The Anime Series That Made Me

So I have a birthday coming up and with that, my over two decade career in anime continues on. With that being said, I found anime and manga during a very formative part of my life and thus so many of the series I hold near and dear to me helped form my personality, my ethics, my values and forever shaped how I judge series to this very day. With nostalgia in mind, let’s go over a few of the series that made me, well, me. 

Fullmetal Alchemist

Yes, I have found a way to talk about this anime in nearly every post I have written about the subject but I think that should tell you all just how near and dear to my heart this series is. The long and short of it is that Edward and Alphonse Elric have done a bad thing and the rest of the series is a redemption tour to fix the bad thing. Along the way there’s military intrigue, cool automail stuff and really really fantastic philosophical and ethical questions. I cannot stress to you enough how strongly I bonded with Edward as a teen. I was 15 when I started FMA, I was the same age as Edward when he began the series. I had also similarly lost a parent that meant the world to me and I also was trying to find a way to empirically rationalize my grief, guilt and loss. The soundtrack is fantastic, the dub (aside from one horrible human being that I want to ignore) is fantastic, the ending is great (because let’s not talk about Brotherhood or the movie) and no character is wasted. I went on a journey of maturity with Ed and Alphonse. I recited the mini skirt speech to my friends in high school, the names we gave each other were all from the series. Hell, in my former best friend’s phone I was Izumi for years in homage to Ed and Al’s teacher. To many I was Roy Mustang and I still am so proud of my pocket watch. Fullmetal Alchemist gave me something that I was missing in the shojo series I was meant to relate to and that was a protagonist with a struggle similar to mine. I didn’t have a traditional loving family and no problems at a teen so I couldn’t relate to the average shoujo protagonist: Edward gave me someone who in so many ways was actually like me and watching him struggle, fumble, grow, change and be better gave me the strength I needed to grow and change myself. We all carry the scars of our past, some are literal and others are more metaphorical but we all have two strong legs so we just need to get up and keep going forward. 

Cowboy Bebop

You know, you’d think my family would have noticed that all of my tastes in anime were really dark and heavy. Cowboy Bebop is as close to perfect as I think an anime can get. But immediately there was something about this jazzy, usually mellow serious with bursts of bright action and violence that had me hooked from a very early age. I could go on about Bebop but that seems a little unfair to the other series on this list: I mean it’s about as close to perfect as I think anime can get from the soundtrack to the animation 

InuYasha

There is no single anime that has shaped the fan I am to this day like InuYasha. My love of villains, my tastes in anime music, my admiration of side characters that push through pain and still smile. InuYasha set the bar for me, got me to write fanfic, got me to think about anime critically, got me to start studying the language and learn about the culture and about suffixes and and the history of the land. The image of Japan that is still set in my mind was framed and began with InuYasha

Naruto

You know, I may not talk about it a lot considering how badly the series wrapped up but good heavens this series meant so much to me while in high school. I was at a formative age and the large cast and ability to slot yourself into different affiliations and villages always as something special to me. To this day, I am proud of my village designation and whether or not I am Akatsuki. The answer to which is I usually claim Hidden Mist Village, Hidden Waterfall Village, Hidden Rain Village or Sand Village because why the hell not or Akatsuki Leaf or Sand. 

Ouran High School Host Club

Okay, I don’t like shojo. I still don’t like shojo but wow, if you have noticed a type of character I like to cosplay, it was cemented that I liked being the charming host type. Now, in hindsight, this series is hella problematic and I really wish they had kept Haruhi as a boy but being able to have my friends and I slot into our respective roles gave us a language all of our. In my high school anime club, rank mattered and me being a Tamaki and my VP being Kyoya told new members and current members a lot about our personalities, roles, duties and dynamic: without even speaking to us the moment you heard us refer to each other as Mommy and Daddy you knew exactly what kind of club we ran. 

Gravitation

Yes, yes, I’m talking about gay stuff again. But as I’ve said before, I helped figure out so much about myself and my identity by finding the language and world of Gravitation. To this day, Yuki Eiri informs so much of how I live my life and choose to interact with others (for better or worse). I was able to craft an entire other being within myself based on one character and find a truer version of me than I had previously known: if that isn’t influential, I’m not sure what else is. 

I could easily go on (maybe a Part 2?) about more series that formed me. The more I looked at this list, the more series came to mind but for the sake of brevity and sanity, I wanted to get this out the door and to you, my readers. 

Thanks for going down this nostalgic jaunt with me. 

Falling Out of Love with American Voice Acting

In the last post, I spent hundreds of words spewing my love of American voice actors and American voice acting. But I didn’t stop being an anime fan after 2012, no, my appetite for anime may be different than it was when I was a wee little demon but I am still a rabid otaku but my adoration and respect for American voice acting has changed just like my relationship with anime has changed.

So let’s talk about the fall and my newfound appreciation for subbed anime.

2011 brought with it a little show called Attack on Titan which may have the distinction of being the first anime that I just didn’t like. Normally even if I’m not crazy about a series, I can see good in it but AoT did nothing for me and its rabid fanbase of mostly younger fans who had never seen an anime before wore me thin. And out of all the things I don’t like about AoT it was in fact was the rather lackluster voice acting that to me just hallmarked on all the weaknesses of the dialogue and plot. AoT was just the start for me and as I continued on watching anime, a few things changed for me. One, was that I was in college and my tastes had started to change from shows that were being picked up by big studios to shows that weren’t just yet (thus I resorted to the evils of piracy) and the second was that as some series began to be dubbed, I had previously watched the subbed version and the dub finally did not meet my expectations. 

When the horrible 4Kids Sailor Moon is all you know, then sure you accept the horrible Americanized names, the removal of queer characters and the bad voice acting: it’s all you know. So for me, that was how I could rationalize, especially in hindsight, terrible dubs. But I remember watching Hetalia subbed and loving it only to be horrified by the choices Funimation made in the dub. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that until college and it really started to turn my opinion on newer dubbed series. 

Another factor that I do think matters but doesn’t fit into a neat group is that in the late 2000s is when I was able to give more time and attention to subbed anime. Especially in college, I was willing to set aside time for subbed anime and not having cable fed into my rationale to continue to be a better pirate than Luffy ever was and I could just sit and watch subbed anime and read and gasp in Japanese. To this day, if I have work to do, I will watch a dubbed anime so I don’t have to focus on it or a sub that I can practically recite like Antique Bakery or Maiden Rose. I spent many a college night wrapped in blankets watching subbed anime while on an IM chat with a friend, reacting to episodes that just got leaked in real time and even now in adulthood if I set out to watch an anime, now I go for subbed first because I rarely attempt new anime nowadays so I set that time aside and don’t mind reading. 


While I still have an immense respect for the “old guard” of voice actors, the newer ones seem particularly lazy. And even though “sameness” is a common gripe against American voice actors, usually that sameness is for a reason. Spike Spencer has one voice and he plays similar characters in most shows he’s cast in and thus that one emasculated, tired male voice works. Johnny Yong Bosch has one shonen protag voice and guess what: he plays shonen yelly protags. A lot of Japanese voice actors have a similar sameness including my favorite, Kazuhiko Inoe, but he plays the same character a lot: aloof bad boys that I have unnatural feelings for and thus his similar sounding voice works. Japan does have some amazing chameleon voice actors like Daisuke Namikawa who has ranged from Northern Italy in Hetalia to being a villain in Bleach

The newer guard of American voice actors just seem lazy and it seems that the Japanese voice actors have only been getting better. All that expressiveness and fun and passion that I felt in most dubs I now feel in subs. A great example of that is in Devilman Crybaby (which does not dub well just due to the flow of music and trick of words often used) where due to Netflix deciding to fail for a moment, I was given a glimpse at the dub. For a series that is mostly two men screaming each other’s names, oh boy, do I not buy the two American voice actors caring about what they’re doing at all. It’s just plain lazy and tired and all of the vague threats in Ryo’s voice and subtle kindness in Akira’s voice is entirely lost by two Americans who sound like they simply do not want to be in the booth that day. 

That does not mean I have entirely abandoned dubs. One of my favorites is still somewhat recent but I think it speaks to the bigger issue and that’s Space Dandy. There’s something about Watanabe-sensei’s work that really lends to dubbing because so many of his series are so heavily influenced by Western culture. So it makes sense that a series where a man with excellent hair goes on a weekly Flash Gordon space adventure with a weird little auto-tune robot and a strange alien cat would have the voice if Ian Sinclair doing his best. The whole work just translated better into English and the staff was so stellar that it easily placed itself high on my list of favorite dubs of all time. 

I think bad voice acting reminds me that anime can be a tough sell. Suspension of disbelief is something we’ve talked about a lot over on the blog and a solid performance can help ground  a show back in reality. If you had told me that one of my favorite series of the summer would be about three boys who turn into kappas and the two murder cops trying to kill them I’d laugh at you and I’m a dedicated anime fan, I am not new to obsurdity. But one of the things that kept me in Sarazanmai was the fact that everyone sounded great, even when the singing wasn’t as key as others, you could still buy that these actors cared about the roles they were playing. Especially with the isekai boom, one of the things that really got me turned off on these shows (think of like Sword Art Online) was that the American voice acting sounded so bland for a premise that I already find incredibly boring. If the main character doesn’t sound like he wants to be in this fantastical world, why the hell do I want to watch him on this fantastical journey? 

Voice acting is an art form and I find that I don’t have the same reverence or enthusiasm for Bryce Papenbrook as I do for Eric Vale and that doesn’t mean that the new guard are all full of bad voice acting: I’ve changed, my tastes in anime has changed, a lot has changed and it means that I am now a far more harsh critic than ever. 

If you like these dubs, I’m not here to take that from you. Hell, I still stand by some of the early dubs. And it’s here that I want to talk about one aspect of the new era of dubbing that I’m all too aware of now and that’s how loose some companies play with translation. Especially Funimation is very bad about playing hot and loose with how Japanese is translated and they will throw in jokes and memes that just don’t age well anymore. My biggest gripe for that comes with how one word is translated and that word is aniki.

Aniki, to those in the yakuza, means “older brother” but it’s more than just older brother. There is so much respect, history and more in that word and Funimation, in all their wisdom, translates aniki, consistently, as “bro”. Does one refer to the Emperor as SOME DUDE? One would never refer to their aniki, imoto, ototo, aneki, ani-san or ane-san as something so casual lest they love a finger or their life from the sheer amount of disrespect. 


Dear reader, the first time I heard that in a series, I screamed profanities into my pillow. 

That’s a choice. That’s a translation choice. Funimation has translators. Funimation has been doing this for nearly as long as I have been alive. They know the context behind what that word means. WHY TRANSLATE IT AS SOMETHING SO CASUAL?

It’s a lazy choice. It’s not trusting the audience. It’s being afraid to risk that maybe, just maybe, that the audience won’t care enough to look it up. I remember reading the InuYasha manga as a kid and in the back there was a guide with all the suffixes because I did not, at 12, know what -sama meant. But I was also voraciously curious enough to study suffixes and want to learn more so of course I know what all the yakuza familial terms mean and I am bitterly disappointed every time they are translated as sis or as bro. 

My new issues with the sub vs. dub debate don’t just boil down to lazy voice acting or lazy translations it’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the 90s and 2000s, there were actors that cared so much and you felt every bit of their passion as they learned new languages, new names and more. And I feel that now with subbed VAs, honestly starting with Hetalia. To see how much effort these actors went into learning their country’s languages is just damn inspirational. 

Japanese is a tricky language. I love it most when it’s clever and innuendo and puns don’t translate well, I respect that. But I think you lose something when you don’t bother to translate those moments. In Death Note, Mello refers to Matt as his dog. Not just because of Matt’s loyalty to him but also in Japanese “inu” is a slang term for top in the relationship, the inverse of that being “neko” for bottom. That little moment, that piece that is in some translations but not all speaks so much about their relationship and tells you more about their dynamic than all of the 17 words Matt ends up saying before he’s shot and Mello ruins everything and dies.

I will always respect voice acting: both Western and Japanese. I will always respect those who strive to bring anime and manga into Western audiences legally. Some of the proudest moments I have in all my conventions years have been meeting voice actors. Spike Spencer, Eric Vale, Ian Sinclair and more have made my childhood and my current adulthood. A good voice acting performance can make or break a series and I have been blessed to be exposed to so many wonderful voice acting performances regardless of language. Voice acting is an art and one I admit that I am not professional in, so feel free to take this as one fan pining for the Fjords but it felt appropriate to go over. 

As far as the state of the debate? Well, we’re nerds. We have to have something to argue over. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. There are some dubs I’m willing to die on the hill for and others that I won’t defend as much. As far as subs go, wow, they sure have been great recently. I do think that we can have this conversation about honestly, what boils down to taste and preference, more respectfully; but that’s sort of been my constant feeling about most things on the internet nowadays. I remember getting pretty heavily shamed for liking dubbed anime and being called lazy for enjoying and and thus I perpetuated that negativity calling those who liked subbed snobs. We can all do better as far as how we discuss what are true issues facing anime and manga fandom: translation, censorship, and more.

Thank you for sticking with me through such a post.

I invite thoughtful and kind discussion in the comments below.

In Senpai I Trust

I take titles very seriously. I’m from a generation that took titles seriously. Things like writer, teacher, speaker and more were not meaningless. Which is why I found a particular aspect of Japanese culture and language that I liked I ran with it. I love suffixes. Using -san, -chan, -kun can say so much about a person and your relationship to them. While using -sama, -imoto, or -ototo also can speak volumes. Today I want to talk about three words I use a lot and why they mean so much to me: senpai, sensei and kouhai.

We’ll pause here to go over some grammar and vocabulary! In Japanese, suffixes follow a proper name. We’ll use my panel name as an example and use a suffix that people would know me as:

Aichi-san.

Y’all thought I was gonna use -sama. I can wait for that.  In the Japanese language, these suffixes stand in for words like: Mrs. Miss. Mister or Doctor. They can denote familiarity, respect, position or seniority.

Now for some vocabulary: for the sake of this post: we’ll focus on the three words I plan to elaborate more on.

Senpai: typically an upperclassman or person a year or to is slightly ahead of you in a career position.

Sensei: can be used to describe someone with superiority or seniority to you or an expert in their field.

Kouhai: a student or underclassman in school or a new employee in a company.

Longtime readers of the blog or attendees of my panels know that I use these words a lot. I am a proud senpai to many kouhai and I am a proud kouhai to my sepais and my sensei. I have made a chart to make things easier but here is the long and short of it. I am the senpai to my now former anime club members and a few others who have asked for me to guide them in the ways of conventions, cosplay and anime. I am in fact a kouhai to my three senpais and I have one sensei above all of them. Outlined it looked like this. I have my kouhai from my anime club and the ones I’ve gained now. I have my three senpais: Nancy, Patricia and Cris (who is no longer with us [that still feels weird to say]) and I have my one sensei: Jason. There is one disputed senpai: Jessica, who joined because she was a friend of Nancy.

I’ve even made a chart for you.


So why are we having this conversation? Well, at heart, I take titles seriously. I say that I am a writer not just because I write but because I went to the old fancy college to study ye olde book-learning. I say that I am a panelist because I regularly panel. I don’t just throw words around because without meaning, words are strange.

And I know many of my fellow…”fans” of Japanese culture (more on this soon) will throw these words around with a little less care (I know I’m generalizing, don’t sue me).

Here’s where I’ll explain myself. I won’t be that level of gatekeeper that every Japanese word must be handled with a great deal of respect: that’s why I’m going out of my way to say that this is just my connection to the word. I just know I’m a formalist and don’t go around throwing these words around.

Now, my connection to these words is of course rooted in anime and a love of Japanese culture. When I first met Nancy and Patricia and Cris, they were all I wanted to be as a fan, cosplayer, writer and more and I asked for them to take me under their tutelage.  

When I took over the anime club in college in a spectacular coup d’etat, I instilled in my club members that I wanted to be their guide to this world of media criticism, Japanese culture and anime. I showed them my competence and expertise and was humble when I didn’t know something. I was proud when they called me “senpai” and I was happy to call them “kouhai”. I took care of them. I made breakfast, I cooked lunches, I became a confidant and friend. And I learned so much from my kouhai who encouraged me to be less of a stick in the mud about newer anime and brought me out of my shell as I dealt with the loss of my mother.

And in turn, my senpais made me who I am now. Their kindness, empathy and skill inspire me, motivate me to be better. They are there for me when I am down and guide me when I have no idea what I am doing (which is more often than one would think).

I can still remember the night my longtime partner left me and I texted Nancy-senpai. She and another senpai of mine, Jessica came over immediately. They took me out to ensure that I ate because breaking up often means not eating human food in favor of hoping tears could provide nutritional value and cake frosting to mask the pain. They made sure I was okay. They checked on me. They took care of me and ensured that I was okay to go back to work before leaving me to my then solitary apartment.

I’ll tell another story because it feels appropriate to tell people just how close I am to my senpais. Cris was magnetic. Cris was an amazing panelist, cosplayer and a brilliant and patient soul. I regret that it took so long for us to get as close as we did. But Cris was to me the embodiment of what it meant to be a senpai. She was always there to listen and provide feedback that was so helpful. Before she died, one of the last conversations she had was to push me to try new things and new panels and at new conventions. She celebrated my success, she was proud of me and hearing her say she was proud of me may be one of the best parts of my existence and she was wonderful. She was smart, bright and wonderful and I miss her dearly.

I carry my title of senpai sacredly. Whenever I’m on stage, I do my best to be authority but also personable. I love it when people come up to give me hugs or tell me that my honesty helped them through a difficult time. I love being able to be not just a screeching harpy or a stern man yelling but someone who has learned and struggled and made mistakes. Every hug I give when I’m off the stage, every time I answer a message late or happily let my panels spill into the hallways after my set is done.

It isn’t just a power trip, it isn’t about ego: it’s about wanting to be the best person I possibly can be and wanting to share the knowledge I have and also wanting desperately to be better and constantly improve.

My senpais and my sensei are more than just friends to me. And my kouhai mean the world to me and I will defend them with my life.

It’s a sacred sort of bond. A title given and earned. It’s a strange sort of relationship; the purest expression of how found families work. It’s done with love and trust and passion. It’s late phone calls, early messages and maintaining relationships because anything worth having is worth working for.

That’s what these words mean to me.

Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.