Anime and Time

[This is the talk I gave to introduce a showing of the movie Pop in Q, hosted by the Consulate General of Japan at the University of Edinburgh, 1 February 2019, as part of the Japanese Film Festival, 2019. My thanks to Mr Ben Jones and Ms Murata Yoko for inviting me to take part.]

I’ve been asked to talk today about how I came to love anime, before going on to talk about the movie we’re about to watch, Pop in Q. To do this I have to go way back in time to my earliest childhood memories, when I lived in Singapore in the 1960s, the son of diplomat and a university teacher, and gained privileged access to several anime series which as far as I know have never been officially shown in the United Kingdom. With my brothers and sister I watched Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion (1965) in the heat of the tropics, in a house whose windows had no glass in them, allowing giant bats to fly in and out of the living room freely while the gekkos scuttled across walls and ceilings and enormous red-brown cockroaches bumbled through the air bumping into things. The worst punishment you could get in those days was to be sent to bed without watching Kimba. He lived in the heat, like us, surrounded by eccentric and often dangerous wildlife; he was as brave, clever and strong as we wanted to be, and his adventures had a peculiar flavour about them which no other programme on TV in those days seemed to share. There was a darkness to them; animals Kimba was close to died regularly, beginning with his father, and the little lion cub was always being betrayed and damaged, very often by human beings or by animals who had been damaged by contact with humanity. The darkness of his adventures was matched by the strange shapes of the landscapes through which he moved; they were far gloomier and stranger than the landscapes in other cartoons, an effect intensified by the fact that we had a black-and-white TV. There was a yearning about many episodes, too, for friends, family and places Kimba had lost, and for times gone by that could never be recaptured, though they could be remembered with fondness. These days I’d call it something like nostalgia; a simultaneous sense of the transience of beautiful things (mono no aware) and the importance of happy memories (natsukashii). This unique atmosphere will be familiar to all lovers of anime; it suffuses the form, and Osamu Tezuka, the pioneer of manga who invented Kimba, was one of the masters of evoking it.

As an English boy I was lucky to get access to Kimba, thanks to my time in Singapore, and since then a brief glimpse of Kimba’s face has been enough to send me back to that unique period in my growing up. Anime wasn’t much seen on British TV at the time, but my love of the lion cub – along with Astro Boy, Prince Planet, Ultraman (not an anime, this one) and Marine Boy – meant I was ready and waiting when we finally began to see truly great anime movies in Britain, in the late 1980s. As far as I was concerned the first of these was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), now widely recognised as a cyberpunk classic. This was a movie that captured the trauma of late twentieth-century life like nothing else; it takes place in a future Tokyo – rebuilt after a devastating incident that destroyed the older version – where gleaming ultra-modern skyscrapers conceal deserted roads and alleyways in which gangs of disaffected teenagers clash on improbably magnificent super-bikes. Into this dystopian present erupts the shadow of the menace that destroyed old Tokyo, in the form of bizarrely ageing children with psychic powers, and one of the teenage bikers – also with psychic powers – whose body begins to morph into a grotesque fleshy monster, as if infected with diseases or radioactive contamination thought to have been suppressed in an earlier epoch. At the heart of the movie is the question of how we can come to terms with the past in the present in order to give ourselves a liveable future, and this continues to be the central question addressed by anime to this day. The question is made intensely personal in Akira by the fact that the destructive monster waging war on Tokyo is a teenager, whose friends are as concerned to save him as to stop him; the boy’s grotesque metamorphosis can be read as a metaphor for mental illness caused by trauma, and the ruptured friendship it embodies invests it with the same sense of nostalgia and yearning that suffuses Astro Boy and Kimba.

The most important anime event in history for many British viewers was the mainstream cinema distribution of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002-3, and for me, too, this was transformative. As soon as I’d discovered Miyazaki I couldn’t rest till I’d found out more about the Japanese film environment he was part of. I bought DVDs by the dozen, rapidly discovering the work of Isao Takahata, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe, and later Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, as well as the rest of Katsuhiro Otomo’s output. I became a regular at the best anime festival in the UK, which by great good fortune happened to be based where I lived in Glasgow: Scotland Loves Anime, which for me was always housed in that Art Deco palace the Glasgow Film Theatre and introduced by that guru of anime Jonathan Clements. I relentlessly exploited the knowledge of Japanese friends, including Yushin Toda of Japan Desk Scotland, who it turned out had been offered the chance to work on Akira in the 1980s but turned it down; and my colleague at the University of Glasgow, Saeko Yazaki, who is an expert in Islam but joined with me to put on a public showing and discussion of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) at the university’s Gilmorehill Cinema in 2014. Anime, then, has entered my life on three distinct occasions, though my most extensive engagement with it has been a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s an integral part of my past and present; it has shaped me from the beginning, and continues to shape me. And this is appropriate, since I would argue that anime engages with the question of time – the complex web of relationships between time past, time present and time to come – with an intensity and consistency which makes it unique among the contemporary arts.

Spirited Away (2001), for instance, deals with a ten-year-old girl called Chihiro who is being relocated to a new town by her parents, cutting her off from the landscape and friendship groups that formed her and filling her with resentment. But on the way to their new home the family – mother, father, daughter – stray into the grounds of an abandoned museum or theme park, which suddenly brings them into contact with the past they seem to have left behind; a world full of diverse spirits (kami, yokai and others), many of them associated with specific places, some of them forming an integral part of Chihiro’s childhood. Once again, Chihiro is left without a choice about what happens next: her parents have been transformed into pigs by a curse and she must work in the spirits’ magical bathhouse, run by the fiercely maternal witch Yubaba, in order to reunite her family and move forward to the next stage of her life. In the bathhouse Chihiro loses contact with her present-day identity when she loses her name as part of her contract as a worker, just as her life in constantly mobile present-day Japan made her lose touch with her personal past and the past of her culture; and the work she has to do in the course of the film is effectively to re-forge her relationships with the past (the spirits), the present (her parents, herself) and the time to come (her move to a new location). Her relationship with a boy called Haku, who also works in the bathhouse and is possessed of magical powers, turns out to be seminal in this process: he is the spirit of a local river who saved her from drowning in early childhood, and her new relationship with him will, it is implied, ensure that she carries forward the awareness of and affection for her origins into the world of work that awaits her as a junior high school student and later as an adult.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: anime – the art of animation as practised in Japan – seems to me to be among the richest and most emotionally satisfying ways of contemplating time available today. Each of the major anime movies – and my experience of anime is largely limited to films – is utterly frank about its concern with past, present and future; and in particular with the question of how to reconcile the rich and complex past of Japan with the explosive technological, political and social changes that threaten to shatter the global present, and by this means point the way towards some sort of liveable future.

Think of Miyazaki’s second feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), in which reconciliation between the declining human population who dominated the planet in the past and the insects and toxic plants which dominate the planet in the present is essential if there is to be any future at all for humankind.

Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor: the Movie (1989) takes as its subject a virus which is infecting the mechas – giant mechanical sentient body-suits piloted by human beings – tasked with demolishing the remains of old Tokyo and constructing a capitalist mega-city in its place. We learn that the virus has been introduced into the construction mechas, the Patlabors, by a nostalgic programmer who was depressed by the systematic erasure of history being practised by the city planners in pursuit of profit; and that the virus can only be halted in its progress by demolishing the building known as the Ark, which is the nerve centre of the project to reconstruct Tokyo. The erasure of the virus, in other words, halts the demolition of old Tokyo in its tracks, and the movie leaves us wondering whether anything will have been learned in the process about the need to nurture the traces of the Japanese past.

Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001) tells the history of Japan in the twentieth century through the memories of a celebrated film actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who lives in seclusion after her retirement but is visited for a rare interview by one of her most ardent admirers, a TV interviewer called Genya Tachbana. As the interview proceeds, Genya finds himself caught up in Chiyoko’s reminiscences and acting alongside her in all her movies – which have become, in effect, episodes in her life and in that of Japan – from the early days of her stardom in the 1930s to the science fiction thrillers of the 1960s. Every film is linked to an encounter she had in her youth with a communist painter, who she helped to escape from the military police but who also left a mysterious key in her possession. She informs Genya that she became an actress in the hope that the painter would see one of her movies and get in touch, so that she could return the key. In every new film she imagines herself to be pursuing the painter in a bid to give the key back, while she in turn is chased by a succession of enemies: bandits, samurais, soldiers, monsters. Eventually Genya hands her the key, which he found in the ruins of the film studio where they both worked. But the interviewer never reveals to her something else he has found relating to her past: that the painter was arrested soon after she saved him and tortured and killed before her acting career began. Her pursuit of the painter throughout her life, in other words, has been a chase after a chimera – a ghost; but this doesn’t matter, as Chiyoko tells Genya at the movie’s end. She knew full well she might never find the painter, but loved the chase itself, the constant movement from time to time and from place to place that characterizes all the sequences she and Genya have taken part in. The film ends with Chiyoko succumbing to a heart attack, only to re-enter the dream world of her films and blast off in a spaceship, heading for the future, reconciled to the losses and traumas of her past.

Millennium Actress tells us something crucial about anime, which is that it functions as a particularly ambitious and all-embracing form of artificial memory, an unrivalled means of articulating Japan’s history. Few nations have experienced such varied and rapid extremes of social and political change as Japan between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries: a period of total isolation from outside influences, followed by sudden industrialization, an equally sudden and aggressive escalation into imperialism, the rapid militarization of industry, occupation by a foreign power, total commitment to the boom and bust of postwar capitalism, looming ecological catastrophe – crisis following crisis at a rate that seems to defy analysis by conventional historical methods. Most of all, the encounter with the present and the future is embodied for Japan and the rest of the world in the bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which (as J. G. Ballard memorably suggested) the laws of time and space seem to have been shattered beyond recovery, the grand narratives of history to have been cataclysmically interrupted. The difficulty of finding means to express the extremes to which the Japanese people have been subjected finds a solution in the astonishing proliferation of animated pictures – from movies to TV series and OVAs – that have emerged from Japanese studios since the first great TV series of the 1960s, Dr Tezuka’s Astro Boy or The Mighty Atom. Some of these pictures describe the traumas of history directly, such as the accounts of the atomic bomb-blasts and their after-effects given in Moro Masaki’s Barefoot Gen (1983) and Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World (2016); or the wartime firebombing of Tokyo, as recalled in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988); or Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (2014), about the Soviet invasion, occupation and forced evacuation of Shikotan in the 1940s. Others concern themselves with the convergence of past, present and future as explored through fantastic narratives, and the need to achieve what might be called synchrony between these elements in order to establish a healthy society. Synchrony in films reconciles or brings together different chronological perspectives – those of young, middle aged and old people, understandings of the world based on past, current or potential future ways of seeing things – in a harmonious conjunction closely similar to a piece of harmonised music. The centrality of the concept of synchrony to anime is perhaps why music plays such a crucial role in the form; it’s widely acknowledged that the composers Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno are as much responsible for the success of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe as the directors themselves.

The film we’re about to watch today, Naoki Miyahara’s Pop in Q (2016), rather neatly re-enacts the history of anime movie-making on a miniature scale. It marks itself as shoujo anime – anime for girls and young women – in its emphasis on the experiences of a group of misfit schoolgirls just coming to the end of their Junior High School years, who are about to undergo the terrifying transition to High School and the whole new set of pressures and responsibilities this entails. But it’s typical of much anime in that it casts this moment of transition as a moment of crisis for an entire world. The world in question is the Valley of Time, where the titular Popins live. It’s a small place populated by sentient stuffed toys, but its wellbeing determines the smooth functioning of time itself in every universe – including the one that contains the planet Earth as we know it; and it’s currently being invaded by a host of malevolent monsters called Kigurumi (which means something like ‘furry costumes’ or ‘animal onesies’, bizarrely enough, and should encourage us to look out for the role of costumes as a marker for the changing psychology of the young protagonists as the film goes on). Saving the Valley would seem to be a fairly straightforward task: the girls must learn a dance within a certain set time – the time of the film, which in our world is about an hour and a half, in the girls’ world the few hours before their Graduation Ceremony, and in the Valley itself ten days – and after this they can go home, their task duly accomplished. Ten days is plenty of time, you’d think, to learn a new dance; but the problem is the five girls brought together to dance it have all been made loners or outsiders by some specific trauma in their past, and hence find it difficult to cooperate. One by one it emerges, too, that they don’t in fact want to go home; that they find the childish Valley of Time, with its simplistic opposition between good and evil – as embodied in the Popins and the Kigurumi, both of whom look very like playthings – and its simple landscape of mountains, woods and seas, vastly more attractive than the complicated environment they’ve come from. If the girls don’t succeed in reconciling themselves with their past traumas – and hence with their home world – in time to learn the dance, then there will be no future, not just for them but for anyone at all. As a result, the entire film is constructed as a ticking clock, an instrument for measuring time which is literalised in the appearance of the sky and the various other clockwork mechanisms they encounter in the Valley of Time.

The action culminates in a showdown between the past and future versions of one of the girls, a fight which will determine whether she joins the other four dancers in a symbolic performance of synchrony between past, present and future, or whether she will continue to hold herself aloof, draining the energy from everyone around her in a bid to retain a sense of her own unique importance and worth. This is the challenge anime offers its audiences: to engage emotionally and intellectually with the synchronization or harmonious fusion of the many different elements, with their different time scales, that make up contemporary culture. These time scales include the slow chronology of organic growth, whether of trees or stalactites or people; the clockwork regulation of school and workplace; the precious units of leisure time we preserve for activities we enjoy, either alone or with others; the stopwatch timing of a track event; the extended memories of the old, the organizational efficiency of the mature adult, the endless play-time of the young. If we don’t find a way to enable all these competing time scales to cohabit and cooperate, at least to some extent, we won’t be able to live with each other, and the future of the world looks bleak indeed. Anime movies such as Pop in Q encourage us to believe that cohabitation and cooperation with one another and with the world itself is possible, despite all the obstacles twenty-first century living has put in our way.

One final word: my colleague Saeko tells me that in Japan it’s considered rude to stop watching a film before the end of the credits. In the case of Pop in Q you’ll miss some crucial information if you do, about what the future holds in store for our five heroines…