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
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 Kingdom of Characters . A
sizeable percentage of Japan 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 Japanese society 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. Japan
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.