Anime Boston 2004
Mythological Anime

by Jonathan Mays, Apr 22nd 2004
An enormous crowd awaited Crispin Freeman's Mythological Anime panel. But with the convention room's constraints, only 125 of several hundred folks were admitted to the presentation. After a slight delay, Freeman opened the panel with a short story about a symposium he attended five years ago. As an audience member, he had the rare opportunity to ask producer Kenji Uchida about the difference between American and Japanese storytelling.

He replied, "In America...superhero. In Japan...giant robot."

After the laughter subsided, Uchida explained that the differences between Japanese and American storytelling are rooted in culture and religion. In the West, God is often viewed as an anthropomorphic creature. The image of God in Japan, however, is more malleable. It reflects the sacred spirits (kami) of the Shinto religion, like a house in Spirited Away, a forest in Princess Mononoke, or chimes in Someday's Dreamers.

For a brief background on mythology and how anime applies it, Freeman showed a half-hour video with a segment of Joseph Campbell's PBS interview and clips from several anime series including Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Princess Mononoke, Macross Plus, Record of Lodoss War, and Vision of Escaflowne.

Heroic storytelling, acording to Campbell, involves "following the thread of the hero path," a very common plot in anime. Historically, literature is full of hero stories, usually chronicling a hero's loss of innocence. To Campbell, the hero journey is one of death and resurrection, moving from a "posture of psychological dependency" to adulthood and maturity.

Campbell's thoughts on mythology were long-winded and went on many tangents, but the core of his argument linked myths with a transformation of consciousness. The transformation is achieved, he told interviewer Bill Moyers, by trials and revelations.

What do hero stories tell us about our own lives? Campbell believes they show how society operates in a system, and they ask us: Will we be eaten by the system, or will we use it to our advantage? It is important to "live life with a knowledge of its mystery," which heroic storytelling—particularly anime—makes an effort to reveal.

Due to the delayed start, there was little time for Freeman to discuss his thoughts, so the last ten minutes were set aside for a quick Q&A period. He highlighted fundamentalism as the chief problem mythology must conquer, and he affirmed the role of games as psychological fantasy—"Better to play Streets of LA than to do it on the real highways."

Freeman believes Japanese animation and Western culture have much to learn from each other. While Japanese stories usually feature a hero following a predestined path, Western stories show people breaking from destiny and forming a new road of life. These two distinct approaches to storytelling are beginning to overlap more, aided, Freeman believes, by shared popular culture like anime.

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