If life were eternal all interest and anticipation would vanish. It is uncertainty which lends its fascination -Yoshida Kenko
This report shall serve to explore the above-mentioned ‘fascination’ of death by analyzing its seemingly indiscriminate usage by animators in Japanese anime. With this report, our group seeks to explore the nature of death in anime; sub-plots that usually accompany death, and most importantly, its links to Japanese society.
Table of Contents
Japanese Anime Versus Western Comics
Much of anime’s popularity stems from the fact that Japanese anime does not shy away from topics that are largely considered taboo by Western cartoons. Comparing the controversial themes that anime so willingly explores (such as homosexuality and death) to Western animation; the “Code of the Comic Magazine Association of America Inc (CCA).” released in 1971 exhibits numerous guidelines that clearly indicate the many thematic and artistic restrictions that Western comics possessed.
For instance, it is stated in the list that “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” and “Instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal’s activities should be discouraged, except when the guilty, because of their crime, live a sordid existence and are brought to justice because of the particular crime.”
If we were to judge anime production based on guidelines set by the CCA, it would be obvious that Japanese anime breaks almost all the ground rules with anime’s portrayal of numerous controversial themes. However, it is to be noted that these are also the very themes that hordes of Otakus are fascinated with. One of such themes that surfaced in Japanese anime is the topic of death.
The Stereotypical View of Death
Despite its popularity, death as a theme in anime is still chained to the societal norms of stereotyping and stigma. For the average person, death is seen in its simplest form – the termination of the physical body; an end to a human life. Furthermore, it is regarded as taboo in many cultures and societies when death is mentioned. The Japanese however, seem to embrace death very readily. Therefore, our group believes that death being portrayed in anime is an important link to understanding life in Japanese society. Ultimately, this report shall explore the traditional and cultural Japanese background behind the unique attitudes Japanese people possess for them to be able to accept death so naturally. This shall be discussed in greater detail in the later part of this report.
The Fear of Death
Death is innately a natural process that is universal and timeless- it has the propensity to occur without warning to anybody at anytime. Consequentially, most people fear death, which is why it is largely taboo in many cultures. Let us then consider where this fear stems from.
The fear of death seems to be based on two things: the presence and inevitability of death and the uncertainty of what follows. In the Japanese view of cosmos, eternal life is less important than the intrinsic value of a very limited life: compassion for the essence of a thing4. This is a rough translation of the phrase ‘mono no aware’, and it carries the idea that something may be special precisely because it is impermanent and fated to disappear.
For sure, every culture and religion has its own versions but these conflicts will never be reconciled since the dead don’t speak. It is this notion that ensures that the living keeps death outside of themselves- a phenomenon we know about only as observers, never as participants. However, anime and Japanese in general seems to defy this notion as they illustrate spirits or souls returning to communicate with the living.
The Nature of Death
Unlike other themes (such as comedy, romance) which are more obvious in their connection to anime and Japanese society, death; on the other hand; is subtle and at the same time, vague in its presentation of the unique Japanese perspective.
One interesting fact to note while touching on the nature of death is the various forms of death that could possibly occur. Other than the above-mentioned stereotypical portrayal of death of the people themselves, there are two broader categories: death of physical objects and abstract death. The first refers to death of material objects, such as cyborgs, robots or even death of a city itself; while the latter refers to more intangible notions such as death of feelings, death of love or the death of a soul. This report shall now touch on the related plots concerning death before moving on to an analysis of how such aspects and death is connected to actual Japanese society.
Literal Death versus Metaphorical Death
Our group refers to ‘literal death’ as the cessation of normal bodily functions in anime, a clear, obvious demise of an individual, for instance whereby the viewer explicitly observes a fatal stabbing or shooting. However, as stated above, our group has observed that this is not always the case. We have observed that anime explores other forms of death as well that cope with relatively more abstract notions. We refer to such a form of death as ‘metaphorical’ because of the fact that you do not see the character’s physical self dying as represented in the cessation of bodily functions. Rather, more conceptual ideas of death are represented by the directors and animators. This includes the transformation from a human being to a soul, or a character being void of feelings after a traumatic experience.
An ideal illustration for this would be the ending in the anime Final Fantasy X (FFX). In that particular scene, the male lead Tidus faces his death in a different way. Instead of the typical demise due to excessive wounds sustained in battle, he finds himself slowly fading away into a different dimension. Even Tidus’ lover, Yuna, is unable to establish physical contact; when she tries holding him, her hands simply misses his body in an emotionally-charged scene. Here, we find the male lead dying in an abstract form through fading into non-existence. An interesting point to note is that elements of the Japanese belief in reincarnation and the afterlife are also expressed in this scene.
Another example would be the anime Haibane Renmei. A scene in this anime portrays the character Rakka, who wakes up and emerges from a cocoon to morph into a winged being that bears resemblance to an angel. Inside this new city, she has to perform various deeds and tasks in order to assist the city’s citizenry. Although it is not explicitly mentioned that Rakka is physically dead in the anime, audiences worldwide have understood and accepted the storyline as that and that Rakka has been reborn into a new being. Here, we find the death being metaphorical; she’s presumably dead in her ‘own’ world but is ‘reborn’ as a new being in a ‘new’ world where she brings about a greater good to this new city.
The reason we have noted this interesting feature in anime is based on our group wanting to shed some light on issues pertaining to the religious mysticism of Japan.
The Japanese audience mainly consists of followers of Buddhism or Shintoism. In Japan, people do not adhere strictly to a single religion and their practices. Rather, Japanese people adopt selected rites and beliefs of both these religions. A common denominator of both these prevailing religions is the fact that they believe in abstract notions such as souls, fate, destiny and the coming of time. For example, in the anime X, fate is referred to as ‘the wheels of destiny’ which has the capacity to predict the future. This shall be further elaborated in future portions of this report.
Loss/Coping with Loss
When death is mentioned not just in anime but as an emotional event, the immediate feelings of loss is evident and the first thing that comes to mind. Firstly, it encompasses the idea of a person or his spirit coming to terms with, and accepting the fact that he/she is dead.
For example in FFX, the anime explains that if the dead are confused, they often refuse to admit they have passed away because death is ‘too depressing’. These spirits wish that they are able to live longer and thus they envy the living. Hence, this explanation in the anime allows us to understand the obstacle a physical person faces when he dies; that his spirit has to be able to accept that he is dead and to move on from there.
The family or people that had a close relationship with the deceased also have to cope with the loss. Often, if the deceased was very dear to them, the emotional and psychological loss and grief can take quite a significant toll on their well being.
An anime example would be Clamp’s X. Inside the series, Kamui has to cope with the demise of several of his close companions. Firstly, when his mother died in his place, he became withdrawn and autistic. Following which, he has to once again witness the passing of his aunt as she conceived his sword. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the series would be the scene where Kamui witnesses his best friend Fuuma killing his lover Kotori, who is also Fuuma’s sister. He became deeply traumatized by her death and ‘shut himself within his heart’. He lost his sense of bearing and consciousness; not responding to anyone and refusing to consume any food or water. Eventually, his friends went through a lot of trouble before they managed to assist him with the rehabilitation and acceptance of the loss of Kotori. Even in subsequent scenes in the series, Kamui’s companions die off one by one in the hands of the opponents lead by Fuuma, and Kamui began to question his own worth as he blamed himself for their deaths.
In another anime, Angel Sanctuary, the male lead Setsuna Mudou elopes with his sister and lover Sara Mudou. Afterwards, Sara died dramatically in Setsuna’s place when an angel came to claim his life. Setsuna is heartbroken as Sara died in his arms. His previous incarnation (a powerful angel) eventually surfaces and goes on to destroy Tokyo. This scene portrays a similar situation of how a character copes with the loss of a loved one; whereby the character is visibly traumatized and shaken by grief. In this case, Setsuna is comparably poorer at coping with the loss, venting his pent up suffering and anguish through the destruction of Tokyo. This shows the viewers that loss basically can be dealt with varying attitudes.
Death and the coping of loss come hand in hand; the sentiments evoked are often very realistic as viewers tend to experience at some point in their lives. This enables the viewers to better identify themselves with the anime. In addition, by giving the characters of the anime such intense human emotions, viewers are better able to identify with the characters; making the settings of the anime more life-like and thus believable.
It is of paramount significance with regards to funeral rites that we consider that the Japanese regard contact with the death as an impurity (kagare). Death impurity is specifically known as ‘shi-e’ and it is viewed by the Japanese as the most serious kind of kagare. ‘Childbirth impurity’ and ‘blood impurity’ are other forms of kagare, but ‘shi-e’ is regarded as the most severe degree of impurity by the Japanese6. With this in considerations, rituals are important as they prevent the spread of ‘shi-e’ to other people.
Rites are an important part of death in the lives of Japanese; and they reflect this in anime through elaborate animations of ritual processions for the dead. Ritual processions confirm and reinforce the reality of death. It also facilitates the separation of the living and the dead. Rituals assist in acknowledging and expressing feelings of loss towards the dead, helping to facilitate mourning for those grieving.
In addition, these funeral processions serve as a final rite of passage to let the dead rest in peace. According to sociologist Robert Hertz(1881-1915); the living ‘formalize a naturally occurring transition from life to death, providing a structure which facilitates the adaptation of the bereaved, whether this means accepting the permanent departure of a loved one from this life, or restoring the balance upset by the death’.7 This quote aptly describes the pragmatic function of a ritual: it ensures closure in the ‘physical realm’ and a new beginning in the ‘spiritual realm’ for the deceased. Death rituals serve as tools for humans to transform death from a defeat of life to a stepping stone to another; perhaps better place; thus creating continuity beyond life and death itself. This closure should also be seen as a tool for officially demarcating the living from the dead; a reminder that they belong to different worlds henceforth.
The ideal example for ritual procession would be the rites that Yuna performs in FFX. As mentioned in the example above; the dead need a certain ritual to lead them into the ‘Netherworld’ where they can rest in peace. The anime explains that if left in the ‘physical realm’, the spirits will soon harbor hatred and jealousy for humans before turning into monsters that could potentially harm humans. Therefore, this explains the need for a proper ritual in the anime in order to segregate the living and the dead by guiding the spirits along.
When those who are close to the deceased have accepted that loss, memories of the person are kept close in their heart. The living reminisce about the past experiences they share with the deceased, and these memories for the dead can often act as a gauge of the level of affinity the living share with the deceased. ‘The Looking-Glass Self’ theory by Charles Horton Cooley accurately describes this situation as a deceased man’s worth can be gauged by the legacy that he lives behind through those that are still living.
Nostalgia can also bring about negative effects especially when those experiences are especially traumatic For example, in X; Kotori witnesses the bloody and violent death of her mother when she was young. As a result, when she sees blood later in a temple, she immediately remembers and thinks about that past incident; triggering hysteria.
The best example for nostalgia is the anime Grave of the Fireflies. In this anime, death is employed as lenses through which the male lead Seita’s and his sister Setsuko’s experiences during World War II are conveyed. From the start of the movie, we find them reminiscing about the past events during the wartime that leads to their eventual death. With nostalgia as a vehicle employed by director Takahata Isao, other more pertinent themes such as Japanese being victims of the war are effectively portrayed.
Glorification of Death
Not all death-related themes are depressing and negative. In fact, one positive portrayal of death would be the glorification of death in anime. In some anime, death is glorified as a display of courage; it takes immense courage for a character to accept his death. The glorification can be further amplified when self-sacrifice is involved; such as a character accepting his death so that another may live. Quoting from Paul Tillich (1886-1965) – “It is man only who is able to face his death consciously, that belongs to his greatness and dignity… Man’s knowledge that he has to die is also man’s knowledge that he is above death.”
The Japanese folk embrace this description very readily; to such an extent that death is viewed as a possible solution when faced with dire situations. A similar situation would be when Kamikaze pilots during World War II sacrificed their lives in their bid to win the war and achieve glory for Japan.
Such attitudes can also be observed in anime. For example, in the anime Record of the Lodoss Wars, one of the characters Borissan is held up by the opposition and unable to go to the rescue of the girl he loves; Siris. When she gets into danger, he makes a pact with a spirit to transform himself into a “Berserker”; a person possessed by immense hatred that will destroy anything in his path.
Using these acquired powers, he manages to save Siris from the hands of the enemy at the expense of his life. At the end of the scene, even though Siris asks the possessed Borissan to kill her so that she can perish with him, he did not do so. This scene glorifies Borissan’s death; he sacrificed his sanity and eventually, his life to save the woman he loves; and even managed not to harm amidst his insanity, thus showing the extent of his love for her.
Generally speaking, death can be glorified not only through self-sacrifice but when it is for a good cause or if it is the death of a villain. Most anime audience (if not all) would have in some time or other; rejoice at the death of a villain. Here, death is not negatively viewed by the audience but rather in a positive light. Another glorification through death for a good cause stems from the motives. As mentioned in the above example about the Kamikaze pilots, the pilots are glorified not just because of their self-sacrifice but also due to their ‘good’ cause of upholding personal and communal honor.
One example for such an illustration would be the anime movie Vampire Hunter D. In this movie, the male lead D is a human-vampire hybrid doomed to an eternal life of solitude and loneliness, and he basically passes his time by hunting down vampires who commit evil deeds. In one of his exploits, he encounters a vampire aristocrat who is ultimately killed by his sword. The anime portrayed the aristocrat as being very relieved and contented to some degree with his impending death as he could finally end his long life of misery that apparently lasted 1000 years. In stark contrast, D is later portrayed in a somewhat depressing scene as he is unable to end his suffering being immortal.
A crucial aspect of the glorification process of death is the beautifying of death. In the numerous ways and methods of gloriously taking the life of an anime character, death is being wittingly or unwittingly stylishly beautified by the directors and animators. What this could imply would be the fact that death is being legitimized in anime for the Japanese people as it becomes easily absorbed into the human psyche with its relative attractiveness. This can be observed if a holistic stance is maintained on this issue; the consequences of these actions risk being trivialized if only a scarce number of anime are taken into consideration.
Fulfillment of Dreams
An associated theme that is often coupled with the theme of death is the notion of fulfillment and regrets. Various anime that we analyzed often dealt with the issue of leading a fulfilled life; and subsequently dying without regrets.
For instance, in Flame of Recca, the fire casters of Hokage were condemned to a curse in return for their powers. If they were to die with regrets, their souls will be unable to rest in peace. Hence, the series mainly depicts Recca striving to achieve his best to protect his lover and avoid having any regrets in his life.
Combined with the previous mentioning of self-sacrifice, anime can both glorify death by showing the protagonist who willingly sacrifices himself in a bid to pass on his dreams and wishes to his friends. This passing on of dreams to the living exemplifies the idea of the living continuing the legacy that the deceased has left in place.
In the ending for X, Kamui sacrifices himself to bring Fuuma back from the evil side, hereby achieving his goal of saving Fuuma. As mentioned in the scene, he claims that he will not be forgotten and will live on in Fuuma’s heart. Similarly, all his friends who have died are all living in the hearts of those alive; the dreams that they have left behind have inspired them in giving hope in the quest to live.
Stereotyping of Death
From the anime that we have analyzed, certain patterns have been observed. Where cinematic direction is concerned, our group has observed the stereotypical portrayal of death; both visually and aurally. The use of sombre music as well as dark colours are common weapons of choice for animators who choose to induce tears from the viewers. Characters are also filmed in the middle of the screen for maximum theatrical effect with focus on the dying persona (assuming he is a significant character such as the protagonist) and minimum features in the background to achieve maximum emotional response from the audience such as depression, sadness and grief. On the other hand, it is important to note that exceptions are not uncommon where alternative techniques are employed. This is just a general trend that our group has observed among the anime that we have chosen to analyze.
Another area that is constantly stereotyped is the notion of morality: the idea of Good vs. Evil. In the anime that our group has researched into; the protagonists generally refrain from killing. This means that even if the “good” guys defeat the “bad” guys, they would not fatally wound their opponent. On the contrary, the villains often seek to finish off the protagonists at every opportunity. Thus there is generally a respect for life with regards to the protagonists.
To illustrate this point, let us consider the anime Flame of Recca. In this series, Recca and the Hokage refrain from taking lives in the UraButoSatsujin; whereas Kurei and his Uruha kill mercilessly. Similarly in X, The Seven Seals don’t kill unnecessarily while the Seven Angels seek to finish them off at every chance.
Hence, when we consider the importance of evaluating the stereotypes in portrayal of death in anime, one has to realize that the above mentioned aspects controls the extent to which perceptions of audience is directly affected. This means that anime audience is often subjected to influence from the director’s stand; a viewer is seeing the events or characters in the anime in the way the director wishes for him/her to see.
Alternative Portrayal of Death
In analyzing death as a theme in anime, our group has considered alternative portrayals of death. For example, there are instances of comical death in anime. In this aspect, we have found an example in FFX; there is a supposedly touching scene where Tidus and his estranged father share a heart-warming moment together that is initially sad and depressing as Tidus’ dad lies dying. However, the next moment shows Tidus in high spirits, getting ready to continue his journey. This emotional see-saw can be viewed as comical; considering that all it took was an instant for Tidus to regain his composure and cope with the loss.
Also of significance in this report is our group’s interpretation that rebirth is an idea of compensation for death and it is a means of regaining societal balance. The Japanese concepts of rebirth and reincarnation have deeply religious roots as part of the Shinto and Buddhist culture. Many instances of rebirth can be observed in anime where the story starts off with a death before showing the characters being reborn as a new being, such as in Flame of Recca where Kurenai was killed in front of Kurei, who turned her into his ‘flame’. In this sense, rebirth is an alternative to death in certain anime where the form of a character changes and is punctuated by rebirths.
Concept of Life
The greatest importance of studying death in anime, and in Japanese society as a whole by far is the concept of life. It is human nature to observe opposites as mentioned earlier with the ‘The Looking-Glass Self’ theory where we study current situations by looking at opposite scenarios. By observing all the above-stated sub-plots linked to death, death is used as a mirror to observe Japanese society and their corresponding views on life.
Many of their views on life have religious implications. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese population consists mainly of followers of Buddhism or Shintoism- 84% of Japanese either practices Buddhism or Shintoism11. One of the fundamental beliefs is that the life cycle is a continuum rather than linear. What this implies is that life does not start at birth and end at death. Instead, death represents a transition from human form to spiritual form.
Death as mentioned earlier, simply refers to a transition in bodily stages where the human body expires and a new spiritual state is achieved. With the marriage of these two religions, there is also the belief in reincarnation, rebirth and ancestral worship. This is significant as it explains why death is not terminal to the Japanese. Consequently, death in the name of sacrifice or courage would not seem as bad as compared to other cultures or religions. Moreover, this could also serve to explain why Japanese people shun Shi-e, but not death itself.
Another observation that our group has made is that in Japan, the state of collective consciousness is extremely high. Deviance in the eyes of mass Japanese society is usually frowned upon and it is of great difficulty to express. Our group has alternatively hypothesized that it could be a means of expressing deviance when you consider how readily the anime consumers accept such controversial themes, and how indiscriminately directors utilize violence, death and even other more controversial themes such as homosexuality in their storylines. However, this is just a speculation that was suggested by Miss Hikaru Suzuki; an expert on the topic of death in Japanese society that we had interviewed. This point has yet to be substantiated by the group and currently remains only as a possible hypothesis.
Death unlike other topics covered in this module is an abstract concept in Japanese anime. There is an obvious interdependency between death and the other themes that were mentioned in this report when observed in anime, and it is often utilized as a complimentary tool in portraying other issues that are considered more pertinent than death itself. Considering the fact that death and its associated emotions are sentiments that all matured audiences can identify with, death can be employed very effectively to reiterate certain relevant ideas such as sacrifice and nostalgia. Considering its societal relevance as well, the analysis of death can be used as an interesting medium through which Japanese society can be observed.
- Drazen, Patrick, “Anime explosion! : the what? why? & wow! of Japanese animation”, Berkeley, California : Stone Bridge Press, 2003
- Abe Chikara, “Impurity and Death: A Japanese Perspective”, Dissertation.com, 2002
- Horton Cooley Charles, “Human Nature and the Social Order”. New York: Scribner’s, 1902
- Potter Peter, “All About Death”, William Mulvey Inc, 1988