In both its historical and contemporary manifestations, fantasy as a narrative element has operated predominantly within the domain of childhood. Whether we discuss Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter, fantasy stories typically feature child protagonists in order to target a child audience. Fantasy narratives can vary considerably: they can create entirely alternate worlds like the aforementioned stories or they can take place in the real world with various fantasy inflections, as when teenagers run around solving mysteries in Scooby-Doo or five-year-olds explore jungles in Dora the Explorer. The subtle unreality of this latter kind of fantasy renders the question of whether the featured children are realistic irrelevant because the narratives are familiar and benign. American cartoons featuring children do not and cannot involve gratuitous violence, horrific deaths, destructive apocalypses or any direct mention of sex. Japanese anime programs like Blood+, Death Note, and Akira, on the other hand, have prominently featured mature content in concert with child characters by contexualizing these representations within a fantasy environment. However, in traveling to the states, these anime have often been denigrated by parents who argue that the grotesqueness of the representations present a distorted view of childhood.
A dismissive attitude towards fantasy’s depiction of children neglects to analyze how the genre acts as both a contextual space for children and as an arena within which the image of the child is continually negotiated. In the United States, Japanese anime tends to fall prey to this dismissive attitude mainly because American attitudes view animation as being “just for kids” while Japanese culture views animation as a medium that can appeal to all ages. American audiences did not really notice that early anime imports such as Speed Racer and Astro Boy were
Luo 1Japanese (Patten 44), but did when anime distinguished itself from American cartoons with complex narratives like the epic space saga Space Battleship Yamato and the psychological tragedy Akira. Narratives in which children acted out bloody, apocalyptic violence stunned American audiences—mature thematics were and continue to be incompatible with mainstream American animation. These kinds of complex narratives in anime fantasy free our conceptions of childhood from a normalized framework, inviting audiences to imagine children in unfamiliar contextual spaces and roles that defy their traditional image in the American mass media.
Juxtaposed amidst acts like murder or world saving, childhood in anime often tackles more challenging concepts, and therefore tends to attract a more diverse audience. While typical American cartoons are tailored specifically for elementary or middle school children, audiences for anime are often divided according to genre, ranging from shonen and shojo for children and teenagers to seinen and josei for adults. While American media often construct childhood by drawing on universalized sentiments about innocence, happiness, and other familiar notions, the way anime fantasy presents wholly unfamiliar depictions of childhood provokes profound hypothetical questions that reflect real world desires and the never-ending negotiation of the definition of childhood. Anime fantasy not only invites alternative conceptions of childhood, but also creates a space departing from reality and adults that allow depicted children to organically develop themselves with self- sufficient agency and creativity. Both soft fantasies like My Neighbor Totoro and psychological science fiction like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya create these kinds of spaces by positing the children as characters who have powerful effects in their fantasy worlds. An analysis of how children act with agency outside their normal conceptual framework in these anime illuminates how these contexts of unrepressed empowerment explore childhood at moments of self-definition, praising the contemporary moment of youth agency rather than returning to familiar, but restrictive sentimentalizations. The defamiliarized contexts of childhood in anime fantasy are a contemporary backlash against the traditional ways in which Western cultures have sentimentalized and commodified children, reversing traditionally passive archetypes by placing children in empowered, often adult-like roles. Historically, culture has perpetuated “childhood [as] a condition defined by powerlessness and dependence on the adult community’s directives and guidance” (Kline 95). From Victorian times on, when the rapidly changing social structures and the ideas of Blake and Dickens pushed forth the image of the child as an innocent figure requiring protection, institutions of public policy and educational systems began subjecting those same children to careful regulation. The market, having lost the use of child labor, quickly adapted as “advertising repeatedly articulated the need for parents to become aware of the unique needs [and] vulnerabilities of their child” (Kline 103) and began selling products like soap and toys tailored directly towards families with children. In this historical shift, the means by which to raise children were commodified, reduced to consumer habits and materialistic measures in gauging normal child development. Popular culture scholar Jack Zipes, lamenting this way that children are presented in the media, argues, “Everything we do to, with, and for our children is influenced by hegemonic interests of ruling corporate elites. In simple terms, we calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments and turning them into commodities” (Zipes xi). Thus, as Zipes begins to point out, the market directly profits from this image and economy of caring for children: by perpetuating the notion of childhood as synonymous with vulnerability, it creates a hegemonic structure of values that profits from and yet ultimately restricts a child’s social mobility.
However, the contemporary child defies traditional sentimentalized definitions because of a cultural shift marked by individualism and self-definition, where children recognize “how [adults] are indoctrinating them and caring for them…feel and sense what value [they] place on their lives [that affect] their development of values and difference” (Zipes 22). Children today have the space and power to respond critically to their environments and social construction. Recent work done by contemporary cultural studies scholars have found that children today “are active participants in that process of defining their identities” (Jenkins 4) and “create their own meanings from the stories and symbols of consumer culture” (Seiter 10) – especially with the emergence of consumer-grade, digital tools for production and distribution. Youth culture thrives online as children spend hours a day on MySpace, Facebook and YouTube exchanging messages and media. These new cultural spaces grant children more power in defining themselves and affecting their environments. Major industries, realizing youth influence over $180 billion in discretionary spending (Lagario), have acknowledged these shifts and are increasingly marketing and creating cultures targeting youth. While the hegemony of regulation through education and public policy still exists, the top-down hierarchal relationship where what children can think about is filtered through a protective, market-influenced adult lens is not as powerful as it once was. The contemporary child is not a passive figure waiting to be told what to do and think; he is quick to notice when external forces try to sell him commodified culture and quick to respond with his own self-formed perspectives and responses.
This contemporary moment of youth agency and resistance coexists with the rising popularity of Japanese anime as part of an anti-conformity global culture, as nations like Japan resist the hegemony of American culture and children resist the hegemony of adult regulation. Politically, the U.S. grows more unpopular on the world stage while culturally, “Hollywood is stuck making movies that, while technologically impressive, project ‘counterfeit worlds’ that spectacularize fantasies out of sync with the lived emotions of people in the twenty-first century” (Allison 17). Anime comes to the U.S. as a means of challenging its traditional dominance. Japanese culture scholar Anne Allison argues, “Japan’s role in the current J-craze among American youth is mythic: a place whose meaning fluctuates between the phantasmal and real, the foreign and familiar, the strange and everyday” (Allison 16-17). To Allison, fantasy is at the core of anime’s appeal, creating a nonthreatening space where international politics and culture can be negotiated in departures from unpleasant realities. Anime fantasy is specifically a place that offers comfort to the child as it brings forth the imagination of a “profusion of polymorphous attachments: [fantasies] of nomadic humans finding new kinds of transhuman attachments… that [have] sustained and nourished [children] through what are often tough and lonely times” (Allison 20). Fantasy, as a departure from realities that patronize children, presents the child ideas and musings of many possibilities of empowerment. What fantasy offers to children is not real empowerment, but the hope of empowerment, encouraging revisionist perspectives on unpleasant realities and praising their innate capacity to bring about the change they desire in difficult times.
Anime fantasy is distinct from the fantasies of American cartoons in the way it is more likely to combine childhood and mature experiences. However, that is not to say that children are fundamentally different in anime than they are in different media; rather, these combinations give contexts with which children can be imagined beyond traditional notions. American cartoons commonly contextualize children in isolated environments like the schoolyard and the family home, where conflicts end and repeat benignly because of the prevalent episodic form. Most anime digress from the circular episodic form, developing more complex child characters as they navigate through drawn-out narratives that often take those children beyond the classroom or the home. My Neighbor Totoro and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya exemplify anime’s use of fantasy as a creation of spaces of comforting empowerment where children’s development seem more complex and more similar to the contemporary child, the former for younger children and the latter for adolescents. My Neighbor Totoro’s fantasy elements contextualize younger children with emphases of their capabilities over their deficiencies, illustrating and praising their agency to navigate through conflict. My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of two sisters, Satsuki and Mei, as they move into a rural village, cope with their mother’s hospitalization and befriend furry creatures called totoros, keepers of the forest. Fantasy abounds in the narrative when the sisters bond with the totoro by flying through the air, growing a tree overnight and riding a living, cat-shaped bus. The film reflects Miyazaki’s style favoring idealist visions of a softer, less industrialized world, where children stand in for morals arguing for simpler lifetsyles. My Neighbor Totoro’s success in tying these morals with childhood is that its fantasy is not escapist; rather the fantasy is paired with reality in a relationship of ambivalence that does not criticize it, instead acting as Susan Napier calls an “enchanting enhancement” (Napier 132) of the world. The bordering of fantasy and reality in My Neighbor Totoro idealizes the innocence of childhood as a form of agency rather than inability by highlighting the child protagonists in moments of self-definition and self-sufficiency rather than helplessness.
The world of My Neighbor Totoro is a fantasy framed by a logical schema, exemplifying anime fantasy’s common trend in drawing upon recognizable logic and familiar narratives emphasizing the child’s ability to perceive, understand and act with sound logic. On many levels, My Neighbor Totoro is a childhood fantasy similar to Alice in Wonderland where a child protagonist finds herself ensconced in a strange land with strange creatures. However, Totoro is distinct from Alice in that the logic behind Totoro’s fantasy is wholly reasonable while Alice’s is not (Napier). Alice explores Wonderland with considerable struggle because the world is absurdist, with nonsensical laws and the tyrannical Queen of Hearts. Alice is helpless in the logic-less Wonderland because the skills she possesses as an ordinary girl are virtually useless. On the contrary, the sisters in Totoro are empowered by their own virtues in navigating the fantasy world because its logic is tied to the logic of reality. As the girls’ father explains, the idea of the totoro is rooted in rural folklore that mythologizes nature. Though it is a lofty, dream-like creature, the connection to folklore is a metaphorical conceit that connects the totoros to a reality that defends an environmentalist viewpoint on nature. This fantasy does not detract the girls’ sense of reality, but rather enhances their worldviews and abilities to live everyday life. At one point, the girls, believing in the healing power of fresh vegetables, rely on the totoros’ help to take a fresh ear of corn to their ill mother, which the film suggests speeds her recovery. The logic of the fantasy world in totoro is not centered around an adult perspective, but rather on the larger scope of nature and spiritual belief. This anime fantasy draws upon familiar logic and depicts children as understanding and deftly using that logic.
With strong sense of logic, children’s reasoning and imagination is praised in the film as strength, with the fantasy world as a domain for their creative self-sufficiency. Satsuki and Mei are considerably independent girls as they cook, clean and tend to the house as their mother is ill and their father works out-of-town, demonstrating their strength to cope with loneliness and to act with maturity in the face of troubling family circumstances. However, this strength is realistically at odds with their limitations as children, as Satsuki worries about having to take on a motherly role with her younger sister and Mei cries as she considers the death of her mother as a serious possibility. It is through the girls’ abilities to access the story’s fantasy, that the totoros act as helper figures – teachers which help to actualize the girls’ innate self-sufficiency. Susan Napier argues that in My Neighbor Totoro, “The character’s ability to connect with the [fantastic] Other, be it the unconscious or the supernatural, is clearly coded as a sign of inner strength and mental health” (Napier 127). When Mei first encounters the giant totoro, it roars so loudly in her face that she has to grip onto its fur to hold on. Mei’s demonstrates strength in childlike playfulness and bravery by roaring straight back at the totoro. Childhood traits like curiosity, innocence, bravery and kindness are coded as strength because the fantasy world’s structure allows the child protagonists to explore and use it as they wish. When a desperate Satsuki cannot find Mei anywhere she looks, she turns to the totoro to help her, who grins in the face of the situation as it summons the catbus to bring Satsuki to Mei. As Satsuki has exhausted all her options, her access to the fantasy world becomes her resourcefulness in dealing with conflict. Because the fantasy world in My Neighbor Totoro is structured in a way that the children can approach and utilize it, it praises the ordinary child by coding its typical traits as strength.
A strong ambivalence between fantasy and reality is maintained throughout the film as it is never articulated whether the girl’s adventures are real or a product of their imagination, This ambivalence creates a fluid departure from reality that becomes a means of being in conversation with reality, with children as the medium of that discourse. Napier calls My Neighbor Totoro “a classic fantasy of compensation…one that is more or less controlled by the girls themselves, since the fantasy stems from their own imaginations” (Napier 130). Compensation occurs through the girls’ ability to navigate between real and fantasy, taking part in a continual exchange between the real and that fantastic to deal with troubling family life and play with the totoros. Ambivalence in this exchange does what Zipes calls “genuine storytelling,” which he argues “is not only subversive but magical in that it transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary and makes us appreciate and take notice of little things in life that we would normally overlook” (Zipes 134-135). Zipes’ argument puts in perspective storytelling’s power to call attention to certain issues, which is what the fantasy in the anime does. The film’s fantasy emphasizes how children have different perspectives from adults that allow them their unique observations that they process through their own liminal spaces of imagination. The ownership of unique perspectives is coded as a valuable trait that enables the protagonists to care for themselves. Fantasy’s departure from reality, while maintaining an ambivalent relationship with it, creates the discussion encouraging the fluidity in which childhood can be defined and praises children’s unique abilities to make meaning.
What My Neighbor Totoro does for younger children, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does for adolescents by using fantasy to spur a meta-narrative about adolescence that emphasizes the period as a profound time for navigating identities and realizing power. Haruhi Suzumiya holds many things in common with contemporary popular anime: teenagers in school, slapstick humor, playful and dramatic conflicts, budding romances and fantastical adventures. Haruhi Suzumiya is a fantasy of fantasies, with magical characters descending upon the plot with multiple mythologies. The series revolves around Haruhi Suzumiya’s adamantly declared disinterest in ordinary people and her accompanying wish to meet more interesting beings like aliens, time travelers, and espers. She creates the SOS Brigade, a club dedicated to finding such supernatural beings, and forcibly enlists three random students who ironically happen to be the alien, time traveler and esper she wished for. These extraordinary beings follow Haruhi in order to monitor her god-like powers to change reality on a whim, though she is never aware of this ability or of the three being’s true identities. The series follows the ways in which the SOS Brigade’s adventures often beget reality-changing effects, with everyone at the beck and call of Haruhi lest she destroy the universe out of dissatisfaction. The anime contextualizes the fantasy in terms of the adolescent instead of vice-versa, placing the teen in the role of a mega agent in which the fate of the world rests in their hands. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a meta- narrative fully conscious of its own spectacle, creating a self-critical environment that adolescent characters navigate through to define themselves, with the suspensions of reality acting as an encouragement to interpret adolescence in diversified ways.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’ meta-fictive fantasy casts perspectives on adolescence that are at times familiar and at others mockingly critical, exaggerating traditional psychology to the point where the adolescent protagonists are highly self-aware and are able to critically engage with their own identities. Concepts like the invincibility fable, which refers to adolescents’ tendency to believe they cannot be victims to dangerous behavior, and the personal fable, which refers to the ways in which adolescents often egocentrically believe they are inexplicably special or heroic, are heavily parodied throughout the series. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya exaggerates these concepts through fantasy, where situations place teenagers in God-like positions in a way that raises the dramatic need for the adolescent characters to be self- conscious and self- critical. Haruhi epitomizes stereotypical invincibility and ego-centralism, doing whatever she pleases like abusing Mikuru to the point of sexual harassment and blackmailing a club for a free computer, all the while possessing the magical power to get away with it. However, Haruhi’s consistently silly egocentric attitude serves as a profound contrast to her existential vulnerability, exemplifying a three-dimensional complexity beyond the superficial archetype of the self-absorbed adolescent. After a disappointing adventure, Haruhi reveals to Kyon a life-changing moment where she felt her life was utterly insignificant, reminiscing about calculating the vast number of people at a sold-out baseball game and realizing that the stadium capacity is a tiny fraction of the Japanese population, which is also a tiny fraction of the world’s population. With this realization, Haruhi grows melancholic, thinking about the mundane nature of her existence as a mere drop in a large ocean – and yet, in the face of such thoughts, she becomes convinced that there are a small number of people who are indeed “special.” Pursuing the extraordinary becomes an obsession for Haruhi in order to escape the lonely normalcy of everyday life. While Haruhi’s actions are clearly in the realm of fantasy, her motives have real emotional depth. The idea of adolescent ego-centralism portrayed in the anime is defamiliarized through exaggeration, emphasizing not its exasperating typicality but its careful and unique thought and emotional processes. Haruhi is not just the self-absorbed girl given god-like powers who uses them to abuse others; her emotional investment is guided by a desire to be someone special, a desire that resonates across a universal scale. “Every fantasy is based on desires, and so is Japanese anime fantasy. Desires are conceived here as multiple, since every historical text speaks of not just one but multiple, often conflicting, desires” (Mizuno 105). The multiple desires of the adolescent drive the fun of the fantasy in Haruhi Suzumiya, creating an environment that adds a realistic three-dimensional quality to adolescence by depicting egocentricism as a byproduct of human vulnerabilities.
As a representation of the three-dimensional depth of adolescent identity, diverse fantasy mythologies in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya act as allegorical representations of the adolescent’s negotiation of individual identities and behavior. Various explanations arise regarding the source of Haruhi’s power – she is alternately describe as a source of unprecedented auto-evolution, an anomaly in the time- space continuum, and an unknowing deity with the power to freely create and destroy the universe. This web lays out the multiple fantasies in Haruhi Suzumiya with no concrete sense of “truth” as Yuki tells Kyon that “no matter what truths [she] tell[s] [him], [he] will be unable to confirm them” (Haruhi ep. 24). No two characters agree in a universal conception of reality; instead, what the fantasy of the anime gives is a balanced negotiation of magical beliefs and personal identities. Kyon, as the protagonist defined by his ordinariness, wavers between beliefs, choosing just to do the best he can to keep the SOS Brigade out of trouble and Haruhi’s powers in check. The complexity behind the characters’ beliefs mirrors the complexity of adolescent development, reflecting the way they try out different identities. The seemingly pointless adventures the SOS Brigade undertakes are negotiations of these beliefs, where each adolescent character’s identity is self-formed in a way emphasizing their power to choose what they believe. Having a plethora of beliefs to choose from, the fantasy remains ambiguous about the correctness of any thought, allowing the adolescents to organically navigate the possibilities as they might in real life.
The protagonists are self-critical within a constant negotiation between reality and fantasy in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which spurs a discourse between the individual experience of adolescence and the universal experience of being as a human being. The proportions to which the fantasy departs from reality, yet remains ultimately tied to reality, creating a kind of logical distance that presents the multiplicity of desires in a universal scope. “A spatial distance can connect people by separating them; they share the distance that separates. Such spatial continuity affirms the fact that they live in one large world, instead of separate ones” (Kage 253). Kage’s arguments begin to point to the ideological background of fantasy anime in which characters of differing beliefs begin to realize the vast world of diversity and possibility. While every member (except Haruhi) has differing beliefs on the structure of the world around them, these supernatural characters are comfortable with the absence of absolute assurance, as can be seen in their desire that the ambivalent situation of submitting to Haruhi’s whims to keep her powers in check remain unchanged. This logical distance that prevents any confirmation on the validity of beliefs enhances the sense that the adolescent experience is a journey to find one’s self. “Distance evokes a desire for physical closeness, and this in turn inspires movement, but…the distance [must be sustained] rather than [shrunk] because sustaining the movement toward closeness is crucial for…relationships to be vast and generous” (Kage 256). The lack of a point closing the ideological distance emphasizes the pursuit, rather than the attainment, of identity. During the school’s cultural festival, Haruhi flawlessly performs two songs she learned within an hour to assist a band with injured members. When the band expresses their heartfelt gratitude, Haruhi, not used to being thanked, is taken aback. Watching the band get closer to their dream leads Haruhi to, for the first time in any of her endeavors, wonder how she could have performed better and ponder her life’s direction. This questioning of purpose illustrates the fallibility of Haruhi’s power where, despite having confidence and unconscious ability to change reality, she is still unsure of what she wants to do or be. Haruhi’s constant pursuit to “have fun with extraordinary beings” is the continual driver of the anime’s action because of this sustained ideological difference that denies confirmation of the correct beliefs. Haruhi has ideas for adventures, but she is never sure of exactly what they are or what their purpose is, and is usually disappointed with how she never finds supernatural beings (despite them surrounding her). Thus, the fantasy offers no answers about adolescence, but connects it to a universal search for identity, navigating the complexities of reality in a way that sympathizes with adolescence as a profoundly connected experience rather than an isolated or trivial one.
Both My Neighbor Totoro and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya use fantasy to create contextual spaces of empowerment where children are portrayed with complexity and profound capability and adolescents are portrayed as self-critical and invested in a universalized sense of identity formation. These two texts are indicative of a larger trend in anime which treats children as powerful agents in the formation of their own identities, and the larger world. My arguments here have not been aimed at declaring that children in anime are somehow more “realistic” than those depictions in American media; rather, the analysis of fantasy’s mechanics is aimed at showing how these contexts defamiliarize the traditional child in order to expose the capabilities of the contemporary child. Thus, the world of My Neighbor Totoro allows its child protagonists to freely navigate logically structured realms, praising their reasoning and imaginative ability and uses an ambivalence of fantasy-reality borders to emphasize the value of their unique perspectives that see things adults do not. Likewise, the world of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya exaggerates typical aspects of adolescence to call attention to the adolescent protagonist’s self-critical engagement with their own identities, applauding how they negotiate beliefs in ways that relates adolescence to a universalized journey of self-discovery. These contexts of self-sufficient agency created by fantasy function as tools for thinking about the child as products of their own making, perpetuating narratives that are always multiple and diverse. As he hopes “genuine storytelling” will do, Zipes argues that, “If our young are to have any chance to ground their lives in any kind of tradition, then they must learn hopeful skepticism, how to play creatively with the forces dictating how to shape their lives, and how to use storytelling to reshape those conditions that foster sham and hypocrisy” (Zipes 145). Anime fantasy structures contextual parameters in which children can negotiate meanings in order to be skeptical, to be creative, and to shape their own identities, disseminating a message encouraging a revisionist kind of thinking and expanding the valid possibilities with which to interpret childhood.
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