Sunday, June 24, 2012

Japan: Kingdom of Characters

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia (UEA) for an exhibition organized by the Japanese Foundation entitled Japan : Kingdom of Characters. On an all-too-rare day of settled summer weather it was well worth the short cycle-ride from home to view.

The informative guidebook to the Kingdom of Characters exhibition explains that Japanese people have established strong ties with manga and anime characters; in effect, such characters have forged a powerful bond with the Japanese psyche, sometimes as a replacement for family and friends. In essence, many of the rich and imaginative characters of Japanese manga and anime have developed as compensation and comfort against the stresses and alienation of life in megapolis cities. And for these reasons it's not always easy for Westerners to appreciate manga and anime's enormous popularity in Japan. A sizeable percentage of Japanese society was profoundly psychologically dislocated as a result of the rapid  growth, industrialization and urbanization which Japanese population underwent in the twentieth century. In some ways manga and anime characters have also provided comfort for the solitary and lonely as well as the survivors of the many disasters Japan has experienced throughout its history. From the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the cataclysmic natural disasters of the Kobe earthquake of 1995 to the simultaneous disasters of earthquake, Tsunami, nuclear power-plant meltdown and subsequent radio-active fears of 2011, Japan has always been vulnerable, not only to ecological disasters but also to man-made catastrophes.

From the early 1950’s manga characters such as Tetuswan Atom (Astro Boy), Japanese anime has debated on humanity’s relationship to science, on the differences between robots and humans, the future of humanity in sci-fi worlds, often of a post-apocalyptic nature and the moral issues of living in a technologically sophisticated, yet alienating megapolis. Alongside an advanced technological and scientific perspective, the remnants of superstition and a fascination with the spirit world in the popular psyche often feature in Japanese anime. Typically, the ghost in the machine in Japanese anime speaks with the voice of a long-lost ancestral spirit.

There’s a considerable amount of mass-produced merchandise associated with Japanese anime; the Kingdom of Characters exhibition even re-creates a teenage girl’s bedroom crowded with the paraphernalia of her favourite anime characters, some of whom have achieved global popularity. The Tamagotchi ‘egg-watch’ digital electronic pet has now sold in excess of 76 million since 1996, while the characters of Pokemon and Hello Kitty (photo above) are instantly recognized and loved by many throughout the world.

Far removed from the cute and kitsch world of Hello Kitty with subject-matter unsuitable for any public exhibition, Toshio Maeda's notorious Urotsukidōji: Chōjin Densetsu, lit. Wandering Kid: The Legend of the Super God (1986-90) is a seminal anime work which features strong hentai elements of graphic sex.

Puzzlingly to western sensibilities Maeda's controversial Urotsukidōji mixes plots and genres seemingly unrelated to each other - horror, comedy, disaster, the supernatural and teen-age romance are all juxtaposed in random sequence. This effect is heightened further by the severe editing which Maedea’s flawed masterpiece has suffered at the hands of the British Board of Censors. Besides indulging in extreme eroticism and violence Urotsukidōji depicts an alternate world in which  the battle of good and evil is fought on a cosmic scale between mankind, beasts and demons. Urotsukidōji also includes an example of so-called tentacle erotica. The origins of tentacle erotica can be traced to an illustration by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife an influential example of Shunga (Japanese erotic art). The subject of tentacle eroticism has been explored by a number of artists, but perhaps none with such notoriety as Toshio Maedea’s interpretation. Maedea returned to tentacle eroticism in his equally infamous horror/sex comedy series La Blue Girl (1992-94).

Japanese anime has also been used a vehicle to discuss romance, sexuality and spirituality. In Takahashi Rumiki’s romantic-comedy Urusei Yatsura (1978-87) the bikini-clad Lum possesses the fatal combination of a bad temper in conjunction with magical powers as elements of her adolescent love-life. The relationship between sexuality and magic is never far from the surface in Rumiki’s dark fantasy Mermaid Forest (1991) which develops an ancient Japanese legend, that mermaid's flesh grants immortality if eaten. However, there's also the risk that eating it may also lead to death or transformation into a lost soul or damned creature.

Other notable landmarks in the history Japanese anime include Masamune Shirow’s  Ghost in the Shell (1995) in which a cyborg heroine with human consciousness questions her own identity - Perfect Blue (1997) a Hitchcock-like psycho-thriller and Hiroyuki Kitakabo’s Blood: The Last Vampire (2000) which sets the vampire myth on an American occupation air-base. Each of the aforementioned has in one way or another advanced the art of Japanese anima in either genre and story-telling and/or computer-generated graphic design.

From post-war comic-strip cartoons to the serialization of anime on television in the 1960's, Japanese anime has now achieved the status of full-length feature film. Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001)  the winner of both an Oscar for best animated feature and a Berlin Golden Bear, updates Japanese folk-lore. It’s the tale of Chihiro, a questing child who, faced with the trauma of re-location, witnesses her parents transformed into pigs. Visiting a disused theme park, Chihiro  encounters ancient gods and magical beings who she negotiates with in order to rescue her family's freedom. 

Spirited Away is one of several full-length feature films from Studio Ghibli. With strong, independent female characters, detailed graphics and a distinctive pastel-centred tonal-palate, the highly original productions of Studio Ghibli have proved to be equal, if not superior to recent Disney animation in their willingness to discuss issues such as the ecology of the planet, environmental pollution and endangered species.

With its fascination with folk-lore and legend, the spirit world of demons and monsters and portraits of love surviving in an alien world, Japanese anime exhibits traits commonly associated with a compensatory mechanism to the psyche. Through a near total submersion into a compartmentalized, highly technological, yet alienating urban environment, the secularized world of Japanese society can but view the fantasy world of the creative anime artist with anything but an eagerness to replenish its own inner images.

Had he lived to witness the phenomenon, the twentieth century Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would undoubtedly have recognized the archetypal nature of much Japanese anime and detected no small percentage of its characterization to originate from the collective unconscious of the human psyche. Independent from the influence of the mythology and legends of the ancient western Greek-Roman world, Japanese anime's depiction of the myths, folk-lore, hero's and legends of a Japan historically long gone, yet also featuring such 'spirit-worlds' in futuristic sci-fi worlds, is testimony to the durability of the eternal, archetypal templates of human existence; the most common of which are the hero and his quest, the battle between good and evil, the helpful, guiding animal and last, but by no means least, the elusive, yet seducing nature of the lover or anima/animus figure.

Incidentally, I cannot resist mentioning that the seventeenth century Norwich-based physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne is credited with coining the word Caricature into the English language.

But it’s not necessary to theorize in depth upon the psychological origins of Japanese manga and anime. Simply view its original art-work, extraordinary wealth of genres and colourful kingdom of characters through child-like eyes and without prejudice to enjoy it.

UEA Broad and Campus June 2012

Sainsbury Centre at UEA, Norwich June 2012


Rise said...

Sounds like a very worthwhile day. I loved Ghost in the Shell. And also the 1988 movie Akira, which was also based on a manga.

Hydriotaphia said...

Thanks Rise, I forgot to mention Akira as a landmark in anime.

Carl Brown said...

Excellent read. I don't suppose that exhibition will still be there by August, but either way, I look forward to visiting the UEA campus when I'm back - seeing those pictures reminded me how good it is. Also I will go to Japan - learning Japanese is far more enjoyable and rewarding than the gutteral simplistic Chinese. Have you picked up any from all those mangas?