11.26.2010

Fantasy and Reality Blur in Anime Obsessed Japan

As a woman who has had almost equal exposure to Asian and Western cultures, I have always had a fascination with how women, beauty and sex appeal have been interpreted, developed and depicted in various cultures.

Salesgirls in a department store in Osaka
Obviously, various countries around the world depending on the strength of the global media, have differing perceptions of what an 'ideal' woman should look like. In countries like Mauritania and some islands in the South Pacific, the more robust and plump woman is seen as beautiful. In Mauritania, young girls are secluded and sometimes forcibly fattened up to make them more eligible for marriage. Conversely, in western countries, the fashion industry, the media and the ease of creating computer modified images have idealized an often unattainable and unhealthy skinny body. Models and actresses are often pressured to diet down to minuscule sizes. In China, the offices of plastic surgeons are filled with people who want more Caucasian features - as some view that as the epitome of beauty. And in Iran, nose jobs are a status symbol and a temporary cure for a boredom.

Now with the prevalence and accessibility of internet pornography, there has been plenty research done of late of some men preferring the company of a digitized women online to maintaining a relationship with a real life woman. Unlike the women depicted in the video scenarios, a real life woman might have her own ideas about how she is portrayed or treated. Unfortunately, (in my opinion), you see rising numbers of women (I do live in Los Angeles) desperate to increase their desirability factor by cutting their bodies and augmenting their breasts and hips in the hopes of competing with those online images. Plastic surgery in California is a booming business.

Up until now, I thought that was as bizarre and extreme as it got for women trying to transform their looks to attain that ever elusive image of perfection and beauty.

Then I went to Japan.

So earlier this month, I returned to Japan after a gap of about 17 years and I noticed a bizarre trend amongst teens and young Japanese women. Having grown up in Tokyo, I can tell you that anime is a big deal in Japan. It is very pervasive part of the entertainment and culture. Grown men and on occasionally women voraciously read comic books or mangas or watch the cartoons on TV or in the movie theaters. Now that mangas have gone global, most people already know, the female characters depicted in these comics often have unnaturally curvaceous figures, delicate noses and mouths with extremely large sparkly eyes.
A month or so before my trip to japan, I watched a segment on NHK a Japanese TV station on the popularity on this video game by Nintendo DS called "Love Plus." Love Plus which was released in September last year only in Japan, is a simulated dating game that you would play on a hand held video console. Since its release apparently, this 'game' has gained extreme popularity. The player (ie the man) selects their anime girlfriend from a handful of cartoon college students. Then simulating the trajectory of any relationship, the 'girlfriend' may start off being a little shy and reserved but over the course of a series of dates and trips taken together, she becomes more open and connected. The specific segment that I watched on NHK was about how the seaside town of Atami, taking advantage of the popularity of this game partnered with Konami Digital Entertainment, the creators of the game, to offer a special tour for men and their Love Plus girlfriends. Huge tour buses packed with men and their hand held video console were brought to specific tourist sites, where the men would scan a specific bar code attached to the site and the anime girlfriend would simultaneously 'see' and comment on the experience of the same sites. These men could then take pictures together with their anime girlfriend either in the form of the hand held console or a computer generated life size image (see below). At the end of the day, the men checked into the prescribed hotel with their anime girlfriend. Scanning another barcode at the hotel, the video game would then show the anime girlfriend in the exact hotel room surroundings.
Image from AFP

When doing some additional reading for this post, I came across a story about a Japanese college student who married his Love Plus girlfriend. Publicity stunt or not - that event took a lot of time and effort to organize. (See the video below).



Now as bizarre and dysfunctional as this game/obsession/relationship was to me, I didn't think much of it until I went to Japan. After all growing up in Japan, you get used to seeing some unusual things.

When I was perusing a few guide books in preparation for my trip back to Japan, I read about the growth of an even more pervasive obsession with anime. So based on a few write-ups, I decided to visit the Akihabara district of Tokyo. Akihabara is the electronics/technology area of Tokyo. I used to go, to check out new gadgets and when I wanted to buy some new electronics . There aren't many places in the world that can rival Japan in electronics and technology. However recently, Akihabara has also become a sort of anime district for the geeky techie. There are coffee shops and restaurants with anime themes and women dressed in specific anime costumes - like the Maid Cafe - where cute young women, dress up as anime milk maids. Interspersed amongst these coffee shops are stores that sell a huge variety of anime clothing, gadgets and other paraphernalia. Anime has leapt off the television screen and has crossed over into reality. Neighborhoods with anime coffee shops and stores and tourism packages for men and their Love Plus girlfriends are blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

And now anime has now also crossed another boundary and is influencing how young Japanese women perceive their own beauty and fashion. After all, how do you get a guy's attention when he is in love with a cartoon?

I first noticed it in Tokyo and then in Osaka. I would do a double take when women with their generous curls of dyed blond or light brown hair would walk past. Not because of their hair but because of their unusually large eyes. I started to notice that many of these young women seemed to have that additional eyelid crease, which you normally don't see on east Asian women. Many of these women with the light brown or blond hair had heavily highlighted their eyes with thick black liner, layers of fake eyelashes and heavy mascara. When I talked to my sister about this observation, she has suggested an idealization of Caucasian women, which may have been the case, if not for the attempts to make their eyes extra extra large.
Another day, I wandered through Shibuya's 109 department store, the mecca for cutting edge fashion for young Japanese women. It was Saturday and the place was packed with girls and young women, many of them with their luscious blond locks and big bright sparkly eyes, purchasing just the right attire to add to their very stylized look. It was then it hit me. Thinking back to the NHK segment I watched on the popularity of Love Plus, and the anime coffee shops I saw in Akihabara, I concluded that perhaps young Japanese women are trying to look like anime characters to increase their sex appeal. Have Japanese men become so obsessed with anime that Japanese women feel they need to look like a cartoon character to be attract attention?

Women's magazine with pointers on how to enlarge ones eyes
Well, I don't really know the answer to that. All I do know it that this has become a huge industry in Japan and possibly some of its neighboring countries. A company in Korea called Geo, manufactures extra wide contact lenses to make your iris and your eyes just that much larger. And just like anime characters, you can get lenses in different colors with stars and sparkles.



I also found mountains of magazines in a bookstores, offering step by step guidelines on how to make your eyes that much larger with make-up and other tools. Much of the advertising geared towards these young women have these anime-like women as models.
Mascara for that anime eye look
There are also photo booths all over the place, which you go into with your boyfriend or your girlfriends which enlarge and/or color your eyes when the pictures are printed. My Caucasian husband and I went into one such booths to test it out when we were at Namba Park in Osaka and we both ended up with large bug eyes in our series of photographs.
Photobooths
I should say that this is my analysis after only a brief trip to Japan. I acknowledge, that I don't know for a fact what prompted this new look and why exactly it is so popular. I just wonder when, if ever, women will stop treating their faces and bodies like they were made of clay. Now, I enjoy watching the occasional anime television series or movie, but as an adult, I prefer it stay in the realm of fantasy. Call me crazy, but I like my friends and partner to be of the human variety. And if their eyes are sparkling, it is because they are happy to see me and not because they have stars and fireworks drawn onto their extra large irises.

3 comments:

  1. Wow! I was in Japan 4 years ago and I didn't notice the huge iris thing.. Maybe it has popped up recently. Anyway, if they must modify their appearance, I prefer that it be a temporary one, like contact lenses, and not like a nose job and eyelid surgery.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I should also add that when I was in Japan, I could definitely tell the difference in women's body shape preference. I'm from a Mediterranean culture, which values hour-glass figures and wide hips, so I felt pretty alienated amongst all the women who were downplaying their figure with loose clothing and accentuating their legs with very short skirts.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "After all, how do you get a guy's attention when he is in love with a cartoon?" Force him to have protected sex with you and see if he presses charges. But no seriously it is not the games and anime that blur reality and fantasy. It is the environment where People are bullied like in America. If you are bullied so much then it is highly possible to prefer the fictional world over the real. The real world is in many ways a very undesirable place with all the shit going on. Who ends up blurring reality depends on the way that the person was brought up and the way their life went personally (IMO). Games and anime are just another way to deal with the harshness of our world. Like how some people depend on drugs or even their friends for support. Only difference is that your friends and Games/Anime don't induce destructively brain cell killing materials in you. So long as they aren't fucked up on real drugs and alcohol then I couldn't care what they do to their bodies so long as it isn't killing themselves or maiming their bodies in terrible ways.

    ReplyDelete