The reflective essay will focus on Japanese animation films and Japanese cultural identity. Japanese Animation has played a large part in my process of growing up, a media product that I have frequently consumed, hence I am attracted to Japanese culture. Japanese animation films are mostly broadcasted on television channels, ubiquitously shared on the Internet, and in recent years, shown in local cinemas. My fondness for Japanese animation films emanates from “Japanese animation serves in many ways as a source of reassurance that ‘ideal’ identity is possible, within the ‘ideal’ spaces of film, but also in the imagination of the audience” and for its “innocence and acceptance”, feelings accurately put into words by Iles (2008).  As asserted by Noh (2017), animation portrays the reality of nonlinear time in a convincing manner, and maintains a restorative nostalgia without having to necessarily deal with the physicality of passing time. In a nutshell, animation may be fictional but it can certainly be realistic.

These sites of fantasy presents ideal spaces, conducive to the nourishment of human imagination (Iles, 2008) and I relish in these imaginaries, experiencing a time that exist and yet does not. Japanese animation films are embedded with profound meanings, usually revolving on a journey of self discovery and improvement. This search for identity is in conjunction to Japanese cultural identity itself, and I will be discussing using Studio Ghibli’s films, and the recent masterpiece, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016).

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Anime is a powerful medium to explore Japanese cultural identity as it is intended for the Japanese by the Japanese.Your Name (2016) is a visual and aural masterpiece, successfully overtaking numerous Studio Ghibli’s films in the box office. The stunning use of animation accompanied with sentimental music had brought my cinematic experience to a new level but it was the plot that had clinched my attention. Your Name is not an ordinary light-hearted, comedy film, it is a film filled with tragedy, hardships, and spoke depth of identity and the ‘self’. Your Name speaks length of spirituality, the traditional Japanese culture that is beginning to fade with time.

The dilemma of contemporary Japan is evident in many theatrical works; while embracing the influence of the West, Japan struggles to keep itself insular and ‘untouched’. The female protagonist of Your Name, Mitsuha, is seen conflicted by the temptation of abandoning her Shintoism duties (as a shrine priestess) for a life in contemporary Tokyo. The awe and fascination is apparent when she interacts with Western cuisine in a lavish Western-styled restaurant. Mitsuha’s classmates mocked her during her ritual dance performance at her family Shinto shrine. The conundrum of traditional Japanese culture being challenged by rapid westernization is clearly seen in the plot; traditional cultural practices are seen as ‘backwards’ in contemporary times . As stated by Iles (2008), Japan is caught between modernisation (pursued as westernization) and a lingering pull to maintain an awareness of and respect for tradition. Your Name has concisely provided a window into gleaning the identity conflict found in many Japanese, enabling us a deeper understanding into the nationalistic country.

Japan’s conflicting cultural identity has become a common theme in films whereby the central focus is on the “exploration of Japanese cultural identity, and its relationship to nostalgia and ideologies of hybridity continue to be a theme relevant to the anxieties and dilemmas of postmodern identity” (Noh, 2017).  This fracture in maintaining identity is also relatable in Singapore, where traditional practices are overwritten by modernity, and dialects of the olden days slowly fall into obsolescence as English becomes the only language in use. On the other hand, Studio Ghibli animation films largely focus on spirituality, environment, and the self. The brilliant mind behind Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, stands firm in retaining traditional Japanese values in his films. His films “celebrate a past Japan that is largely the product of rose-coloured glasses gazing into the past” (Roedder, 2013), and this provided us, the audiences, a glance into traditional Japanese culture before the imprint of globalization and influence of the West. Miyazaki frequently contests on gender roles as well, featuring women as the central protagonist (such as in Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)), and their journey of growth and self-discovery.

Miyazaki’s films “resist the influence of political agendas and censorships” and “denies the ideological and aesthetic influence of Disney animation”, drawing extensively on Japan’s history and spirituality to produce contemporarily important and culturally meaningful films (Iles, 2008) while staying true to the traditional Japanese self. Studio Ghibli’s films are created for Japanese children in mind, and Miyazaki believes “that animation should above all belong to children, and that truly honest works for children will also succeed with adults (Roedder, 2013). These films are intended to return the audiences to an earlier time where we were more pure and redemptive, evoking a sense of nostalgia and reminding us to not forget our ‘roots’. This nostalgia thus forms the basis of my love for Japanese animation films, my favourite being Spirited Away (2001), and the fact that I am able to immerse myself in these imaginaries; and while embracing the past, I am still tethered to the present.

Studio Ghibli films has won numerous accolades, and deservedly so, as explained by Iles (2008) that “in many of Miyazaki’s films, the ideal has with it a profound sense of altruism, of benevolence and a belief in the fundamental goodness of the human community”.  This relates to Japanese’s value of community, the support shown between individuals, and their nationalistic pride. Studio Ghibli or synonymously known as Miyazaki’s films constantly explore the ideal. As agreed by Iles (2008), “its insistence on setting itself within a nostalgic, golden age (either past, future, or even present) in which tradition, community, and voice – personal, idiosyncratic, noble, simple, and pure – are still possible”.  This acceptance of the peculiar, the norm, and the different provides viewer an alternative vision of the world, a vision of inspiration (Iles, 2008). While Studio Ghibli’s films are intended for local audiences, the allegories in these films have attracted worldwide popularity in conjunction to its aural and visual masterpieces.

The meaning of ‘ideal’ that is frequently communicated in the films can be highly empathized by many despite cultural differences. Thus Japanese animation films can be considered as soft power, healing the differences between international audiences while improving Japan’s image as a demilitarized country. As an avid fan of Studio Ghibli’s animation films, I can assert that these allegorical films are more than cartoons on screen.