Most of us struggle with feelings of meaninglessness. Life feels like a grind to gain money. Then we die. We lose touch with why we live, and we fill our time with escapism like anime and manga and video games. Depression’s claws cut deep and hold on. Yet despite this malaise of despair, some souls shine.
They inspire and pull people out of despair. These people have their own problems and wrestle with depression, but they truck on. What’s more, these people are unseen. And guess what, you are one of them. You just may not know it. Enemies and friends can inspire us to be more and do more. Enemies can push us to try harder and break out of the daily grind. Friends provide support and push us to face our enemies. Enemies can be people, pianos, a difficult game, or anything that challenges us. Friends help us remember the importance of small moments.
Amidst the feeling of meaninglessness small moments shine. They break through our mistaken view of life and the feeling of meaninglessness comes from this mistaken view. The anime Your Lie in April touches on the idea of friends and enemies breaking depression.
Your Lie focuses on how loss can make even things we love feel meaningless. Kosei Arima losses his mother and his interest in playing the piano at the same time. Without music, he becomes a shadow of himself. All of that changed when he meets Kaori Miyazono, a female violinist that forces him to return to the piano. After she pushes him, Kosei encounters two competitors who wish to beat him as pianists. Kosei’s ability to play as a child inspired his two rivals to take up the instrument.
At the core of the story is Kosei’s mistaken perception. He begins to place all of his focus on Kaori. He uses her as a crutch to avoid his feelings of meaninglessness, guilt, and sorrow for his mother. This isn’t fair to her, nor does it work. Mistaken perception is rooted in skewed expectations. The ideas we have of life — much like Kosei’s ideas about music–cannot match reality. Reality cannot compare to the expectations we form. Reality is messy, and basing perception on what we think should be creates issues. Kosei doesn’t want a world where his mother withered and died, but death is a part of reality. I agree that no one should have to die, but everyone must die. You must. I must. This reality can make us feel as if life is meaningless. After all, everything we strive for will mean nothing. Money and fame mean nothing to us after death.
Such thinking is mistaken. It comes from expectations that what we do lasts. It comes from the mistaken idea that money and fame matter. In Your Lie, Kaori’s focus is to make music that will touch people. She wanted to live on in the hearts of those around her. The influence we have on those around us is what gives life meaning. Fame and money and similar things are just distractions. Reality is harsh. Our physical selves must die, but the music we make while we are alive, the melody we leave in the hearts of those we touch, continues. As people continue to influence each other, we continue to be passed on.
The meaning of life is simple. Too simple for our expectations to grasp. After all, expectations enjoy grand things. But the meaning of life is to live. How we live creates music, for good or ill. As a Christian, serving God is a part of that music. While I cannot make actual music like Kaori and Kosei–I am terrible at anything like that–I try to make spiritual music that helps those around me. We all want to reach someone. Touch someone’s soul. We only lose our way sometimes. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul writes:
…speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.
While most Christians use this verse to support the practice of singing in worship, the verse goes deeper than this. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs can be sung through actions, not just words. Singing and making melody in the heart doesn’t involve the lips. It involves how we view the world around us. It involves how we reach out to people and resonate within them. The verse demands Christians have a singing heart for the world around us. It is beautiful, after all. Beautiful because of its flaws and struggles, not despite them. The verse calls on Christians to share that singing heart with other Christians and with God.
Kaori and Kosei likewise share their singing hearts: the bittersweet pain of love and loss, the pain of coming to terms with reality. Singing within cannot always be joyful, but it is always beautiful. Singing hearts often feel isolated. We cannot know if others are listening. We can only have faith that they are. We can only have faith that the messages our lives express are heard.
This idea of faith is found throughout Your Lie. Kaori and Kosei make music with the belief that someone, anyone, might hear and feel touched by the soul producing that music. So too Christians have faith that our actions, our silent psalms. are heard by those around us. We cannot see the impact we have on others, but it is there. Have you been to a funeral where dozens of people file in, people you never knew, to pay respects to the deceased? Sometimes death is the only way to see what lives have been touched by a person. In life, we can be unaware of our impact. In Your Lie, Kaori wasn’t fully aware of her impact upon the characters around her.
A life cannot be lived in isolation. We affect those around us and are affected by them in turn. Even when we are unaware of it, our words and actions matter. Each of us needs to decide what songs we play, what feelings we leave behind. Our audience listens.
Your Lie in April. The Impact We have on Others. was last modified: May 28th, 2017 by Chris Kincaid
Most articles about anime addiction tend to be comedic lists about how everything has to be in Japanese and how you lack money because of all the merchandise you bought. Let’s have a serious discussion instead. We toss around the word addiction in ways that belittle the term. Liking something and enjoying something isn’t addiction. In order to be addicted, your interest has be be destructive to your health, social life, or ability to function (Alter, 2017). For a long time, addicts were considered weak-minded people who can’t control themselves. Most of the time, addiction is associated with substances like heroin, meth, and other drugs. However, behaviors are addictive too. In fact, some researcher believe even substance addictions are behavioral addictions at their core (Alter, 2017).
The Nature of Addiction
Addictions build off of our natural reward systems–systems that everyone has. Substances hijack those systems, and behaviors short circuit the triggers within the brain. Dopamine, the chemical that makes you feel pleasure and happiness, sits at the center of addiction. Anything that encourages the brain to secrete it can be addictive. Even love can be an addiction, which is why some people jump from one toxic relationship to another like a heroin addict looking for another hit.
Addiction is, essentially, “an extreme dysfunctional attachment to an experience that is acutely harmful to a person, but that is an essential part of the person’s ecology and that the person cannot relinquish (Alter, 2017)”. The experience component of addiction is the key. Addictions have a strong association with environment and memory. Environment triggers memory, which triggers the addiction. Lee Robins studied returning heroin addictions from the Vietnam War. Around 19% of veterans admitted to having a heroin addiction. Normally, heroin addicts relapse at a rate of 95%. These veterans had a relapse rate of only 5%. Robins, along with other addiction researchers, discovered the relationship between environment, memory, and addiction. To break an addiction, a person must leave the environment–the people, places, and memories–where they practiced their addiction. Few veterans returned to Vietnam, so their addiction didn’t return (Alter, 2017):
Addicts aren’t simply weaker specimens than non-addicts; they aren’t morally corrupt where non-addicts are virtuous. Instead, many, if not most, of them are unlucky. Location isn’t the only factor that influences your chances of becoming an addict, but it plays a much bigger role than scientists thought.
Addictions often center around negative coping methods, ways of handling pain, regret, loneliness, and other negative emotions. Any behavior that triggers dopamine and eases emotional pain can become an addiction, including Internet use and anime. I wasn’t able to find any studies that dealt directly with anime addiction. However, studies on Internet addiction provides us with useful parallels.
Even Dracula has his addictions.
Internet Addiction is one of those umbrella terms thats shades a variety of problems, from social media addiction to MMORPG addiction and online gambling. Anime would fall into the category too. Otakuism has a strong online component–anime is watched online. Otakus share fanfiction online, discuss anime online, blog, and enjoy other online activities. Internet Addiction is seen as a preoccupation with the Internet that causes impairment or distress (Stavropoulos, 2017). Internet Addiction, or IA, links to health problems, academic failure, emotional problems, and behavioral problems (Zhou, 2017). Addictive behaviors in your teen years carry into adulthood, mainly because they become coping methods.
People use the Internet to avoid negative feelings–think about your last Tumblr binge and how you were feeling. Teens who use emotion-focused coping methods instead of problem-focused coping methods have a greater risk of IA (Zhou, 2017). IA appears to feed existing addictions; it provides easy access to rewarding and pleasurable activities. Remember dopamine’s role in addiction? Online activities make your brain squirt the feel-good chemical.
Most game addicts are men, for example; most social networking addicts are women. Interestingly, research suggest people with Internet Addiction keep to certain activities instead of bouncing between various addictions. A gaming addict usually isn’t addicted to Facebook (Starcevic, 2017).
Online gaming and social networks feature all the elements that create addiction: inconsistent rewards–which excites the brain more than regular rewards–and notifications of new content, which makes the brain release dopamine. Think about that happy feeling you have when someone likes a Facebook or Tumblr post (Hormes, 2014). Think about that feeling of pleasure when you plunk off someone with a headshot. That’s what the research is talking about. Research also suggests those who use the Internet heavily, particularly social networks, show signs of impulse control disorders and lack of emotional self control. I’ve seen gamers rage at the smallest things, and I’ve done it myself.
Addicted to drama…and potato chips.
Online video games and social media were designed to be addictive. MMORPGs have a particularly addictive design. They boast immediate gratification and satisfaction from conquering gradually increasing skill level of challenge. They trigger high emotional involvement too because of the social ties they forge, increasing the need to spend even more time online. They help players feel as if they are fulfilling their talents and potential, a feeling reality often lacks (Stavropoulos, 2017).
Online game addiction is something I know well. I was an addict in my high school and college years. It was consuming. World of Warcraft was something I avoided because games like Diablo II hooked me bad enough. Even now, I have to be careful, or I will fall into my old patterns of behavior. Remember how research spoke of memory being a trigger for addiction? PC gaming triggers my addictive memories. Luckily, gaming no longer offers me feelings of self-actualization which helps blunt my risk of relapse. I now tightly regulate my gaming. My last all-day binged was scheduled–the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but I digress.
Traits of Internet Addiction
Beyond impulsive behavior like obsessive-compulsive disorder–constantly checking your Tumblr or Twitter feed, for example–or feeling anxious when you can’t read the latest fanfiction or play a deathmatch online, IA associates with other personality traits. It’s unknown if the Internet stimulates these traits, but people with certain personality disorders may be drawn to the Internet because of what they feel they lack in real life. IA is most common among college students. Males with IA showed higher rates of narcissism; females showed higher rates of narcissism and avoidant behaviors than those without IA. Women show a higher need for assurance and less autonomy (Wu, 2016) . Both men and women turn to the Internet for validation. This sense of fulfillment the Internet offers takes us to the relationship between anime and addiction.
Anime and Addiction
Okay, let’s recap. Behaviors can be addictive; Internet Addiction centers around online behaviors that give us a hit of dopamine, eases anxiety, and provides a feeling of fulfillment. Anime addiction lacks clear research, but using the research into Internet Addiction, and the nature of behavioral addictions can help us understand anime addiction. Yes, you can become addicted to anime just as you can become addicted to gambling, sex, love, online gaming, texting, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and anything else that fills an emotional need.
Anime can become a coping technique, a way to escape, which is fine until it becomes destructive. When anime watching damages your relationships, consumes your thinking, consumes your money, and becomes a craving, you may well be addicted. However, we have to be careful not to blindly fling the word addiction at anime fans. Otakuism appears to be an addiction to outsiders because it is an alternative culture (Azuma, 2009):
The otaku choose fiction over social reality not because they cannot distinguish between them but rather as a result of having considered which is the more effective for their human relations, the value standards of social reality or those of fiction. For example, they choose fiction because it is more effective for smoothing out the process of communication between friends, reading the Asahi Newspaper and then going to vote, or lining up with anime magazines in hand for an exhibition. And, to that extent, it is they who may be said to be socially engaged and realistic in Japan today, by virtue of not choosing the “social reality.” Otaku shut themselves into the hobby community not because they deny sociality but rather because, as social values and standards are already dysfunctional, they feel a pressing need to construct alternative values and standards.
Otakuism provides an alternative to the social culture of mainstream society. It allows people to connect to each other in a different way that feels more affirming, but therein lies the danger. Drug culture often has similar trappings. Think about the New Age movements during the 1960s and the wanton use of substances and sex many of the movement had–LSD, heroin, and other drugs. Now, the otaku community uses anime, manga, and other consumer-culture products as their “mind-altering” substances. I know, I look to be stretching a bit but stay with me. Otaku behaviors, particularly the social behaviors like conventions, collecting, and discussing, are the addictive substances. Of themselves they are good, but when taken to extremes–that is, they become damaging and consuming–they become addictions. Anime conventions for otakus are the equivalent to Woodstock for hippies, only smaller and more frequent.
Woodstock was a music festival that attracted over 400,000 people and became a symbol of the counter-culture of the time.
Of course, watching anime can be a compulsive addiction. It’s similar to compulsive gambling, Tumblr reading, and other compulsive behaviors. Anime may ease your anxiety, but the association, if you aren’t careful, can create anxiety. Your mind begins to crave the escape anime offers, making you feel anxious when you don’t get a hit. It’s similar to nicotine addiction. Contrary to popular belief, smoking doesn’t ease stress. Rather, it adds the stress of physical cravings on top of your already present stress. The feeling of relief smokers feel when they take a hit is the easing of that physical craving and the comfort of the behavior, but neither has much impact on the baseline stress level. Behavioral addictions add stress to the baseline rather than reduce it. Meditation, mindfulness, moderate exercise, and other healthy behaviors–anime watching can be healthy–reduce baseline stress.
Otaku culture tends to attract certain personality types, some of which may be in danger of addiction. However, the culture isn’t any worse than other cultures. For example, sports can also create addicts. Think of the super-fan–I like to call them sportaku–that drops out of family life during their sport’s season. Their identity revolves around the identity of their team or favorite sport. For that matter, think of the neighborhood cat-lady or cat-man, or dog-lady and dog-man. Their lives center on their animals to the point where they live in a dangerous, unhealthy situation that precludes anything else. See what researchers mean when they say any behavior can become an addition? You also see addicted runners, crafters, and other apparently healthy hobbies.
Behavioral addictions are tough to see because they often appear healthy. After all, who would argue running or walking isn’t a healthy habit? But when that habit becomes destructive to your health and social life, it becomes an addiction. Enjoying anime and manga is healthy….until it becomes disruptive and destructive. Likewise using Tumblr, Facebeook, Twitter, fanfiction can be healthy, until it becomes consuming and anxiety inducing.
Besides the problem of seeing a behavioral addiction like anime is the fact you can’t avoid the addiction. There is a behavioral addiction known as the empty inbox. People feel anxious if their inbox isn’t empty (I sometimes catch myself feeling that way), but we all know that’s an almost-impossible ideal. It’s not like we can avoid using email. It’s a central part of modern life, yet its similar to expecting someone with a drug addiction to return to their environment and not become addicted again.
Breaking an addiction requires mindfulness. You have to be aware that a behavior like anime binging creates anxiety when you can’t do it. In the articles I’ve read, behavioral addictions have a detox period similar to substance addiction (Alter, 2017). You also have to change your environment. For an anime addict, that means reducing or avoid conventions if that’s your trouble spot. That also means changing your binge environment and habits.
Are you addicted to anime and the otaku life? How can you tell? I’ve repeated the criteria several times, but the distinction is important enough for me to repeat one last time: addictions come down to disruption and destructiveness. If your anime watching and involvement in otaku life disrupts your ability to live, that is, work and socialize, you may have an addiction. If you don’t have any hobbies outside of anime and otaku-related hobbies, like cosplay, you may have an addiction.
Behavioral addictions rewire the brain in ways similar to drugs. It takes time to undo this wiring, and even then the memory–and the behavior–remains. Enjoying anime and otaku life isn’t the same as being addicted. The word addiction is tossed about too easily. Let’s save it for when the word actually applies: when somethings becomes all consuming. When you are “addicted” to an anime, say something like “This anime has hijacked my life.” It had an element of temporariness to it that addiction lacks, but it still has the hyperbole people today like to use. Addictions are serious, life disrupting problems. Let’s not belittle them with poor word choices.
Ah yes, another top 100 list. Every anime blog must have one right? While most anime lists include anime the writer likes, this one contains many I didn’t like at all. However, their importance and popularity demands they have a place. I have seen at least a few episodes or scenes from nearly every anime on this list. As with any top 100 list, there is a lot of subjectivity. Many more deserve a mention but without watching (or knowing about) them I cannot make a judgement. These anime are ranked by impact, popularity, and importance. Their representation for good and bad anime habits also influenced their rank. Anime has many bad habits that can be traced all the way to Astro Boy, filler being one of the main issues. Over time, anime developed its own stereotypes and tropes. I tried to include shows that best represent these bad habits and story-telling stereotypes. The worse they are, they better they ranked as a representation of the bad. I considered making a separate list for these, but everything needs to be understood in context, so I settled on combining them with the good. This list has a bias toward newer anime; I ranked them higher because more fans are familiar with them than anime from the 1980s and 1990s. This is an image heavy post.
Kekkaishi plunges us into the world of Japanese folklore and cake. You can’t forget cake. Kekkaishi starts slow with far too many cake jokes before it picks up. It’s world is interesting and features many monsters and creatures from Japanese myths and legends.
There is a trend in fantasy stories to pull elements from role playing video games. Overt mentions of experience points and leveling up makes you wonder if the anime is yet another world within a video game. 11 Eyes has some of this, but it is a case study in how execution and lack of time can hurt a story with potential.
Girls und Panzer
Sometimes anime combines two of the furthest possible ideas together. Girls und Panzer takes school age girls and combines it with tank warfare. The ridiculousness of the idea illustrates how anime isn’t afraid to experiment.
Red Data Girl
Shinto ideas sit at the heart of Red Data Girl. It is a fair watch, but like many high school anime it is hard to take the threat seriously amidst the high school backdrop.
Baseball bats and street assaults? Strangely enough victims of the attacks find their lives improved after the attacks. If you like psychological mysteries this is a show for you.
Guilty Crown has a bold story and interesting characters. Sadly, action sequences fall apart into panned still images. Budget constraints have hurt many stories.
Mobile Suit Gundam SEED
Mobile Suit Gundam SEED was my introduction to Gundam. SEED takes place when humans on earth, called Naturals, are different from those who live in space, the Coordinators. Like other mecha, expect a twisted plot mixed with philosophy and moral dilemmas. Gundam remains popular in Japan, and SEED introduces the franchise to a new generation.
Parasyte – the Maxim
Parasyte explores what it means to be human and the roles humans play in the environment. A race of creatures called parasytes begin to take over humans. They like to take over the human brain so they can completely control the host. Shinichi Izumi’s right arm is taken over by one of these parasytes. The characterization of Shinichi makes this anime stand out. He is believable and lacks the usual boneheaded shonen personality (impulsive, overly protective, and action oriented). Shinichi acts like a normal person with doubts, weaknesses, and resolve.
Barefoot Gen follows Gen Nakaoka and his family in Hiroshima during the last years of World War II. It is a look at what people endured (such as food shortages) and the after effects of the nuclear explosion that ravaged the city. Barefoot Gen was among the first manga (the anime came much later) that portrayed the horrors of war and nuclear destruction.
Section 9 is sent to investigate a series of murders involving gynoids, sex android. Innocence offers a tangled crime drama laced with references to Zen and philosophy. The movie proves anime can be mature, but its philosophical dialogue can be hard to follow. It challenges viewers to pay attention and think.
Fairy Tail is one of the most popular series in recent years. It doesn’t break new ground, but it shows how fantasy stories still have a place in modern storytelling.
Soul Eater’s unique art style makes this anime come to life. The strangeness from the moon to the character designs shows how anime can break expectations. Not to mention the characterizations and storytelling have interesting twists on common anime tropes.
Berserk’s dark feel shares similarities with the Dark Knight. Set in feudal Europe, this series is a welcome respite from anime’s focus on high school and teens. It provides a nice diversity away from Japanese centric fantasy based on samurai or futuristic police.
Rurouni Kenshin is many anime fan’s first exposure to samurai and Japanese culture during the Meiji Restoration. Fill with good fights and good plot (canon plot anyway), Kenshin leverages its setting in ways that make it feel authentic. However, Kenshin, like many anime, suffers from filler arcs that hurt the story and characterization.
Yu-Gi-Oh Yu-Gi-Oh popularized its namesake card game with American children. For many, this series was among their first exposure to anime. Like Pokemon,Yu-Gi-Oh ran on Saturday morning and after school cartoon line ups. This allowed the show to be seen as a cartoon rather than an anime. This association allowed Yu-Gi-Oh to avoid some of the negative ideas the word “anime” may have had for some parents. For a long time, anime was associated with extreme violence and sexuality. Yu-Gi-Oh proves the ability of anime to be a diverse way to telling stories.
For many Digimon appears to be a knock-off of Pokemon. Digimon proved to be popular in its own right. Like Yu-Gi-Oh, it provided exposure to Japanese art styles and animation styles for many young Americans. Pokemon,Yu-Gi-Oh, and Digimon are the modern “gateway drugs” to an interest in anime, much like Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and Voltron did in previous decades.
The magical girl genre, since Sailor Moon made it widely popular, often comes off as stale and formulaic. Cardcaptor Sakura breaths new life into the genre. The series targets an audience often forgotten in the West: girls. However, Cardcaptor’s story and characters offers a little for everyone, much like Disney movies are watched by all genders and ages.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel
Arpeggio of Blue Steel features a storyline centered on battleships and submarines. Quite a difference from the usual big robots. Each ship’s AI system is represented by a cute girl (after all ships in the West are female in gender). Arpeggio deserves a place on this list because of how it could be loosely called a mecha (without the robots) and creates a plausible world without international trade.
Studio Ghibli takes a human cursed to be a pig (and who happens to be a pilot) and tells a story set in the 1930s. The time period between World War I and the rise of Hitler is often glossed over. The story is human: trying to let go of the past. Porco Rosso is often forgotten in the list of Studio Ghibli films. It is well worth a look.
Maria the Virgin Witch
Maria the Virgin Witch has many, many problems. But it is on this list because of how it plays with Western ideas of witch craft. Maria is a young witch loved by those who know her, feared by those who hear of her, and hated by the church. Maria’s resistance to the church and the will of heaven (represented by the archangel Michael) speaks to our modern relationship with traditional religion. It handles this rather ham-fistedly, but it still has an interesting story and perspective.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Most of Studio Ghibli’s films lack world-shattering stories. Instead, they focus on a single person. Kiki’s Delivery Service follows Kiki on her flying broomstick as she grows into adulthood. The theme has been trod many times, but we each have to go through the same transition. Kiki’s Delivery Service gushes with Ghibli’s vibrant animation.
Slam Dunk is one of the most popular series in Japan during the 1990s and early 2000s. The story helped popularized basketball in Japan. Like many anime, this is a high school coming of age story.
Nana tells the story of two women with different personalities who become close friends. Nana is one of the rare josei Western releases. Most anime aims at high school and college age audiences. Nana and those like it aim at older adults.
No Game; No Life
No Game; No Life adds to the trend of video game based stories. Both main characters are intelligent and calculating, which is a welcome change over the usual hotheaded impulsive heroes anime favors. Some of the anime’s oddities (such as the too close relationship between brother Sora and sister Shiro) may turn off some fans not used to anime’s proclivities.
Shin-Chan is what happens when a kindergartner mixes with Family Guy. Full of sexual humor and childlike innocence, this anime is a funny romp on the playground. The art style is straight out of a 4 year-old’s drawing book and may be off putting for some. But the style lends a childish flavor to the antics. Don’t expect high humor or satire here.
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Final Fantasy VII stands at the heights of video gaming for many. Advent Children revisits the characters and breaths stylized realism into blocky polygons of yesteryear. The level of detail and realism contrasts against Western computer animated films targeting children. Animation lends itself to fantasy better than live action.
Gunslinger Girl takes teenage girls and makes them into cyborgs and gives them guns. The anime could fit into the world weaved by Ghost in the Shell. What sets this anime apart is the use of classical music to convey the feelings and thoughts of the characters.
My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro is one of those rare films that doesn’t use conflict and threat to move the story forward. It leverages exploration and situations. It has life-like little girls and human situations. Its sense of wonder and magic returns us to childhood for a time.
Summer Wars raises modern concerns about computers and artificial intelligence. Well written and full of humanity, the story contrasts a vibrant virtual world with a vibrant family life.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is yet another coming-of-age story with imagination and pleasant design. Makoto, being a fairly typical teenage girl, uses her powers to travel through time to help her get perfect grades, avoid being late, and other little things…until she learns her actions can hurt others.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell tells of a future that is more plausible than Star Trek. Theft, rape, and murder continue with technological twists. At its heart, Ghost is an adult crime drama similar to NCIS and Law & Order. For many, it stands at the pinnacle of what anime can do with adult storytelling.
Magical Girl anime typically do not feature dark themes and death. From its inception Madoka Magica was meant to be something different. The developers went out of their way to disguise the dark themes in the expected innocent, frilly magical girl facade. Madoka deconstructs the magical girl genre in similar ways that Neon Genesis Evangelion deconstructed the mecha genre.
Lupin the Third
The longevity of Lupin speaks for itself. The manga released back in 1967, and the story in print and on screen remains strong today.
Fruits Basket relies on characterization to keep fans interested. Their emotions and desires shine through the artwork. Fruits Basket, like many shojo, provide a alternative look at the action heavy anime the West usually sees.
Trigun is one of those strange mash ups. Science fiction and the wild west. The mix proved more popular in the United States than in Japan.
Requiem for the Phantom
Child assassins are a favorite anime theme. Requiem for the Phantom adds another favorite: amnesia. The anime is based on a visual novel, Phantom of the Inferno. You can read my thoughts on it in this review.
The Slayers is one of the most popular anime from the heyday of the 1990s. The art style may not be to many modern fans’ tastes, but the Slayers is one of those a student of anime need to see.
FLCL is less a show and more an experience. The layers stuffed into each short episode attempts to capture the complex frenzy of modern life. You need to be well versed in Jungian psychology to catch all the symbols stuffed into each scene.
The Vision of Escaflowne
The Vision of Escaflowne flopped in Japan but was a worldwide success. The anime suggests a disconnect between Japanese tastes in stories and the rest of the anime market during the 1990s.
Most of the time female warriors wear skimpy armor. Claymore bucks this trend(Clare’s is form fitting, though). Claymore has great action: sudden and violent without the yammering anime is prone toward.
Monster is a complex story with good pacing and still avoids the nonsensical tangle complex anime fall into. Series like Monster show how anime is a great storytelling medium.
Moribito tells a story of motherhood. Balsa is an older woman with experience behind her. This dynamic is a welcome change from most fantasy stories.
The Sacred Blacksmith
The Sacred Blacksmith is best described as middling. What it does right: avoid running the breast jokes into the ground. The anime doesn’t break ground, but it provides an example of where anime stagnated in recent decades.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was one of the most popular anime back in 2006. It sparked an online phenomenon of parodies and other videos. The anime revealed how storytelling is two directional.
Spirited Away has grossed more in the box office than any other anime to date. Popularity cannot be underestimated when it comes to importance and impact.
Perfect Blue gets into your head. This psychological thriller follows Mima as she poses nude and as rape victims for magazines. The story has a distinct Hitchcock flare. It shows just how good anime can be when it sheds its high school immaturity.
Mazinger Z popularized the giant robot genre back in the 1970s. It is the first time a character piloted a giant robot from a cockpit. It was also the first time a female robot appeared. The anime laid the foundation for later mecha anime.
Macross is a mecha series that tries to avoid black and white thinking. It’s antagonists are not inherently evil unlike other mecha at the time.
Do you like ghost stories? Ghost Hunt is TAPS (Ghost Hunters) with a Japanese twist.
Beyond the Boundary
Beyond the Boundary is a fair anime that provides another look at how anime plays up male fetishes. On a positive side, it handles small gestures well and has a female lead with steel in her character.
Dusk Maiden of Amnesia
Anime ghost stories can be gripping when done well. Contrast is the key, and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia uses anime style humor to accent its dark moments well. The cinematography of this anime lends to the creep factor well. Some of the shots have a distinct Hitchcock feel.
Burst Angel would be a much better anime if it modeled itself after crime thrillers like Ghost in the Shell rather than mix in teen-angst found in mecha focused anime.
Sword Art Online
People either love SAO or hate it. Sword Art Online helped popularize the trapped-in-a-game genre. If anything, this new genre shows the importance of video games in modern culture.
Akame Ga Kill
Akame Ga Kill straddles the fantasy and trapped-in-a-game genres. While most of the time it stands firmly in fantasy, some of the battles and dialog come from video games. The humor of the series comes at terrible times and clashes rather than accents the dark themes present in the story.
Harem series like Shuffle! flirt with the outright ridiculous. However, Shuffle breaks from the pack with a heartfelt story. Some of this is because it is a seinen anime as opposed to an ecchi or shonen harem story.
High school love triangles within yet other triangles and comedy antics mark School Rumble. It is a fluffy show with heart and decent humor.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on a children’s book, for many Howl’s Moving Castle is Studio Ghibli at its best.
Thought provoking best describes Mushi-shi. Episodic is another word. The story looks at the relationship we have with the natural and spiritual world we often do not see.
The World Only God Knows
A harem with a heart describes The World Only God Knows. Watch as an aloof, awkward video game dork is forced by a demon from Hell to break out of his shell and use his skills in dating sims to cast out evil spirits.
Last Exile is a great story set in a rusty steampunk world. With superb visuals and pacing, what more can you ask for?
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was written by Hayao Miyazaki. The movie cemented Studio Ghibli’s place as a major player and even inspired chocobos in the Final Fantasy video game series.
Cute female android. Check. Awkward situations with a horny but good-hearted college man. Check. Chobits leads the viewer on a journey to discover love and humanity.
Thought provoking dystopia best describes Wolf’s Rain. The story is complex (and confusing) but the dark themes and music by Yoko Kanno are excellent.
Dark themes and menacing artwork brings this dystopian story alive. It is gothic like a cathedral: darkly beautiful but also vibrantly lit by the sunlight of its characters.
Forget Twilight and sparkly vampires. Hellsing Ultimate is a trip over the edge of psychosis. It bleeds with violence to the point where the story becomes secondary. Much of its brutality seeks to highlight to darkness of bored immortality.
El Cazador de la Bruja
It isn’t often you see an anime set in Mexico. The focus on female protagonists and a believable Wild West feel sets this anime apart.
Stories without violence come as a relief. Barakamon follows a stereotypical dramatic artist on his journey to a small rural island to rediscover his muse. The focus on simple life and relationships makes this story a nice watch.
Gurren Lagann handles suspense right. It’s story is clear and comes with great twists. Surprising for a mecha. Add in a coming of age story that doesn’t involve high school and you have a winner.
One Week Friends
Friendship can be difficult and in today’s society it is a commodity. One Week Friends shows just how valuable friendship and relationships are and how much work they can take.
Code Geass takes mecha themes and doubles down on how mecha questions power and the conflict between ends and means.
For many, Robotech was the first exposure to mecha and anime. Robotech helped the popularity of anime grow in the US during the 1980s.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Gundam fever strikes many as one of Japan’s strange interests. Mobile Suit Gundam remains one of the most popular anime series in Japan, inspiring giant robot statues and more. It set the standard for all mecha to follow.
Naruto remains one of the most popular anime series in the United States. Its popularity has helped make anime legitimate and a staple in American childhood.
Attack on Titan
The popularity of Attack on Titan surprised many. It is one of those few titles that appeals to those who avoid animation.
Welcome to the NHK
Hikikomori becomes more common as relationships become more difficult. Welcome to the NHK examines the trend through the eyes of a sufferer.
Space Dandy continues the family of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Space Dandy suffered from too much hype, but it continues the episodic antics Bebop and Champloo popularized.
Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies is a hard movie to watch. It tells a story of what happened to many Japanese children during World War II. It shows how animation can be serious and heart wrenching when done well.
Princess Mononoke was the first animated film to win the Japan Academy Prize. Many consider the film as a landmark in animation because of its quality and complex, adult script.
Although Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t follow the manga, the characters break away from the standard shonen type. Edward uses intelligence more than brawn. In Brotherhood, he falls back into the standard impulsive meathead shonen stereotype.
Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions
Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions looks at chunibyo, or a reluctance to grow up. The anime is full of heart but avoids being overly sentimental. As these stories go, it is well balanced and worth the watch.
Death Note dominated anime for a time with its popularity. It spread across the internet through fanfictions and garnered a cult-like following. Its dark themes and questions about morality (such as the question of ends and means) hit home with many.
Spice and Wolf
Economics doesn’t get enough attention as a plot device. Spice and Wolf sometimes delves too deeply, but the adult relationship and banter between Holo and Lawrence elevates this story. Sadly, it looks unlikely the anime will be concluded.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
FMA: Brotherhood remakes the first series and follows the manga closer than the original. Brotherhood provides an accessible entry point for those looking to start watching anime.
Cowboy Bebop remains a classic. It is the best anime to introduce the medium to those who have doubts. Many who hate anime like Cowboy Bebop.
Eureka Seven shifts the mecha genre while retaining tradition. The bright colors and surfer theme break from the usual dark colors and themes found in most mecha. While the story retains the grandiose plot, the relationship between Renton and Eureka is the focus.
Rose of Versailles
Rose of Versailles is one of the most important stories for women’s roles. In the story, Oscar François de Jarjayes takes a role typically reserved for male characters. She doesn’t lose her identity to her male love interest like other stories of the time period the story released.
Samurai Champloo stands as the spiritual sequel to the classic Cowboy Bebop. It’s strange mix of hip-hop and Edo period Japan. In many regards Samurai Champloo surpasses Cowboy Bebop.
One Piece captures childhood for many. It is the best-selling manga series in history. Popularity creates impact, and few stories have had more impact than One Piece in the lives of fans.
Aside from Astro Boy, Pokemon is the most important anime. This is especially true of the United States. Pokemon may have begun as a video game, but it jumped mediums to television and books without any problems. For many Americans Pokemon defines childhood. Its messages of friendship, perseverance, loyalty, and hard work appeals to parents. Its bright colors and cute characters appeals to children. People around the world recognize Pikachu. What makes Pokemon significant is how it isn’t considered anime. It is simply a cartoon. This shows how anime has gone from being a niche market to a part of the American childhood. Pokemon remains the most popular anime franchise. It opens doors toward mainstream acceptance of the medium and raises generations on the art style. This makes Pokemon a gateway for more interest in anime.
Top 100 Anime. The Good, the Bad, and the Influential was last modified: December 11th, 2016 by Chris Kincaid
Who knew boredom and apathy could be so entertaining? One Punch Man, so far, has plenty of all three.
Saitama approaches superheroing as a hobby. What’s his main problem as a part-time superhero? Outside of supervillains attacking during grocery store sales, Saitama struggles with being too powerful. One Punch Man explores what happens when a superhero attains the apex of power and is no longer challenged. I’m watching the series on Toonami, and I haven’t seen every episode yet. So these impressions may change.
Anime heroes strive to become stronger, faster, and better. But what happens when they can’t get any stronger? What happens when they get powerful enough to kill Superman with a single punch? What happens when there is nothing to strive toward? One Punch Man answers with boredom and apathy. Saitama gets more excited about a sale than a villain appearing. Although he hopes one villain, some day, will provide the rush only a challenge can bring. Throughout anime, shonen heroes pit themselves against villains and obstacles in order to prove their power level and to feel a rush. Saitama no longer has villains that can do this. One punch ends it. He avoids the contrivance we see in Dragonball Z and Bleach of holding back power and slowly increasing it. Those shows use that method to build tension. In One Punch Man, villains follow this contrivance and expect Saitama to do the same. Only Saitama lacks hidden power reserves. He’s power incarnate. He also scoffs at the verbose speeches shonen characters love. Despite his boredom, he can’t turn a blind eye to crime, but he lacks the protection instinct we see in shonen heroes. He doesn’t proclaim he will protect people. He simply does it, but he does it on his own terms and cares little about the fallout. Apathy stands at the core of his character.
For someone like me who has grown tired of shonen tropes, One Punch Man stands apart. At the core of it, superheroes are rather ridiculous. They don spandex and face impossible creatures. I knew One Punch Man was something special when I saw the first villain: a lobster man in underwear. I know, I know. Superheroes are meant to be fantasy, but they struggle with power creep that leads them to ever-more ridiculous scenarios. One Punch Man reveals this with its quirky events and mashed up freaks.
When you look at classic fantasy, the heroes rarely achieve god-level powers. Yet, when they do, the story twists in a way that makes those powers worthless. Take the Wheel of Time for example. Rand slowly gains stronger abilities in the story’s version of magic. He eventually wields the strands of reality itself. But despite having these god-level powers, he finds himself faced with a foe he can’t vanquish. Namely, because he shouldn’t. Superheroes, on the other hand (and I’m mostly looking at shonen heroes), rarely find a villain they shouldn’t vanquish, as opposed to unable to vanquish.
I’ve never been much of a comic book superhero fan. I do, however, enjoy shonen heroes to a degree. Shonen heroes are made, not born like most comic book superheroes. I prefer the communal effort of shonen heroes. They become heroes through their effort and the help of their friends. Saitama, like American superheroes, is self-made. He trained to become powerful, but unlike Goku and other heroes, he trained alone. He achieved his power in the American way (more or less) than the communal Japanese way.
Despite how much I beat up on superheroes, I enjoy American superhero movies (but not the comic books), but comic book heroes are predictable. They will win. When they die, they don’t stay dead. After all, their properties are too valuable. One Punch Man satirizes this with a few lines of dialogue here and there. Death is one of the best parts of shonen. When a hero dies, they die. DBZ notwithstanding. The finality of this increases tension and shocks the reader. In some cases, this would the equivalent of Superman dying, and DC announcing there will be no new Superman comics. Ever. One Punch Man pokes at this through its lack of tension. Saitama will always win. The story lacks any type of struggle. Sure, Superman will struggle a little, but in the end, he too will always win. Even when he loses and “dies” he still returns in a later installment. One Punch Man takes this lack of tension inherent in the structure of most superhero comics and runs with it.
Okay, this post has meandered quite a bit. I’ve gotten away from writing personal posts like this, so I thought this would be a good break. While I enjoy satire, it proves difficult to discuss because discussing it makes satire lose its impact. It becomes dry and dull. I could tell you how Saitama pokes fun at superhero and shonen hero tropes in various scenes, but it’s better for you to watch it for yourself. If you are a fan of shonen like Bleach, give One Punch Man a watch. If you are a fan of American superheroes, give One Punch Man a watch. It may not be for everyone, but this is one story that points out just how ridiculous the modern hero narrative can be.
One Punch Man Impressions was last modified: September 25th, 2016 by Chris Kincaid
Boobs, headlights, breasts, jugs, chichi. Modern American culture worships the breast. But American culture isn’t alone. Anime too has a special fixation on the breast. While I’ve already addressed breast symbolism in anime, I haven’t discussed why anime obsesses over breasts. At first blush, this seems like a simple answer: guys. Guys like boobs, and anime targets men. However, this isn’t entirely correct. Modern men like breasts, but for most of human history, the breast was associated with life, particularly that of a child, instead of sexuality (Domshy, 2003). Let’s first take a look at modern ideas of why men like breasts and then look into the traditional Japanese view.
Modern Man and Mammaries
Modern theories on breast fixation center on the idea of resource competition and biology. Scientists see the presence of large-breasted statues and cave drawings from the earliest period of human history as evidence for men’s focus on the female chest. Researchers see these artifacts across cultures (Chivers, 2012). It’s thought large breasts developed to keep men interested in women with children. They are a form of competition to attract men with resources. Basically, they work similar to how a male bird has colorful feathers. Breasts also mimic the shape of the backside which is a turn on for other apes (Miller, 2006). Larry Young, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, suggests men like breasts because stimulating a woman’s nipples releases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for strengthening affection. The chemical helps bond a lady to the man (Wolchover, 2012).
Breasts show off fertility. Men are said to prefer young women who haven’t had children, so traits associated with youth and virginity (in this case, never being pregnant) like a slender waist, wide hips, and large, firm breasts attract men. Now you might be asking yourself, if this is the case why don’t all women have large boobs? Because breasts are costly, according to many researchers. They take vital nutrients to create, and energy to carry around; they make the female body biomechanically less efficient (again, all like the peacock’s tail). Eventually, the sexual selection benefits are outweighed by the costs. So not all women have these. Women’s breasts, on average, are already very large by comparison to most primates. (Chivers, 2012).
Sounds like science has the reason sewn up, doesn’t it? Not so fast. While these explanations are accepted, some argue against breast attraction as a natural part of male sexuality. These arguments offer convincing evidence that men learn to be attracted to breasts.
Men Aren’t Naturally Attracted to Breasts?
The presence of large-breasted statues and paintings doesn’t necessarily point to a fixation on the chest for sexual reasons. The breast was the only means of nourishing an infant up until the 19th century. Because of this, a fixation on the breast as the symbol for life is a reasonable explanation for its prolific appearance across cultures. The idea that breasts were a way of competing for men makes little sense in light of cultural norms. Anthropologist Fran Mascia-Lees takes on this view and Young’s oxytocin argument by pointing out how not all men are attracted to breasts. She cautions: “whenever evolutionary biologists suggest a universal reason for a behavior and emotion: how about the cultural differences?” (Wolchover, 2012). For example, in some African and New Guinean cultures, women don’t cover their chest, and men show a lack of interest in the exposed bosoms.
What about breasts looking like a woman’s backside? This is a cultural projection of the West. Breasts don’t look like a lady’s backside without being squished together by bras and corsets. Both of which are Western inventions.
In Japanese culture, you also find a distinct lack of interest in the chest until the modern era. If you look at Japanese woodblock print from the Edo period, not a lot of attention is lavished on the breast. Artists rendered other body parts in loving detail, but they largely ignored breasts. Yoshihiko Shirakawa, an expert on woodblock prints states (Kozuka, 2013):
“It appears that men of the Edo period considered breast to be a tool for child rearing. They were not a sexualized part of the body. In shunga from the early Edo Period, men and women were depicted with largely similar chests. From the point of view of the artists, breasts really didn’t seem to matter.”
Shunga are pornographic woodblock prints. Typically, shunga shows small breasts when they show up at all. When breasts appear, they appear in scenes where a woman breastfeeds an infant. Only a few artists fixated on sexual scenes involve breast stimulation. Such behavior doesn’t appear across shunga.
Back here in the West, the erotic breast appears in a brief period during the 15th and 16th centuries. The French painter Jean Fouquet paints one of the first erotic breasts in Western art. He painted Agnes, the mistress of Charles the VII with a bare breast specifically designed to suggest her eroticism. During the 16th century, prostitutes would stand on the streets bare-chested as a form of advertisement (Domshy, 2003). However, in the United States, the breast didn’t become erotic until the 1940s. Miller (2006) argues that the science of breasts is a projection of this late cultural fixation and the boom in breasts as a form of advertisement. The arguments seek to validate what is an aberration or vested interest. In 1982, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons went as far as labeling small boobs as a disease. Because scientists live and grew up in a culture that fixates on breasts as a symbol for sex, they struggle to view breasts in any other way.
Anime and Breasts
All of that brings us back to anime and its breast fetish. Anime came out of the complex interchange of American culture and Japanese culture after World War II, the same time breast fixation developed in the United States (Miller, 2006). The United States had a large influence on Japanese culture. For example, the United States is responsible for the panty fetish we see in anime. It stands to reason that the US also influenced how Japan views female chests. On the opposite side of the coin, anime targets West. In order to make more money, studios need to make stories that have the widest appeal. This explains why you often see Japanese humor–falling flat, puns, and other jokes that are strange for Westerners–combined with breast hijinks. Both the US and Japan share the same fetish, so it’s common ground for marketing stories.
Culture becomes a self-perpetuating loop. That loops can make us think something is natural. Think about Chinese foot-binding. That was a practice in ancient China that forced women to have abnormally small feet by binding them so they couldn’t grow. It caused pain and even prevented women from being able to walk. But Chinese men at the time thought it was erotic. These small, 4-inch feet, hidden in elaborately embroidered shoes, became the focus of erotic fantasies. It shows nearly anything that is hidden can gain sexual attraction. Eroticism in humans starts in our large brains. It isn’t as hardwired as some people believe. In Japanese culture, the nape of a lady’s neck excites men. For most of us here in the West, the nape of the neck is about as sexy as a wrist — which was also sexy in feudal Japan I might add. During the Roman Empire, women considered the sweat of gladiators sexy.
This article doesn’t seek to validate objectification of women. Rather, I attempt to sketch some of the reasons why we have a cultural breast fetish. Culture directs the biological drive for sex. In this article, I focused on male sexuality, but culture shapes women’s ideas of eroticism as well. While genetics creates the foundation for attraction, culture determines how that attraction forms. But in all cases, culture fixates on individual body parts. Which body part depends on culture and time period. Anime focuses on breasts because it is a product of American and Japanese culture. The breast fixation in otaku culture will disappear once culture shifts to the next erotic body part. Perhaps elbows will be the next big fetish.
It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.
You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.
Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii] Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.
The Birth of O’iwa
In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]
O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836. http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034
The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan
The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.
Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.
But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.
This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?
The three horrors of O‘iwa.
The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of
discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.
O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare. As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.
Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.
O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.
Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.
Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice. “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.
At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.
One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.
But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]
Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.
… or another other scary creature?
However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.
The Burning Lantern
Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s. https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg
One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.
While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]
To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.
O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.
Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.
Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond
I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.
Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.
What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere. She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?
Notes and References:
[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.
[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.
[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.
[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.
[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.
[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.
[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.