Antonia Levi was one of the early pioneer scholars researching and writing on aspects of Japanese popular culture. She has lived in Japan, and is a fan as well as academic researcher on anime. She did graduate work at Tokyo University, holds a Ph.D. in Japanese history from Stanford, and has taught on Japanese history at Amherst College and Loyola Marymount University. Antonia currently teaches Asian Studies and Popular Culture at Portland State University. She is the author of Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (Open Court, 1996), as well as articles for Mechademia, an academic journal on anime and manga.
TheoFantastique: Antonia, I appreciated your book on anime, one of the first American academic treatments of the topic if I understand it correctly, and the article you wrote for Mechademia journal. I’d like to draw from aspects of both of these to touch on anime if we could. To begin, how did you develop an interest in anime, both professionally and personally?
Antonia Levi: I pretty much slipped into it. I grew up in Hawaii where I sometimes saw subtitled anime on the local Japanese language channel. I don’t recall thinking of it as a special category, just something else weird that was on that channel. Two series that I can remember are Astro Boy (Tetsuan atomu) and Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi), both by Tezuka, so I got off to a good start. Later on, when I moved to California, I still sometimes saw some anime. I wasn’t studying it at that time. I wasn’t even focused on Japan. I was a nurse, but in retrospect, I realize it did have some importance in my life. Even so, it wasn’t a major focus of my studies when I finally did go back to college as a graduate student. I studied mostly political history and did my dissertation on the Japanese Communist Party under the American occupation. I did read a couple of manga from that era, but mostly I was looking at how they were censored by the American authorities.
Manga did draw my interest, however, when I first went to Japan to study the language. I had only one year under my belt and could barely read. I began reading manga because the pictures and furigana (small kana beside the characters) made them much easier to read. They were pretty much all I could read. The first manga I can recall getting hooked on was GeGeGe no Kitaro which is/was a horror series. That would have been in the mid-seventies. Some years later, I did some translation work for Kodansha and while there, someone asked me if I thought translated manga would sell in the U.S. With the great financial acumen that has made me as wealthy as I am not today, I said “no.” I felt it was too culturally specific to export.
I still do think that is a problem, although obviously I was wrong about what would sell. That’s why I originally wrote Samurai from Outer Space in the mid-nineties. I was teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and getting frustrated at the realization that many of my students were watching anime and reading translated manga without even noticing that it was Japanese. My first thought was “they’re doing it wrong.” I’ve gotten more tolerant about that. I now think there are many ways to enjoy anime, but ignoring the cultural content still seems to me to be a waste of a great way to learn a lot fairly painlessly. In Samurai from Outer Space, however, I set out to try to chart the historical, mythological, religious, and cultural elements in some of the anime available at the time. It’s pretty out of date by now. At least, the examples are. I think a lot of the points still hold up.
TheoFantastique: In the first chapter of your book, among other things, you note the cultural differences between Japan and the West, primarily in the form of American viewers of anime. I found this interesting and very important if we are to understand significant interpretive factors underlying anime as it is produced in Japan. Can you briefly mention some of the American cultural assumptions in contrast with those of Japan and how these factor into differing experiences and interpretations of anime?
Antonia Levi: It’s been a long time since I last lived in Japan (1992-93, I think) so my comments on Japanese viewers are very out of date. I also think some of my comments about American fans would be different today. American fans have certainly changed as anime and manga become more and more available. They are now dividing out into those for whom the Japanese element is very important, and those for whom it’s just another type of cartoon. Also, I think larger numbers are balanced by lessening enthusiasm. There are too many cultural differences to list them all, but I would focus on two: the mix of comedy and tragedy in anime and manga, and the ways in which gender is depicted…and also mixed in some very creative ways. That mixing of comedy with tragedy and/or horror is probably what attracted me to GeGeGe no Kitaro all those years ago. It’s a pretty standard horror series with a little kid fighting demons, but the kid (Kitaro) is pretty pathetic, an orphan, born in a cemetery and given this horrific task. Yet, the series is quite funny without losing any of the pathos. This was a stark contrast to the Western popular culture of the time where things were either funny or not. Characters were either good or evil too, and while some heroes might have a few minor flaws, making evil people (or demons) sympathetic was very rare. It’s not rare at all in anime and manga, or in other Japanese literature and theatre for that matter. Aside from the fact that this is just good storytelling, I think a lot of the skill with which mangaka play on the reader/viewers’ emotions by presenting more complex characters has its roots in Shinto, Japan’s original religion, in which it’s very hard to differentiate between the gods and the demons. This is especially true of horror and fantasy anime/manga that often pull heavily on folklore.
Another difference that I didn’t write about much in Samurai from Outer Space is the way fluidity of gender. Gender in anime and manga seems to me to be far more fluid than I’ve ever seen in Western work. I don’t just mean that sometimes characters challenge traditional gender roles with role reversals. They can and sometimes do change sex. Ranma 1/2? and Futaba-kun Change! are good examples of this. There are also plenty of androgynous characters kicking around. I think this can also be traced back to Shinto; many of Japan’s ancient gods are distinctly ambisexterous. I also think it relates to Japan’s theatrical traditions that include a lot of female and male impersonators, and to the fact that gender (among other personality traits) is recognized as being a social construct far more directly in Japan. You see that discussed very directly in Moto Hagio’s work, especially They Were 11.
Manga and anime also include a lot of same sex relationships: BL (also called boys’ love, yaoi, or shounen-ai) and yuri (that’s the female counterpart). BL fascinates me particularly because it is a fairly mainstream type of anime/manga in Japan that becomes highly transgressive when transplanted to the U.S. Yaoi-con, an annual convention devoted to BL, is 18+ only. This is ironic given that in Japan, these same sex male romances/erotica are often favored by teen and even preteen girls. I did an online survey in 2003 and found that this is true in the West too. I think BL is an excellent way for girls to begin exploring their own emerging sexuality in a non-threatening way, there being no girls doing much of anything in these stories, and the girls who answered my survey seemed to feel the same way. BL in the West has also attracted a fair number of gay men which would not be the case in Japan. Older women also enjoy this genre, of course, and their reasons are often more complex than I have time to talk about right now.
I am currently in the planning stage for a volume of essays on BL (and yuri if we can get anyone to write about it). I am collaborating on this project with Dru Pagliosotti of California Lutheran University and Mark McHarry, an independent scholar in the field.
TheoFantastique: In the first edition of Mechademia you wrote about a very specific aspect of anime, almost a case study on the differing treatments of the werewolf myth in anime versus American horror. How popular is horror anime in Japan and in America?
Antonia Levi: I’ve also written a review of Howl’s Moving Castle for the third edition of Mechademia which compares and contrasts the anime with the novel, if you’re interested. I’m so pleased Mechademia is getting such good support; it’s a much needed and long overdue journal.
But back to the werewolves. To put it as simply as possible, the Japanese werewolf is generally a positive (if a bit dangerous) character while in Western stories, they are generally evil. Japanese werewolves are also likely to be wolves who change into humans rather than the reverse. This is the case with, for example, the guys in Wolf’s Rain who don’t really change at all; they just cast a glamor that makes them appear human, but they still leave paw prints in the snow. The only case of a human turned into a wolf that I could come up with was Tezuka’s Inu-gami, who appears in a later volume of his Phoenix series that Viz hasn’t gotten around to translating yet, and I wish they’d get on it as it’s one of my personal favorites.
TheoFantastique: What are the sources for the Japanese werewolf tradition?
Antonia Levi: I charted two. One is the Shinto tradition which features a large number (8 million according to the ancient sources) of animistic deities. Pretty much anything can be a deity (kami) in Shinto: rocks, trees, waterfalls, ancestors, abstract ideas, and, of course, animals. Wolves and dogs are often the messengers of higher deities. They don’t shape-shift though; that’s a skill ascribed more to raccoons (tanuki), foxes, and cats. You can see a lot of that shape-shifting tradition in Studio Ghibli’s Pompoko. The Ainu, a separate culture group who live in Northern Japan, have a different tradition where wolves do shape-shift, although they are wolves who turn into humans on occasion, not the reverse. The most famous version of this story is that of Aeonia-kamui who befriended a wolf god and helped him in battle. Some time later, Aeonia-kamui was headed into another battle where he was destined to die. Knowing this, the wolf deity sent his younger sister to stop him. She did this first by trying to scare him away in her wolf form and then, when he was injured trying to get away from the enormous wolf, by nursing him back to health. According to some versions of the story, the Ainu are descended from Aeonia-kamui and the wolf-god’s younger sister. I think Miyazaki pulled on this Ainu story and also on the Japanese story of Yamato Takeru and the white dog for Mononoke-hime.
There’s also a great take on the Ainu story in Tezuka’s Phoenix manga series which Viz is translating; unfortunately they seem to have stopped before getting to the story of Inu-gami which is in volumes 10-12. Tezuka’s version is semi-historical and his werewolf is a Korean soldier who is captured by a sadistic general who has his face skinned off and replaced with a dead wolf’s face. Unlike most western versions, becoming a wolfman greatly improves the soldier’s character, especially after he gets to ancient Japan and hooks up with a pack of shape-shifting dog deities who look remarkably like Ainu when in their human form.
TheoFantastique: We’ve already seen some of this from what you’ve just discussed, but more specifically, how does the werewolf tradition in Japan differ from its American expression?
Antonia Levi: There’s very little similarity. The American and more generally, the Western werewolf is a human being who degenerates into a violent, non-sentient wolf-like creature. I think this is partly due to the fact that Western religious and philosophical traditions make a huge differentiation between humans and animals; humans have souls and are capable of rational thought while animals do not. That’s almost diametrically opposite from the Shinto view that all nature is sentient to some degree, and also far from the Buddhist idea of reincarnation in which all human souls have been animals at some time and may be again. The Japanese know of our werewolf tradition and sometimes reproduce it, but these attempts are seldom particularly successful in my opinion. The werewolf in Vampire Hunter D, for example, is just plain strange. When I talk about Japanese werewolves, I’m talking about any situation in which there is a wolf-human dynamic of some sort. This can include shape-shifting as it does with the wolf deities in Tezuka’s story, wolves who simply appear as humans as in Wolf’s Rain, a child raised by wolves as is the case with Mononoke-hime, or even a half-dog, half-demon like Inuyasha who becomes human at the time of the full moon!
TheoFantastique: What are the two cultures saying about the wolf-human dynamic as a device that touches on aspects of human nature? And how is this specifically expressed in anime?
Antonia Levi: Well, the West is mostly talking about the inner darkness, the bestiality that lies beneath a superficial veneer of civilization. This was certainly the main theme in one of the first widely popular modern versions of the werewolf myth: Lon Chaney’s 1941 movie The Wolf Man which came out in the midst of WWII. That’s very hard to find in anime or manga. At least, I’ve never seen it. The violence of war almost always has a human face. Werewolf themes in the West also often explore puberty, gender, and sexuality in fairly negative ways in films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, or even the somewhat lighter Gingersnaps. You do see some of that in anime and manga, although it’s generally not so negative. Blue, the half dog, half wolf in Wolf’s Rain, for example, gets a very negative response from her owner when she first discovers her shape-shifting abilities and stands up in his defence and speaks for herself, but in the long run her discovery of her wolf nature (puberty, feminism) is a very positive transformation for her. Blue also references another theme common in Japanese wolf-human stories: the pariah and especially the haafu: mixed race or mixed culture people. Blue is both. As mixed wolf and dog, she struggles to define her own identity, and when she joins the wolf pack, she becomes a pariah as they all are.
Western werewolf stories also deal with pariah issues, but these too focus on the negative. They may be sympathetic to the pariah who fits in neither world, and castigate those who torment them, but they see the status as a negative. The Japanese versions, however, often focus on the positive, especially on the creation of a new identity and a new social milieu in the form of a new pack. You see that pretty clearly in Wolf’s Rain. And, of course, there’s the whole question of the wolf-human as an exploration of how or if humans can learn to live with nature in non-destructive ways. That is best explored in Mononoke-hime although the outcome is ambiguous at best; San may love Ashitaka but she can’t bring herself to live among humans, Ashitaka may love San but he can’t live in the wild as she does, and Lady Eboshi may promise to respect the environment more fully, but you know that when push comes to shove, she will again opt for protecting humans even if it means ripping the forest apart.
TheoFantastique: Are Japanese werewolves becoming more popular in America and how do you see this influencing the myth, particularly in youth culture?
Antonia Levi: Big question. Too big to really answer fully with relation only to anime and manga. You do see changes in the ways today’s artists use the werewolf in the West, and certainly Western fans are drawn to the Japanese depictions to a degree that might not have been the case a few years ago, but that’s because of so many changes in the way we now view the environment and diversity. I think there’s also a great influence coming from other sources, especially the Native American traditions which have werewolves and other shape-shifters that are sometimes closer to the Japanese model. It’s also true that in a globalizing world, we are all responding to the same stimuli and the same questions to a much greater degree than we have ever done before, and our improved means of communication mean that the discussion is more immediate and interactive than ever. That tends to blur the lines of who is contributing what or being influenced by what. Manga and anime are a part of the global discussion on all the issues I have mentioned, but they are far from the only factor that needs to be considered.
TheoFantastique: Antonia, thank you again for taking time to discuss this. I hope our readers are now interested to pursue your writings and this topic with greater measure.