Friendship, Bacon, and Growing up: Silver Spoon

On its surface, Silver Spoon appears to be another one of those the-countryside-is-idyllic-compared-to-the-city anime. However, the anime has a clear view of the challenges of rural life, including perpetual farming debt and even the brutality of farm life. It also has a heart to it, focusing on several moral lessons: appreciation for life–including livestock that die so we can eat, the idea of true friendship, and the difficulty of balancing life goals with reality.

Yuugo Hachiken enrolls in an agriculture school to escape the demands of his strict father. Being a city-kid, he has no idea what he’s getting into. Silver Spoon traces Hachiken’s change a from nerdy, brooding spaz to a somewhat more mature person. I say somewhat because he fits squarely in what I call the annoyingly impulsive protagonist. He’s earnest, which draws people to him, and kind, but phew, he is full of emotional outbursts and fits of impulsive stupidity for being a supposedly smart character. As the story progresses, he does little to improve in that regard. The story even acknowledges it as “teenage boy drama.” But aside from his meatheadedness, the story focuses on the challenges of farm life from helping cows birth calves to butchering pigs to cheese making.

Hachiken eventually moves from a people pleasing yes-man to having a desire to focus on helping his closest friend and love-interest Aki Mikage. Friendship plays a central role in the story as Hachiken develops his first true friendships with his fellow farm-students. Hachiken takes time to understand that friendship isn’t a transactional relationship. Everyone on the farm wants each other succeed and so share their knowledge, help, time, and food freely. Even the upper-classmen randomly hold grilling events for everyone in the area. And all they want is their produce, whether it is meat or veggie, to be appreciated by someone. Silver Spoon doesn’t play on country-simpleness, however. Each of Hachiken’s friends have their own struggles and concerns, such as farm debt, that they keep to themselves. In fact, the anime shows that best friends are those that willingly share your worries. Hachiken, in an effort to prove himself worthy of their friendship, is a busybody in this regard before he settles into sharing Mikage’s burdens and becoming her closest friend.

The anime speaks out against transactional relationships that are fairly common today. People seek relationships as a means of getting what they want from others. In Hachiken’s case, its vindication and a way to ease his self-doubt. However, he quickly learns that isn’t friendship. Many of the farmhands around him cover his chore mistakes, offer knowledge, and look out for him without seeking anything in return. It’s just something people do. Hachiken drives himself too hard in an effort to seek their approval and pay them back, landing himself in the hospital despite their warnings. Only then does he realize his actions were based on his transactional view of friendship. Giving without expecting anything in return is the sign of true friendship. Friends also stand in support when facing challenges, even when it comes at personal cost. When Mikage shows her agony about her expected role in taking over the farm, ignoring her dream of working with horses, Hachiken wants to do anything he can to help her try for her dream.

Dreams, life goals, play significant roles in Silver Spoon. Hachiken is troubled by how he doesn’t have a dream while those around him does. All of his new farm-friends apparently have goals they are working toward. However, reality sets in for most of them, hampering or ending their dreams. Hachiken takes reality hard when dreams are crushed, and he goes off on his emotional tirades whenever his farm-friend remains stoic. He rails against reality while his farm-friends accept it. Most are pleased they managed to work toward their life goal, even though they can’t obtain it. That isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt them. Mikage, on the other hand, never worked toward hers. After seeing dreams get crushed under reality, she wants to try for hers. It is better to try and fail than never try at all.

Much of the dynamic in these conflicts comes from Hachiken’s achievement focus. Grades were his life before going to the ag-school. Because of this, failing to achieve a dream, no matter how far-fetched like his friend Komaba’s dream of being a professional baseball player, cuts into him. However, he soon learns the striving is more important than attaining. We need to pay attention to this lesson. Too often we focus on attainment rather than the journey. When we fail to attain, we feel like failures and forget all the benefits of the journey. Striving toward a goal that you fail to reach still allows you to come away with more achievements than if you didn’t strive at all. Throughout Silver Spoon, Hachiken feels as if his life is finished because of a single failure. He comes to compare this to livestock that are sold to the slaughterhouse if they are hurt or fail to perform. However, he realizes that even livestock can have second chances, such as a horse jumping an obstacle in a competition. A single failure doesn’t mark someone forever.

In fact, only through failure can we learn.

Silver Spoon addresses the callousness many people develop. Before Hachiken, the farm students thought little of killing and butchering animals. Hachiken is troubled by this and struggles to eat the meat from these animals. But he realizes a true appreciation for the animal’s sacrifice–and enjoying the flavor of the meat–ensures the death isn’t in vain. His hesitance toward death instills the same respect in his friends, and they grow the appreciate the animal cost of farming even more. That isn’t to say they didn’t care for their animals, but Hachiken broke through the callouses that had built up toward the end result of their animal care.

Silver Spoon made me consider my own relationship with meat. Now, I grew up in a rural town. I hadn’t seen cattle or pigs butchered, but I had seen deer, squirrel, fish, and other critters butchered. However, the supermarket has put distance between us and the animals in ways that disrespect the animal’s death. Americans eat large, unhealthy quantities of meat. This would change if we had to raise and then butcher the animals. At the least, we would gain a deeper appreciation as we see the gang on Silver Spoon achieve.

The anime points out how its good to bring in an outside perspective. We have the habit of not seeing what we consider normal or that which we see everyday. Think about your room and a nice shiny poster or figurine or piece of furniture. You noticed and appreciated it while it was new, but over months and years it faded from your consciousness. It became a part of the everyday. Hachiken breaks this problem for his friends because everything about farming was a new experience to him. It gave a new perspective for those who can’t see farming for farming any longer. Through Hachiken, they gained a deeper appreciation for farming and their dreams. Mikage, in particular, sees her fate isn’t sealed to the ranch and gains a deeper appreciation for the ranch at the same time.

Silver Spoon, unlike many agriculture-anime, doesn’t wear its idyllic goggles. It shows farm work as long and exhausting, debt-troubled and structured. It also shows farm work as friendly, cooperative, and teeming with simple pleasures like farm-fresh pizza.

Anime and Manga Facial Expressions

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.

Standard 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

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.

Sadness

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

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.

Stylized Expressions

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.

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.

The Nosebleed

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

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.

Feeling Catty

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.

Tear Fountains

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.

Other Expressions

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.

Akanbe

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.

orz

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.

Deformation

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.

Why Study Anime?

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 (misogyny here 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?

The Legacy of 4Kids Entertainment

4Kids Entertainment. I’ll wait while you hug the porcelain and bring up your last meal.

Feeling a little better?

Anime fans detest 4Kids for how they localized and censored and cut series like Pokemon, One Piece, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and others. However, the company is behind successful children’s shows that didn’t suffer the same fate: Cabbage Patch Kids and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before we mark the company as a villain for anime, we have to consider the time period it committed its anime atrocities, as some fans see it. Hyperbole much? Saban Entertainment also gave Dragonball Z the same treatment during its US release (Daniels, 2008).

But at the time, anime wasn’t mainstream. Sure, it was around, but it wasn’t a part of the American childhood. Despite what anime fans say, 4Kids helped popularize anime. Al Kahn, the head of 4Kids, spent over 20 years distributing and promoting childhood stories. He saw kids playing Pocket Monsters on a business trip to Japan, and he convinced Nintendo and the owning companies to bring the game to the US. He also gave it its iconic name (Tsukayama, 2016):

He decided then that the game needed a cooler name than “Pocket Monsters.” “I didn’t like the name ‘Pocket Monsters,’” he said, partially because it didn’t sound different enough from other monster games. “I wanted the name to be more Japanese-y.”

The statement is a little tone-deaf, and his Americanization of the anime proved controversial and uneven. He kept many of the Japanese names of Pokemon, like pikachu, but changed other aspects of the show. For example, he changed the name of the game’s protagonist from Satoshi to Ash Ketchum. The music and scripts were also rewritten to suit American children (Tsukayama, 2016).  Japanese food was replaced with American foods because the company worried that American children wouldn’t recognize rice balls were food, leading to the (in)famous scene of Brock referring to rice balls as jelly donuts (Champers, 2012).

TV stations resisted the show, thinking it was too strange and too much like anime. Many shoved it into the 6am slot, a poorly performing time, but soon that slot was seeing more viewers than the prime after-school slots (Tsukayama, 2016).

But 4Kids’ concerns may not have been too far off, considering the time. During the 1990s, anime was still hidden in a cultural niche despite Ghibli film releases. I’m not justifying what they did, but their localizations did introduce children to Japanese elements. It was a step toward wider acceptance of anime and Japanese culture. They ran into trouble when they tried the same tactics with One Piece in 2004. By this time, people had become used to anime’s Japanese elements, so when one of the most popular show about pirates hit the US, localization wasn’t necessary. But 4Kids wasn’t with the times.

Instead, the company followed their habit and eliminated One Piece‘s Japanese and violent elements, never mind how violent American TV had become. 4Kids digitally changed all firearms to look like toys. Cigarettes became lollipops or poorly edited out, leaving smoke trails behind. They also cut a large number of episodes, including entire story arcs, and compressed multiples episodes into one.

As you can imagine, fans weren’t pleased.

Considering the US’s history of children’s shows, 4Kids’s decisions make sense. It was a few years after 9/11 and violence in media was under fire. Although TV continued to show ever-escalating levels of violence despite the outcry in some areas of the country. But 4Kids had fallen out of touch with its now-Japanese-culture savvy audience. Eventually the Japanese animation studio that created Yu-Gi-Oh!, 4Kid’s flagship earner–earning $152 million for the company between 2001 and 2009–claimed 4Kids owed it for making secret agreements with TV stations and home video companies and handling royalties in shady ways (Gardner, 2011).

A series of bankruptcies followed with the most recent happened in September 21, 2016. The company attempted to distance itself from its now tainted and infamous 4Kids brand by renaming itself 4Licensing Corporation on December 21, 2012 (4Licensing, n.d.; United States, 2012). But the damage was done with fans as the meme “What if 4Kids got show title” shows.

The Dangers of Localization

One Piece and Yu-Gi-Oh! suffered the most from 4Kid’s localization. Pokemon survived mostly intact with only jelly donut-level problems and a few cut episodes. 4Kids had a role in making anime more mainstream in the US, although the most avid 4Kids hater would deny that. However, the company failed to pay attention to their audience’s level of comfort and acceptance for Japanese elements as time passed. Their Pokemon and early Yu-Gi-Oh! localizations had cut a road for new anime fans who wanted the genuine experience. Also, by 2004, anime communities had sprung up online that had access to uncut episodes of One Piece and more.

The removal of Japanese elements and violence can compromise the vision and message the author intended. Violence in anime, for example, may be a comment on the human condition. Eliminating it removes that message. In One Piece’s case, removing cigarettes and making firearms look like toys, denies the danger and roughness of pirate culture. It hurts characterization.

Japanese culture references reveal part of the author’s identity and experiences. It gives context to the story, and without those references, the message of the story may garble. Not to mention it is insulting to substitute American elements for Japanese. It suggests American (or British, or French, or whatever culture is substituting for Japanese) is superior. It also insults the intelligence of the viewer. After all, even a child who had never seen a rice ball and know its food when characters eat it.

Now some aspects of localization are necessary. Some idioms don’t translate well between cultures, and sometimes you run against language limits. Some languages have words others do not have have, so an approximation is needed. 4Kids helped American children wean into anime, but as exposure and understanding of Japanese culture became common, localization of the type the company practice wasn’t necessary.

Vilifying 4Kids

Segments of the anime community can’t forget what 4Kids did. Memes still circulate about the company’s handling. Anime fans are understandably sensitive to localization. They still have the dub vs. sub debate raging. However, even subtitled anime are localized. Localization can only be prevented by watching anime in Japanese and being immersed in Japanese culture. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy a story as close to the original as possible. However, dubs play an important role in making anime more accessible, which benefits the medium outside of Japan. 4Kids doesn’t fully deserve its smearing in the community. Yes, they handled their properties poorly, and they were….unsavory…..in their “Japanese-y” approach to Pokemon. Their method denigrated Japanese culture.

Despite all of this, 4Kids has an important place in American anime culture. They helped make anime mainstream to the point where Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! weren’t considered anime. They were considered cartoons. This small distinction allowed anime to move from a niche and into the American childhood. It created several generations of anime fans that later moved toward other anime series, such as One Piece. No matter how much the anime community vilifies 4Kids, the company had an important role in the development of anime in the United States.

Reference

“4Licensing Corporation Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy | Business Wire”. www.businesswire.com. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160922006380/en/4Licensing-Corporation-Files-Chapter-11-Bankruptcy

Ali, R. (2009). Yu-Gi-Oh! & Cabbage Patch Kids U.S. Parent 4Kids Entertainment for Sale. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/04/AR2009080401638.html.

Chambers, S. (2012) Anime: From Following to Pop Culture Phenomenon. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 3 (2) 94-102.

Daniels, J. (2008) “Lost in Translation”: Anime, Moral Rights, and Market Failure. Boston University Law Review. 88 (709). 709-745.

“UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION: FORM 8-K: 4Licensing Corporation (December 21, 2012)”. Edgar Online. December 21, 2012.  http://yahoo.brand.edgar-online.com/displayfilinginfo.aspx?FilingID=8990367-1208-18945&type=sect&dcn=0001140361-12-052927

Tsukayama, H. (2016) Meet the man who made Pokemon an international phenomenon. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/08/04/meet-the-man-who-made-pokemon-an-international-phenomenon/

Jiraiya and the Magic Frog: The Story Behind Naruto’s Characters

“Jiraiya and the Magic Frog” provides the inspiration for three of Naruto’s characters: Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru. In this story, Jiraiya doesn’t become a sage until the end, but he summons giant frogs and matches the rough character from Naruto. As in Naruto, the Jiraiyo of folklore chases Tsunade. Both struggle against Orochimaru. Many of Orochimaru’s powers trace to this story. Anime taps many of Japan’s folktales for characters and inspiration. As you read this story, you’ll see many other similarities with Naruto.

Ogata was the name of a castle-lord who lived in the Island of the Nine Provinces, (Kiushiu). He had but one son, an infant, whom the people in admiration nicknamed Jiraiya (Young Thunder.) During one of the civil wars, this castle was taken, and Ogata was slain, but by the aid of a faithful retainer, who hid Jiraiya in his bosom, the boy escaped and fled northward to Echigo. There he lived until he grew up to manhood.

At that time Echigo was infested with robbers. One day the faithful retainer of Jiraiya being attacked, made resistance, and was slain by the robbers. Jiraiya now left alone in the world went out from Echigo and led a wandering life in several provinces.

All this time he was consumed with the desire to revive the name of his father, and restore the fortunes of his family. Being exceedingly brave, and an expert swordsman, he became chief of a band of robbers and plundered many wealthy merchants, and in a short time he was rich in men, arms and booty. He was accustomed to disguise himself, and go in person into the houses and presence of men of wealth, and thus learn all about their gates and guards, where they slept, and in what rooms their treasures were stored, so that success was easy.

Hearing of an old man who lived in Shinano, he started to rob him, and for this purpose put on the disguise of a pilgrim. Shinano is a very high table-land, full of mountains, and the snow lies deep in winter. A great snow storm coming on, Jiraiya took refuge in a humble house by the way. Entering, he found a very beautiful woman, who treated him with great kindness. This, however, did not change the robber’s nature. At midnight, when all was still, he unsheathed his sword, and going noiselessly to her room, he found the lady absorbed in reading.

Lifting his sword, he was about to strike at her neck, when, in a flash, her body changed into that of a very old man, who seized the heavy steel blade and broke it in pieces as though it were a stick. Then he tossed the bits of steel away, and thus spoke to Jiraiya, who stood amazed but fearless:

“I am a man named Senso Dojin, and I have lived in these mountains many hundred years, though my true body is that of a huge frog. I can easily put you to death but I have another purpose. So I shall pardon you and teach you magic instead.”

Then the youth bowed his head to the floor, poured out his thanks to the old man and begged to be received as his pupil.

Remaining with the old man of the mountain for several weeks, Jiraiya learned all the arts of the mountain spirits; how to cause a storm of wind and rain, to make a deluge, and to control the elements at will.

He also learned how to govern the frogs, and at his bidding they assumed gigantic size, so that on their backs he could stand up and cross rivers and carry enormous loads.

When the old man had finished instructing him he said “Henceforth cease from robbing, or in any way injuring the poor. Take from the wicked rich, and those who acquire money dishonestly, but help the needy and the suffering.” Thus speaking, the old man turned into a huge frog and hopped away.

What this old mountain spirit bade him do, was just what Jiraiya wished to accomplish. He set out on his journey with a light heart. “I can now make the storm and the waters obey me, and all the frogs are at my command; but alas! the magic of the frog cannot control that of the serpent. I shall beware of his poison.”

From that time forth the oppressed poor people rejoiced many a time as the avaricious merchants and extortionate money lenders lost their treasures. For when a poor farmer, whose crops failed, could not pay his rent or loan on the date promised, these hard-hearted money lenders would turn him out of his house, seize his beds and mats and rice-tub, and even the shrine and images on the god-shelf, to sell them at auction for a trifle, to their minions, who resold them at a high price for the money-lender, who thus got a double benefit. Whenever a miser was robbed, the people said, “The young thunder has struck,” and then they were glad, knowing that it was Jiraiya, (Young Thunder.) In this manner his name soon grew to be the poor people’s watchword in those troublous times.

Yet Jiraiya was always ready to help the innocent and honest, even if they were rich. One day a merchant named Fukutaro was sentenced to death, though he was really not guilty. Jiraiya hearing of it, went to the magistrate and said that he himself was the very man who committed the robbery. So the man’s life was saved, and Jiraiya was hanged on a large oak tree. But during the night, his dead body changed into a bull-frog which hopped away out of sight, and off into the mountains of Shinano.

At this time, there was living in this province, a young and beautiful maiden named Tsunadé. Her character was very lovely. She was always obedient to her parents and kind to her friends. Her daily task was to go to the mountains and cut brushwood for fuel. One day while thus busy singing at the task, she met a very old man, with a long white beard sweeping his breast, who said to her:

“Do not fear me. I have lived in this mountain many hundred years, but my real body is that of a snail. I will teach you the powers of magic, so that you can walk on the sea, or cross a river however swift and deep, as though it were dry land.”

Gladly the maiden took daily lessons of the old man, and soon was able to walk on the waters as on the mountain paths. One day the old man said, “I shall now leave you and resume my former shape. Use your power to destroy wicked robbers. Help those who defend the poor. I advise you to marry the celebrated man Jiraiya, and thus you will unite your powers.”

Thus saying, the old man shrivelled up into a snail and crawled away.

“I am glad,” said the maiden to herself, “for the magic of the snail can overcome that of the serpent. When Jiraiya, who has the magic of the frog, shall marry me, we can then destroy the son of the serpent, the robber named Dragon-coil (Orochimaru).”

By good fortune, Jiraiya met the maiden Tsunadé, and being charmed with her beauty, and knowing her power of magic, sent a messenger with presents to her parents, asking them to give him their daughter to wife. The parents agreed, and so the young and loving couple were married.

Hitherto when Jiraiya wished to cross a river he changed himself into a frog and swam across; or, he summoned a bull-frog before him, which increased in size until as large as an elephant. Then standing erect on his warty back, even though the wind blew his garments wildly, Jiraiya reached the opposite shore in safety. But now, with his wife’s powers, the two, without any delay, walked over as though the surface was a hard floor.

Soon after their marriage, war broke out in Japan between the two famous clans of Tsukikagé and Inukagé. To help them fight their battles, and capture the castles of their enemies, the Tsukikagé family besought the aid of Jiraiya, who agreed to serve them and carried their banner in his back. Their enemies, the Inukagé, then secured the services of Dragon-coil.

This Orochimaru, or Dragon-coil, was a very wicked robber whose father was a man, and whose mother was a serpent that lived in the bottom of Lake Takura. He was perfectly skilled in the magic of the serpent, and by spurting venom on his enemies, could destroy the strongest warriors.

Collecting thousands of followers, he made great ravages in all parts of Japan, robbing and murdering good and bad, rich and poor alike. Loving war and destruction he joined his forces with the Inukagé family.

Now that the magic of the frog and snail was joined to the one army, and the magic of the serpent aided the other, the conflicts were bloody and terrible, and many men were slain on both sides.

On one occasion, after a hard fought battle, Jiraiya fled and took refuge in a monastery, with a few trusty vassals, to rest a short time. In this retreat a lovely princess named Tagoto was dwelling. She had fled from Orochimaru, who wished her for his bride. She hated to marry the offspring of a serpent, and hoped to escape him. She lived in fear of him continually. Orochimaru hearing at one time that both Jiraiya and the princess were at this place, changed himself into a serpent, and distilling a large mouthful of poisonous venom, crawled up to the ceiling in the room where Jiraiya and his wife were sleeping, and reaching a spot directly over them, poured the poisonous venom on the heads of his rivals. The fumes of the prison so stupefied Jiraiya’s followers, and even the monks, that Orochimaru, instantly changing himself to a man, profited by the opportunity to seize the princess Tagoto, and make off with her.

Gradually the faithful retainers awoke from their stupor to find their master and his beloved wife delirious, and near the point of death, and the princess gone.

“What can we do to restore our dear master to life?” This was the question each one asked of the others, as with sorrowful faces and weeping eyes they gazed at the pallid forms of their unconscious master and his consort. They called in the venerable abbot of the monastery to see if he could suggest what could be done.

“Alas!” said the aged priest, “there is no medicine in Japan to cure your lord’s disease, but in India there is an elixir which is a sure antidote. If we could get that, the master would recover.”

“Alas! alas!” and a chorus of groans showed that all hope had fled, for the mountain in India, where the elixir was made, lay five thousand miles from Japan.

Just then a youth named Rikimatsu, one of the pages of Jiraiya, arose to speak. He was but fourteen years old, and served Jiraiya out of gratitude, for he had rescued his father from many dangers and saved his life. He begged permission to say a word to the abbot, who, seeing the lad’s eager face, motioned to him with his fan to speak.

“How long can our lord live,” asked the youth.

“He will be dead in thirty hours,” answered the abbot, with a sigh.

“I’ll go and procure the medicine, and if our master is still living when I come back, he will get well.”

Now Rikimatsu had learned magic and sorcery from the Tengus, or long-nosed elves of the mountains, and could fly high in the air with incredible swiftness. Speaking a few words of incantation, he put on the wings of a Tengu, mounted a white cloud and rode on the east wind to India, bought the elixir of the mountain spirits, and returned to Japan in one day and a night.

On the first touch of the elixir on the sick man’s face he drew a deep breath, perspiration glistened on his forehead, and in a few moments more he sat up.

Jiraiya and his wife both got well, and the war broke out again. In a great battle Dragon-coil was killed and the princess rescued. For his prowess and aid Jiraiya was made daimio of Idzu.

Being now weary of war and the hardships of active life, Jiraiya was glad to settle down to tranquil life in the castle and rear his family in peace. He spent the remainder of his days in reading the books of the sages, in composing verses, in admiring the flowers, the moon and the landscape, and occasionally going out hawking or fishing. There, amid his children and children’s children, he finished his days in peace.

Tsuki ga Kirei – As the Moon, so Beautiful

As the moon, so beautiful follows the romantic relationship between Kotaro Azumi and Akane Mizuno, two junior high classmates. You won’t see world shattering events, or much in the way of melodrama. The plot centers squarely on everyday life, teenage conflicts with parents, stress of school and extracurriculars, and two young souls trying to find their way around romance. The story struck me as realistic and grounded. For once, the male protogonist isn’t a hothead or total dunce. He makes mistakes and often simply doesn’t know what to do. Likewise Akane isn’t overly sweet or combative. She, too, misreads Kotaro and makes mistakes.

I only found myself mentally calling Kotaro an idiot once throughout the 12 episodes, which is quite a feat for an anime such as this. Most of the time, male protogonists frustrate me with their foolish and superficially dense behavior. You don’t see such here. The fumbles Kotaro and Akane make are realistic and, even better, they realize they screw up and work to fix it. The story is filled with awkward, endearing moments of silence between them as they just don’t know what to say. But at the same time, the silence is never cold. It reverberates with the developing feelings they have for each other. They simply lack the vocabulary. Their feelings lack an overt sexuality too. They simply like each other for who they are. While some may view the innocence as unrealistic, I found it refreshing. Sexuality is overemphasized. Love can exist without sex. While sex may reinforce such feelings, we often confuse its hormonal drive as love.

I mentioned how As the moon, so beautiful feels realistic. In one scene, both use the Internet to research dating ideas. This realism extends toward a key element that Kotaro and Akane use to develop their relationship: a messenging app called LINE. Throughout the story, they use the app to keep in touch. They even comment in a scene how its easier to talk over the app than in person. This details captures modern dating culture well. Many people are more comfortable texting and sending online messages than talking in person, particularly at the start of a relationship. It can help people who are naturally quiet and, perhaps, a little shy–as with Akane and Kotaro. It also allows people to stay in touch when schedules refuse to cooperate, which is another detail the anime shows. In fact, LINE becomes essential to the Akane’s and Kotaro’s relationship as their schedules force them apart. Through LINE, they support each other’s efforts and cheer each other on. Akane with track and field. Kotaro with writing.

As the moon, so beautiful builds on the idea that people don’t need words to show their feelings. Akane and Kotaro act in little ways that cements their bond–little gifts, gestures, and even glances across the classroom. There is a great scene where Akane is running in an important event, but says she doesn’t want Kotaro to watch–even though she actually does. Kotaro picks up on this and goes to the event without her knowing (he messages his support over LINE) and then leaves before she could see him. Later Akane finds out he had done this, and it makes her happy. He had both supported her wishes of him not watching (which she says would fluster her) and her quiet desire for him to be there. Small actions like this shows an attentiveness to unspoken desires, which shows love. Granted, it’s easy to miss such things and expecting a partner to always realize what is unsaid can cause problems.

As the moon, so beautiful struck me as unabashedly Japanese.  Kotaro pursues traditional dance at a temple and takes part in traditional festivals. The festivals and temples play key roles in the course of the story–providing important moments such as Kotaro’s confession to Akane on temple grounds. In many school-related anime, Japanese culture is downplayed for the safer, and more accessible, secular school scene. Sure, there are Japanese elements even within this, but they are the typical mainstay of anime: culture festivals, kimono, and the like. As the moon jumps into the elements usually ignored or glossed over, but it doesn’t seek to make them exotic or anything. Like LINE, the cultural elements and festivals are just a part of everyday life.

The normalcy of the story and the delicate handling of romance–the awkward silences, the online messages, the clashing schedules–sets As the moon apart from most other romantic anime I’ve seen. Too often, such stories use comedy and superficial cluelessness to create a blunt, stereotype-laced stories. As the moon uses many of the same tropes, such as love triangles, but it handles them with subtlety and care. The English version of the title has a poetic feel, and the story throughout holds the same feeling as the title. It has a crisp beauty to it and avoids feeling saccharine. The soft animation matches its realistic, understated focus.

Some viewers may grow frustrated with its quiet, realistic pace. For many episodes, apparently little happens. That is, unless you pay attention to the subtext. Behind the slow pace, much is going on: commentary about the role of the Internet in relationships, the effects of others’ opinions on relationships, and how love affects friendships. But all of the messages are subdued and remain a part of the environment the romance develops within. There isn’t any fighting or action scenes. There isn’t any fan-service or sexual comedy. The awkwardness and the silent scenes may prompt some viewers to yell at the screen. But for those who like character-focused stories, stories of two people awkwardly learning about each other, stories based on realism, check this one out.