Japanese ANIME; a taste of Eastern media

By June 8, 2011Anime

Conveying emotions is one of the great purposes of art.  Stories have an almost magical ability to reach inside any audience and communicate universal feelings.  Animation has the same potential, but la large difficulty that the animation industry faces is the fact that they are dealing with “non-real” images.  Many people think animated works are worth less than their live-action counterparts since they are more artificial.  This barrier increasingly makes connecting with an audience difficult.  In order to reach across the divide and establish a connection, animation needs to take advantage of the medium’s creative potential to appeal to human emotions and thoughts.  The late Jean Renoir, an outstanding film director, wrote in his memoirs, “the spectator is a human being, capable of reflection and, therefore, of imagination.  Being human, he is devoured with curiosity.”  If Mr. Renoir is correct, then animation is at its finest when it can take advantage of this curiosity, and draw the viewer deep into the creator’s own imagination.

Anime in Japan has had an extensive history that mirrors that of well-known Disney Animation Studios, an animation company that has spearheaded the western world’s fascination for moving art since the 1940s.  Although anime’s appearance is distinct from its Western complement, Japanese teams of animators, producers, and directors remain focused on the art of storytelling and connecting with their audiences.  In short, there are three aspects that encourage viewers to emotionally invest in what they watch: story/plot, art,  and music.  Each of these elements work both independently and collaboratively to appeal to the viewers’ thoughts, senses, and emotions.  To demonstrate how essential each of these categories is in aiding a viewer to envision a world that exists in the mind, what follows are three different anime series and films that exhibit each category’s appeal and influence.

STORY/PLOT – Eden of the East

The story of a series or film is perhaps the most important of all three aspects; it serves as the main structure on which to hang everything else.  Without a plot, there lacks an overall direction and mindset to help determine what kind of music and artistic atmosphere is required in any given scene.  It is common for moviegoers to be excited after seeing a movie trailer, only to be disappointed by the actual film.  Characteristically, this is due to illusion of adequate storytelling.  Where an actual film lacks in memorable storytelling, a trailer makes up for it in heart-pumping suspense and intensity.  Too often is a simple narrative’s potential to flourish into something heart-gripping and emotionally-charged is destroyed by inferior storytelling.  As with a good joke, what makes it amusing is not the joke itself, but how it is told.  Even a joke that will naturally elicit a chuckle, when told masterfully, causes the audience to guffaw.  So even a lackluster story, in the right hands, can be told with such charm and verve that everyone in earshot will give it his attention.

Eden of the East (Higashi no Eden), is an example of an adventurous experiment that takes an interesting, clean premise and seamlessly weaves a series of events into a cerebral sci-fi thriller not unlike The Bourne Trilogy.  A mismatched group of Japanese citizens are chosen to save their dying country and are given 8.2 billion yen each.  Equipped with a cell phone that allows any spoken command to be executed a certain price, each character tries to save his country the best way he sees fit.  There is, however, on caveat: those who cannot save Japan die.

Saki Morimi, the series’ protagonist, is a normal girl who is caught between leaving school and finding a job.  Her life’s normalcy bothers her, and is despite not overtly saying it, she wishes for something more exciting in her life.  on a graduation trip, Saki visits Washington, D.C., and is nearly arrested in front of the White House when an unexpected man by the name of Akira Takizawa intervenes.  Akira is truly mysterious: amnesic and naked (at the time) except for gun in one hand and a mobile phone in the other (which holds the electronic 8.2 billion yen).  Although the story is viewed from Saki’s perspective, Akira’s personality and development as a character is the plot’s driving force.

Plagued by his loss of memories, it is fascinating to watch as Akira slowly rediscovers both his identity and purpose.  he comes to learn of his past and involvement with a missile attack on Japan called “Careless Monday.”  Remarkably, the storyline is developed in two simultaneous directions, the past and the future, creating a complex (yet understandable) plot.  Small nuances such as Akira’s growing doubt as to whether he is capable of “saving his country” makes him feel more human and therefore more meaningful to the audience.

It may be worth mentioning that the pacing is atypical for an anime, often feeling slow and sluggish.  The plot seemingly unfolds without the sense of urgency one would usually expect in a science fiction or fantasy series.  However, it should be noted that the story extends beyond the 11 episode season and concludes in two feature films that follow it.  By no means is this type of story pacing bad; rather, it is different and works to the series’ advantage, covering a realistically short period of time in the lives of Akira and Saki as though we are watching the events occur in real time.

Other recommended series with great story and presentation: CLANNAD, Death Note, Honey and Clover, Kin’s Journey, Paranoia Agent.


ART – 5 Centimeters Per Second

5 Centimeters Per Second (Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru ), Makoto Shinkai’s third feature film, is a stunningly beautiful work.  Shinkai is meticulous with background details, subtle lighting, and vigorous camera angles.  Nothing seems out of place or artificial.  Attention to in-between frames helps make the film feel more organic.  From the flickering reflections in the train to the detailed buildings and characters, the art blends with the story beautiful, and serves as a living backdrop for the complicated emotions in the film.

Shinkai creates a world crafted for his characters – a living and breathing world that continues to exist beyond the film, dreaming of mindscapes that eclipse other anime productions in breadth of detail and depth of emotion.  He extends the innate possibilities of the anime dynamic, reapplying principles of lush effects, inflated background detail and sometimes undernourished character animation to mirror the interiority of the characters in every nuance of their surroundings.

Shinkai’s imaginative landscapes, however, allude heavily to reality.  “we did thorough location hunting, and are trying to scoop this present real world up by the style of animation,” said Shinkai.  “After all the world is filled with flavor and beauty here and there, and it is worth to live.”  By incorporating observable elements from the real world, Shinkai’s world becomes all the more tangible.

Shinkai once noted that since childhood he has been fascinated by landscapes and that when he suffered problems in adolescence, found comfort in them.  He seeks to transmit this to the spectator: “I wanted to show something really pure… so I am constantly trying to show these feelings [of being saved by the beauty of the landscape] in my movies.”  If we look at how he portrays the grandeur of the skies, it is easy to see how he illustrates distance and isolation, a recurring theme in most of his works.

How is it, then, that Shinkai’s sceneries are so dynamic and accurate?  Due to rotoscoping, Shinkai is capable of replicating a wondrous vista where one cannot but admire the beauty of the images.  Even the smallest details, such as the text on a can, are not left out.  The detail in his landscape reproduction is second to none; however, if it were simply a mimic, as defined by Plato, it would not be art.  The images, despite being amazingly similar to models, are landscapes in Shinkai’s mind.  What makes the images visually different from the models is the lighting.  in every scene, Shinkai controls the light and shadows to dictate the story’s emotional milestones and timeline.

Shinkai’s objective is to generate some kind of feelings, even if only for a second.  “I try to use images to express what I cannot in words,” he said.  It is true that images are sometimes equivalent to a thousand words, but Shinkai is just as sensitive to how he uses dialogue and monologues.  Shinkai is one of those very rare filmmakers – even more rare in the animation world – who understand that less can often be more, that the quiet moments often tell us more than any amount o faction or dialogue could, and he has an uncanny knack for capturing the pregnant pauses that open the souls of his characters.  Shinkai has nearly perfected the art of presentation.

Other recommended series with great art: Gankutsuou, Kimi ni Todoke, Mushishi, The Place Promised in Our Early Days


FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly) is one of those under-appreciated series that reveal hidden merits once they are uncovered; it is as close to a piece of offbeat literature as an anime may ever get.  The anime gives us a tale of rebellious yet helpless people from various walks of life, depicting their struggle against the constraints put on them by society and even by themselves.  Mostly we follow Naota, an adolescent boy who has things suddenly become very tough for him (as puberty usually is for most teenagers).  The series is incredibly short; it is only six episodes long totaling to no longer than a 2-hour film.  Though precious in the material it discusses, FLCL is rather more well known for its music, which supports the series’ tones and discussion superbly.  Much of the compositional credit for FLCL’s soundtrack goes to The Pillows, a Japanese alternative rock band formed in 1989.

The Pillows uses rock music in an affecting manner and keeps it fun without turning the distortion to 11 or resorting to unintelligible primal screaming.  Their songs are marked by careful layering and thoughtful two-guitar interplay that is almost unheard of in contemporary Western rock.  Unlike those of many English-speaking bands, Sawao Yamanaka’s vocals sound honest and genuine, never angst-ridden or whiny.  Those elements, combined with their good-natured, soul-searching lyrical style and overall persona, match the tone of FLCL perfectly.

What FLCL‘s soundtrack really excels at is distilling the series’ personality: the show manages to cram growing up, first love, rock & roll, a gonzo sense of humor and battles with aliens and giant robots into six short, heavily surreal episodes.  Even more so than many other anime series, FLCL depends on its music to make sense, both emotionally and plot-wise, of its quirky hyperactivity.  The Pillows‘ sweet vocal harmonies, alternately spiky and jangly guitars and stop-start dynamic shifts owe a lot to the Pixies and the Who, but the hints of surf, indie pop and electronica that they also play with give them a fresher, more unique sound than their influences might suggest.

One of the most notable songs, “Ride on shooting star,” was composed specifically for the FLCL.  Lasting barely over two-minutes, the song is a blunt explosion of brash energy and punchy riffs that does not stop for a breath.  though a bit brazen, the song remains simplistic and effective without overstaying its welcome.  Interesting to note is the liberal use of extended interval chord tones in the melody and the harmony, characteristic of Yamanaka’s songwriting style at the time (which typically involves lots of major sevenths and sharp ninths; somehow reminding me of growing zits during my adolescence).

The hyperactive style of art and music may be reason to create strongly opposing opinions of the show’s value.  However, to complement the many metaphorical plots and hidden meanings underneath its surface, the background soundtrack serves as a strange dialogue in its own style about the confusion and awkwardness of puberty (as well as society in general).  FLCL is ultimately an exercise in unconventional, self-alluding anime, with an avant-garde presentation that elevates itself to an allegory.

Other recommended series with great soundtracks: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Kamichu!, K-ON!, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away

It is ultimately a difficult task, if not impossible, to pin down a particular show that exemplifies one production element far better than all of its competitors. The same can be said for the films we see today; is it possible to objectively determine whether The Kings’ Speech racked up more “points” than all the other best picture nominees at thee 2011 Academy Awards?  Since there is no set rubric for raking films, it is up to the viewer’s discretion to decide whether or not a film is enjoyable.  The series and movies discussed hopefully reflect this same sentiment: they are ultimately biased, but perhaps they can offer greater appreciation for this art form.

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  • […] other production aspect that aide in the art of effective storytelling. I recently mentioned in my Japanese ANIME post several series actually exemplify these characteristics (while many titles that do not), […]

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