This is the first in a series of articles about Japanese anime culture inspired by Anime Festival Asia 2012.
Hello. My name is Kevin (Hi, Kevin), and I am a geek.
It is a lot easier to be a geek now than it was, say, twenty years ago. Popular television shows like Glee have catapulted the reclusive musical misfit into relative stardom, and Big Bang Theory has revolutionised laughing at intelligent but socially awkward people: instead of humiliation, it’s now comedy. A lot of what used to be geek culture has also filtered into the mainstream media: Robert Downey Jr. has exemplified the suave, rich, genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist character that plays with cool tech toys and still gets the girl; while Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy captivated audiences with a darker and edgier Dark Knight and a morbidly fascinating clown-faced anarchist. Heck, even Star Trek, the historically definitive icon of geekdom, had a movie in 2009 which made US$385.7 million worldwide.
But just because geeks are now tolerated doesn’t mean they are accepted or understood. When I introduce myself to people and mention that I like comic books, or that I am attending Anime Festival Asia 2012; I often receive the soft, judging smile that civilised people reserve for these kinds of situations, while they hastily Google their brains for the one reference or passing remark they know about the Avengers before quickly finding a way to change the subject. (You know who you are.) Even people who have deep, almost obsessive interests in “mainstream” things tend to mitigate their enthusiasm by saying stuff like, “Oh my gosh, I sound so geeky”, or “You must think I’m a total nerd right now, hahahahaha.” Geekiness, in general, still bears a negative connotation in society.
And the one subculture which still faces much of the stigma associated with the traditional characteristics of geekiness is the otaku subculture. In English, the closest translation of “otaku” would be “geek”, and the term is usually used to refer to anime fans or enthusiasts. Otaku are shunned for many of the traditional reasons: they’re obsessed with fantasies or characters which aren’t real; they’re seen as mentally immature because they watch “cartoons”; or they’re hormonally-imbalanced teenage boys who get excited at a glimpse of two-dimensional cleavage. The news media doesn’t help at all; when they’re not highlighting the fringe group that dresses up as the opposite sex, they’re recording the illogical extremes that the fans go to in support of their idols.
There is more to this, however. Though I am nowhere near as experienced or as hardcore as some of my friends, I know enough to give the layman some insight into the anime subculture. Such as:
#5. Beautiful Art
Yes, yes, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that some people pick their art more meticulously than their food (but in both cases it somehow always seems to come down to colour). Yet it cannot be denied that anime is an art form, as varied and as versatile as many other media. Different artists use very different and distinct visual styles, and are influenced by many of the more traditional forms of art.
There are many different things I could talk about here, but I think one show really exemplified the notion for me of anime as a visual art. It’s an animated feature film called 5 Centimetres per Second, and it’s become renowned for its breathtaking backdrops and masterfully detailed scenery. It’s almost as if the artists had an art battle and these are the beautiful, beautiful remains:
I guess it’s called Scenery Porn for a reason.
#4 Nice Music
Okay, maybe you don’t like the anime art style. Maybe it’s too cartoonish, or maybe you don’t like the way it unrealistically portrays girls. So why don’t you take a look at the music instead?
The Japanese pop music industry is symbiotically entwined with the anime industry, in a way that the Western music industry isn’t. Because it allows them to immediately engage a pre-existing audience, many J-Pop artists perform the opening or ending theme songs of anime shows, and, depending on the popularity of the show, can result in them making or breaking it in the industry.
It’s not all just electropop with high-pitched voices, either. The genres range from instrumental jazz to operatic choruses, power ballads to heavy metal and everything else in between. And even if you don’t understand the lyrics, the music is usually enjoyable by itself. In fact, due to the popularity of karaoke in Japan, many singles are released with instrumental versions, so that you can lovingly serenade your showerhead with your mangled, tone-deaf voice.
My favourite song (currently) is called Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari, best translated as “The Story You Don’t Know”, performed by supercell and sung by Nagi, as the ending theme to Bakemonogatari. Apparently the song’s supposed to be about a love triangle, and I don’t understand the lyrics at all since they’re in Japanese. But I love the song, the melancholic rock ballad-ness of it, the melody of piano in the background, and the clear purity of the lead vocal.
I wanted to show you the original song, but apparently all videos of it on YouTube have been taken down due to copyright reasons, so here’s an arranged version for the piano instead. It’s good, but it sadly doesn’t do the original song justice.
#3 Powerful Storytelling Medium
A lot of people who think that anime is just Japanese cartoons probably have not watched any anime more intellectually mature than Pokémon. Granted, it’s a show specifically designed to appeal to the minds of ten-year-olds, so there’s not much one can do in the way of complex subplots or deep emotional exploration.
Animation, in general, tends to be seen as the “PG” medium. Hollywood has made many gritty, violent films which test the limits of cinematography, but I challenge you to name a gory animation feature film (not counting Happy Tree Friends). Historically, the first popular animations were Walt Disney’s and they featured simple, fairytale stories and fairly child-friendly premises. But as the medium evolves and animators get better and bolder, we now have studios like Pixar, who know the power of a good story and put the story above everything else.
Anime is no different. There have been a number of good shows used as powerful storytelling vehicles, stories that challenge your perceptions of the world and inspire you to think. These are three on my most recent watchlist which I would recommend:
Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems to be an innocuous magical girl anime, in the vein of Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura: cute young girl gains magical powers and, with her adorably marketable mentor mascot, goes out and defeats the monster of the week in the name of love, kindness, and rainbows! Then, just a couple of episodes in, you realise that this isn’t your ordinary magical girl series; that the show is full of death, mental trauma, blue and orange morality, and Faustian bargains… Tack on a haunting score and insane art direction, and you have a huge deconstruction of the magical girl genre with an awesome, mindblowing ending.
This little feller wants you to save the universe! D’awww…
Steins;Gate tells the story of a self-proclaimed mad scientist who manages to send text messages back in time, using a microwave. (Because science.) After using the new technology to help his friends get what they want in life by changing the timeline, the shadowy organisation SERN starts closing in on him, and puts the main character in a race against time to prevent the death of his ditzy childhood friend while hanging on to the girl he loves. For a time travel story, it is pretty well done, managing to avoid the usual grandfather paradoxes (paradoxen? paradoxi?) and successfully pulling off the Groundhog Day Loop, which is more than Looper ever did. Underlying this time travel thriller are a couple of profound questions: Is it ever worth it to change your fate? And will true love exist across alternate universes?
The sale of lab coats in Japan tripled due to this scene alone.
And finally, Fate/Zero is a prequel to the popular Fate/stay night series, in which seven magicians each summon the spirit of a heroic figure from history and compete in a Battle Royale to win the Holy Grail. It’s a story about manly men fighting manly battles, of beautiful computer generated graphics and masterful animation, of deception and honour, love and betrayal. At the heart of the story is an exploration of utilitarianism, with the ultimate question: is it worth it to kill a few to save the many?
Also, in this story, King Arthur is a young girl. (Japan.)
#2 Gateway into Another Language and Culture
Perhaps the most relevant benefit one gains from watching anime is the understanding of Japanese language and culture. And before you confidently run off to your Kyoto University exchange programme with five episodes of Naruto under your belt, allow me first a small caveat: Japanese anime is a good starting point to learn about Japanese culture and language, but it is not the best way. No amount of anime watching can prevent you from accidentally offending the chefs at the sushi bars in Tokyo, and your extensive knowledge of mecha is probably not going to help you seal that contract with the CEO of Toyota. It’s best if you complement your newfound education with official etiquette guides, or better yet, the advice of actual Japanese friends.
One of the primary areas of cultural experience you could pick up is Japanese table manners. Perhaps the most well-known is the customary pre-meal exclamation of itadakimasu (literally translated as “I humbly receive”), similar to the practice of saying grace to give thanks before a meal. Also coupled in this cultural two-for-one is the custom of saying gochisousama-deshita (literally, “You were a feast preparer”) after you’re done with the meal. This is such an integral part of their culture that every anime character will chant it out before and after a meal, so often that after a while, you internalise it, shouting it out at Chinese restaurants and Western diners and attracting awkward stares.
And once you get into the cuisine itself, you realise that there is more to Japanese food than raw fish. Sushi and sashimi are well known because they are iconic, but the average Japanese person doesn’t eat it every day, mainly because it’s a gourmet food which requires special training to prepare, and thus is quite expensive. Once you start watching anime and seeing what the average Japanese person eats every day, you realise that there’s a whole buffet table of food that you desperately need to try, from the rice dishes like donburi and gyudon, to the bowls of ramen, udon and soba; from the huge hot-pot meals of oden, sukiyaki, and shabu-shabu to the bite-sized snacks like onigiri and yakitori. Did you know that Japan also has its own take on curry? Japanese cuisine is like no other on Earth.
Another thing you get used to in listening to Japanese conversation is the use of honorifics. For the casual learner, Japanese has at least two levels of politeness: a casual level you use to talking to friends or peers, and a formal one you use to talk to superiors or elders. An analog in Mandarin could be the use of 你 (ní) and 您 (nín) to address someone in second person (i.e. “you”), but the former is more casual while the latter is reserved for addressing people like teachers or grandparents or emperors.
This is pervasive throughout the entire language, but the one that really stands out is the use of honorific suffixes to address certain people. The most common and most neutral of these is -san; you could, for example, call me Kevin-san, especially if you don’t know me very well, or if we just met. Once you get to know me a little better, you could start calling me Kevin-kun, which is more informal; but you should never call me Kevin-chan, because the -chan suffix has a more feminine connotation and is used to refer to girls. This is a gross oversimplification, though, and formal guides (and years of experience and practice) are recommended if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself in Japan, my dear reader-sama.
See, I grew up thinking her surname was Chan. My whole life has been a lie.
If you wanted to get analytical about it, you could say how this provides insights into the fundamentals of Japanese culture in general, that it is representative of the underlying respect and courtesy that runs through their entire social structure, and how this might have roots in Confucianism or Shinto philosophies; but I don’t want to, so I won’t.
#1 It’s Fun
Let’s face it, anime is just another type of entertainment. You don’t need to know any of the biblical allusions in the Harry Potter series to appreciate the eternal tale of the struggle of good against evil. Likewise, you don’t need a degree in Japanese cultural studies to laugh at any of the crazy antics in the comedy Baka no Test no Shokanjuu. Besides, the spectrum of anime is so vast and diverse that there’s sure to be something that you like, or at least, not hate. There are a lot of crappy shows, sure; but there are a lot of crappy movies too, and I don’t see you boycotting cinemas or burning down DVD rental stores. The world is full of amazing and wonderful stories, and anime is one of the ways to taste a slice of the grand human narrative.
So come on down, take a seat, and have some dried seaweed while we fire up the first episode. We just might make an otaku of you yet.