Of Place and Wind 3: Anime and manga

Tetsuya Kaida discusses the cultural phenomenon of anime and manga by drawing comparisons between Japanese and Western works.

In Japan, the word ‘otaku’ triggers a variety of associations. In a broad sense, it points to a side of the Japanese character that we all have. Thoughts of ‘duality’, ‘parallel worlds’ and ‘equilibrium of the pendulum’ are on my mind a lot lately. I even use them in my job as a basis for conceptual work, trying to figure out how to incorporate them more fully into products and sales strategies.

On closer reflection, I can recognize within myself the dual nature and sense of balance of the human psyche, as well as the tendency to experience parallel flows of time that are the defining characteristics of an otaku-type character. More simply, once you start giving primacy to sensitivity over reason and try to stay true to your emotions, your otaku quotient will increase. Of course, as I warned you at the beginning, I am not an expert in the field and what I write here are just my own interpretations of things.

Double nature and parallel worlds are superbly woven into the fabric of manga and anime, which treat them as the common-sense substance of reality.

Princess Mononoke 「もののけ姫」© 1997 二馬力・GND

In my lectures abroad, I often use comparisons between Disney and Ghibli animation movies to illustrate differences between the Japanese and Western cultures. I believe it is the emphasis on duality as a major theme that gives Japanese animation its distinguishing character. If we take a look at a representative Japanese animation film, like Spirited Away for example, we see that the scenario is structured into parallel worlds and that characters have a dual nature. Halfway into the story, we find out that Yubaba has a twin sister who is her exact opposite, that Haku is both a dragon and a boy, that the Stink God combines sacredness with human selfishness… As the plot unfolds, intertwining the bitterness of adulthood with the purity of childhood, or the evil side of night with its mystery, we are confronted with the most diverse ambivalences.

The experience is that of a pendulum-like oscillation between sensitive renditions of everyday reality and the unexpected dream realm discovered at the end of an imaginative journey. Perhaps viewing the film this way will shed a different light on its significance.

An important aspect, however, is that such dualities and ambivalences are not as clear as they seem when verbalized. It is in the subtle dosage of ambiguity and polymorphism that the genius of Ghibli animation and its creator, Hayao Miyazaki, manifests itself. Furthermore, these effects are probably not deliberate, but emerge as Miyazaki naturally develops his stories.

Ambiguity and doubt, incompleteness and resignation lie at the very core of our existence. Countless laws, regulations and other forms of rational control have been developed a posteriori with the aim of hiding or escaping this side of the human self. Today, such a posteriori reasoning is rife with contradictions and human societies around the world stand at a stage in the great current of life which has been flowing through mind-boggling time frames since the birth of the universe, wondering how to regain their genuine form and direction.

The philosophy and scenarios that inform Ghibli animation are magnificent in the way they reach to our deepest inborn instincts, challenging us what we keep hidden in the recesses of our soul. From Princess Mononoke to Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Ghibli films are all packed with excitement and enigmas that lead us to unconsciously explore the parallel worlds lying in our psychological depths.

Having had the privilege to talk to director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli on several occasions recently, I have taken the liberty to give here an entirely subjective explanation of their work. If they happen to read this, they will probably put their heads in their hands and say I got it all wrong. Just imagining the scene makes me smile.

While the discussion so far has focused mainly on anime, I believe that manga can be regarded and enjoyed in the same way. Let us take as an example Shōnen Jump, one of the most popular manga anthology magazines in Japan, which is also becoming popular ‘globally’. Some of the best known series it has featured – One Piece, Naruto or Bleach – are typical parallel-world stories.

One Piece brings together pirates and land dwellers, innocent youths and superhumans, friendship and adventure…

In Naruto, we have the body and the chakra, ordinary human nature and secret knowledge, past and present…

Bleach confronts the human and the demon worlds, reality and emptiness, normal power and unlimited power…

Ambivalences and layers of identity are built into the characters, who undergo several subtle transformations and return to their original state over the course of the scenario, captivating the mind of the reader. As if, in a tacit agreement with their readers, the manga artists infused their work with the hidden flavor of their own indecision and nonconformity. But, of course, this could be just another one of my assumptions.

The bottom line is that, when a new issue of the manga magazine comes out on Monday morning, the only thing I can think of is how to get to read it faster (ironical smile). And thus, even an unbalanced person like me can enjoy a parallel consciousness.

I once had the opportunity to meet the chief editor of Shōnen Jump. I will never forget my first surprise that the chief editor was a man who seemed to have just come out of a pachinko parlor or race track, nor his comment that “week after week, the manga masters work under deadline pressure, without enough time to even take a walk outside. Their life is much like that of an otaku – a monotonous string of days spent in a dark and damp room, slurping instant ramen noodles.”

Ah, Mr. Chief Editor, please accept my apologies for writing such things despite neglecting to get in touch for a long time. And I should not omit your remark that some of the manga masters do have a more relaxed schedule. Just for the sake of impartiality.

May I be permitted to add a few words in favor of pachinko lovers. Pachinko is a made-in-Japan mini-casino that we can proudly show off to the rest of the world. Here again, the design and technology needed to condense ever more entertainment, excitement and gambling into less than 1 m2 of space are being upgraded on an ongoing basis. It is unfortunate that, not being a regular pachinko user, I cannot introduce it more fully.

In passing, pachinkos remind me of the time when I was building my house ten years ago. While most of the work needed to assemble the construction materials imported from Canada was done by Japanese carpenters, two Canadian carpenters came to Japan for a fortnight to take care of the interior. On the weekend, I took them around to public baths and Japanese restaurants, and, not without a certain curiosity to see what reaction I would get, to the pachinko parlor.

“Wow! Ooooh! Little Las Vegas! Wonderful!”… All of a sudden, the two young carpenters from Vancouver found themselves immersed in the game with unexpected, childlike enthusiasm. Would it not be a great idea to introduce pachinko machines into Las Vegas casinos? (laugh).

A few days ago, I revisited Kyoto after a long time. I spent some time at the Manga Museum, where I experienced an interesting time slip to the years when I was a young boy. No wonder, considering that the museum is housed in the building of a former elementary school, which has been renovated with care to retain the feel of the old days. Next time you go to Kyoto, you might want to spend some time exploring this ‘other memory of Japan”.

To conclude, I would like to express my gratitude to all the anime and manga artists and urge them to never stop wandering through the double and triple worlds where they get us entangled.

As I was sharing some of these thoughts with two Japanese girls in their twenties, they asked me if I was not going to write about ‘Eva’. Apparently the two of them belong to the category of anime fans called ‘Evangelion otaku’. I had forgotten about the Evangelion. I’d better review it right away.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)

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