THE THEME OF LOVE IN JAPANESE ANIME

“Love is not singular except in syllable” – Marvin Taylor

Love is a broad theme that constantly surfaces in Japanese anime. In a list that is not exhaustive or exclusive to these series alone, anime such as Naruto, Bleach, Full-Metal Alchemist and School Rumble will be referred to as our essay attempts to unravel the extent of love’s influence, be it positive or negative, or both. Scenarios that we isolate within these selected anime will be used to explore how love is affected by situation and circumstances. Themes of sacrifice, protection and trust and understanding, all of which we believe are closely linked to the notion of love will also be delved upon.

We also wish to make better sense of how and why anime portrays love in these ways. Therefore the scope of our essay will discuss how love has is motivational force which can be tapped into in many different ways, as evidenced by the diverse treatments of love in Japanese anime. Love – or the lack of it – wields an influence to drive us to make good or bad choices, although they are not necessarily conscious decisions. In the context of Japanese society, the varying portrayals of love in anime mirrors the society’s inability to articulate their emotions freely, therefore the theme of love in anime becomes especially important as a cathartic process for the Japanese who are otherwise proscribed from unreservedly expressing their feelings in everyday life. The representations of love also point to an emphasis on relationships, which further highlight the importance of putting others before oneself – a quality valued in Japanese culture and attributed for the proper functioning and progress of Japanese society.

POSITIVE ASPECTS OF LOVE

“ Love is above all the gift of oneself” – Jean Anouilh

The theme of love is one that is deeply celebrated in Japanese anime; its positive value is emphasized most prominently in climaxes, especially. Bleach exemplifies how love manifests itself the strongest during crucial moments that pose danger to one’s loved ones. Episode 13 centres on a shy schoolgirl called Orihime, whom all along has depended on her best friend, Tatsuki, to look after her safety. This episode features a turning point for Orihime, who voices her determination to protect Tatsuki who has become defenseless against a demon Hollow, even though both are in a fatal situation. Orihime’s decision hence triggers special abilities she never knew she possessed that enable her to defeat the enemy. Love is revealed in this scene to be closely associated with the desire to protect. Because the strong friendship Orihime has with Tatsuki is one that is governed by love, it therefore engenders an innate desire to protect, and love is shown to be the catalyst to awaken the desire to protect out of dormancy.

The episode also makes apparent the unique visualization of love in Japanese anime. Love, an intangible force, achieves a physical tangible form – in Orihime’s case they are formidable fairies – and it expands Orihime’s capacity to overcome adversity. Thus, the common axiom of the strength of love is literally translated into superhuman strength within the medium of anime; it reinforces the idea of love’s power as extraordinary, as love is seen to empower one with strength to conquer the impossible.

Ichigo’s desire to protect his family from being attacked by demon Hollows in the first episode also dramatically reinforce the positive influence of love. Both the characters of Orihime and Ichigo demonstrate self-sacrifice as an expression of love, by choosing to put aside egocentric fears of death or vanity and hence stand in harm’s way for someone close to them. Ichigo’s actions further modify this definition of selflessness, such that it does not simply mean to be victimized on another person’s behalf. Ichigo’s desire to protect is equated with the desire to grow stronger to at least prevent the enemy from further victimizing others, even if the process proves fatal for him. This is evident in the dialogue between Ichigo and the Death God Rukia. Ichigo implores Rukia on how he can save his family, accepting at the risk of his life that he has absorb Rukia’s Death God powers which is the only tool to fight the demon Hollow with. Ichigo ends up with powers that are greater than the original Death God Rukia. Yet again, love is visualized as a manifestation of a character’s surge in strength, but it more significantly points out that although Ichigo and Rukia both possess the same ability to defend the weak, the latter was divorced from her defender’s role as she treated it like a job. Love therefore is the factor for their disparity in strength, which allowed Ichigo to succeed in protecting his family and himself. Therefore, Orihime and Ichigo epitomize a distinct philosophy of love in Bleach; if love presides over acts of selflessness, one may be rewarded with the strength to preserve the life of oneself and the person you are protecting.

The teacher-student relationship between Gai and Lee from the anime Naruto further develops certain positive aspects of love that have been uncovered in Bleach. One particular episode depicts Lee facing the unpredictable prospect of surgery that might result in him having to give up his dream to be an excellent ninja. In his moment of despondency, Lee’s sensei, Gai, who commiserates with his student’s plight, tells Lee that he will not abandon him as a student regardless of the circumstances, promising the latter by saying, “Until you can keep up with me, I will train you until I die.” With the knowledge that his teacher will persevere alongside him through his recuperation process, Lee thus recovers from his crisis of faith and resolves to go ahead with the surgery.

From this episode, the bond between Lee and Gai is clearly strengthened by love. Love in the form of compassion for his student enables Gai to empathise with Lee and not give up hope on his disciple in times of need, as both Gai and Lee represent an ideal oyabun/kobun relationship (Bellah 186) which is deemed “for life as the building up of debts by the dependent should be reciprocated with a life-time of loyalty and support” (Hendry 56). Love underscores the mutual trust and devotion established between Gai and Lee, such that it allays Lee’s fears and propels him out of his hesitancy to make his teacher proud. Love is communicated as a reciprocal faith in someone you cherish and respect. Love grants perseverance in overcoming suffering and camaraderie in times of hardship, it also motivates one to move forward, even though the future is unknown and therefore daunting.

NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF LOVE

“Love is the child of illusion and the parent of disillusion” – Miguel De Unamuno

In the instance of Majiharu and Karin in Fullmetal Alchemist (episode two), the weakness and superficiality of love are exposed through the actions of the two characters. In this episode, the main characters expose Majiharu, an alchemist, as the source of the apparitions appearing in the town cemetery. The latter is in the process of refining his attempts at resurrecting his lover, Karin, whom he believes has died in an accident in the past. In his final resurrection attempt, he attempts to sacrifice a young girl and it is in the process of rescue that the main characters find out and subsequently reveal to Majiharu that Karin is still alive. However, Majiharu refuses to believe that the aged woman who has always been by his side is Karin and attacks in anger. He is then accidentally killed.

Majiharu’s preoccupation with Karin’s external beauty to the extent of denying Karin to be Karin – and therefore, the woman he loved and still loves – even at his moment of death reveals a romantic relationship that is largely based on superficial appearances on Majiharu’s part. His last gaze shifts from Karin and lingers eventually on the artificial dolls he has made of Karin, further evidence of Majiharu’s fixation on Karin’s physical appearance. Majiharu thus exemplifies love’s potential for superficiality, to the point where a seemingly lasting romantic relationship is denied continuity and fruition. In rejecting the real Karin as his lover, Majiharu effectively destroys his relationship with her and instead substitutes it with one with his artificial and eternally beautiful dolls, which will never age.
The tragedy of the destruction of Majiharu and Karin’s relationship is further accentuated by dramatic irony. Majiharu’s seemingly lasting love for Karin, which fuels his continuous experiments in resurrecting and hence returning Karin back to his side is, in actuality, based on a fatally lasting impression of Karin’s fleeting, youthful beauty. We may further argue that in resurrecting a young and beautiful Karin, Majiharu is attempting to revive the intimate and promising relationship they shared in the past. His denial in recognizing Karin thus is not only based on his preoccupation with Karin’s physical appearances, but also what that youth and beauty symbolize – a chance to resurrect their love and continue their relationship from where it was disrupted. To recognize Karin in her aged appearance would imply the death of their past relationship and the improbability of such desires, which centers on a young and beautiful Karin and Majiharu. Since it is impossible to retain his own youth, Majiharu can only invest in the youth and beauty of Karin. A similar case may be made for Karin. Karin’s return to Majiharu is shadowed by a lapse in memory, where she loses and later recollects her memories of Majiharu; it can be argued that even though Karin eventually returns to Majiharu’s side, her love does not transcend time – instead, it merely bypasses and hence escapes it. Her blind devotion to Majiharu illustrates her strong desire to rekindle this once young and vibrant relationship and continue it from where she left it – after the accident and her brief amnesia.

Both Karin and Majiharu, in their individual pursuits to resurrect a dying relationship, are trapped in the past when their relationship is still young and complete. Love is unable to aid them in breaking this psychological barrier and moving forward to embrace a new future with their present selves. In the end, Karin and Majiharu’s love reveals the fragility of love and its inability to survive the passing of time and nostalgia. Furthermore, we also see how easily love may be exploited to justify and further one’s personal desires. Majiharu empowers himself by acting in the name of love and effectively displaces personality responsibility through using love as the primary cause and justification for his actions. His attempt to sacrifice other innocents to complete his ritual in resurrecting his idealized version of “Karin” is a show of a cold-blooded pursuit for self-gratification and fulfillment and the absence of compassion or consideration for others. In this instance, Majiharu uses love to isolate and further elevate himself to a position of amoral superiority, where he may then take others’ lives unscrupulously. The weakness of love may thus be seen in how it empowers the individual and yet is unable to dictate the direction of such power.

Love’s weakness against nostalgia is perhaps also epitomized by Edward and Alphonse Elric – the main characters of Full-Metal Alchemist – who suffer physical loss of their limbs and bodies, and the psychological trauma that accompanies it, in the attempt to resurrect their dead mother and the blissful relationship they shared with her. Their desire to reunite with their mother is fueled by the over-dependency a child has towards a mother, thus creating an existence and life that revolve mainly around the mother. However, the imbalance in the relationship, which stems from such over-dependency, eventually leads the brothers to break the ultimate taboo in alchemy, in attempting to revive their mother, and directly to their harm. In the disregard for a universally and socially recognized law, to realize their own seemingly childlike and innocent desires, Edward and Alphonse elevate themselves above the rule of society and nature – by breaking the law of conservation – and receive grievous punishment. Thus, while love is portrayed to possess flaws and weaknesses, there is a general implication that should these weaknesses be exploited, undesirable consequences will arise.

These examples from Full-Metal Alchemist reveal how love as a motivational force gets undermined when love is invoked for self-centered reasons. In the anime, we become on the contrary aware of how love is tied with accountability, when love becomes an excuse to displace responsibility for one’s actions. When love is exploited for self-gratification, we evoked by the characters Majiharu, Karin, Edward and Elphonse who have escapist dreams of reliving their past, love is rendered superficial when it cannot stand the entropy of time.

AMBIVALENCE OF LOVE

“Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding.” – Diane Arbus

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The above sections on the positive and negative aspects of love altogether show how the massive potential of love can lead to either good or bad. The following examples in School Rumble juxtaposes both aspects of love to highlight the ambiguity of love’s power. Love, as succinctly put by the characters Tenma and Kenji, is indeed “a magical and mysterious force” that is subject to personal interpretation and hence subjective definitions. Love as a positive motivational force that can change your perspective of your world and your way of living is illustrated through the character of Harima Kenji. Being a school delinquent, he often gets involved in nasty brawls and gangster fights. However, in order to get close to his crush, Tenma, he found new meaning in going to school everyday. Episode 2 portrays Kenji as a hopeless student who does not care even when he failed his promotional examinations, but his desire to be in the same class with Tenma spurred him to go on his knees and beg the teacher to allow him to be promoted. In terms of being a social outcast and a school delinquent, this is a considerably huge change in attitude.
Alternatively, this romantic act of begging to be allowed into the same class as Tenma can also be viewed in a more negative angle as a form of self-gratification, rendering the influence of love as superficial. The main reason of getting promoted to the next grade is not because of his genuine interest in studies, or that he had acknowledged the importance of school, but solely because he wanted to be near Tenma. Instead of love, this may be better described as the more trivial form of infatuation. It is a form of self-gratification as Kenji bypasses the rules and school system by justifying his actions with love. In yet another episode, Kenji’s proclamations of love is laden with emotional blackmail, when he demands that Tenma accept his feelings, if not he will quit school and that might produce a guilty conscience in Tenma even though Kenji has no commitment to school anyway.

However, even though Kenji’s proclamations of love are seemingly undermined by his unruly actions, as the anime progresses, we can see how Kenji’s desire to impress Tenma subsequently makes him aware of the people around him. He slowly but surely integrates into his class, becoming an active and prominent member of the class and its activities. Although he still sports his trademark aloofness, he went to the outings organized by the class, and even took part in class matches such as baseball and “pool hockey”. We find that love has worked to temper his fierce personality and made him sensitive to other, in putting in effort to join in the cleaning chores with the rest of the class. Overall, it is an implication of a re-integration of the social outcast back into the society, which only then will the outcast eventually gain him friendship and the love that he yearns for.

LOVE AS A CLASH OF IDEOLOGIES

“Love is fire, but whether it’s going to warm your heart or burn your house down, you can never tell.” – Jason Jordan

Ironically, or perhaps not, it is Naruto and Gaara, who have possibly received the least amount of love and affection in their lives, who therefore epitomize extreme ideologies on love in the anime Naruto. Both characters Naruto and Gaara were both denied love and affection and even the establishment of relationships, which is a basis for love and affection to be fostered, in their childhoods. The series of denials eventually leads them to question the meaning of their existence.
It is here that we see the “power of love”, where children like Naruto and Gaara rely on their relationships with other emotional attachments to create a meaning for their existence and hence, a sense of identity. In simpler terms, they need love and affection to (want to) live. Both Naruto and Gaara are thus disempowered by love; in desiring and seeking acceptance and recognition, and subsequently affection from others, they are left vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. However, because of this disempowerment, both characters become empowered as well.

Naruto, in his quest to become Hokage, is simply seeking recognition from the Konoha clan, which he sees as his people/family. However, in this search for recognition and acceptance and finally, the establishment of a firm relationship with his village, he further works towards cementing the relationship by becoming the most powerful and influential ninja in Konoha to lead and protect the community. In a sense, Naruto is fighting his own disempowerment – caused by his desire for acceptance and recognition – and empowering himself. Through this quest, Naruto successfully gains friends and thus, love.

Gaara, on the other hand, seeks to empower himself by recreating his meaning for existence through self-love and killing others. The deaths of other strong ninjas establish proof of his own strength and thus strengthens his sense of existence. Through extreme self-love, he denies the necessity for affection from others and thus successfully isolates himself. As a misanthropist, Gaara can be argued to represent a figure of complete isolation. His purposeful alienation from others is symbolically manifested by his unconventional weapon – that of sand, which can be manipulated to create a spherical wall around Gaara. Another thin layer of armor surrounding his entire body which is moulded into his likeness, hence Gaara is literally seen to be putting on a front and nobody can ever get to know the real Gaara. It is thus the strongest form of protection from everyone else and the outside world in general, albeit one that detaches and causes him to become narcissistic.
Both characters represent in their own way the “power” of love, where one cannot live without love or affection. While Naruto channels his desire for affection and love into his quest to become Hokage, Gaara learns to survive on self-love. One is an external and “outward” journey while the other is directed inwards. And in their physical battle, we see the clash of their physical skill, and on a deeper level, it is also a clash of two different ideologies regarding love, and two opposing sources of strength/empowerment by two entirely different concepts of love by two characters who suffered a similar circumstance. Ultimately, the defeat of Gaara by Naruto is on a figurative level the triumph of Naruto’s ideology as well. The casualties depicted between them also warn us of the danger when one becomes empowered through self-love. The implication that Gaara was forced to turn towards self-love because no one else would love him further shows the importance of love expressed to others and therefore conditioning one to be a better person, which also serve to reaffirm Japanese cultural norms that place great importance on relationships in society. The message brought across recalls a Japanese self that is relational; how one should fight towards re-integrating the isolated Self into Society and establish new relationships based on love and affection instead of further isolating the Self, which would, eventually destroy the notion of Society.

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CONCLUSION ON LOVE IN ANIME AND ITS BEARING ON SOCIETY

“Love means nothing in tennis, but means everything in life” – author unknown

Although scenarios in Japanese anime may mostly be fantastical, they are scenarios that have some element of familiarity to the viewer, by virtue of the universality of the value of love being advocated. The scenarios depicted in anime also function as a reflection of Japanese Society, mirroring its culture that is sometimes viewed as being extremely austere. The treatment of love in anime at times work as a receptacle for verbalizing Japanese thoughts regarding emotional attachments, yet there is also a celebration of the unique way that emotions are communicated across in Japanese society.

Kenji from School Rumble is an excellent example of the problems faced by the typical men in Japan, as a male character he parodies real life by finding it hard to express his inner thoughts, and is thus often misunderstood by his counterparts. Kenji tries his best if it meant being on the same team as Tenma. And if he was allocated to be in the opposite team, he tends to give in to her. Such was an act of gentleness of a male specially reserved for his loved one. This is a reflection of a society which finds it hard to express its affections in words, but finds it more comfortable to show gentleness and affections in actions.

This scene seems to imply that Japanese society is aware of its own difficulty in communication, and there is a desire to change and breakthrough, often comically represented by Kenji who chokes on his words to Tenma. However, the anime portrays how the Japanese can still be steadfast in their culture and find creative ways to put their emotions across to others without explicitly verbalizing it. This is once again shown as Tenma attempted to let her feelings be known to Karasuma. In the 1st episode, as she found out that her crush Karasuma was about to change to another school, she wanted desperately to at least let him know about her feelings for him, if not to express her desire for him to stay. Unable to profess her feelings in front of him, she decided to write a letter to him. But it was too difficult even to pen down the words “I like you”, and she ended up writing a very long scroll filled with the words “Please do not leave”. Being somewhat moved by this feat, Karasuma did not change school after all. This seems to imply that it is alright if you cannot express yourself the way you want to. As long as you do it your way, and you had tried your best, you will be heard and understood.

In the later episodes, Tenma is once again seen to be trying to show her feelings to Karasuma by finding out his favourite food and making packed lunch (obento) for him. Being used to her younger sister doing all the cooking in the household, Tenma took upon herself to learn cooking so as to be able to personally make packed lunches for him. Besides being an action of affection, eating lunch together also gives them more opportunity to communicate and know more about each other. This is another example of how Japanese do not openly discuss their inner emotions but they also know the importance of communication between people, just in more subtle ways (in this case, by having lunch together opens up opportunity for communication). This is also in line with our former point about how the society finds it more comfortable to express its feelings in actions rather than in words.

The various portrayals of love as depicted in our examples of anime also bear the same common denominator of practicing selflessness. The heavy emphasis on the theme of love as putting others before self in relationships are of an ideological importance as it serves to distinguish japanese society as unique and group-oriented. However, one finds in the anime examples cited in this essay, that both notions of individualism and selflessness are encouraged. Moeran observes that “Japanese society is trying to grapple with the problem of individualism which is commonly feared to accompany Westernisation, modernization, urbanization and industrialization” (63). The seemingly contradictory concepts of individualism and selflessness can be reconciled when the strength cultivated by one’s individualism is inspired by love for the community and reciprocally channeled back to the community. Naruto in his battle with Gaara demonstrates that “however individualistic you are invited to be, you are often invited to be individualistic for somebody” (Moeran 74). The treatment of love between anime characters thus parallels the emotional participation of the individual in relation to that of the group in Japanese social organization, urging a sense of gratitude to others and society rather than cynicism of the society.

Anime therefore works as interpretative lens through which the Japanese like to view their own culture. Austin underscores the demand for a “stable set of values” in a modernizing Japanese society whereby “the more rapid the change, the more traumatic its effects” (in Moeran 70). Anime functions as a medium to negotiate the need for such stable, universal values to govern personal relations that the Japanese cherish greatly. The presentation of love in the various anime considered, as either glorifications or as a lament to the misappropriations of love, reinforces that love is advocated as one such enduring value to be inculcated in Japanese society.

Primary Works cited

Bleach. Studio Pierrot, 2004.
Full Metal Alchemist. Studio Bones, 2003.
Naruto . Studio Pierrot, 2002.
School Rumble. Studio Comet, 2004.

Secondary Works cited

Bellah, Robert Neelly. Imagining Japan: The Japanese tradition and its modern interpretation. Berkeley: Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Hendry, Joy. Introduction to Japanese Society. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Moeran, Brian. “Individual, Group and Seishin: Japan’s Internal Cultural Debate”. Japanese
Culture and Behaviour: Selected Readings. Eds. Takie Sugiyama Lebra, William P. Lebra.. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1986.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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