Anime and Manga: It's Not All Make-Believe

Anime and Manga: It's Not All Make-Believe

Editor's Note: Professor Levi provides more extensive information about individual anime and guidance for their use in the classroom in her "Anime: An Annotated Filmography for Use in the Classroom."  Professor Ian Condry explores the variety of ways anime can be used as a teaching tool in Teaching Anime: Exploring a Transnational and Transmedia Movement.  Professor William Tsutsui created a lesson plan exploring the varied roots of popular culture trends and their significance in a global context in Popular Culture and Japan's Gross National Cool.

Look here for resources from Japan Society's past exhibition KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games.

A lot of the subject matter of Japanese cartoons (anime) and comics (manga) is make-believe. Fantasy and science fiction stories dominate the movies and series that are most likely to be exported. However, a lot of the subject matter, the customs, the values, and even the references, is not fantasy or science fiction. It is simply Japanese. For teachers of Japanese Studies, Asian Studies, or any kind of diversity studies, the rising popularity of anime and manga among young North Americans seems an opportunity too good to miss. Readily available in dubbed or subtitled form on network and cable television, on DVD, and often less legally, on-line, these expressions of Japanese views on their own world offer unparalleled insights into a culture that is notoriously difficult for North Americans to understand. Best of all, this is material that most students accept and watch or read on their own.

There are, however, many problems inherent in using manga and anime as teaching tools. Identifying and interpreting the references and messages in anime and manga can be challenging, not only because of the culturally specific content, but also because these are often deliberately ambiguous or deliberately distorted for dramatic and artistic reasons. Adding to the problem is the matter of age appropriateness, violence, and sexuality. Many anime and manga are intended for a strictly adult audience, and even those that are not, often contain some content, especially regarding nudity and gender-bending, that is controversial and/or transgressive for North Americans in ways it would not be for a Japanese audience. Teachers using anime and manga in their classrooms need to be very careful to consider the social and cultural values of their individual communities when deciding what they can and cannot use. They also need to be ready for students bringing in materials that they themselves have had reservations about using.

Even with such challenges, however, anime and manga have so much to offer teachers that it is worth the effort. There are basically three ways to approach anime and manga in the classroom: 1) to focus on the content using approaches drawn from the social sciences, 2) to focus on the content using analytical methods drawn from literary and dramatic criticism, and 3) to focus on the anime or manga as a cultural document in its own right. Each of these has something different to offer.

The social science approach is probably the simplest, especially for younger students. My Neighbor Totoro, for example, offers even first graders a chance to identify distinctive aspects of Japanese houses as the sliding doors (shoji) and straw mat floors (tatami) , and distinctive customs such as removing shoes in the entryway (genkan), wearing soft slippers on hardwood floors, socks on tatami, and special, usually plastic, slippers in the toilet and bathroom. The traditional Japanese bath (o-furo) also appears in My Neighbor Totoro in a charming scene in which a concerned father uses shared bath time (the whole family in the bath together) to try to allay his daughters’ fears of a new situation. Even today, although o-furo have become more technologically sophisticated than the postwar version shown in My Neighbor Totoro, bath time is still treasured by overworked salariman fathers as a rare opportunity to spend time with their children. For older students, Ranma ½, a romantic comedy about a young martial artist who is cursed so that he changes into a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water, also offers many examples of traditional Japanese houses and baths; there is, however, a certain amount of nudity. Teachers can use bath scenes such as these as an opportunity to explain not only another custom (always wash and rinse off before entering the o-furo), but also the importance of cleanliness and purity as cultural values linked to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. (Ed. note: Click here for lesson on using Totoro to teach family structure).

Shinto artifacts such as the distinctive gateways (torii) and braided ropes (shimenawa) that are used to mark off sacred spaces also appear prominently in My Neighbor Totoro and, for older students, in Maison Ikkoku, often in conjunction with Buddhist symbols such at the pervasive O-Jizo statues. O-Jizo-sama (the “O” and the “sama” are honorifics) is/was a Bodhisattva, a sage who has achieved Nirvana, but who has chosen to remain in this world to help others. O-Jizo-sama is very popular in Japan where he is considered to be the protector of children, and a traffic safety program in Kyoto that encouraged people to display their O-Jizo statues as a reminder to motorists to drive carefully was extremely successful. Teachers might also use the combination of Shinto and Buddhist symbols to discuss the difference between exclusive and non-exclusive religions, noting that these two faiths are most often practiced by people at the same time. Japanese say that they are born Shinto and marry Shinto, but get sick and die Buddhist, a saying that reflects the reality that Shinto celebrates life, but regards death as pollution; Buddhist priests bury the dead and Buddhist monasteries are often places of traditional healing. Buddhist funerary customs including the yearly visits to grave sites (there are elements of Confucian ancestral rituals in there too) are depicted quite well in Maison Ikkoku, a series about a young ronin (not, in this context, a masterless samurai, but a student who has failed his college entrance exam and must try again) who falls in love with a young widow.



Doraemon, a friendly cartoon figure with many science fiction gadgets, is featured on this merry-go-round in Ueno Park in Tokyo.
Credit: Robert Fish

English teachers and those teaching about drama or film often prefer to deal with anime and manga less as cultural artifacts than as works of art and/or literature, to have their students focus on the more universal themes and story-telling devices that emerge in manga and anime. That does not necessarily mean ignoring the Japanese aspects of the media. Certainly teachers should make it clear to their students that this is not an American product, and does not reflect American values, especially since many students are watching or reading it daily without ever considering that. They should probably also point out that manga and anime are not, as many students assume, simply a Japanese adaptation of American comics and cartoons. In fact, although some Western cartooning and comic book traditions contributed to the genre during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially during the American occupation of Japan (1945-52), manga are an indigenous product with their own literary history and traditions. Beginning with the elegantly illustrated scrolls (e-maki ) of the late Heian period (11th century), Japanese literature has often consisted of images as much as words; these are not simply illustrations in the Western sense, they are part of the work. By the Tokugawa era (17th to 19th century), Japan had a well-developed tradition of illustrated popular literature called kibyōshi 黄表紙printed in mass quantities using woodblock techniques. The influx of American comics during the occupation era brought new traditions such as framing, the large eyes, and word balloons, but they did not really change the tradition of telling long, complex stories, usually for an adult audience, through a combination of words and images. This was clearly apparent in the works of Tezuka Osamu, who is usually considered to be the founder of the modern manga genre. (Editors's note: In Japanese style, family namese are listed first in this essay.)  Although Tezuka was strongly influenced by American comics in his style, and sometimes wrote for children, he also produced several serious, multi-volume works that are still well worth reading. These include his Buddha and Phoenix series included in the filmography, which will be added to this site in late April. When manga were animated for the screen, they added to this cultural mix by incorporating not only American cartooning techniques, but elements from Kabuki, Bunraku (puppet theatre), Takarazuka (all-female theatre), and a variety of oral storytelling traditions.

Once that is established, however, it is quite legitimate to talk about many manga and anime as works of literature or film. This is what they are and, since they often target teens and young adults, they tend to emphasize love, friendship, and coming of age stories. Teachers who use the hero’s journey model to discuss story-telling often find manga and anime very rewarding both because the universal elements they often contain, and also because of the smaller but culturally significant differences. The ways in which Japanese heroes fulfill their quests most often involve relationships, friends, family or some other form of grouping, to a far greater degree than their Western counterparts, for example, reflects a cultural difference amid the greater universality of what it means to come of age. This is most clearly the case in They Were Eleven, a science fiction story in which students applying to the prestigious Cosmo Academy must survive for 53 days aboard a derelict spaceship; they must survive as a group, all will pass or all will fail, a reflection the value accorded to group consciousness. It is also apparent in ensemble series such as Rurōni Kenshin, in which a one-time political assassin of the Bakumatsu period (1853-1867, the final years of the Tokugawa bakufu; those advocating a new order sometimes used terrorist tactics) seeks redemption through good works, but finds it more in friendship and bonding.

The fact that at least half of the characters who embark upon such journeys in manga and anime are female also provides some interesting opportunities to discuss gender roles, and how actions can be interpreted differently depending upon whether they are performed by a male or female character.  Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example, provides a classic coming of age story with fewer than usual Japanese elements since it plays in a generically European fantasy setting that includes a fictional tradition that young witches must, at the age of twelve, leave home and survive for a year in a new town using their magical powers. Kiki, who possesses limited powers to start with, finds this a difficult undertaking as she deals with self-doubt, friendship and rejection, first love, and finding her own identity.

For teachers who prefer to focus on genres, the wild mixes of comedy and tragedy, high drama and melodrama in manga and anime can also be an effective way of illustrating the more clearly defined Western genre traditions through contrast. Manga and anime also often avoid providing definitive endings for their stories, preferring to set out situations and dilemmas that invite the reader/viewer to decide how it ends or what decisions the characters should make. This is especially common in girls’ manga (shōjo 少女manga). It is not unknown in manga aimed at men and boys, but it is far less common. This phenomenon can be seen quite clearly in the different endings to the manga and anime versions of They Were Eleven, both of which are available in translation. The manga, aimed only at a female audience, leaves open an intriguing plot point, the question of whether an androgynous alien will choose to become male or female when s/he reaches adulthood. The movie, however, hoping for a wider audience to offset the greater cost of production (manga are cheap to produce and can target niche audiences), not only provides a happy ending to that question, but goes on to provide a pastiche of short, post-movie biographies a la American Graffiti on all the characters, explaining the whole rest of their lives.

Some art teachers also include manga and anime in their curriculum, albeit with some trepidation, hoping to more clearly define the difference between such stylized iconography and more individual approaches to art and creativity. Such efforts are not always successful, however, since students, especially those who draw their own manga-style works, are apt to resent it. One art teacher who takes comic art seriously reports better luck with using manga and anime to discuss differences between them and Western styles and conventions. She pays particular attention to stylistic conventions that are almost a language in their own right such as a large sweat drop to denote nervousness, a double-cross at the temple to denote anger, or a bubble of snot to denote sleeping. Because she teaches middle school, she tries to avoid talking about nose bleeds, which denote male sexual arousal and/or release, but she is not always successful since students often bring it up spontaneously. The result, she says, is often chaos in the classroom and, on one occasion, an extremely unpleasant letter from the local school board.

This can also be the case for creative writing instructors who attempt to use fan fiction (original stories about characters and milieu drawn from popular media, usually TV shows including anime) as an introduction to more serious writing. This can be problematic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that fan fiction is often highly collaborative, unashamedly self-indulgent, and undertaken for very different reasons than other forms of writing. However, it also raises the possibility that students will bring up subjects that teachers and other class members might find disturbing. One such topic teachers should be prepared to deal with is the whole BL (also called boys’ love or yaoi) genre, gay male romances, some sexually explicit, some not, that are written by and for women. That uniquely Japanese genre has its North American counterpart in “slash” fan fiction in which fan writers “slash” together characters from their favorite shows; the first “slashed” couple was Kirk/Spock or Kirk-slash-Spock. Although BL manga and anime and “slash” fan fiction developed separately, they are similar. How teachers deal with this if it comes up in class will vary depending upon the teacher and the community, but they should at least be prepared for it.

Despite such challenges, however, most teachers who use manga and anime are enthusiastic about the results. The opportunity to use primary source material from another culture that engages students is simply too good to pass up.


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anime manga, teaching with anime, fansub, gender, popular culture, film, youth culture, teaching with anime, yaoi, Toni Levi, Antonia Levi,anime, manga