In Burning Questions, Sam Weller pontificates on, ruminates upon or investigates into any and all anime and manga topics.
First, think of all the hours and hours and hours of anime you’ve watched so far in your lifetime. The lost weekends, the marathon sessions and, most pointedly, the games of FINAL FANTASY you’ve played while it’s on in the background.
In all that time... did you LEARN anything?
I mean, besides the random proclivities of perverts, the exact model number of Amuro Ray’s first Gundam Mobile Suit (it's RX-78, BTW) and every single one of Luffy’s various Gum Gum attacks. Is there anything truly meaningful you’ve learned about Japan through anime? It’s culture, it’s history, it’s people... and no, I doubt RUROUNI KENSHIN is a literal retelling of the Meiji era.
For many North American otaku - - and I’d assume European and South American ones, as well - - anime tends to be the biggest cultural export of Japan that we consume. I think I’ve actually learned quite a bit about the country of origin for one of my favorite hobbies over the years. A lot of my knowledge, I'd say, concerns what the Japanese tend to... fear.
Think GODZILLA. But for food and trends, instead of nuclear decimation.
For example: C CONTROL dealt with the recession in a way that’s uniquely Japanese, addressing the future of the economy in POKEMON combat and philosophical monologues. WHITE ALBUM (while a melodrama) explored the less appealing sides of the very real Idol industry. Obvious examples like GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES dealt with the realities of WWII in Japan, and TENCHI MUYO had a lot of allusions to Shinto beliefs that might have gone over some viewers heads. There are countless other examples of history and culture intersecting with anime plots.
So in a lot of these shows, whether implicit or explicit, you are learning bits and pieces of history and what makes Japan, well... Japan. Some of the most interesting information can be found in the political commentary in the works of MAMORU OSHII, a legendary anime director. And often, Oshii deals with fears that are specifically Japanese.
Enter one of Sam’s favorite films: PATLABOR II
What first hooks me about this film is how wonderfully dense the landscapes and character renders are. Expressions are given weight while not being too over-the-top, and even though PATLABOR II is set in the future, it’s resemblance to contemporary Japan is very much on purpose.
A story of a city under siege and the intrepid, robot-using police force that battles against it, PATLABOR II is one of Oshii’s tightest scripts. It also contains some of the best commentary on modern Japanese fears of losing control of their country...
Post-WWII Japan is a topic that’s been covered pretty heavily - - and might even be seen as old hat - - but watching this film with 9-11s and the recent Boston bombings in mind, I found the issues of sacrificing liberty for security and what fighting war really means as being resonant as ever. In this future, Japan is still sitting there, nervous about being taken over again, being under siege.
PATLABOR II enlightened me to a certain fear that urban Japanese share - - at any moment, the tenuous peace they worked so hard to protect could be shattered. Earthquakes, nuclear catastrophe, and other factors still exist in Japan, and yet the biggest antagonist in this film is ourselves.
I'll cut the dissertation to a minimum here... after all, what do I really know anyway?
Ultimately, even if you’ve learned how to write some katakana or pronounce some phrases correctly in Japanese, the anime we watch are only just introductory courses to a richer and much deeper atmosphere. If you’re really interested in what’s going on in Japan, look a little beyond the anime and read interviews from law-makers, book authors, and English-speakers that just know “What’s going on, man?” Satiate your Japanese curiosity with some museum visits while you’re at it, too!
So how about Vicers? What anime has educated you a little bit about Japan? What things do you know now that you didn’t know back then, and why not share them with the rest of us!
Sam Weller is a writer and actor who's scribed for shows like FIRST EDITION, GEEK THERAPY, and most recently BATGIRL: SPOILED. He also really likes anime. To know what is going to happen next, follow@cravesam