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As a child, I’d say I had a double life. Maybe I still do have a double life. I think many people who have foreign nationality or are 2nd generation have multi-faceted lives.
When I was at school, I tried (probably a bit too hard) to be like everyone else. I made every effort to speak in the vernacular, sometimes even peppered with swear words, just to really cement my sense of belonging. I forbade my mother to make me Japanese packed lunches (was I MAD??) – the more pitifully boring the ham sandwich on white bread, the happier I was. I mastered the dry art of self-deprecation and the cynical British one-liner. I was like the poster child for ‘Very British Problems’.
When I got home though, I could take off that Britishness, almost like one takes off a hat. I’d throw it in the corner where it could lie unheeded until the next morning. At home, I could breathe out and just be the strange not-Japanese/not-English hybrid that I was.
And the benefits of being me were sometimes quite huge. Unappreciated at the time, maybe, but still huge.
For example, I’d come home to different snacks. A little thing, but while my friends may have had a rich tea biscuit after school, I might have had a selection of delicious, crunchy rice crackers, speckled with shiny black nori…or a few sticks of pink, fragrant strawberry pocky.
Oh yes. I’ve been eating pocky for YEARS before you even heard of it.
As I mentioned yesterday, I had the BEST socks and selection of bags and stationery sets (although they sometimes had hilariously weird Japanglish written all over them. My favourite was a tin of colouring pencils which was decorated with a cute rabbit and a cute bear holding hands, emblazoned with the slogan “Poofield. Little Rabbit Pu and Little Bear Poo are best friend in Poofield.” Honest to god.)
I loved my selection of books. Not only did I have Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and L. M. Montgomery, I also had Japanese books and comics galore – some of which I couldn’t even read, but I loved them all the same.
I had a particular favourite – a glossy book about the history of Japanese anime – which was crammed with amazing film stills from the most influential, prominent manga artists in Japan, like Osamu Tezuka. I pored over the page dedicated to G-Force for hours. Remember G-Force – also known as Battle of the Planets?? In Japan, it was called Gatchaman, but it was awesome in either language.
I was also an adoring fan of ‘Ribbon no Kishi’ (known in the US as ‘Princess Knight’) – an anime about a dashing, sword-fighting, cross-dressing princess who pretends to be a man so she can fight her own battles, and find her long-lost parents. Hot. Very hot.
Doraemon is a giant blue cat without any ears, with a terror of mice. He is a robot from the future, and has been sent as a companion to Nobita – the weak and pathetic school victim – to improve his life. Doraemon has a magic pocket full of useful gadgets (a shrink ray gun, beanie hats with helicopter rotors, space ships, potions that will double the quantity of food they have etc), and they get into terrible scrapes – usually as a result of gadget misuse
The ever popular Anpanman is a series about a superhero who has a bean jam bun for a head. Yes, really. And when people are sad or in trouble (or hungry, I guess), he pulls a chunk out of his head and offers it round. He has a whole host of friends, most of whom also have various food items for heads. Apparently, Anpanman’s creator, Takashi Yanase, faced starvation many times during the war, and used to fantasise about food – cream buns, croissants, melon buns, sweet rolls – all walking about on little legs, and thus the concept behind Anpanman was created.
No blog post about anime would be complete without the mention of Studio Ghibli, of course. Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, and his team, have been responsible for some of the most beautiful, uplifting, devastating, fascinating films ever created. Not only are the colours and textures bewitching, but the stories manage to speak to the soul – touched as they are with nostalgia, suffering and human strength.
My children have watched films like Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Laputa, Nausicaa and Spirited Away so many times. They never lost their appeal. The combination of the story, the music and the visuals seemed like pure alchemy, on every viewing.
If you’ve never watched a Studio Ghibli film, you really must. They are timeless classics, and your life will be richer for it. (Top tip though – Watch in its original form, with subtitles. The dubbed versions are face-rakingly annoying.)
One of my favourites (although I love them all) is the mysterious, jewel-hued Howl’s Moving Castle. It is, of course, enchantingly surreal like many of the other Ghibli films, but I particularly identify with this female protagonist – a young girl called Sophie, who has been turned into an old lady by a wicked sorceress. I found it interesting that, when Sophie was relaxed and unselfconscious, she would unwittingly return to her young, fresh-faced self. The instant she became aware of herself, the years would raddle her face and she’d turn back into a bent old crone again. (This reminds me of the way my eczema behaves.) Sophie had to travel a tough road of self-discovery before realising that she held the power to change herself, and always did.
If you have the desire to see the sadness of a whole lost civilisation in the slump of a gigantic robot’s shoulders – a metal titan who exists in abandoned dereliction like a clock that has wound down forever - then PLEASE visit the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo.
Make your way up to the wild rooftop garden, where a robot from Laputa (Island in the Sky) waits patiently for the universe to end, oblivious to the tourists who swarm around him. Walk through Miyazaki’s cosy studio, where sketches and artist’s materials lie strewn about in true creative chaos. Climb up the quirky spiral staircase, seemingly hewn from the trunk of a twisted tree – the Faraway Tree, perhaps. If you can bear queueing, then let the kids jump about on the huge, pillowy Nekobus (many-legged Cat Bus, to clear things up for those not in the know).
I found this place so magical and inspiring that I visited it twice, and will probably go again – a necessary pilgrimage to pay homage to a genius.
Japanese manga and anime is an art form rich in diversity - spanning iconic children’s cartoons, cult stories, pornography, educational material and global box office-busting films, to name but a few genres. It is a well-spring of unending leaps of imagination and fantasy.
In a country where many aspects of life are regimented, uniform and rigid, Japanese Anime has a fiercely original, visionary independence that dares to be different; dares to grab the world’s conformism by the coat lapels and shake very hard - and that makes me a fan.