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.

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/

How Anticipation Helps the Enjoyment of Anime

I enjoy a good Netflix binge, but in our age of on-demand content, we lost the value of anticipation. When we can watch anime whenever we want, for as long as we want, we lose the slow build of excitement waiting can bring. Unfortunately, American society disdains patience. Sure, we say patience is a virtue, but in practice we hate waiting. But waiting helps us enjoy anime more.

For example, each week I look forward to spending a Saturday night watching Toonami. After working all week, it’s a great way to unwind. Now, I could watch most of Toonami shows online. I could binge on DBZ Kai, but I don’t because I prefer the wait. On weeks when I am socially exhausted, Toonami helps me push through the week. Small goals help keep us motivated. When I sit down to watch DBZ Kai and the rest of Toonami, I quite enjoy the time.

Anticipation helps us savor by building excitement and looking-forwardness. Looking-forwardness makes my couch feel softer and my tea taste better. That’s the odd aspect of habit. Habits comfort us more when they are special and when they endcap our time. Time endcaps allow us to shift our thinking from, say, work to hobby. I use Toonami to shift to relaxation. I have a habit of using Sundays as a Sabbath, and Toonami starts that relaxation day. I anticipate this time. Before I wrote this article, I enjoyed a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake. I promised myself early in the day that I would have this snack. I could have had a slice of cake with dinner, but that would have broke the all-day wait I allotted. I enjoyed the cake more because I made myself wait for it.

Anticipation differs from hype. Hype involves expectation and excitement. Anticipation lacks the expectation aspects of hype. When I anticipate something, I don’t have expectations. For example, I still enjoy my time relaxing with Toonami even when the episodes are let-downs. Sometimes, I will hype myself. In those cases, I set myself up for disappointment which makes it harder for me to enjoy the relaxation time. We see hype disappoint people most often in the realm of video games. People allow expectations to grow to the point where no game could hope to match them. Anticipation lacks these vaunted expectations. Expectations quickly get out of hand with the Internet’s echo chamber. Some expectation naturally comes from anticipation, but I find it best to avoid videos, articles, and trailers for content that excites me.

For example, I looked forward to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m a big Zelda fan, but I decided to impose a media blackout. I’ve only seen one early video about the game before I decided to eschew all coverage. I want to know almost nothing about the game until I play it for myself. I am an old-school gamer–the type that grew up drawing maps and making my own guides while I played. I prefer going in without any expectations or knowledge.

In the same way, I blackout anime that I find interesting. When I saw the trailer for One Punch Man on Toonami, I avoided anything that had to do with it. Doing this allows you to avoid anyone coloring your viewpoint. The articles and videos we consume can sway your opinion long before you see the first episode of an anime or read the first page of a manga. Only after I finish a game or series do I seek out reviews. By then, I have my own opinion about the work and want to see what others think.

Cultivating Anticipation

Anticipation is easy to cultivate, and difficult to stick with. The trick is to delay gratification and make that a habit. Waiting to eat my slice of chocolate cake took some effort, but I enjoyed the cake and tea all the more for the wait. Setting small, delayed goals helps you learn resistance to impulse.Instead of bingeing on an anime right now, push the marathon to a future day of the week. Make this a Friday night habit. The habit will endcap the week and help you build anticipation.

Over time, these small habits will transfer to larger concerns and finances. Delaying gratification helps you control your spending habits. Impulsive purchases quickly add up. However, you can use manga and anime purchases to motivate you. Don’t buy the latest copy of Tokyo Ghoul until after you finish Economics with a B. Use it as a reward. Now, this may feel like depriving yourself. After all, some of your friends will continue to buy things, and they will own more than you will. However, you will appreciate what you have more. Your wallet will be healthier too. You’ll also discover the odd result of anticipation: you need less to feel happier.

This isn’t to say the occasional impulsive purchase is wrong, but it shouldn’t rule your actions all the time. Consumption should be planned rather than be automatic. Planning creates anticipation and allows you to set goals to keep you motivated. But this requires discipline. You may need an accountability buddy when you get started.

I know this seems silly. After all, it’s just watching anime. But small habits accumulate and create your character. I like the anticipation period. While it can be mentally painful, when I finally reach the planned point, it is just that much more enjoyable. And length of time affects enjoyment. Once a week anime binges work well for me. I punctuate each month with a movie binge day too. I will set ahead most of a day once every month or 2 and marathon various movies or video games. Rarity makes me appreciate them more.

Anticipation remains a forgotten virtue in our on-demand world. Without it, we fail to enjoy stories, video games, and other aspects of life to the fullest. While it’s cheesy, the best really does come to those who wait.

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.

Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]

Persecution

fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]

Return

Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.

 

Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).

 

In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.

Names

Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c02303/ for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.

[iv] http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/maria-kannon.html

[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYZfeY8Vg0E, notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.

[xiv] https://wiki.evageeks.org/Angels

[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.

[xvii] http://trinityblood.wikia.com/wiki/Methuselah

[xviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiUs6YuSloM

[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/3240

Dragon Ball Super: Dubious and Lacking Heart

Dragonball Z is perhaps the most iconic Shonen anime.  So, when Toei Animation announced a new Dragonball series helmed by the legendary Akira Toriyama, fans were no doubt excited.  I’m a little late to the part myself where Dragonball Z is concerned.  As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with DBZ and didn’t really get into it until I saw DBZ Abridged on Youtube.  I was not a fan of the original cut of Dragonball Z, which was bloated with filler to the point of being un-watchable.

When I finally got around to watching DBZ Kai, I was blown away.  The battles were tight and fierce, and every episode left you wanting more.  The pacing was spot on: seriousness was balanced with comedy, and action was balanced with periods of relative peace where the plot developed.  But what really made the show was the characters.  We saw Piccolo move from a villain to a hero, becoming more human along the way and learning about his own heritage.  Vegeta, too, moves from a world-blasting baddy to a father who is willing to sacrifice for his family.  Gohan moves from a frightened child to a warrior to a young man trying to balance his odd place as a half human warrior and his mother’s wish that he be a productive member of society.  And, of course, we have Goku, who is defined by his desire to constantly transcend himself but who also is a man who stands up for what is right and is willing to fight to defend his family and home.

There were some problems with the series, of course.  The Majin Buu arc was uneven at best, and the way that the power was scaled in the series got really over the top fast, undermining the plot points of previous arcs, along with the “scare factor” of previous villains.  Some of the battles got repetitive, even if they were pretty good overall.  Transformations became overused, moving from something of a surprise to something extremely predictable.  Overall, though, the good parts of the series outweighed the bad.

Given how good DBZ was, I had high expectations for Dragonball Super.  I’m about 30 episodes in, and I have to say that I’m disappointed.  On the surface, it looks like Dragonball Z.  There are epic battles and new enemies for Goku to face, and the Dragonball universe has been expanded quite a bit with all sorts of interesting new characters.  The art style has also been updated, and the series looks as good as ever.

The problem I have with Super is not with the surface elements but with the heart of the show.  It lacks the soul of DBZ Kai.  There are many reasons why, but the core of this issue is twofold.  The first part has to do with the power levels involved in the show.  The big new characters in Super are the God of Destruction, Beerus, and his martial arts teacher and caretaker, Whis.  To put it mildly, they are absurdly powerful.  Beerus at one point flicked Super Saiyan 3 level Goku in the head and sent him flying, and on more than one occasion Whis steps in to stop Beerus from going overboard, demonstrating that he is clearly the more powerful of the two.  This in and of itself is not necessarily bad, but what throws off the show is that, after their original battle, Goku becomes friends with the pair.

This is problematic in more ways than one.  For one, it sucks the dramatic tension out of the series.  At one point, Frieza returns and comes to Earth to get revenge on Goku.  At one point in the battle, Whis and Beerus come as spectators.  They do not directly intervene in the fight, but their presence still robs much of the tension because either one could destroy the antagonist with the flick of a wrist.  This is the same problem that DBZ had, but it is far more pronounced.  Nothing in the DBZ universe can compare with Beerus, which would be fine if he were looming over events as an adversary to be conquered, rather than a dubious ally who is so overpowered he takes the winds out of everyone else’s sails.  Even if the power scales were off in the old series, at least it was somewhat exciting to see the upper limits of each new villain and how Goku and his allies will overcome that limit.  Here, the upper limit is already defined by a character so absurdly powerful that he and Goku almost destroy the universe just by fighting in their initial battle.  And there’s a character already in the show who out classes even this monster!

This is closely tied to the second reason Super lacks the heart of DBZ.  There is no doubt that Beerus is a monster, who has committed genocide thousands of times over.  His disregard for life is casual and somewhat played for laughs, but no amount of yucking it up can override the fact that he is basically a force for evil who destroys on a mere whim.  Now on the other hand we have Goku, who has his own morality but is generally kind-hearted to a fault and concerned for the well-being of others.  He fought world-busting baddies and yes, many times it began as a way to test himself in battle but he also became righteously angry at the needless taking of life.  Goku fighting then befriending an enemy is a cliché of the show, but this doesn’t always hold true.  Frieza, for example, is portrayed as incredibly evil, and remains Goku’s greatest enemy, but in reality, his crimes pale in comparison to those of Beerus.  So, to my mind Goku being buddies with the God of Destruction, even if it is in line with the sportsmanlike part of his character, clashes uncomfortably with the part of his character that is generally good.  The show seems to lack the sense of morality inherent in DBZ, where even if Goku mostly wanted to test himself in combat, he still stood up for what he thought was right and fought for those who couldn’t protect themselves.  Instead, he has befriended the worst villain in the universe and trains with his teacher, who is complicit in his crimes by simply being indifferent to them and making no attempt to stop him.

Now, the argument can be made that Beerus is a God of Destruction, and his function is to balance out the creative propensity of the universe.  This is pretty much struck down in the beginning of the season by something the Elder Kai said, where he more or less refuted the Grand Kai who argued the same thing.  That isn’t the point anyway.  The point is that DBZ made a point to show how evil Vegeta was for destroying planets and committing genocide to sell planets to the highest bidder.  It depicted Frieza as an evil ruler grinding a large chunk of the universe under his proverbial boot heel and showed how cruel he was by destroying the Saiyan home world.  Cell was evil for taking hundreds of thousands of lives to make himself stronger and for wanting to destroy Earth as well.  Then there’s Maijin Buu, who destroyed planets wholesale and killed gods.  They were clearly marked as being evil, but Beerus for some reason gets a pass due to the fact he’s a god.  It clashes with the spirit of the original series, this sense of good struggling mightily to triumph over evil, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

A third aspect of Super doesn’t sit well with me.  Comedy of varying quality was always part of Dragonball Z, but generally the original is serious in tone.  Super feels like it is going out of its way to be a comedy.  Goku comes across as a buffoon, and Vegeta is almost disgustingly servile toward Beerus.  The balance between comedy and dramatic tension that generally held up well in DBZ is completely off in Super.

So, what is my verdict on Super, overall?  It might sound like I despise it, but that isn’t the case.  DBZ Is great, while Super is merely ok.  It lacks much of the dramatic tension that made the original such a joy to watch, while also lacking the heart that made DBZ touch so many people.  It relies too much on dubious comedy, while repeating tropes of the series that were old when DBZ was young.  All in all, my impression 30 episodes in is that it’s interesting in terms of world-building, but mediocre in terms of plot and story.  I’ll watch it, but it’s probably not going to be one I’ll watch over again like DBZ Kai.