June 12, 2024

Anime reassessed (culture matters)

Why do western audiences like anime? One reason is precisely because anime doesn't pander to western audiences. Or rather, anime in general does not make a concerted effort to appeal to modern audiences outside Japan.

The Critical Drinker deserves the credit for turning that expression into a pejorative. To be sure, every trendy social and political movement eventually shows up in Japanese popular culture (often reusing the same English terminology). But in almost every case, it is an ephemeral surf that leaves the deeper societal currents undisturbed.

Dating back at least 2500 years, Confucianism is the common cultural cornerstone of the Sinosphere. In particular, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam share a worldview with deep roots in Confucianism. Especially in South Korea, that worldview "shapes the moral system, the way of life, social relations between old and young, high culture, and much of the legal system."

It's easy to spot an almost identical postmodern veneer around the developed world and assume that all such societies are essentially the same. But no matter how contemporary a society may appear on the surface, the bedrock culture remains. If only for the sake of verisimilitude, it must constitute an inextricable part of any story being told in that context.

The payoff is that understanding and respecting the immutable nature of the culture makes for a reliable source of tension and conflict and narrative depth.

Challenging traditional values is one thing. Eliminating them entirely is quite another. That's what China did during the Cultural Revolution. The result was the wholesale destruction of an entire generation. It comes as no surprise that those very same communists are now hawking the ancient cultural heritage and Confucian teachings they once vilified.

China learned the hard way the value of Chesterton's Fence.

Granted, aside from a handful of trending topics and popular political slogans, most people would have a hard time identifying what those cultural values are. But they do recognize their absence. Like a living organism deprived of a necessary nutrient, even if that absence goes unnoticed at first, its loss will inevitably exact a toll.

Regardless of the genre, anime is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Even when seemingly lost in translation, it shores up the story being told. From the hierarchal language to the education system, to food, fashion, architecture, and a myriad of other customs that are centuries old and very much alive.

A great example of this is Dragon Pilot, that starts at a modern JSDF air force base, and then tosses dragons, miko (Shinto shrine maidens), and ancient religious rites into the mix. Dragon Pilot introduces the shrine maidens in the last third of the story, while Otaku Elf takes place entirely in the shrine maiden genre.

The Japanese title for the latter is Edomae Elf and Elda has been hanging around Takamimi Shrine since the dawn of the Edo period. More recently in the early twentieth century, the Taisho period has become the go-to setting for Japan's fantasy steam punk era, as in My Happy Marriage and Demon Slayer.
In an interview posted on Anime News Network, My Happy Marriage director Takehiro Kubota was asked if he was concerned about how viewers outside Japan would enjoy and interpret the anime.

"Not really," was his reassuring answer.

In fact, I never imagined that it would be seen so widely in so many different countries, so I was grateful when I heard that it had been watched by so many people overseas and had such a positive response. Perhaps due to Miyo's uniquely Japanese character? It's somewhat hard to express the nuance, but Miyo is a quite modest person who clearly doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve. I found it very interesting that her character was accepted in other cultures where being able to assert one's own opinion is a highly valued character trait.
A big part of what draws western audiences to anime is precisely because it is not made for western audiences. The aesthetics of anime create an additional level of remove that paradoxically makes reality all the more real. So as it turns out, then, I do like the isekai genre very much, because watching anime takes me on a voyage to another world.

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