Edo-period katana and Ainu tonkori (fretless zither)
When I was a child, among the highlights of my life were my visits to the tiny neoclassical building where my father’s stepmother (the only grandparent I ever got to know) was spending her autumnal years. At the center of its courtyard was a dried fountain where I launched a thousand imaginary ships. The house was an Aladdin’s cave of nooks and crannies, doors with panels of etched glass, clouded mirrors, boxes that held feather boas and yellowing photographs. Its guardian was a cat as fastidious and dignified as my grandmother.
In the evenings, my grandmother unfolded tapestries of stories while she cooked sophisticated dishes. A diaspora Hellene, born in Bulgaria of parents who fled Asia Minor, she was one of the first women to become a teacher in early 20th century Greece. On top of this scrumptious cake was a tart, sweet cherry: a nearby movie theater dedicated exclusively to cartoons. The fare was mostly Warner and Disney. I watched ecstatically the occasional avant-garde short from the Eastern block, whenever a “centrist” government made the censors relax their grip.
Then one time I saw something so different that I almost forgot to exhale while I watched it. For one, it was as long as a “real” film. The plot demanded attention, the characters engaged and compelled. There was derring-do; conflicted loyalties and betrayals; a doomed romance. Even more distinctive was the style: dynamic, fluid, sophisticated, with a distinct edge lacking from the sugary American cartoons. I never forgot it, nor saw anything like it again — until I came to the United States and found out the name of the genre. Somehow, a Japanese anime film had meandered into that tiny Athenian movie house on the afternoon that I happened to attend.
I have seen a good deal of anime since then, including the classics (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop). The combination of animation with adult themes is totally un-American, resembling the unexpurgated European fairytales before they got sanitized for “safe” consumption by children. However, I’m neither an expert nor an aficionado of the genre. Anime contains too much violence and too little sex for my taste and the gender stereotyping in most of it is disturbingly reminiscent of sixties sitcoms. Too, like the vast majority of comics and films across cultures, most anime is obsessed with maintaining proper order, safeguarding boundaries, battling monochromatically defined evil — and if saving the universe requires balletic decapitations, so much the better.
Exported anime is skewed towards what the Japanese assume Americans will find interesting, including plots and characters recycled from Western comics — very much like the late 19th century faux-exotic tchotchkes produced in Japan exclusively for gaijin consumption. There is a fascinating double distortion here: Americans watch what they think are true Japanese cultural products, while the Japanese have jiggled the content to make it palatable to outsiders, who miss most of the subtler cultural clues that are unavoidably embedded in the narratives.
But a few anime have been branded into my awareness as deeply as that nameless one I saw as a child: Mononoke Hime, Howl’s Castle and four arcs of Samurai Champloo: Misguided Miscreants, Lullabies of the Lost Verse, Elegy of Entrapment and Evanescent Encounter. Like the samisen and tonkori chords that haunt the Champloo arcs, these pluck almost painfully at my heart. And like Theseus in the Labyrinth, I decided to follow this Ariathne’s thread to the center.
At first glance, the three works make a grouping as unlikely as the Champloo protagonists. Howl’s Castle is a cultural hybrid, based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. Samurai Champloo (as its name denotes) mixes eras and styles with unrepentant brio. Mononoke Hime is sui generis — a dark myth of sundering that is probably as disquieting to Easterners as it is to Westerners. They do share the large commonalities obligatory in the quest genre, from the Argonauts to Firefly: the chosen family created by misfits and outsiders, the defiance of oppressive social customs, the search for a larger meaning.
So what makes these three anime different? For one, they seethe with feisty, non-demure women — in fact, the women are the engines that move these worlds: the men often just react to the women or bounce off each other, whereas (in sharp contrast to the norm) it is the women who create the fellowships and launch the quests.
At the same time, all three reject the black-versus-white divisions of most comics. There is no absolute evil in the stories, only different (often irreconcilable) points of view. They show the viewpoints of the forgotten, the marginalized, the lost: the heroine of Howl’s Castle is an old woman. In Mononoke Hime, all sides harbor outcasts of different sorts. One of the Champloo protagonists is Okinawan, and in one arc the main character is an Ainu whose village was destroyed by the Shogunate’s representatives. Both these cultures were “normalized” out of existence by the Japanese, their fates closely parallel to those of the American Indian nations.
The refusal to categorize goes beyond good versus evil. These works are truly animist in their seamless fusion of realms usually kept separate: reality and dreamscape, the mundane and the spiritual, comedy and tragedy. And at the end, they have real endings: separations, irreversible losses, deaths. Hence their searing impact upon the mind and the heart. Other anime are stylishly gothic, or fashionably cyberpunk — or merely gorefests, albeit sophisticated ones. Mononoke Hime, Howl’s Castle and Samurai Champloo break the mould of the anime genre, just like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials decisively redefined young adult fantasy.