I completed an essay for my “Manga and Anime in Japanese Popular Culture” class (I love that I can do a class on this!) as part of my Graduate Diploma in Humanities. It was a great essay topic that helped give me a deeper insight into the anime and manga I love…but something bugged me. The essay was based on Susan Napier’s excellent book Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (this is the 2001 edition; there is an updated 2005 edition too). In it, Napier said that apocalypse, festival and elegy are – in her opinion – the three most significant modes in anime. The essay asked to discuss three anime or manga that showed aspects of these three modes.
Now, I don’t doubt that apocalypse, festival and elegy are incredibly significant modes in anime and manga. Napier gave very convincing historical background and examples to show this. She also states immediately that
“…anime is an immensely wide-ranging popular cultural form. Anime mines all aspects of society and culture for its material, not only the most contemporary and transient of trends but also the deeper levels of history, philosophy, and politics.”
(Napier 2001, p. 32)
So Napier never suggests that apocalypse, festival and elegy are the only three significant modes in anime – far from it. Her main argument in the book is that anime is an art form, and can offer great insights into Japanese culture:
At its best, anime can be highly creative, intellectually challenging, and aesthetically memorable. But even at its most pedestrian, the incredible variety of animated works can offer rich insights into a complicated and sometimes agonized culture.
(Napier 2001, pp. 32-33)
Yes, yes and yes. I agree with all these points. Anime can be incredibly varied – as varied as the human imagination. I often say that there is an anime (or manga) for everyone (now if only I could convince my dad to sit down and try some…).
So after reading Napier’s description of the apocalypse, festival and elegy modes – and from where they derive in Japanese culture – I started thinking about the anime and manga I wanted to analyse for the essay. And this is where I hit a stumbling block.
My pavlovian choice when selecting an anime to analyse is One Piece. It’s my favourite (at the moment, at least) and has so much material after over 15 years of being serialised that it should be easy to use as reference material. But…it didn’t seem to fit quite well in any of Napier’s three modes. It’s certainly not an apocalyptic series. It has elements of elegy – particularly nostalgia – but these are mainly in the background stories of each character. Seriously – nearly every background story of the Strawhat Pirates made me cry. But these are just background stories and – while adding plenty of depth to the story – they’re probably not critical to the plot. There was certainly mourning and some nostalgia, but not much lyricism. The idea of transience isn’t strong within One Piece; the nature of the world it’s set in doesn’t mean that you watch the seasons change – at least not in order! Rather, everything changes in too short a space of time to appreciate its impermanence. Mono no aware does not come to mind when watching One Piece.
So, I couldn’t really write about the elegy of One Piece. That leaves festival. While some One Piece fans can immediately equate the series with a festival, I felt uncertain. Because, yes, sure, there is plenty of humour: bizarre, pun-based, juvenile and sophisticated. There are also elements of sexual themes – scantily dressed women and the perverts that chase them. One Piece is a battle genre series, so there is also violence (even though, for the longest time, no one ever seemed to die – I won’t give any more spoilers than that). But…Napier’s three modes were all compared with elements of Japanese culture. And when it comes to festivals, or matsuri in Japanese, One Piece didn’t feel very Japanese at all.
It’s a pirate series. There are characters named after famous historical pirate figures, like Blackbeard. The ships and weaponry used are reminiscent of those in the 17th and 18th centuries. While Japanese pirates did exist, One Piece‘s pirates show a very European/Western influence – similar to those depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Monkey Island franchises. Furthermore, the One Piece universe is very different to our own. Japanese-like characters have appeared, but they were noted as being very unique, and none of them are major characters (yet). Overall, the One Piece world is not a Japanese world.
I could have perhaps shoe-horned my analysis of One Piece into the festival mode but it really didn’t ring true with me. Yes, there is humour and violence and overtly sexy characters. Yes, these characters are doing something unique – not something that everyday people would do. But it’s not because of matsuri; it’s because they are pirates. Mangaka Eiichiro Oda’s research on pirates is very thorough, and the freedom theme found throughout the series feels much more Western than Japanese to me.
One Piece recently overtook Dragonball to be the highest selling manga of all time in Japan. Merchandising of the franchise has run rampant too, with everything from candies to underwear to eyeglasses being sold. The series has a huge and varied audience, with more people over the age of 60 reading it than under the age of eighteen. That’s right: even though it is theoretically a shounen (boys) series, One Piece has a huge adult following. I would rate it with The Simpsons as an animated series that made huge cultural impacts in their respective countries.
That was the start of my stumbling block. If a massive manga and anime series like One Piece didn’t really fit into the three modes that Napier called the “most significant”, then what did that say about One Piece? Or the three modes? I moved on and thought about some other series I knew well enough to analyse and compare with Napier’s modes. But I seemed to hit the same wall again and again. Admittedly, my choices were restricted to those that had not already been analysed by Napier in her book – otherwise I could have easily written about Cowboy Bebop, or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, or Neon Genesis Evangelion.
But thinking about the series I had read recently, I couldn’t really put them into one of those three categories. Silver Spoon is a wonderful series by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame, and may overtake One Piece as my new favourite. It’s about a teenage boy from the city moving to rural Hokkaido to attend agricultural school. There really isn’t anything in there that I would identify as particularly apocalyptic, elegiac or festive. It’s a slice-of-life series with an educational bent.
Skip Beat! is a shoujo (girls) series about a teenaged girl spurned by her lifelong love after he enters the music industry. She becomes determined to be more famous and successful than him in the entertainment world as revenge. Moyasimon is another agricultural-themed series where the protagonist can see and communicate with micro-organisms in the world around him. Fairy Tail is basically a mages-as-opposed-to-pirates version of One Piece. Even the hugely popular Naruto and Bleach seemed to not quite fit into Napier’s three modes. Sure, I could find small elements of Napier’s modes in each of them, but they all felt like I was grasping at straws.
In the end, I analysed Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou for apocalypse, Gin Tama for festival (which felt much more fitting than One Piece) and Pom Poko – one of the few Studio Ghibli films not analysed by Napier – for elegy. Interestingly, all three of those anime showed very strong elements of at least two of Napier’s three modes. Gin Tama arguably shows all three. And yet I couldn’t really comfortably tag One Piece or any of the other series I mentioned with even one mode.
While I still agree that Napier’s chosen modes of apocalypse, festival and elegy are incredibly significant in anime – and certainly have deep roots in Japanese culture – it feels like one more significant mode is missing. So I’d like to propose a fourth significant mode in anime: growth.
One Piece, Fairy Tail, Bleach and Naruto – pretty much any battle genre anime – have huge plot points revolving around characters getting stronger or better skilled so that they can reach their goals. The educational series like Silver Spoon, Moyasimon and Yakitate!! Japan aim to teach their readers something, even if the plot does not actually depict the characters learning too. Shoujo series like Skip Beat! and Cousin show their protagonists coming-of-age and learning about how to better themselves to meet their goals. These all either depict their characters growing in some way, or allow the reader to grow with new knowledge.
The motto of Japan’s highest-selling manga magazine, Weekly Shounen Jump, can translate to “Friendship! Endeavour! Success!”. The “Endeavour” element of the motto – and perhaps “Success” too – certainly lend themselves to a growth mode in anime – and boy, do the Jump series show it! One Piece, Naruto and Bleach – sometimes referred to the Big Three series of today – were all serialised as manga in Jump before becoming anime, as was Gin Tama and Dragon Ball. This motto was created after asking readers what the three most important things were in life – so it’s easy to link this aspect of growth in anime to Japanese culture.
But beyond Jump‘s motto, there is more evidence of a growth mode evolving from Japanese culture. The most obvious example is Japan’s spectacular economic growth after World War II, when Japanese goods became known worldwide as superior, and the economy became one of the world’s largest. The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games is often referred to as a coming-of-age point in the history of modern Japan; that it had rebuilt successfully after the ravages of war and was part of the world stage again. Even after that, Japan held high economic esteem for decades, although the economic troubles starting in the 1980s reduced that somewhat.
Some argue that the medieval period during which Japan closed its border to foreigners created a boom growth in unique Japanese cultural elements, such as kabuki theatre and the geisha tradition. Even after its borders were opened again in 1854, the Edo period heralded a new age and immense growth and modernisation. Perhaps the mode of growth could extend to regrowth, considering Japan’s history of rebuilding from natural disasters like the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. It would seem that perhaps the growth mode we see in Japanese culture is often tied to the apocalypse mode. But that is fine. After all, as I wrote in my essay, apocalypse, festival and elegy were often tied together. I feel that elegy and growth also link together, particularly nostalgia, while festival is linked to growth in celebrations like the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
These examples of growth in Japan’s history are all off the top of my head (and not referenced!), so it can’t be considered as well-researched as Napier’s explanation of apocalypse, elegy and festival and their roots in Japanese culture, but I don’t believe it would be hard to make an argument for growth as a fourth “most significant” mode in anime and point out its influences. Furthermore, the addition of this fourth mode would cover some of the most significant anime series that didn’t fit before, like Dragon Ball and One Piece, as well as entire genres like educational or coming-of-age.
Plus, it would’ve made my essay much easier to write!