The drawing on the reality of life in Japan

The reflective essay will focus on Japanese animation films and Japanese cultural identity. Japanese animation has played a large part in my process of growing up, a media product I have frequently consumed, hence I am immensely attracted to Japanese culture. Selected Japanese animation films are broadcasted on local television channels (formerly KidsCentral), ubiquitously shared on the Internet, and only in recent years, shown in local cinemas. My fondness for Japanese animation films emanates from “Japanese animation serves in many ways as a source of reassurance that ‘ideal’ identity is possible, within the ‘ideal’ spaces of film, but also in the imagination of the audience” that is accurately put into words by Iles (2008), and for its innocence and the acceptance of the different. This inclusivity and supportiveness displayed in animation films are not exclusive only to local audience or only for children but intended for all viewers. As asserted by Noh (2017), animation portrays the reality of nonlinear time in a convincing manner and maintains a restorative nostalgia without having to necessarily deal with the physicality of passing time. In a nutshell, animation may be fictional but it can certainly be realistic. These sites of fantasy presents ideal spaces, conducive to the nourishment of human imagination (Iles, 2008), and I relish in these imaginaries, experiencing a time that exist and yet does not. Japanese animation films are also embedded with profound meanings, usually revolving on a journey of self discovery while focusing on spirituality and nature. Meanwhile, the search for identity is a common film theme that is in conjunction to the conflicting cultural identity many Japanese experience. Anime is a powerful medium to explore Japanese cultural identity as it is intended for the Japanese by the Japanese, drawing on the reality of life in Japan yet garnished with a spectrum of ideal spaces and the imaginaries. From here on, I will be discussing the acclaimed Studio Ghibli’s films, and the recent masterpiece, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016). Your Name (2016) is a visual and aural masterpiece, successfully overtaking numerous Studio Ghibli’s films in the box office. The stunning use of animation accompanied with sentimental music had brought my cinematic experience to a new level. However, it was the riveting storyline that had clinched my attention and brought forward my tears. Your Name is not an ordinary light-hearted film as marketed, it is a film filled with tragedy, hardships, and spoke depth of identity and the ‘self’. Your Name speaks length of spirituality and on the traditional Japanese culture and, to a lesser extent, religion that are beginning to fade with time. The dilemma of contemporary Japan is evident in many theatrical works; while embracing the influence of the West, the nationalistic Japan struggles to keep itself insular and ‘untouched’. The female protagonist of Your Name, Mitsuha, is seen conflicted by the temptation of abandoning her Shintoism duties (as a shrine priestess) for a life in contemporary Tokyo. The awe and fascination is apparent when she interacts with Western cuisine in a lavish Western-styled restaurant. Mitsuha’s classmates also mocked her for the kuchikamizake (a rice based alcohol involving human saliva for fermentation) tradition during her ritual dance performance at her family Shinto shrine. The conundrum of traditional Japanese culture being challenged by rapid westernization is clearly seen in the plot; traditional cultural practices are seen as ‘backwards’ in contemporary times. As stated by Iles (2008), Japan is caught between modernisation (pursued as westernization) and a lingering pull to maintain an awareness of and respect for tradition. Your Name has concisely provided a window into gleaning the identity conflict found in many Japanese, enabling us a deeper understanding of the country beyond its seemingly perfect facade. Japan’s conflicting cultural identity has become a common theme in films as explained by Noh (2017): “exploration of Japanese cultural identity, and its relationship to nostalgia and ideologies of hybridity continue to be a theme relevant to the anxieties and dilemmas of postmodern identity”.  This fracture in maintaining identity is also relatable to in Singapore, where traditional practices are overwritten by modernity; dialects of the olden days slowly fall into obsolescence as English becomes the only language in use. On the other hand, Studio Ghibli’s animation films largely focus on spirituality, environment, and the self. Spirited Away (2001) is my favourite film; the story focuses on a young girl (Chihiro) navigating out of the Spirit World with the help of her newly found friends, discovering a pure and redemptive self again. The majestic artwork and Joe Hisaishi’s music pieces in Spirited Away enrapture me as a child, and again, as an adult. The intricate animation provided us, the viewers, a temporary gateway into Japan’s culture, specifically the spirit world of Japan where folklores and beasts of mythology come alive. Other than spirituality, Spirited Away focuses on identity as well, on the journey of self discovery rather than expressing the conflicting cultural identity Your Name showcases. The brilliant mind behind Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, stands firm in retaining traditional Japanese values in his films. His films “celebrate a past Japan that is largely the product of rose-coloured glasses gazing into the past” (Roedder, 2013), and this provided us, the audiences, a glance into traditional Japanese culture before the imprint of globalization and influence of the West. Miyazaki frequently contests on gender roles as well, featuring women as the central protagonist (such as in Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)), and their journey of growth and self-discovery. Miyazaki’s films “resist the influence of political agendas and censorships” and “denies the ideological and aesthetic influence of Disney animation”, drawing extensively on Japan’s history and spirituality to produce contemporarily important and culturally meaningful films (Iles, 2008) in staying true to  the Japanese values of support, love, and altruism. Studio Ghibli’s films are created for Japanese children in mind, and Miyazaki believes “that animation should above all belong to children, and that truly honest works for children will also succeed with adults (Roedder, 2013). These films are intended to return the audiences to an earlier time when we were more pure and redemptive, evoking a sense of nostalgia to remind us to retain our innate positive human traits. This nostalgia thus forms the basis of my love for Japanese animation films, and the fact that I am able to immerse myself in these imaginaries; and while embracing the past, I am still tethered to the present. Studio Ghibli films has won numerous accolades, and deservedly so, as explained by Iles (2008) that “in many of Miyazaki’s films, the ideal has with it a profound sense of altruism, of benevolence and a belief in the fundamental goodness of the human community”.  This relates to Japanese’s value of community, the support shown between individuals, and their nationalistic pride. Studio Ghibli or synonymously known as Miyazaki’s films constantly explore the ideal. As agreed by Iles (2008), “its insistence on setting itself within a nostalgic, golden age (either past, future, or even present) in which tradition, community, and voice – personal, idiosyncratic, noble, simple, and pure – are still possible”.  This acceptance of the peculiar, the norm, and the different provides viewer an alternative vision of the world, a vision of inspiration (Iles, 2008). While Studio Ghibli’s films are intended for the local audiences, the allegories in these films have attracted worldwide popularity in conjunction to its aural and visual masterpieces. The meaning of ‘ideal’ that is frequently communicated in the films can be highly empathized by many. Moreover, the Japanese values rooted in the films are relatable to my own culture as the Chinese has similar, if not identical, values of love, altruism, filial piety. Japanese animation films can then be considered as soft power, healing the differences between international and local audiences while improving Japan’s image as a demilitarized country. As an avid fan of Studio Ghibli’s animation films, I can assert that these allegorical films are more than cartoons on screen, and the films are meaningful to all.The term ‘culture’ is a challenging term as it is fluid and constantly changing. It may be the juxtaposition of the rich tradition of former Japan and technological advancement of contemporary Japan that makes the culture a beautiful meld. However, speaking as the Other, I could not say the same for the many Japanese who face this identity conflict. In relation to my culture, I find that we should always embrace the future while retaining the values from our past. In conclusion, Japanese animation films have provided me a great insight into the lives of the Japanese and a depth into their culture. For new audiences of Japanese animation films, Your Name and Spirited Away provides great historical, cultural, and geographical context. Through my course experience and the readings I had done, the knowledge obtained had indeed helped me in understanding Japanese popular culture better.