Japanese Notion of Body and Life - What is Behind Japanese Animation

Machiko Kusahara
Kobe University

In the year 1997, A-Life games such as Tamagotchi and Pocket Monsters were smash hits in Japan while "Princess Mononoke", an animation title by Hayao Miyazaki renewed all the box sales records of films in Japan. A cult animation film "Evangelion" which was shown slightly earlier brought what was called "Evangelion pheonomenon" among young generation. It was not much after the shocking incident of Kobe of a young murderer. Blood and the absence (or denial) of absolute justice were the key features of both films, which made them different from other animation titles.

The rise of A-life games is a reflection of Japanese culture in the digital era. Japanese animation (JAPANIMATION) is another interpretation of our culture through technology. Without doubt, these are opening new fields in entertainment and culture. But at the same time, the unique features of such Japanese entertainment should be understood and further analyzed in connection to our society. For example, the best Japanese animation films often have controversial stories, different from what we know from US. Absence of absolute justice can be found as another important feature of Japanese animation films. Sympathy toward a complex situation where everyone has one's own reason might be a reflection of Japanese state of mind. The issues even leads us further to the recent situation with Japanese young generation, such as enigmatic murder cases or frequently reported ill-treatment cases toward animals in elementary and junior high schools. This paper discusses the connection underlying these phenomena through the analysis of cultural background in Japanese imagery and the notion of life. The tradition now faces difficulties in meeting the new era of technology.

Space, Time, Action

Japanese/Korean/Chinese culture had developed a different language in perception and representation of time/space, shape/shadow, and objective/subjective view. For example perspective drawing in the Western sense did not appear in these countries before the idea was brought from Europe. Instead, subjective importance defined size and intensity of objects in traditional paintings. Flexible use of space in comics coincides with the traditional picture rolls where events in different time-space can be painted on a same scene. The flat expression of characters looks familiar to Japanese eyes rather than a realistic portrait. Traces of such features can be seen in today's Japanese computer games. In short, Asians did not develop visual realism in European sense. It is the same with choreography or animation. Recent use of Bunraku (Japanese marionette) interface or choreography in the motion design (instead of using motion capture) for virtual characters by Fuji Television was brought through such observations. There are also cases that animators consciously design the motion not to be too smooth. On the other hand, polygon-based computer games require more realistic representation of space and figure both for the nature of 3D computer graphics and for actions such as fighting. Game directors are trying to figure out the best mix of reality for Japanese users.

Notion of Life and Reality

Relationship between human beings and other creatures also differs from that in Europe because of different religious background. Darwin’s evolution theory could not be a danger in Japan, if I refer to the book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. In that sense, virtual creatures such as Tamagotchi are a natural consequence of Japanese tradition. This also explains why certain kind of mechanical android/robot stories are so popular in Japanese animation. The idea of human body integrated into a robot vehicle does not sound extremely strange for Japanese kids. Meanwhile, the blurred boundary between real and virtual life brings another problem. Some kids take the death of the virtual pets seriously while others "reset" virtual pets frequently. Now game makers are trying to take care of the after-life of virtual pets. No one knows how such experiences with virtual pets embedded in a large population of children would influence our culture in near future.

Requirement of realistic 3D characters and scenes in recent computer games will certainly change the code of reality in Japanese comics and animation as well. Virtual pets and characters will also change. Already, virtual pets with “kawaii” (lovely, cute, in Japanese way) taste don’t have much difficulty in being accepted in the society. Besides the possibility of visual reality, more autonomous AI features can be applied to virtual pets in kids' pockets or on the Net.

There are not many chances in the history when one sees a new technology bringing up a new visual language. Invention of cinema at the end of the last century was such moment. Now we have another opportunity to testimony. An analysis from historical point of view combined with insight for current and future technology is now required.

(This is the outline of a lecture at the Science Museum, Seattle, in November 1999, as a part of the symposium accompanying Japanese animation and comics exhibtion organized by Hyogo Prefecture.)