Anime, or Japanese animation, is a popular form of entertainment in Japan, and it continues to attract a growing fan base in the United States. But how might American viewers best understand these expressions of Asian culture? Two articles by scholars writing on various anime films for http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/The Journal of Religion and Film (JR&F) provide discussion of two aspects for consideration.
The first article from the October 2004 issue is by James W. Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura and it is titled “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film ‘Spirited Away’.” As the title indicates, this article looks at the film Spirited Away (2001) by noted director Hayao Miyazaki. As the authors describe various “Shinto perspectives embedded in the cultural vocabulary of the film,” it becomes clear that the only way that the film can be properly understood by Western viewers is if they gain some awareness of the way that folk and shrine Shintoism provide the meaning supporting the symbolism, characters, ethical virtues, and ultimate meaning of the story. Without this perspective Westerners who appreciate anime will still enjoy the film, but it will come across as little more than fantasy involving humans and strange creatures, and the proper interpretive meaning that comes through an understanding of facets of Japanese culture will be lost.
Another interesting facet of the author’s interpretation of this film is their use of the theories of liminality from Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. As the authors draw upon liminality they descripe the journey of the main character, Chihiro, who “experientially moves from the mundane and everyday world, into a liminal realm.” As a result of her experiences in the liminal phase she eventually returns to the mundane “‘re-formed’ into a new persona.”
The notion of liminality is picked up as one of the major facets of interpretation for the film Princess Mononake (1999) in an article titled “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrifice in Princess Mononoke” by Christine Hoff Kraemer in the April 2004 issue of JR&F. In Kraemer’s view, the experience of liminality “empowers Ashitaka to play the Christ-like roles of mediator, martyr, and finally, savior.” To Kraemer’s credit, although she draws parallels between the salvific role of Ashitaka and Christ, she recognizes that the “character resonates with Buddhism’s commitment to asceticism, peace, and compassion, as well as Shinto’s call to harmony with the natural world and respect for tradition.” She draws the parallels between Ashitaka and Christ as a means of making the character understandable to Westerners who may have greater familiarity with the foundational religious mythos of Christianity, and as a means of discussing the cross-cultural aspects of the sacred.
As I read each of these articles I was struck by the importance of intercultural and religious studies to understanding aspects of popular culture. In addition, I noted the significance that the authors attributed to Turner’s liminality. Turner has been very influential in a number of academic areas, from his own discipline of anthropology to folk performance to alternative cultures and alternative cultural events, and also in popular culture studies.
These considerations remind us that anime provides a multi-layered phenomenon of popular culture for both our enjoyment as well as scholarly study.