Art vs. Reality pt2: Not Matching Up

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Some time ago, Artemis and I collaborated on an article about accurate portrayals of Japan as seen in anime. From school buildings and their bells and the sound of cicadas, to the general look of streets and overhead cables, we found that anime often gets a lot of details very right. However, what of those things that anime does not?

Of course, as previously discussed, anime is a medium that exaggerates by nature, and even for shows set in ‘real’ Japan, expecting everything to be a perfect representation of the country or its culture would be ridiculous. Nonetheless, there are a few elements that are especially conspicuous by their absence, and so in this article, we’ll be going over a few details of Japanese life that seem to be missing from the vast majority of anime titles.

Funnily enough, we’re starting off once again with Japanese schools – or more specifically, Japanese school food. In many anime that focus in and around school life, it’s fairly common to see students bringing home-made boxed lunches (bento) to school, or else buying food from the school cafeteria. Hundreds of anime, from Sailor Moon and Evangelion to Azumanga Daioh and Toradora!, depict characters bringing their own bento to school, while some such as Ao Haru Ride, Angel Beats!, and Fate/stay night depict characters either eating at or buying from some kind of cafeteria or shop located within the school itself.

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It’s probably worth a brief mention here that the majority of public schools in Japan actually don’t have their own cafeteria, and so bento are far more common. However, the bigger oddity is that I can think of no anime series in which characters all eat the same lunch as provided by the school (kyuushoku). Public high schools in Japan don’t generally provide kyuushoku, but nearly all public elementary and junior high schools do – some since the late 1800s – and while a great many anime titles are set in high school, there are plenty that also revolve around younger students. Hourou Musuko, Dennou Coil, Cardcaptor Sakura, Kamichu!, Aku no Hana, Read or Die, Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso… all of these are at least partially set in either elementary or junior high school, and yet there’s not a single kyuushoku to be seen. Statistically, I’m sure there must be one or two anime out there that have shown examples of kyuushoku, however briefly, but of the thousands of anime I’ve seen, I can come up with zero.

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Another absence from most anime titles are the chimes. I’m not talking about the school bell this time, but rather the town chimes that play every single day, and sometimes several times a day, in many suburban and rural areas of Japan. Usually this is at five or occasionally six in the evening, but in some places you can also hear them at either six or seven in the morning and at twelve noon. They aren’t always played in huge urban areas, and even some suburban areas don’t have them, but there are certainly enough anime that take place outside major cities for me to notice their absence. The sound comes from a loudspeaker network that’s designed to be able to warn city, town, or village residents in case of an emergency, and the music – most commonly an instrumental version of a Japanese folk song – acts as a daily test of the speaker system (though it also has the added benefit of reminding children of the time so that they can head home before dark).

Since around ninety percent of Japanese cities, towns and villages have these loudspeaker systems in place, you’d think that they would have a solid presence in anime – many of which otherwise quite accurately portray the feel of suburban and rural Japan. Strange, then, that the single anime I can think of which plays daily evening music from the town loudspeakers is Shin Sekai Yori… and given that this is an Orwellian-style title that seems to use said speakers as an ominous kind of curfew, that’s a pretty creepy example.

Staying with the theme of inhabited areas, another aspect of Japan that often doesn’t make an appearance in anime is the exterior appearance of many houses and buildings. The structure itself is generally represented truthfully, but the colours and textures are a different story. Japan is a high-energy ecosystem, with plenty of moisture and salty sea air thrown into the mix. As a result, the exterior appearance of buildings deteriorates rapidly, leading to a common and somewhat shabbily unkempt look. This usually has nothing at all to do with the condition of the building itself – once you go indoors, they are clean and well-maintained almost without exception, even those that are more than a century old. From the outside however, you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking you had entered a land of dilapidated hovels.

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Anime as a whole doesn’t represent this unless other than in extreme examples, such as a war-zone or when a point is being made about the impoverishment of society. This is fair enough to an extent: relentless accuracy in this respect could easily detract from the story, and would likely increase anime production costs. It’s much easier to simply give each building a uniform texture, and there are also possible stylistic reasons for the choice, but the fact remains that the look of the buildings in anime, particularly when it comes to housing, tends to be misleadingly clean. There’s no shortage of examples of anime getting this wrong – you could choose just about any anime set in Japan and see it in action. Examples of anime getting it right are far harder to come up with. Once again, I’m going to fall back on Kamichu! for its realistic portrayal of a seaside town, including the look of the buildings and neighbourhoods. An honourable mention goes to Usagi Drop too, for its accurate depiction of the banks of an urban river.

That particular scene in Usagi Drop takes place when the characters are viewing fireflies one evening, and this is another rare example of something anime usually ignores: the insects. Given my general feelings about bugs, this is one inaccuracy I’m actually pretty happy about, but it’s a fairly glaring omission nonetheless. One of the characteristics of the aforementioned high-energy ecosystem is a profusion of life, and insects are a big part of that. There are the fireflies of course, as well as the constant hum of cicadas in the summer, and if I go for a walk during that season I can also expect to be dive-bombed by squadrons of huge iridescent dragonflies. These are the few examples of insect life in Japan that anime recreates fairly faithfully.

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At home though, I have to take fairly serious precautions against an invasion of creepy-crawlies, yet in most anime they’re noticeably absent. Characters can apparently just leave their doors and windows wide open and not have to worry about bugs getting inside. Natsume Yuujinchou is one of the biggest offenders in this regard; the show is clearly in about as rural a setting as it is possible to get without going to the extreme end of the scale a la Non Non Biyori, and yet we don’t see so much as a single cockroach – to say nothing of the huge and/or incredibly colourful spiders, the gejigeji, and the devil-spawn known as mukade (which I seriously advise against looking up, by the way). Perhaps because of this profusion of bug life, insects exert a weird sort of fascination on the local kids. Expeditions to go bug-catching are entirely normal after-school pursuits, and stores sell cases for keeping them in (although the highly disturbing insect euthanasia kits are harder to get hold of these days). Their proud captors delight in showing off particularly impressive specimens to friends, family, or in fact anyone passing by.

Despite insects playing such a major role in Japanese life, even the majority of slice-of-life anime more or less completely ignore them. Beetles and cockroaches make the odd appearance, as in Barakamon and Azumanga Daioh respectively, and there are even one or two sighting of mukade specifically, such as a scene in Danshi Koukousei no Nichijou and a brief clip in the OP of Ghost Hound. Otherwise they, along with most other forms of insect life in anime, might as well not exist.

Though in many respects it does not necessarily strive for realism, anime nonetheless offers a view into a different but sometimes surprisingly realistic setting for many viewers; despite intentional exaggerations, it can often include a number of faithful details of what life in Japan is really like. However, it’s worth remembering that many details get left out as well, and while their absence might be more subtle than other aspects of any given show (or even go entirely unnoticed), they still very much contribute – or as in some cases, detract from – the accuracy of that show as a whole.

Question of the post: Can you think of any other similar kinds of details that anime often leaves out? Conversely, are there any similar kinds of details that are often included in anime but that you question in terms of accuracy?

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About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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