English 10-1: Anime Unit

Mr. Steel

Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro


What exactly is anime? To define anime simply as “Japanese cartoons” gives no sense of the depth and variety that make up the medium. Many definitions in the West attempt to explain anime by comparison to American animation, specifically Disney. But the anime genre is much different from Disney. The complex story lines of anime challenge the viewer who is accustomed to the predictability of Disney animations. The often dark tone and content of anime may surprise audiences who like to think of “cartoons” as “childish” or “innocent.” Indeed, western audiences are often bewildered by the so-called adult themes of anime. Anime, unlike Disney animations, is often subversive. Whereas American animation and cinema largely defends American social norms and reassures its audiences concerning the legitimacy of their mode of life, anime often “de-assures” rather than assures its audiences.


Another interesting point to consider about anime is that it is the product of a culture that thinks in images rather than in words. Whereas we articulate our thoughts using an alphabet of sounds, the Japanese language is not alphabetic, but rather is constructed out of images or “ideograms” -- their words are literally images of the things they represent. So the rich visual imagery of Japanese anime is, in some ways, a product of this cultural difference. Indeed, images from anime and its related medium of manga (graphic novels) are everywhere throughout Japan. Japan is a country that is traditionally more “picto-centric” than the cultures of the West; hence, anime and manga fit easily into a contemporary culture of the visual.


There are many reasons to study anime as part of a film unit in English at the high school level. Anime most often depicts adolescent characters and deals with questions and concerns identifiable in some fashion with adolescents. Additionally, for those interested in learning about Japanese culture, anime is an important contemporary Japanese art form with a distinctive narrative and visual aesthetic that both harks back to the traditional Japanese culture and moves forward to the cutting edge of art and media. Furthermore, anime, with its enormous breadth of subject material, is also a useful mirror on contemporary Japanese society, offering an array of insights into the significant issues, dreams, and nightmares of the day. Of course, these problems are not simply “Japanese” problems. They are fundamentally human problems and human questions, and a study of anime is a wonderful imaginative means of investigating the “big questions” of life.


Work and Assessment:


During this unit of study, students will complete a film unit terminology test and an individual or group project-presentation. Thematic questions/topics for these project-presentations are listed below. Each student/group will choose ONE from among the following:


1. The shojo (or young girl) in Miyazaki’s anime:

In traditional Japanese society (as well as in Western societies for hundreds if not thousands of years), girls and women were held to be weak characters who needed to be saved by male heroes. If female characters had any virtues, these involved obedience, submission, chastity, nurturing, compassion, and other cooperative virtues. Female characters were certainly not heroic (Think of the Disney princesses: even Mulan, the most warlike of princesses, ends with marriage and the happily-ever-after). However, Hayao Miyazaki’s anime works consistently break with this long-standing view of women (and young girls in particular) by placing female characters in the roles of heroes. Do a study of the role of the shojo (the “young girl”) in Miyazaki’s body of work. In your presentation, explain by way of examples the innovations of Miyazaki’s portrayal of girls, and why this is significant in the history of cinema.

For a good discussion of the princess phenomenon in film, listen to:



2. The Meaning of Technology:

Anime often not simply depicts futuristic technological societies and gadgets being used for good or ill, but considers the actual meaning of technology in the lives of human beings, and as it affects the world as a whole. Indeed, an entire genre of anime known as “mecha” (a shortening of the English word “mechanical”) deals with the penetration of human life with the robotic. The word “technology” comes from two Greek words techne (“art,” concerned with making) and logos (“word, speech, reason,” or “study”). When we think technologically, we approach ourselves and the world around us as raw materials to be re-fashioned and “made” into images of our ideas or the results of our “reasoning.” Through technology, we become masters of the universe: we use science to unlock the secrets of the universe, and we use technology to dominate and to “make,” or mould the universe in accordance with our ideas. But what does this sort of knowing do to us and to the world around us? How does it affect the way that we interact with nature?

A further problem with thinking technologically is that the world around us (and within us inasmuch as we too are a part of nature) is not considered to be known or understood unless we ourselves have made it or mastered it. What happens in the world when we live according to this view? Anime examines the repercussions of technology and the meaning of technological thinking in fiction, but also with implications in the real world, perhaps as a kind of reflection on things that have already happened in our world today. Your project-presentation should examine one or more anime productions for the manner in which the meaning of technology is investigated.


3. Apocalypse (and rebirth):

Anime very often depicts end-of-the-world scenarios. Many commentators on anime have pointed out that apocalyptic themes are prominent in Japanese writing and film after the second world war in part because of the collective experience of the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the long-term psychological effects of these blasts: they were certainly experienced as end-of-the-world events. Another very real ground among the Japanese for considering end-of-the-world scenarios concern environmental degradation. In its own swift industrialization and modernization, Japan depleted most of its own natural resources and polluted its own environment terribly, such that it was necessary for the Japanese to re-consider their own “carbon footprint” as they began to realize that their own economic successes might actually lead to their own undoing and the destruction of their own habitat – a kind of environmental apocalypse.

Often anime portrays such apocalypses and how human beings endure the death of the world and their civilizations; often, too, a rebirth or rejuvenation of life is envisioned after such events. Your group project-presentation should investigate the manner in which your own anime selection depicts an end-of-the-world scenario. What are the circumstances of this apocalypse? How was it brought about? How have human beings responded to it? Is the possibility of a rebirth, rejuvenation, or transformation offered? Offer an analysis of these features to your own audience, and explain what light this apocalyptic vision might shed on real life.


4. Gnosis and Anime:

In the mid 1990’s, a doomsday cult known as Aum-Shinrikyo became famous/notorious around the world for releasing sarin (“nerve”) gas into the Tokyo subway in an attempt to bring about the dawn of the destruction of Japanese society and the world as a whole. Their view was that the world in its current state was evil and that it needed to be saved. Following a botched understanding of Buddhist ideas concerning re-incarnation and the accumulation of merit, they thought that, by killing people, they were actually saving them from a life of suffering, ignorance, and evil, since after death they would be reborn into a better existence (as members of the Aum cult who could then continue to “help” other people into a better life). Their long-term project was to destroy the world in order to save it: a kind of transformation of reality. This attitude towards the world is known in philosophic language as gnosticism. Gnosis is a Greek word for knowledge or knowing. Among gnostics, it is a special “secret” kind of knowing; the gnostic has come to realize a secret knowledge about the world that is hidden from everyone else: that is, the physical world of everyday experience is an evil place, or an illusion that the mass of human beings don’t see; it is often held to be the creation of an evil craftsman  -- sometimes in the history of the world, a false god or demi-urge, but quite often in recent history, the world order is thought to be the evil creation of a group of world dominators or conspirators (ex.: modern day terrorists view Americans and Jews this way; Nazis during the second world war, of course, had this attitude towards Jews as well). The project of the gnostic therefore becomes either withdrawing from this world of evil into the private solitary world of his/her own divine inner light peacefully and without disturbing others, or (as in the case of many anime scenarios) attacking and tearing down this evil world order in preparation for the transfiguration and salvation of the world through magical means. This is one of the reasons why anime is so full of magic, in fact!

It is common knowledge that the members of the Aum cult were fans of anime, and in particular, their leader Shoko Asahara was an avid watcher of the 1970’s anime Space Battleship Yamamato (so named after the real life battleship of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II). Inspect an anime production with which you/members of your own group are familiar. Look for these gnostic elements. Explain briefly how gnosticism works (using the guidelines I have provided above) and demonstrate to your audience how your own selection is an example.


5. Anime and The Sadness of Things

The theme of melancholy -- that sweet misery of things that are beautiful but passing,-- is prominent in Japanese literature and art. Anime is a new means of expressing the classical Japanese concern for the ephemeral, or mono no aware (the sadness of things). Choose an anime with which you are familiar and discuss the manner in which melancholic moods or the awareness of the ephemeral is made a central theme. In your presentation, provide some discussion of the meaning of melancholy, and what it means for something to be ephemeral.


6. Depictions of Dystopia

The word “utopia” is derived from the Greek and has the double sense of being a “good” (eu) “place” (topos), as well as a “no” (u) place. A utopia is therefore an imaginative place that exists nowhere in the real world: it is a paradise on earth concocted in literature. Utopias appear throughout world literature, but most often, upon closer inspection, turn out to be “dystopias,” or bad, dysfunctional places. Moreover, there have been real-life attempts at constructing utopias on earth (most particularly, in the world’s various communist states), and these have all ended disastrously and dystopically. Dystopias are one of the most common elements of anime. Some commentators have suggested that this is because of the historical experiences of the Japanese in the real world. Obviously, Japan’s isolationist policy for hundreds of years against all foreign influence in order to maintain its own “idyllic” or traditional society would be an example for the Japanese of a utopia with dystopic elements (i.e.: What is the utopia and what is the dystopia? Are western influences dystopian and traditional Japanese ways utopian? Or is it the other way around?) And then, during the years leading up to the second world war, Japanese imperialism sought to build its own real-world vision of a utopian society administered by the Japanese in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However, as history shows, this vision of the world was distopic when put into practice. And most recently, in the 1980’s, Japan rose to become one of the most successful, most wealthy, modernized, and powerful countries on earth. Modern-day Japan was, in some respects, a utopia in the eyes of the world. However, Japanese suspicions about the real nature of their hard won-prosperity and its relation to their own happiness led many to consider the extent to which their society, with its demands for personal sacrifice and strict regimentation might not be dystopic.

Examine an anime with which you/the members of your group are familiar. Look for the manner in which a dystopia is depicted. Did the dystopia start out as a utopia? Was it the product of a misunderstanding of what the ground for a good life and a good society might be? How was this dystopia brought about? How does it relate to the real world? What message is presented to us as viewers about the (potentially) dystopian nature of our own society?


7. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro

Read Lewis Carroll’s children’s story and watch Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Look for the ways in which Miyazaki borrows from the Carroll original, and in your presentation, express to your audience the ways in which these borrowings are used to create a new story. What meaning and/or message is portrayed by Carroll? What meaning or message is portrayed by Miyazaki?


8. The Beauty of Nature in Anime

Depictions of technological ugliness in anime are often counterbalanced or contrasted with depictions of beautiful landscapes and serene natural settings. Japanese culture has demonstrated a long-standing appreciation of the natural world in its art, poetry, and religious persuasions. For example, the Japanese love for nature’s beauty can be found in the art of Zen garden construction, Japanese flower arrangement (ikebana), bansai tree arborism, haiku poetry, Japanese painting (kaiga), as well as in the many seasonal Japanese festivals that celebrate the beauty of nature, such as cherry blossom-viewing, moon-viewing, and snow-viewing festivals. This appreciation for nature’s beauty can also be seen in the art of miniature landscape construction on a tray (bonkei), as well as in the incorporation of images of natural objects into the design of kimono fabrics. Even traditional Japanese architecture is designed to harmonize with, rather than dominate, its natural surroundings. Much of the appreciation for natural beauty in traditional Japanese art is connected with Zen Buddhist and Shinto/folk religious understandings. In Zen, the natural world is held as an object of contemplation for the mind on the impermanence of all things. Shinto/folk religion looks at the natural world as a place not simply of material but spiritual significance. The world of nature is full of gods and spirits or kami, and part of our purpose as human beings living in nature is to treat the natural world with reverence and to live in harmony with it. On your own, investigate the various ways in which natural beauty plays a central role in Japanese art. Relate what you discover in your research about Japanese art and its fixation with natural beauty to the portrayal of nature and natural beauty in anime. How does anime fit in (as well as depart from) more traditional forms of Japanese art and literature? Choose a particular anime that is appropriate for this topic. What role does the depiction of nature play in this anime? What meaning is found in the natural world? Why is the portrayal of nature’s beauty integral to the unfolding of this particular story? How is this portrayal of nature and natural beauty related to what you have learned about the Japanese sense for beauty through your own research?


9. Anime and images of Purification

Purification is a consistent theme throughout all anime. Typically, there is a form of pollution that infects the world, society, or the human spirit. This pollution might be physical (like nuclear radiation, chemicals, greenhouse gas, or the destruction of the natural world through technological domination), or it might be spiritual, such as when a character can’t discover who he/she really is (i.e. ignorance as a form of pollution), or when we live in a way that makes us blind or otherwise unworthy of seeing certain hidden spiritual truths. The Japanese have long been interested in the idea that it is important for human beings to frequently “purify” themselves of their misdeeds, their sins, and their ignorance. Much of the traditional Japanese Shinto attitude towards nature can be understood in terms of the need for purification. Do some research on the significance of purification in Shinto understanding, and choose an anime with which you are familiar in order that you might draw some examples from it that demonstrate the role that the theme of purification plays. Be sure to relate to your audience the significance/message that the anime you have chosen provides to us in the real world about the need for purification.


10. Anime and Identity: Who am I?

In her book, Anime: from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Susan J. Napier says that anime is “the perfect medium to capture what is perhaps the overriding issue of our day, the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society” (12). Modern society is affected (and perhaps afflicted) by rapid change. Historically, many societies have been able to maintain a sense of their own identity and culture apart from the advances of the westernized societies around them. However, with the advent of globalization this insulation of cultures is no longer possible, and many cultures around the world are feeling the loss of their own traditional ways of life and understanding as modern technological influence takes over. Many cultures have, in this way, come to ask the question, “Who are we?”  Apart from this problem of globalization and identity, there is the additional problem of the individual identity as distinct from his/her cultural identity. Besides the question of “How do I fit in with everyone else?” there is the question, “What makes me distinct from everyone else?”

Some commentators on anime have said that the problem of identity is particularly important in Japanese culture. First, since the 1800’s, Japan has undergone rapid social and technological changes. What effect does such rapid change have on the Japanese sense of self, both individually and collectively? Second, there is the problem of unexplored war-guilt on the part of the Japanese. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese were never pressed to confront the attrocities that they committed during the second world war. Many academics have wondered what effects this refusal to admit any responsibility for war crimes during this period might have collectively on the Japanese identity. Third, other commentators have noted how young Japanese may feel alienated from the rigid social structures and the traditional expectations of the society that their parents have built. Questions of “Who am I?” in a world that is not my own are particularly acute among young Japanese.

Throughout the various genres of anime, questions of “Who am I, really?” are continually asked. Characters embark on quests to find out who they really are: sometimes as adolescents coming of age in a process of self-discovery, sometimes as half-man, half-machine cyborgs struggling with identity (mostly in the mecha genre), sometimes as characters encountering the falseness of the world around them and the appearance of things and struggling to find the inner, hidden truth that underlies everything; sometimes characters are pitted against their societies and the expectations that others have of them, and they feel alienated from everyone, not knowing where they themselves fit, and ever-seeking a place of belonging (a social identity). Choose an anime production with which you are familiar and present to the audience how the struggle to find identity is portrayed. What lesson does the anime teach us about identity and finding out who we are in the real world?


Useful Links:

Online Ghibli



Nausicca Net (a site devoted to Hayao Miyazaki’s work)



Intenet Movie Database