Japanese animated films (anime,アニメ) and the manga (漫画) from which they are often derived has grown into a global cultural force. Our Middle East editor, Somayeh, had the opportunity to catch up with an “otaku” ( おたく) from her home country. They discuss Iranian perspectives on anime styles and influences in an interview.
Somayeh: How did you become a fan of Japanese anime (and art)? What was the first thing you watched?
Faranak: I can say for almost everybody in our generation (above 25 years old) the first Japanese anime we saw is the series that aired on national TV, because TV was the only media available and one of the most popular anime series was Captain Tsubasa. I think most of us became fans by watching that series. For the next generations, however, it was different. They had access to the internet from a very young age and could watch anything.
Somayeh: And you liked it so much that you became attracted to anime and wanted to watch more?
Faranak: Yes, because not only there was not much on TV at the time, other shows and programs for children or young adults were not good both in quality and storyline. Anime was much more attractive than American series that was on the TV in those days. For example, Tom&Jerry or Tennessee Tuxedo was fun but not serious. The anime series was more mature, more about humans, and I could easily relate to them.
Somayeh: I remember other cartoons and animation series, one was very popular, we knew it by the name: The family of Doctor Ernest (Swiss Family Robinson: Flone of the Mysterious Island, Japanese: Kazoku Robinson Hyōryūki Fushigi na Shima no Furōne).
Faranak: I wanted to point this out, most people don’t know this but almost all of those series that we watched on our TV are also Japanese, some of them are obviously Japanese, like Digimon, others like the one you mentioned are ordered by America or Europe. So the whole story and characters are American or European, but they are made by Japanese animation companies, therefore in the end they are all anime.
Somayeh: How much of an effect do western countries have on anime? Can we distinguish Japanese culture in them, or are they somehow under the influence of west, or let’s say Global Village?
Faranak: Technically speaking the origin of both anime and manga is in the west. Osamu Tezuka who is considered the father of manga was actually so interested in western culture that his works are greatly influenced by Disney and other animation companies, and his characters are somehow like Americans, they have big eyes, etc. But the stories are based on Japanese legends, stories and folklore. Also settings and locations are very Japanese, I mean the real Japan, and what you can actually see in the streets every day. More over because Japanese value their traditions and they have so many Gods and demons in their fables and legends, they can write endless stories about them and they reflect in their anime and manga.
Somayeh: So we can conclude Japanese works (animes, mangas, etc) are very rich in terms of cultural and folklore elements?
Faranak: yes definitely.
Somayeh: What does the word otaku mean?
Faranak: it actually means something like fan, geek or nerd, and you could be nerd about anything, like computer nerd, game nerd or anime nerd. When somebody has an extraordinary interest about something you can call them otaku, for example here we have (Faranak currently lives in Japan) train otaku. The word otaku is Japanese, but since in the recent years the word is used along with anime fans, it has somehow become a label for anime lovers, but in truth the word doesn’t mean just anime lover.
Somayeh: why do you prefer anime over animation? What distinguishes the two?
Faranak: Actually right now the line of distinction between them is fading away, they’re much more alike now. But at the beginning, one of the most important differences between anime and American animation (I draw the comparison with American animations because they are the second biggest producer of animations) is this: American animations are hero oriented, everything is formed around the idea of a perfect superhero, like superman, batman, etc. And this superhero is a perfect being, he defeats all his enemies, but in anime, the characters aren’t, they aren’t black and white or you might say good or evil and it made them much more attractive. But animation has changed a lot in the last decade all over the world, and you see many grey characters in American animations too. Another distinction is the storyline. While the stories of most of the old American animation were based around a perfect being and following the adventure of a single hero defeating all the enemies, the storyline of anime are more elaborate, detailed and more about spiritual journey to self-evolvement.
Somayeh: Do you find Japanese culture mysterious? You mentioned the differences of anime and animations in terms of plot and setting, but I want to know if there is anything specific to the East in them, well, mysterious East.
Faranak: Of course the attraction of a mysterious Japan is a very important factor for all the anime otakus. And one of these mysteries is the different kinds of Gods, which makes the story really interesting. They don’t have the element of Gods in all anime so it’s a kind of personal preference of mine. You might see some minor God in American animation who comes and does some godly stuff and the goes away, but the gods in anime are more tangible, maybe more human. This actually goes back to the origin of creating Gods in Japan, which is a whole different topic. To make these gods more tangible you can compare them to the old Greek Gods who possessed human faults like jealousy and desire.
Somayeh: Qhat about science-fiction? About fantasy you said anime are full of folklore elements, But what can we say about science-fiction, are there any distinct characteristics of Japanese science-fiction?
Faranak: Actually while I read sci-fi books, I’m not a very big sci-fi anime fan so I cannot make a very clear distinction between anime and animation in this genre. What I can say for sure is that Japanese favour fantasy more than any other genre, therefore the elements of fantasy can be easily seen in sci-fi anime too.
Anime Sci-fi have three main categories Mecha (which is the most famous and biggest genre in sci-fi anime category), post apocalypse, and cyberpunk (Which has become more famous in the recent years).
Somayeh: Do you see the influence of western art and culture in Japanese works? Is it more evident in recent years?
Faranak: Yes mostly in science-fiction series, because they are set in far future or in post-apocalyptic futures. In those settings they try not to make it too Japanese so they don’t include cultural elements specific to a country. Also there is a recent trend in anime for “hero” based stories which are very American! Imagine if Superman was made by the Japanese.
Somayeh: You are now living in Japan, did the journey begin by watching anime? Was it the beginning point for you to become interested in Japan?
Faranak: At the beginning I was just a child and didn’t even know I was watching anime, but later I read about it and watched more anime and then I became really interested in Japan itself, its culture, art, traditions and everything.
Somayeh: So we can conclude the anime is still so specific to Japanese culture that you were attracted to Japan, not for example America, I mean altogether, we can say anime is still something distinctly Japanese.
Somayeh: what about the otakus of Iran? I mean those who are attracted to Japan, do many of them wish to visit Japan or live in it?
Faranak: Actually there are 2 categories of otakus, the first category is like me and my husband. After years of watching anime we became interested in Japan as a real country, not some fantasy world in anime. So these type of otakus, at this stage start reading more about Japan, learning Japanese and they are not just limited to anime series any more, they are attracted to the country itself. The second category just watches anime series. And of course they are interested in Japan, but not the real Japan, the Japan they see in anime. They don’t do any research about the reality of living in Japan. And when they come here, they become lost and very confused since the real Japanese lifestyle is very different from the things they saw in anime. At the end, since the real world is different from their expectations. Most of these people become disappointed in Japan very fast, and either leave the country or have a weird and slightly unsightly lifestyle which comes from their inability to distinguish the real world and anime.
Somayeh: If we want to summarize the differences between anime and animation, what are those?
Faranak: The story and plot, and also the differences in their art. Nowadays because of the advances in technology almost all the arts are becoming similar to one another. But in the past the anime was more elaborate, more detailed, they spent so much time on character design and there were many details, but American animations were much simpler and you can see a reflection of Japanese attitude in this, they are perfectionist and hardworking.
I should point out that in the last decade the success of anime has caused most of the animation industry to mix their style and anime style in their work.
Somayeh: What is the most intriguing aspect of Japanese’s Culture for you?
Faranak: What caught my eye more than anything is the co-existence of modernism and traditionalism. They are so modern and at the same time very loyal to their traditions. Which I admire.
Somayeh: Is there anything you want to add to this interview
Faranak: Just wanted to say the reality is different from anime series. Many of the so called otakus come here and they cannot live here, because it is not what they imagined. If you don’t do a research and come here based on what you see in the anime, you will be shocked. For example all those brightly coloured clothes that we see in the anime, is not how they dress in Japan, they actually wear plain and simple clothing in the streets and they are conservative and very formal. But interestingly enough you can see a lot of hair style and hair colours in the streets.
Animation, anime, manga they are all mediums to create a fantastic worlds not necessarily based on reality.