Oh, Anime!

Grave of the Fireflies 02[11] I just noticed that the story The Schenectady Daily Gazette reporter Pam Allen interviewed me for a month ago about the popularity of anime was finally published on December 30. In response to her questions, I noted one of the reasons for anime’s popularity was that its fans appreciate the wider subject matter versus what’s usually offered by American studios.

As an afterthought, I recounted the time an undergraduate came to see me and I saw he was carrying several Japanese-language magazines and a handheld translation computer. When I asked him about it, he told me he was teaching himself Japanese. When I then mentioned this in a graduate class, a Taiwanese student said he did the same when he was younger.

As Americans are traditionally phobic about learning foreign languages, let alone one so different as Japanese, this sort of thing is nothing short of amazing. And it an aspect of anime fandom that the animation community generally overlooks and bodes well for anime’s continuing popularity.

It is really not surprising that Japanese language instructors would use a film like Grave of the Fireflies (pictured above) as a teaching aide, just as a French instructor might use The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. For instance, see the article “‘Those Anime Students’: Foreign Language Literacy Development Through Japanese Popular Culture,” in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. More to the point is a recent article in California Educator (also here) about “Kimie Matsumoto, who teaches four levels of Japanese language classes” at Los Alamitos High School. It notes that,

Years ago [her] students wanted to take Japanese because they felt it would help them succeed in the business world. Today’s generation of students, however, is drawn to the Japanese language because of anime, the hugely popular animated cartoons produced in Japan.

… Matsumoto, wisely, has decided to incorporate her students’ interest in anime into the curriculum whenever possible, and sponsors an Entertainment Club that includes watching anime in her classroom during lunch.

Though this increased interest in all things Japanese is healthy and can lead to a broader approach to animation in general, this is not always the case. For instance, in my graduate Media Theory and Animation class, I usually start by having students analyze a classic live-action film, such as The Blue Angel, and talk about how it reflects its time and the culture which nurtured it; I then do the same with an animated movie like Dumbo. The reason is that I find we tend to look at animated films as more of a pure aesthetic experience than anything else, while it easier to look at a live-action in a broader context. In this, there does not seem to be much difference between anime fans and non-anime fans, despite the former’s seemingly more catholic approach.

This sort of tunnel vision extends to other matters as well; thus, most of my animation students seem puzzled by the question, What film genres are represented by David Hand/Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira? (Answer: Musical and science-fiction.)

This narrowness of vision is comes from nearly a century of bad habits, though animation and film schools do help. In this regard, one should take advantage of the intellectual curiosity anime fans profess, rather than dismiss them out of hand.