Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Kamichu! Part 1 - Lonely Gods

Kamichu!, an anime series about a teenage girl called Yurie Hitotsubashi who wakes up one morning to discover she is a god, is not particularly striking for its originality. Obvious reference points are the films of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki Hayao, particularly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) and Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki's Delivery Service): the former in the supporting cast of comically-presented Shinto deities that populate much of the world in which Kamichu! takes place; the latter in the narrative's focus on a young girl and her attempts to lead a normal life as a teenager whilst coming to terms with magical powers. Further references abound throughout the series, from the Kiki-style red bow that the Martian bestows upon Yurie in episode four to the opening theme song that subtly evokes Majo no Takkyubin's closing theme song Yasashisa ni Tsutsumareta Nara. Fans of Ghibli's Mimi wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) will probably find the way the camera lingers lovingly on mundane yet painstakingly detailed features of Yurie's suburban hometown familiar, and the way the finales of many episodes pound you with lethal, effortlessly effective doses of manipulative yet irresistable, tear-jerking sentimentality seals the deal.

The similarities with Ghibli are unmistakable and appear to be utterly intentional, but Kamichu! is different nonetheless. As we've seen with Majo no Takkyubin and with innumerable TV anime shows about schoolchildren suddenly gifted special powers, the premise is not without precedent. The idea of a teenage girl being a god, however, is a bit more abstract.

Unlike Miyazaki's films, which sometimes appear to be issued forth from a culture bunker where the rest of contemporary Japanese popular culture only exists as something to occasionally react against, Kamichu! taps into a seam of faintly literary magic realism that seems to have grown up over the past ten or fifteen years. The influence of Ghibli is perhaps there for all to see, but the increased mining of light novels rather than manga as an alternative source for anime adaptations could also be part of it. Co-creator Hideyuki Kurata has a background as a writer of light novels in addition to his work as a scriptwriter and he has also displayed a literary flourish in his script for Now and Then, Here and There. Also, unlike most magical girl anime, Kamichu! has no obvious antagonist and Yurie's quest is never clearly defined beyond a vague sense that she likes nice-but-dim calligraphy club member Kenji. Yurie's central dilemma, however, is more personal. She wants to know what kind of god she is, what her powers actually are, and what she is going to use them for.

This more introspective approach to teenage superpowers has parallels, as so much anime these days does, with 1995 megahit and cultural/marketing tsunami Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its focus is on the central character's search for meaning in their new powers and the way those powers are sometimes manipulated by those around them, as with Yurie's friend Matsuri and her frequent schemes to use Yurie to boost revenue at her family's Shinto shrine. Nevertheless, I'm going to take the Triangle Staff's 1998 sleeper hit Serial Experiments Lain as my starting point.

Like Yuria, Lain is a shy junior high school girl and like Yuria, Lain is a god of sorts. Both characters face a similar dilemma in how they come to terms with their powers and how they use them. Although there are clear contrasts in the way the gentle fantasy comedy of Kamichu! treats its protagonist compared to the relentlessly grim cyber-horror of Lain, there are also similarities in the sense of uncertainty, directionlessness and alienation that the characters in both stories feel. Yurie's friends Matsuri and Mitsue are both uncertain about their future and even local god Yashima-sama doesn't know what to do with his life, actually resorting to running away from home at one stage. Serial Experiments Lain opens with the suicide of one of Lain's schoolmates by jumping off a rooftop in a seedy backstreet of Tokyo; Lain's sister passes her time with diet fads and empty sex in love hotels with her semi-detached boyfriend. As protagonists, Yurie and Lain have no vapid notions of "destiny" to guide them in their path: both have the full crushing weight of responsibility for choosing their own path and all that entails. Yurie's challenge is to decide whether or not to confess to Kenji. Lain's dilemma is more existential -- literally, "To be or not to be" rather than Yurie's plain, "What to be?"

A different sort of lonely god appeared a year or so after Kamichu!, in a burst of song, dance and otaku mania.

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) was centred on the slightly older (high school age) Suzumiya Haruhi, another teenage girl with godlike powers. Unlike Yurie and Lain, Haruhi doesn't know about her own powers and the plot revolves the attempts of the circle of weirdos that she gathers round herself to keep her entertained, thus ensuring that she doesn't destroy the world and reshape it into one more to her liking, as she already appears to have unwittingly done at least once in the past.

It's partly a madcap comedy, with less of the gentle realism that defines much of Kamichu!, although the first and 9th episodes of the TV series to be shown (actually the 11th and last episodes since the series was broadcast according to a sequence that rejects such mundane concepts as chronology) display precisely the slow tempo and languid attention to details of the scenery (as with Kamichu! and Lain, based on real locations) that also characterise Kamichu! at its best.

Again lacking a single main antagonist (although enemies occasionally appear), the central conflict is between childhood and adulthood. The characters, as high school students, are all on the cusp, with the show's narrator Kyon representing the voice of the adult world that will soon call everyone at North High School irreversibly into its grasp. With her intense dedication to all things extraordinary and mysterious, Haruhi stands in direct opposition to the onslaught of adulthood.

The conflict partly manifests itself within Kyon, as Haruhi's enthusiasm secretly appeals to aspects of his own character that he has suppressed in the face of inevitable disappointment. No matter how weird the occurrences around him, he maintains a weary, cynical, "nothing ever happens" attitude that resembles similar remarks often made (also against all available evidence) by Yurie's friend Mitsue in Kamichu!, as well as by Naota in Gainax's FLCL. This refusal to accept the strangeness around them and constant insistence that everything is normal and boring is often portrayed as a barrier to a character's true acceptance of themself, whilst at the same time acting as an implicit criticism of an adult world that disdains childish dreams and ambitions. Since this is a world that often requires that its residents give up anime along with these dreams, it isn't perhaps surprising that so many anime creators would encourage people to hold onto them.

A second conflict occurs within Haruhi herself. Despite her aggressive optimism, she harbours real doubts about the existence of the aliens, time travellers and psychics that she is so intent on finding. The audience's reaction to Haruhi differs from other shows mentioned here in the way that we are given far more information about her and about her world than she herself is allowed. Out of fear for what consequences she might wreak if she knew the truth, Yuki (alien robot), Mikuru (time traveller) and Itsuki (psychic) keep their identities secret from Haruhi, just as they keep Haruhi's identity secret from herself. Instead, they prefer to maintain a balance. She must be entertained at all costs, but she must never be allowed to truly know that the world is anything other than a normal, mundane place -- the worlds of childhood and adulthood must maintain equilibrium, lest all things may fall apart.

It's tempting to draw all sorts of inferences from this, but for now let us compare with the way Lain's guardians -- her fake parents and the Men in Black -- withold information from her while at the same time never intervening directly to prevent her discovering by herself. In the end, her "father" confesses the truth of his role in the conspiracy and urges her to follow her own path, which she duly does, remaking the world not to make herself happy at that moment (a la Haruhi) but for the wellbeing of others, and then promptly erasing herself from her creation. Haruhi is never given that choice by her guardians and it is left to the powerless Kyon to muse that, "They should just tell everything to Haruhi directly. Whatever happens to the world after that will be her responsibility."

So why gods, and whither the uncertainty and alienation? Wish-fulfillment probably forms part of this, and Japan's social and economic climate since the start of the 1990s probably forms part of the background. With the collapse of the late 80s "bubble economy" and the end of Japan's programme of post-war reconstruction, the Japan of the 1990s started to look more and more like the "mature economies" of Europe and America, where the goal had shifted from constant, aggressive progress for the good of the nation to the more mundane and problematic business of maintaining standards of living for the population, and particularly securing a healthy retirement and pension for the baby-boomers who had brought it there.

At first, there was the recession that followed the collapse of the bubble, and the introduction of alarming new words like "ristora" (restructuring), which started to sow the seeds of uncertainty among young people who had previously had their lives and careers mapped out for them. Secondly, there was a gradual recognition of the increasing irrelevancy of the traditional anime stereotypes that had provided the propaganda backdrop for Japan's reconstruction. The simple, pure-hearted boys and girls who fought to protect their home planet from alien invaders suddenly found themselves on the other side of victory and with nothing to fight for anymore. Thirdly, as 2006 approached, the economy moved to protect the retirements of the baby-boomers and young people found their employment prospects becoming more and more "flexible" (read: more temp work, less job security, fewer benefits).

Finally, there is perhaps a case to be made for a change in the status of women, or maybe a change in the way women think about themselves and their futures, being an influential factor in these stories of young girls dealing with dilemmas and responsibilities that previous generations would perhaps not have considered an issue. When your only option in life is to get married, produce children and cook meals, the only dilemma is to get it done before you reach the age of thirty. Subtly, yet tellingly, when Mitsue from Kamichu! tells Matsuri and Yurie that she thinks she might like to become a housewife, she is making a career choice out of personal preference rather than in order to fulfill a societal expectation. Nevertheless, for all this, it is perhaps telling that all the three stories analysed here were created by men. Is the use of female lead characters down to women's increasing status and respect in society? Probably somewhat. Is it cheesecake? Certainly to some extent.

In any case, the 1990s left Japan with one of the most highly-educated workforces in the world and yet uncertainty and directionlessness were everywhere. To be a god takes the wish-fulfillment of young people who feel powerless and combines it with a recognition of one of the dilemmas of freedom. Superheroes fight crime, giant robots fight alien invaders, but gods? What do gods do?

It was inevitable that those feelings would evenutally find themselves voiced back through popular culture. Demographic shifts in the anime viewing audience showed that older and older people were taking anime seriously, which made TV channels a little less nervous about allowing more mature or socially-conscious themes. Also, a generation of children who had grown up with the more mature themes of 70s and 80s anime like Gundam, Space Runway Ideon and the films of Miyazaki Hayao were now making anime of their own and they had a much higher opinion of the sophistication and intelligence of their audience than many of those who had gone before. As a result, an important substream of creative, genre-defying anime brought social consciousness to the fore and began to explore the changes that Japanese society was, and still is, undergoing.

Anyway, congratulations if you made it this far. This is not all by a long stretch though. In the next article, I'll be using Kamichu! again, for the sake of continuity, as a sort of anime clothes hanger on which to drape some observations about politics and national identity, although I'll be bringing in various other shows for comparison.

Ian Martin - May 28th 2008

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