong muscle definition and a V-shaped, toned body. Female body definition requires thinness with large breasts and medium (not too wide!) hips.
These American standards have become global standards as American media pushed its messages into other cultures: “the United States possesses a Western culture that exerts enormous influence on the rest of the World” (Tan, 2013). These standards redefine traditional cultural body ideals. They don’t replace them, however. For example, the ideal male Japanese body image lacks the bulky muscles of the ideal American male, but it has still shifted the ideal. Unfortunately, Japanese men haven’t been studied as much as American men when it comes to eating disorders. But the few studies performed found Japanese men also underestimate their weight and muscularity. In a comparison study, male and female Japanese body esteem scores were lower than Americans, Chinese, and Israelis (Chisuwa, 2011).
Japanese Eating Disorders and Body Image
In a study from 1994, 60% of Japanese women surveyed admitted to binge eating at times and 15% admitted to vomiting occasionally. In fact, eating disorders go back further. Shutoku Kagawa (1683-1755) observed patients who would eat only small amounts of food for days, months, and even more than a year. When these patients were forced to eat, Kagawa wrote, they would vomit (Chisuwa, 2011). Considering this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Japanese culture struggles with eating disorders as much, if not more, than the West.
In similar surveys of men, most expressed general satisfaction with their bodies; however, most desired more muscle, just like their American counterparts. However, whereas Americans wanted muscle to increase attractiveness, Japanese men wanted muscle to help their athletic abilities. They also didn’t want the bulky muscles Americans like. Japanese men also wanted to be a little taller, but not tall enough to look down on people. In Japanese culture, conformity to social norms remains valued. This conformity contributes to eating disorders. Chisuwa (2011) writes about how children develop eating disorders when they attempt to conform to their parent’s pressure to lose weight or stay thin. Mothers in particular play a role in enforcing traditional body ideals. Teens even ask mothers for help with weight concerns and dieting.
These cultural ideals of how a body should be extends to behavior. Appearance, behavior, and people’s perceptions entangle into three categories of male ideals that each contribute to male body problems across Japanese and American culture.
Categories of Male Ideals
Although there are only 3 categories of masculinity, each have different subcategories of men. This chart comes from Yue Tan’s analysis of men’s lifestyle magazines from various cultures in 2013.
Vigorous and Macho
1. Tough and Macho. With a traditional cowboyish look and temperament, the model is muscular in physique and determined in facial expression.
The sharp, angular lines of his face speak of toughness and resolution. With tanned skin, in leather or cowboy clothes, the model appears nomadically unkempt, strong-willed and lion-hearted.2. Vigorous and sunny. Like a boy next door, the model often wears a coy, innocent, and brilliant smile. His skin is tanned. His clothing is sporty and
casual. His look and posture are those of someone who is amiable and easy-going.
Refined and Sophisticated
3. Refined and Gentle. With the look of a well-learned intellectual, the model
appears cultured, polite, graceful, and good-mannered. He is often dressed in
preppy style (e.g. shirts, argyle sweaters, etc) and wears glasses. His hair is always neat and tidy, and his appearance is always clean and classic.
4. Stern and Sophisticated. With a confident and firm look, the model impresses the viewers as mature and reliable. He is dressed in formal attire (usually suits).
Trendy and Cool
5. Trendy and Cool. Clothed and accessorized in the latest fashion, the model is likely to stand in a provocative posture and displays a freedom-loving and rebellious temperament. His facial expression is either numb or aloof, thereby creating a sense of distance between him and his viewers. He often leers at people and assumes the attitude of indifference and scorn.
6. Sensual and Sexy. Often in sexually arousing attire or revealing, tight clothes such as swimming suit and underwear, the model usually looks away from the camera and refrains from appearing smart and sophisticated or springy and sunny. His facial expression and posture—such as caressing his own body—often seem unnatural because they are contrived to seduce his viewers and arouse their sexual desire.
7. Androgynous. With exquisite features, the model dresses and behaves in a more feminine way or wears makeup. He appears in a more delicate, meek, and dependent posture.
Men are expected to sort themselves into these categories. Each ideal has its own body types to achieve, and all of which are not easily attainable by men with school, jobs, and family. Despite having multiple categories, the macho category retains the most focus. The American male ideal focuses on aggression, violence, and big muscles.
Think about typical American action films. A male hero, usually heavily muscled, uses violence to win the day. This links the macho category, muscles, and violence together. Male characters in general are more likely than female characters to be aggressive in media. This contributes to men’s feelings of inadequacy. Few can be James Bond. Strangely, when it comes to sexualized images of women in the media, this too has been shown in studies to increase men’s negative perception of themselves (Tayler, 2016). Violent stories with sexuality make men feel worse about their bodies according to Tayler (2016):
“It is possible that very violent images may be seen as more unsettling and threatening, or they may cause viewers to feel alienated from the stereotypical masculinity with which such violence may be associated.”
Modern masculinity is designed to foster this negative body image through relentless media messages found in movies and in advertising. In the 1980s, Western masculinity saw a shift toward outward appearance as a method to sell products and fashions to men. While women have suffered from this type of marketing for a long time, companies began to target men’s insecurities in order to sell products (Tan, 2013). Dissatisfaction pushes people to consume products that claim to help them achieve the ideals the media sells. In turn, these messages and increased feelings of insecurity creates eating disorders and compulsive consumption. As I’ve pointed out, this isn’t limited to the United States. Japan and other westernized countries deal with this.
Anime and manga don’t help the issue.
Male Body Image and Manga and Anime
It’s taken me awhile to get down to this point, but anime and manga foster feelings of insecurity in men through the same mechanisms I’ve outlined. Manga and anime reinforce body ideals and the ideal categories of masculinity. They feature ripped, aggressive men doing their hero thing. Look at Ichigo and Goku. All of then are chiseled. Beautiful anime girls contribute to the feelings of inadequacy. Although, waifuism acts as a release valve for those who lack confidence to approach women in reality. But the retreat from the physical world proves the power of media’s messages. Waifuism can leave women feeling inadequate just as pornography does.
Sometimes obesity, another eating disorder according to medicine’s view, results from how media pushes on insecurities. Some people use food to escape their insecurities instead of trying to achieve the media’s ideals. It serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Waifuism and heavy anime consumption does the same thing. They came from a negative self image (there are exceptions to this). In all cases, you are still giving into the messages of consumption–which is the final goal of marketers. Content people don’t consume as much as those who are dissatisfied with themselves. Consumption leaves a hit of dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical, but it is short lasting and requires more consumption to achieve.
Anime and manga offers an alternative male idea to mainstream America, but for most this body ideal isn’t attainable either. We forget that models on magazines look as they do because its their job. They spend hours sculpting their bodies in the gym. Those of us who do other work can’t take the necessary time to exercise and eat as needed to attain the look. Manga and anime model their characters off of these body and from people like Bruce Lee, who made martial arts and fitness his life. However, you will see just as many anime heroes that have thin “nerdy” body types. They aren’t muscled or ripped. They are a thin, normal. However, you rarely see husky men as main protagonists. They are usually supporting cast, like Naruto’s Choiji Akimichi. But alternative body types do exist, even though most shonen action heroes end up ripped like Bruce Lee or hulking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Knowing it’s all fantasy and not attainable blunts the messages’ influence, but contentment with oneself is tough to achieve. Even if you reach it, it can be lost without vigilance. Negative body image remains among the most powerful forces in marketing. People who are content don’t want or need as much, and they value what they have, which reduces their need to buy the newest and shiniest. Because of this, our economy doesn’t want us feeling content. Anime and manga doesn’t collude with marketers to make men and women feel inadequate.
Rather, it is a subtle momentum in how everyone thinks. Heroes need to be strong. Muscles mean strength. The connection was innocent in the age before consumerism and mass media. It was maybe even useful, but now the connections foster negative body images and lead people to eating disorders.
The pressures trouble me. It’s not like we can completely disconnect from media. After all, we enjoy anime and manga. Marketing in western countries is everywhere. People pay companies to market for them. That’s what you are doing when you wear a Nike shirt. We can’t avoid the factors that contribute to negative body image and eating disorders. The only tool I concluded that helps is mindfulness. Being aware of the messages peddled and how they make me feel helps me curb the desire to bulk up (not that I have a body that could).
In fact, emotions play a significant role in eating disorders. A problem called alexithymia appears in many cases of eating disorders. Studies estimate between 23-77.1% of anorexia patients and up to 56% of bulimia patients show symptoms of this problem. Alexithymia is the inability to identify, describe, and mange emotions and separate them from physical sensations. People with the issue struggle to overcome their eating disorders because they can’t identify the emotional reasons behind their eating disorders. Eating disorders act as a way to regulate the emotional response because of this lack of awareness (Beradis, 2011). Stress is felt as hunger, for example. People who struggle with alexithymia “eat their emotions” without being able to pin down those emotions or regulate them without some involvement of eating behavior.
As you can see, healthfulness goes beyond the health of the body to the health of the mind and soul.
Male eating disorders and body image problems deserve more attention. Anime and manga can (and does!) work to reduce these problems by featuring stories that address them and by creating male heroes without the extreme musculature. Anime does a decent job of this with many of its heroes, but many shonen heroes eventually end up with muscles that few men can attain in reality. But it comes back to us. We need to take action to reduce our consumption of messages that hurt body image, such as men’s lifestyle magazines, and look toward developing a healthy attitude toward our bodies.
Beradis, Domenico & others (2011) Alexithymia, Body Image, and Eating Disorder. Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretation, and Attitudes. 135-153.
Chisuwa, Naomi & Jennifer O’Dea (2011) An Historical Perspective of Body Image and Body Image Concerns Amoung Male and Female Adolescents in Japan. Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretations, and Attitudes. 1-26.
Cordes, Martin and others. (2016) Male Body Image and Visual Attention Towards Oneself and Other Men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 17 (3) 243-254.
Goddard, Elizabeth and others. (2014). Cognitive flexibility, central coherence and social emotional processing in males with an eating disorder. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry. 15. 317-326.
Tan, Yue and others (2013). The Construction of Masculinity: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Men’s Lifestyle Magazine Advertisments. Sex Roles. 69. 237-249.
Tayler, Laramie & Jhunehl Fortaleza (2016) Media Violence and Male Body Image. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 17 (4) 380-384
Takagi Umanosuke and the Ghost of a Woman By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892).
The Dark Presser. The Old Hag. The Ghost Presser. Alien Abduction. No matter what cultural form it takes, kanashibari excites and terrifies. Between 40-50% of people will have at least one experience of kanashibari in their lifetimes (Schegoleva, 2002). In the West, we know it as sleep paralysis.
Nightmares and sleep paralysis happen together during the second half of the night–REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, the body disconnects from the brain so you don’t enact your dreams. Even automatic reflexes, such as kicking when the knee is tapped, are shut off. This isn’t a problem unless the brain wakes up before the body reconnects. This is what is called sleep paralysis or kanashibari (Schegoleva, 2002). When the brain wakes in this state, it is still dreaming, but your eyes are open and seeing the dreams. The brain struggles to understand what’s going on by substituting explanations from your culture–aliens, ghosts, demons, vampires, and other creatures. When the body and brain reconnect, the dreaming stops, but it can take seconds to 20 minutes for them to talk to each other again (Cox, 2015). Until then, you are at the mercy of the experience (Cox, 2015):
“I had one patient who was lying in bed and woke up to see a little vampire girl with blood coming out of her mouth,”says Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives. “This is an example of a really vivid, multi-sensory hallucination. She could feel this vampire figure grabbing onto her arms, pulling her, and saying she was going to drag her to hell and do all these terrible things to her.”
The first recorded experience appears in Al-Akhawayni’s 1st century Persian manuscript Hidayat. In 1664, the Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck reported a case of sleep paralysis in a 50-year old woman. But it wasn’t until 1755 that nightmares and sleep paralysis became linked when Samuel Johnson defined the word nightmare. The earliest recording of sleep paralysis in Japan dates to the 12th century. The Japanese Emperor Konoe Tonno (1139-1155) experienced the sensation of chest compression sometimes associated with sleep paralysis. “Every night the emperor was oppressed by a mysterious agony which the holiest monks, working all their healing rites, seemed unable to relieve.” In 1153, Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) saved the emperor by killing a winged demon called Nue with an arrow (Orly & Haines, 2014).
The association of sleep paralysis and spirits is found across cultures. The most common story is the Old Hag, which appears in Japan and in Europe. Typically, it involves an ugly woman, often dressed in white, sitting on the sleeper or making eerie sounds. The English word haggard comes from this experience. In some European stories, witches descend onto sleepers who are trapped in their beds. Haggard means “ridden by the hag” (Cox, 2015). However, other supernatural creatures are said to cause sleep paralysis. In Japanese folklore, kanashibari happens whenever a person is about to encounter a supernatural being. It’s something of a premonition (Yoshimura, 2015).
The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)
The word kanashibari comes from a medieval Japanese spell called kanashibari no ho, a paralysis magic practiced by priests of Onmyodo Shugendo of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s thought the ability can be attained through intense ascetic training, and different groups developed different ways of casting the spell. In the book Shoku nihongi, the founder of Shugendo, En no Ozumu (634-701) used the spell to punish spirits who failed to collect water and firewood for him. Most often, the spell was used to subdue an opponent or expel an evil spirit by invoking Fudomyoo, the patron deity of Shugendo (Yoshimura, 2015). Kanashibari means “to immobilize as if bound with metal chains.” Kana means metal. Shibaru means to bind.
Who Experiences Kanashibari
While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, women and students are more prone to it (Arikawa & Templer, 1999). As many as 43% of Japanese students report at least one episode. It’s thought women and students are more prone to kanashibari because both have less control over their environment and because they have more disruption in their sleep cycles (Arikawa & Templer. 1999; Schegoleva, 2002).
Kanashibari’s nightmares focus on lack of control. After all, you can’t move during it. The frustration of not having control over your circumstances can come to the fore during your dreams. Despite this discomfort, students want to experience kanashibari. Some attempt to induce the experience by sleeping on their backs, which can help cause it. Others write “Get lost!” on a piece of paper, tear it up, and throw it away in an effort to anger spirits enough to visit that night. In fact, when researchers asked how to avoid kanashibari, students couldn’t offer solutions. They wanted to experience it rather than avoid it (Schegoleva, 2002). Here is an interview Schegoleva had with an 11-year old boy to give you an idea about kanashibari:
‘Yes, it happened when I was five. I remember lying in my bed, my body being pressed by someone in long white clothes. I could see my brother sleeping but could not move to free myself or scream for help.’
‘Was it a male or female figure?’
‘I immediately decided that it was a female. I don’t know why.’
‘You remember it quite well. How did it end?’
‘I felt that I could move my toes, and the same moment the ghost disappeared.’
‘Do you think it was a ghost?’
‘My brother told me next morning: so you had kanashibari and saw a ghost!’
‘Did you tell the other members of your family what had happened?’
‘No, but a few years later my mother asked if I had had kanashibari, and I said yes, and told her about it.’
‘Has it happened to you just once?’
‘In fact, the second time it happened soon after I spoke to my mother about kanashibari.’ [Laughs.]
‘How old were you?’
‘Well, it was about two years ago, so I was nine, I think. But I did not see anything, there was just this
strange annoying noise, like a glass breaking.’
‘Like glass breaking? Was there actually anything like glass around?’
‘No, and the noise was constant, not real, like glass broken into pieces – crrraasshhhh, as if something
big and fragile was being dropped on the floor.’
‘Were you frightened?’
‘No, the second time I knew what was happening and even found it funny, though the noise was …bothering me.’
‘And the first time, when you were five?’
‘I do not remember very well, but I think I should have been afraid.’
‘Do you know why people get kanashibari? Or how to get kanashibari?’
‘I am not sure, but some of my classmates should know, ask them.’
Media and Kanashibari
Media impacts kanashibari. When the brain is confused, it will reach for the best explanation for the experience out of its library, and for most of us, media has stocked this mental library. While we can know sleep paralysis is caused by stress, fatigue, and sleep disorders, the sleeping mind taps into the subconscious–the realm of spirits, hags, and aliens. In Schegoleva’s 2002 paper, she reported how one student had seen the ghost girl Sadako from The Ring during the student’s kanashibari experience. While in Japan and parts of Europe people dream of kappa, hags, and ghosts, Americans experience sleep paralysis differently. Susan Blackmore, in 1998, linked alleged experiences of alien abduction with sleep paralysis. The experiences match: the out-of-body sensation, luminous presence, and other associations. But why aliens? Well, in American society it’s more acceptable for people to believe an alien abducted them than a ghost or hag sat on them. Aliens are as much a part of American folklore as the kappa is for Japanese folklore. And it is out of this folklore that the mind pulls its understanding of the nightmare world.
Kanashibari can be a terrifying experience if you don’t know what’s happening, or it can be a something a student seeks for a thrill similar to watching a horror movie. If you’d rather avoid the experience, sleep on your side and try not to stress. A regular sleep pattern helps too. About half of us will have at least one episode of kanashibari in our lifetimes. Kanashibari is one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience, one that links modern people with folklore that had long since understood what we are just coming to know.
Arikawa, Hiroko & Templer, Donald, et al. (1999). The Structure and Correlates of Kanashibari. The Journal of Psychology 133 (4) 369-375.
Cox, David (2015) Vampires, ghosts, and demons: the nightmare of sleep paralysis; tales of things that go bump in the night have existed for centuries, but they may in fact be a part of a surprisingly common neurological phenomenon. The Guardian. Nov. 2, 2015.
Orly, Regis & Haines, Duane (2014) NEUROwords Kanashibari: A Ghost’s Business. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 23 192-197.
Schegoleva, A. (2002). Sleepless in Japan: the kanashibari phenomenon. Electronic Journal Of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 2
Yoshimura, Ayako (2015) To Believe and Not to Believe: A Native Ethnography of Kanashibari in Japan. Journal of American Folklore 128 (508) 146-178.