By Joji Sakurai (Magdalen College, 1991)
Sickly sweet, sexually twisted, gratuitously violent - or just plain weird. Take your pick of epithets associated with Japanese anime and manga, a global phenomenon storming youth culture, although it baffles those accustomed to more traditional genres.
Closer reading, however, reveals an art form that is carrying some of the very best storytelling of our age, and aesthetic objections should be put aside to seek the meaning behind the cute bubble eyes. At its best, anime is all about deep philosophical probing, psychological complexity and trenchant social commentary. Manga are Japanese cartoons with deep roots in earlier Japanese art forms while anime are the animated version for television and the big screen. They hold the key to what makes Japan tick, providing the best introduction to a culture that many people find as frustrating as it is seductive. For these reasons I have embarked on a series of critical essays on anime for the new crowdfunded media platform Byline, run by two Oxford graduates: Daniel Tudor, The Economist’s former Seoul correspondent, and Seung-yoon Lee, the first east Asian president of the Oxford Union.
My mission is to decode a genre that is often lost in translation. To do so, I connect an anime with great works of the Western literary canon. How does anime hold up? The answers are sometimes surprising. My first essay about Psycho-pass, a tale set in a dystopian future Tokyo, argues that the creators have in many ways surpassed Orwell, Huxley and Philip K. Dick by charging the dystopian genre with ambiguities that invert the traditional relationships of oppressor and resistance fighter.
In my second essay I connect the anime Perfect Blue with the work of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello - arguing that a pop idol who sings songs with lyrics such as 'Love makes your heart POUND, POUND, but if love is LOVING, LOVING, then let’s GO, GO ...' is actually the spiritual twin of Pirandello’s Henry IV. Next, I will show why an exceedingly cute anime called Penguindrum is in fact a profound and moving retelling of The Oresteia of Greek tragedian Aeschylus. Am I crazy? Please judge for yourself. At least you won’t be bored.
Anime was one of my great loves growing up in the 1970s, with classic tales like Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato and boxing anime Tomorrow’s Joe seizing my imagination and refusing to let go. I turned away from anime in my teens, as I discovered Stendhal, Flaubert and Gide, and I fell for the accepted view that anime is frivolous at best, cheap and tawdry at worst. So I thank Daniel Tudor, who over spring pints in Primrose Hill, turned to me and said: 'I really wish we had somebody writing about anime.' My initial reaction was 'not me' but it planted a seed that has only continued to grow. The journey has taken me to a point where I feel entirely confident saying this: our very best anime will enter history among the great works of global cultural heritage. I am grateful for the opportunity to rediscover an art form which never ceases to astound with its depth, complexity and artistry. I hope that my essays convey some of this passion.
Joji's work can be viewed at Byline.com: https://www.byline.com/column/12. He is an international journalist and critic, and a regular contributor to YaleGlobal, the magazine of Yale University’s MacMillan Centre.
Read more at Oxford Today: http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/opinion/ten-things-you-didn’t-know-about-japan