It’s no secret; I love anime. I mean, if I didn’t love it, I damn sure wouldn’t be here, right? But sometimes I need to take a step back and ask myself why I love it so much. More specifically, why is anime so frigging addictive? What is it about Japanese animation, compared to Chinese animation, or United States animation, or German animation, that compels legions of fans to publicly masquerade as their favorite characters, outfitted in painstakingly constructed cosplay (with accessories to match!) How is it that anime has become a worldwide obsession, spanning countless social demographics and national boundaries? Isn’t ‘anime’ simply the Japanese loanword for ‘animation’?
A Cultural Experience
Yes and no. Linguistically, ‘anime’ means nothing more than ‘animation’ and connotes no special significance or meaning beyond that of its Western counterpart. ‘Anime’ may sound more chic (and less childish) than ‘cartoon’, but when you get right down to it, there really isn’t a substantial difference between the two.
As a technique, the earliest Japanese animation has its roots in Western animation, with greats like Osamu Tezuka producing imitative works that adhered rather strictly to canonical animation standards (those established by its pioneers) long before putting their own twist on things. Animation took root in Japan as a markedly non-ethnocentric art form, and the very first Japanese-animated films share little resemblance with the modern style we have gathered to exalt. (In fact, for those of you who may be wondering why a monstrous animator like Masao Maruyama would agree to produce Sutichi (the Japanese version of ‘Lilo & Stitch’) with such alacrity, Maruyama-sensei shamelessly admits that it is because Tezuka is one of his major, major influences.)
Nevertheless, ‘anime’ is not a term to be taken lightly. From a modern standpoint it implies much more than ‘cartoon’ or ‘animation’. Enormous eyes and bombastic hairdos are the trappings of a 70 year-old confluence of Japanese filming, cinematography, voice acting, comic art, storytelling, theatrics, and history—a panorama of cultural traditions.
The Japanese have mastered the as-yet-nameless science of deconstructing, rebuilding, improving and assimilating alien technology into their own legacy. Hence, not one modicum of foreign culture that has earned the veneration of the Japanese people will remain completely free of their eccentricities. Like any other apparatus of foreign origin, animation is simply another medium for the expression and propagation of the Japanese mythos. It has been ‘Japanified’ to satisfy their ends. So is anime just animation? Not by a long shot.
Again I ask, what makes anime special? Animation, in and of itself (just the technique, hypothetically removed from all regional influences), harbors no significant appeal for the typical fan. After all, just because otaku are obsessed with Japanese animation doesn’t imply that their obsession encompasses other types of animation.
Even imitations don’t quite cut the mustard. Uproot it, export it, edit and dub it, or stylistically emulate it (as we gaijin are so prone to do with our webcomics), and the result is nothing more than a plastic rose—the visage sans the fragrance. *Something* is missing. For better or worse, the reality is that if it’s not from Japan, then it’s not really anime. So let’s assume that neither the technique nor the appearance alone can be credited for anime’s distinctiveness. If neither cannot, then what can?
The answer is culture. Taken in sum, anime is a cultural experience. It’s not just the drawing style or the language. It’s also the cold barley tea, the orange summer sky brimming with the chirps of cicadas, schoolgirls dressed in the standardized, sailoresque uniforms, karaoke, the quirks of conversational Japanese; look closely at any anime and you will find that peculiarities teem. Anime is fecund with cultural expression down to the minutest detail. Some of these tidbits are so deeply embedded in Japan’s historical tradition that they easily assume the function of motifs, transforming brief scenes into cultural microcosms and conveying years upon years of significance in mere seconds. Take the following tune for example:
Chances are many of you have encountered this song before. I first noticed it in Bugīpoppu wa Warawanai Boogiepop Phantom several years prior, and then heard it again in Bleach and Death Note. Naturally, I thought it was an obscure reference to shinigami (notice the trend in titles), until I heard it a fourth time in Mahou Tsukai: Natsu no Sora, an anime clearly not associated with death gods. Then came the realization that traffic lights, not shinigami, were the common thread linking these incidences. So, I decided to do a bit of research.
The name of the tune is Tooryanse. Its purpose in the aforesaid context is to alert visually impaired pedestrians that it is safe to cross at a traffic stop. The song is actually a warabe-uta (traditional children’s song; nursery rhyme) that belongs to a game rather similar to “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Two people form an arch with their hands and arms and sing this song while the rest of the players pass under the arch. When the music stops, the person stuck beneath the arch is ‘caught’, and trades places with one of the arch-members. Like that, the game continues, round and round. At a traffic stop, it works much the same way. It is safe for the blind to cross until the music has stopped.
The song’s story is thought to be a depiction of a “civilian and a guard” at a checkpoint; while the kind of checkpoint remains unclear, the historical Japanese tradition of celebrating third, fifth and seventh-year birthdays (Shichi-Go-San) strongly suggests that it portrays a family entering a castle shrine to pray for their child’s good health and longevity. Children of these ages were considered especially prone to calamity, particularly since the child mortality rate was much greater in the past. So, having grand celebrations for children of these ages has become a widely-acknowledged tradition.
The ambiguity of the song’s meaning suits it nicely for symbolic juxtaposition in dramatic context. To dispel any pesky suspicions that Tooryanse is added simply for authenticity, here is a translation of the lyrics:
“Let me pass, let me pass
What is this narrow pathway here?
It’s the narrow pathway of the Tenjin shrine
Please allow me to pass through
Those without good reason shall not pass
To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
I’ve come to dedicate my offering
Going in may be fine, fine, but returning would be scary
It’s scary but
Let me pass, let me pass
“Let me pass, let me pass
Here is the underworld’s narrow pathway
It’s the narrow pathway of the demon’s shrine
Please allow me to pass through
Those without sacrifice shall not pass
To bury this child at age 7
I’ve come to offer my services
Living may be fine, fine, but going back would be scary
It’s scary but
Let me pass, let me pass”
References in Popular Culture
Tooryanse can be seen and heard in numerous anime and manga. It appears in episode #04 of Boogiepop while Touka Miyashita and Kazuko Suema are having a conversation on a busy street. Outwardly Miyashita appears to be a normal girl, but in reality her alter ego is the Boogiepop shinigami. Throughout the series she carries a duffle bag containing Boogiepop’s robe and staff, and sub-consciously ‘changes’ into Boogiepop as the situation calls for it.
During this scene, although she doesn’t change clothes, her alternate personality briefly bubbles to the surface and offers Suema a bit of a advice about not clinging onto the past, implying that it is a dangerous habit. This is especially apt advice for Suema, whose obsessive fascination with criminology and the paranormal (due to a difficult childhood incident) has led her to meddle with the sinister forces manipulating the city, forces much too powerful for her to handle. Boogiepop’s advice: keep going, and don’t look back.
Tooryanse can be heard near the beginning of episode #30 of Death Note, during a random child’s monologue about how Kira has reduced the crime rate and changed Tokyo (for better or for worse?) The symbolism here is not obvious, but it is forceful. The tune continues to play in the background while scenes of traffic lights are interlaced with images of people walking and fearfully chattering about Kira. An interesting note: judging from his voice, the narrating child could be five or seven years old. Coincidence…?
The tune can also be heard in episode #18 of Black Lagoon (#07 of The Second Barrage.) Here is the a (presumably) exhaustive list of the remaining titles, pulled from the Tooryanse Wiki:
The Animatrix - in the short film “Beyond”
Serial Experiments Lain
Nocturnal Illusion – mentioned by the main character
Pride(episodes 5 and 8 )
Earth Girl Arjuna
Hand Maid May
Ping Pong Club
Chakushin Ari 2 – sung by the blind lady named Shu-Mei Gao.
Magical Pokaan – 10 seconds worth at 15:11 in episode 12.
Amatsuki – Episode 1
Pokemon – Episode 352; a version rewritten to be about the Pokemon Yajiron is sung more than once.
A better understanding of the Japanese culture would facilitate interpreting Tooryanse’s use as a recurring motif in anime. Nevertheless, I believe it is rather clear that there is something there. Few things are coincidental, unintentional, or unconscious, as far as art is concerned.