Satoyama, Modernity, and Tradition in Japanese Anime

A photo of a hand holding cards on an anime storyboard.

Rick Wysocki

June 13, 2021

I’ve been watching some anime over the past few weeks. Anime has always been entertaining and interesting to me, but I’ve generally been hesitant to dive too deep into it. Without caricaturing some of the US fans of anime (you know the ones), I can broadly say that I’ve just been a bit uncomfortable about the extent to which white Americans… throw themselves at particular elements of Japanese culture, and in turn throw those representations around as though they were offering some sort of authoritative perspective on the nation because, well, they watch a lot of anime.

But that critique has its problems, too. One reason is that, according to cultural anthropologist Ian Condry, Japan has intentionally amplified anime’s global reach and seems to see its popularity (which begets forms of appropriation) as a nationalistic boon. Japanese government officials have gone so far as to use anime characters popular in China as ambassadors for Japanese interests. Something Condry notes, though, is that these techniques are unlikely to be successful because anime viewers develop cultural, not political attachments to the art form (18-19). This must be at least some of the soil in which the seeds of very weird forms of cultural appropriation can be planted.

It would also be wrong to simply ignore a transnational art form based on the weirdness of a certain segment of its proponents. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to fill in some of the gaps in “must-see” anime films and shows and slowly move toward a better understanding of their appeal. I’ve also been reading scholarship about anime, its history, and how it deviates from animation in the United States. It’s frequently observed that tensions between tradition and modernity are often central to anime. In my recent viewing, I’ve noticed those tensions in works like “Attack on Titan,” My Neighbor Totoro, and much of Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre more generally.

In “Attack on Titan,” for example, the Eldians literally see themselves as the only remaining human population. Their lives are marked by mostly pre-modern technologies and modes of life. Only later do the characters learn that the world is far more expansive and technologically developed, shocked by modern wonders like the automobile and ice cream. “Attack on Titan” uses this tension in an aggressive and extreme fashion, commenting on the legacies of nationalism and global conflict. It is notable, though, that nearly all of the show’s major characters have European names. I need to read more of the commentary surrounding the show (and, unfortunately, wait for its upcoming season), but it feels wrong to assume that it is an allegory for Japanese history. Rather it seems more focused on the brutality of war and the human condition and, perhaps more specifically, the violent history of the Western world. Again, these are only initial interpretations.

Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films also highlight tensions between tradition and modernity but in a far different fashion. From a genre perspective, “Attack on Titan” highlights the tension through the perspective of the war film and body horror, whereas Miyazaki typically does so through the lens of fantasy. Still, Ghibli’s films nearly always assume a political stance, one example being the frequent use of “sentient landscapes” as a metaphor for human effects on and relationship with the earth (Napier 162).

In a book chapter by Susan J. Napier, she notes that the Japanese term satoyama is often at the heart of Studio Ghibli films: “literally the place where village meets mountain, but more generally the space in which human and nature interconnect” (Napier 66). Whereas Miyazaki often employs satoyama to show the need for ecologically sustainable life patterns, it could be argued that “Attack on Titan” also narrates the line between humans and nature, nature being where the titans largely exist and, metaphorically, where human beings violent tendencies manifest. To a degree, satoyama seems to correspond to the frontier trope, discussed in a recent post on the Western and the samurai film.

And yet, “Attack on Titan” and Miyazaki both avoid clearly demarcating “good vs. evil” in their portrayals of modernity and tradition. This is especially true in “Attack on Titan,” as plenty of human violence takes place within the city walls. By refusing binary portrayals, these works exemplify Napier’s observation that while US animation offers more Manichean themes, Japanese animation studios, by contrast, often present more complicated views of the human condition (Napier 168).