Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation

Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation

by S. Napier


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With the popularity of Pokémon far from waning, Japanese animation, known as anime to its fans, has a firm hold on American pop culture. However, anime is much more than children's cartoons, running the gamut from historical epics to sci-fi sexual thrillers. Often dismissed as fanciful entertainment, anime is actually quite adept at portraying important social and cultural issues. From teenage alienation in Akira, perhaps the most famous anime film in the United States, to the problems of industrialization and modernity in one of Miyazaki Hayao's masterpieces, Princess Mononoke, anime tackles tough questions that confront individuals and society as a whole.

In this knowing and insightful introduction to anime as a cultural phenomenon, Susan J. Napier goes inside the world of anime to explore how it reflects and colors both Japanese society and our growing global culture. Topics include the apocalyptic visions in Akira, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Neon Genesis Evagelion; gender identity in Ranma 1/2; questions of history and memory in Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen; feminism in the films of Miyazaki Hayao; and more. Napier also provides an even-handed look at anime's darker side: its frequent displays of pornography and sexual violence in such films as Twin Dolls and La Blue Girl.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312238636
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan US
Publication date: 05/02/2003
Edition description: 2001
Pages: 311
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.04(d)

About the Author

Susan J. Napier is Professor of Japanese Studies at Tufts University, USA. She is the author of four books, including The Fantastic in Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity and Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle .

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Three: Akira and Ranma 1/2:The Monstrous Adolescent

Akira: Revenge of the Abjected

One of the major changes in the representation of the monstrous is that it has been increasingly represented as coming from within. -Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine

Despair and a feeling of entrapment are emotions often associated with adolescence. They are also frequently emotions projected onto the adolescent body, the site of a welter of contradictory feelings, from tremulous hope to savage disappointment. Two of the more important representations of the adolescent body in Japanese animation are the confused and terrifying figure of Tetsuo in Otomo Katsuhiro's 1988 tour de force Akira and the confused and comic figure of Ranma in the popular late 1980s television series Ranma 1/2. Although very different from each other in style and tone, the two texts both privilege the notion of the adolescent body as a site of metamorphosis. However, what makes them fundamentally different is the protagonists' basic attitudes toward metamorphosis. In the case of Tetsuo, he sometimes resists the transformation but also nihilistically glories in it, and he ultimately asserts his monstrous new identity unflinchingly at the film's end. Ranma's reaction to his transforming body is very different. He continually denies it and searches for a return to a normality that is comically (but perhaps tragically for him) forever elusive.

"Body Horror" [is] a hybrid genre that recombines the narrative and cinematic conventions of the science fiction, horror, and suspense film in order to stage a spectacle of the human body defamiliarized, rendered other. Body horror seeks to inspire revulsion-and in its own way pleasure-through representations of quasi-human figures whose effect/affect is produced by their abjection, their ambiguation, their impossible embodiment of multiple, incompatible forms. (p. 203)

Ranma 1/2: Don't You Know the Difference Between a Boy and a Girl, Daddy?

Segregating the sexes during childhood and defining the contexts and nature of their encounters later on, Japanese society defines gender roles with adamantine rules. In the realm of the imaginary, the strict roles encapsulating male and female are broken, being transgressed in fantasies which can be singly and variously violent, sadistic, maudlin, sentimental or comical. -Nicholas Boronoff, The Pursuit and Politics of Sex in Japan

...identification is always an ambivalent process. Identifying with a gender under contemporary regimes of power involves identifying with a set of norms that are and are not realizable, and whose power and status precede the identifications by which they are insistently approximated. This "being a man" and this "being a woman" are internally unstable affairs. They are always beset by ambivalence precisely because there is a cost in every identification, the loss of some other set of identifications, the forcible approximation of a norm one never chooses, a norm that chooses us, but which we occupy, reverse, resignify to the extent that the norm fails to determine us completely.-Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter

While Akira turns its back on normality to present an extravagant spectacle of the monstrous, Ranma 1/2, our next work to be discussed, portrays its eponymous hero as frenziedly seeking the normal. Both Akira and Ranma 1/2 play on the motif of the changing adolescent body, although Akira presents the changing body as menacing, and Ranma 1/2 uses it largely for comic effect. To put it another way, Akira is fundamentally apocalyptic, although it participates in the festival mode, while Ranma 1/2, although containing episodes of destruction and even elegiac interludes, is largely a celebration of the festival. Both texts feature adolescent protagonists who deal with classic adolescent issues like isolation, jealousy, and intergenerational conflict,7 constructed around the motif of uncontrollable metamorphoses. However, in keeping with Ranma 1/2's festival mode, and in sharp contrast to Akira's vision of Armageddon, Ranma 1/2's metamorphoses threaten, but never completely overturn, the social structure. Furthermore, the metamorphoses in Ranma 1/2 are from male to female or vice versa, which raises issues of sexual identity that Tetsuo's lonely monstrousness only subtextually evokes.8

[adolescence] is the period that the subject feels the greatest discord between the body image and the lived body, between its psychical idealized self-image and bodily changes. . . . The adolescent body is commonly experienced as awkward, alienating, an undesired biological imposition. (p. 75)

Ranma's "discord" between image and reality is literally enacted in his transformations and is further emphasized by the reactions of those around him who, as we saw in the first episode, become puzzled, shocked, or even angry upon witnessing his metamorphoses. On a general level, we can see this discord as going beyond body or even gender construction to expressing the agonies attendant on the construction of identity in adolescence. Stripped of its fantasy elements, the opening episode is a classic encapsulation of some of the problems attendant on growing up, adolescent loneliness in particular. Neither boy nor girl, Ranma occupies a liminal space that, although played for comedy, is a forlorn and isolated one. Unlike the typical narcissistic adolescent who simply feels "different," Ranma knows he is different, and therefore isolated. Or as he puts it at the end of the episode, "So much for friends when she found out that I'm a boy."


1. See Susan Napier's The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity, London: Routledge, 1996.
2. For more on the making of Akira, see Tony Ranyns "Apocalypse Now," in Time Out, 1991, p.16. There is also a video documentary on the subject.
3. For Kristeva's discussion of abjection, see her Powers of Horror, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
4. In this regard it is instructive to compare Tetsuo's metamorphosis with the famous transformation scene at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001. Like Tetsuo, the protagonist in Kubrick's film goes through a visually stunning series of changes, ending with his metamorphosis into a giant embryo. Unlike in Akira, however, the transformation scene, while overwhelming, is also quite beautiful, and the final image of the infant is a solemn one, underlining the film's techno-positive message that humanity can evolve into a higher form. Another important difference is that Tetsuo speaks at the film's end, establishing his new identity and suggesting that he has finally entered into the Symbolic order of language, freed from the maelstrom of the Imaginary that was his birth scene.
5. Tetsuo's loss of an arm may be compared to Luke Skywalker's similar loss in The Empire Strikes Back. (see Napier, 1996, pp. 250-251), the crucial difference being that Luke's arm grows back, albeit artificially, and he is once again inscribed into the normal collectivity.
6. The themes of orphanhood of the body were important ones in the Japanese literature of the 1980s as well. Murakami Ryu's Coin Locker Babies and Shimada Masahiko's Dream Messenger both deal with orphaned boys deeply alienated from society, while Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen treats the subject of an alienated orphaned girl in a slightly more gentle manner. (I am indebted to Sharalyn Orbaugh for pointing this out.) In all three of these works the absent mother is particularly important.
7. It is worth mentioning here that Paul Wells sees Akira as also dealing with issues of gender, specifically masculinity that he sees as "concerned with the survival of the fittest in the face of change and challenge." (See Paul Wells, Understanding Animation, London: Routledge, 1998, p. 196.) This assertion is also buttressed by Isolde Standish, who interprets the gang groups in terms of traditional Confucian, even masculine, bonding. I think both of these interpretations have value but I would still suggest that ultimately Tetsuo's desire to bond with an absent mother is of equal importance, and that both of these aspects are ultimately subsumed in Tetsuo's final transcendence of both his gendered and bodily form.
8. Besides the inference of maternal abjection in Tetsuo's mutation scene, there is no doubt a straightforward sexual subtext to Tetsuo's transformations as well. Film Scholar Andrew Tudor asserts that "sexual release has . . . always featured as a potential subtext in metamorphant movies" (p. 77). Certainly the frenzied nature of Tetsuo's metamorphosis, not to mention the sense on the viewer's part of looking at a taboo subject, suggests a potentially erotic element. Critic James Twitchell goes even further in this regard, asserting that horror films are "fables of sexual identity," (p. 7) allowing the (typically adolescent) viewer to metaphorically explore such taboo subjects as incest or simply reproduction itself. It must be said, however, that the actual narrative of Akira is remarkably free of overt sexuality. Although Tetsuo has a girlfriend, she is shown almost exclusively in a nurturing role rather than a sexual one. See Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
9. Commenting on pre-1960 female impersonator films, Rebecca Bell-Metereau asserts that "[T]he cross-dressing in these films often functions as an expression of hostility and anxiety. By the end of the story it is clear that any haziness in sexual identity is unthinkable and must be purged from our imaginations by ridicule. . . . By ridiculing the man who dresses as a woman, the closed film affirms the majority of the audience's supposedly normal status and confirms the sense of clearcut boundaries between genders." See Bell-Metereau's Hollywood Androgyny, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 21. As we will see, Ranma is not quite so clear cut in its enforcing of boundaries. At least during the fantastic space of the episode it allows for a certain amount of play across the boundaries. But it is true that in general each episode closes with a reinscription of the norms of a heterosexual and patriarchal society.
10. Bell-Metereau points out that "[I]n early female impersonations, breasts were a focal point of the comedy (in American films)" (p.162), but as censorship laws became tighter, there was less focus on the breasts until the 1960s opened up treatment again, from Psycho to Myra Breckinridge. It is important to note that Japanese censorship, while censoring the genitals, has consistently allowed depictions of the breasts, even in works aimed at young people, which Ranma certainly is.
11. Bell-Metereau, p. 5.
12. Intriguingly, Ranma 1/2's creator, Takahashi Rumiko, insists that she had no interest in "enlightening male-dominated society" when she created Ranma 1/2. Asserting that "I'm not the type who thinks in terms of societal agendas," she states that "It's just that I came up with something that might be a simple, fun idea." (Anime Interviews, p. 20) I see no reason to question Takahashi's statement, but it is interesting to note that she writes in a style that she acknowledges as "shonen manga" (Boys comic) and that she is a big fan of the Takarazuka theater (See Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) where women play men. Both suggest that at some level at least she is interested in gender ambiguity.
13. For a discussion of the bishonen comics, see Sandra Buckley's article "Penguin in Bondage': a Graphic Tale of Japanese Comic Books" in Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, eds., Technoculture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. The bishonen comics are far more overtly sexual, than Ranma 1/2, containing many graphic scenes of homosexual encounters. Buckley recounts, however, that even male students see these encounters in neither homosexual nor heterosexual terms but argues that "this [is] a different kind of love." (p. 180) She also suggests that "[t]he objective of the bishonen narratives is not the transformation or naturalization of difference but the valorization of the imagined potentialities of alternative differentiations." (p. 177) While Ranma 1/2 does not quite go so far as to totally "valorize" these "imagined potentialities," it certainly allows the viewer the chance to indulge, if only temporarily, in an unthreatening fantasy landscape of sexual alternatives. For a discussion of the Takarazuka in relation to gender transgression see Robertson's Takarazuka, cited above.
14. It should be noted that, in the last couple of decades in particular, Hollywood movies have become far more explicit on the subject of gender transgression. Even Disney, as Bell-Mertereau notes, has started re-figuring its characters, creating stronger women and gentler men." (p. xii), the most striking example being the cross-dressing warrior girl in the 1998 Mulan.
15. If we go even further back in Japanese cultural history to the tenth century aristocratic culture of the Heian period we will see an explicit willingness to play with alternate genders in the literature of the period. The tenth-century fictional diary, The Tosa Diary (Tosa Nikki), for example, was written by a man (Ki no Tsurayuki) pretending to be a woman. (I am indebted to Lynn Miyake at Pomona for pointing this out). Heian literature also contains two explicit cross-dressing romances, If Only I Could Change Them (Torikayaba) and Partings at Dawn (Ariake no wakare).
16. For a discussion of the absent and/or inadequate father in postwar Japanese film, see Sato Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Tokyo: Kodansha International Press, 1982.
—From Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke by Susan J. Napier. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission

Table of Contents

PART ONE: INTRODUCTION Chapter 1: Why Animé? Chapter 2: Animé and Global/Local Identity PART TWO: BODY, METAMORPHOSIS, IDENTITY Chapter 3: Akira and Ranma ½: The Monstrous Adolescent Chapter 4: Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Animé Chapter 5: Ghosts and Machines: The Technological Body Chapter 6: Doll Parts: Technology and the Body in Ghost in the Shell PART THREE: MAGICAL GIRLS AND FANTASY WORLDS Chapter 7: The Enchantment of Estrangement: The Shojo in the World of Miyazaki Hayao Chapter 8: Carnival and Conservatism in Romantic Comedy PART FOUR: REMAKING MASTER NARRATIVES: ANIMÉ CONFRONTS HISTORY Chapter 9: No More Words: Barefoot Gen, Grave of Fireflies, and "Victim's History" Chapter 10: Princess Mononoke: Fantasy, the Feminine, and the Myth of "Progress" Chapter 11: Waiting for the End of the World: Apocalyptic Identity Chapter 12: Elegies Chapter 13: Conclusion: A Fragmented Mirror Appendix: The Fifth Look: Western Audiences and Japanese Animation

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