Art vs. Reality: When Anime Gets It Right

anime face

Wait, you mean real faces don’t actually look like this??

Anime is a medium that loves to exaggerate. From the overlarge eyes and sometimes hilarious facial expressions to the often outright fantastical stories that occur in ‘real life’ situations, there’s clearly a lot about anime that is in no way comparable to the actual world in which we live.

That being said, there are also plenty of common features in anime that do in fact reflect what life can be like in Japan. Viewers might not necessarily watch anime for its realism, but it’s difficult to divorce an entire culture and its customs from a product, and as such, many anime titles are automatically reflective of the place in which they are created. In this collaborative article between Watson and myself, we’ll be going over a few of the more pervasive examples of those anime tropes that are more or less identical to the sights and sounds of Japan in reality.

Let’s start off with one of the most obvious: school. Ever caught yourself thinking that nearly every single school building in anime looks exactly the same, from the outside architecture to the inside layout? That’s not just because the art department is being cheap or lazy (well, okay, maybe sometimes that too), but also because the vast majority of schools in Japan really do look like this. Whether they’re elementary, junior high, or senior high schools, the bulk of these buildings are designed in such a way that they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who happens to be passing by: box-like and stark concrete, with multiple storeys depending on the number of students (but typically at least three), and a clock situated somewhere above the main entrance. The ‘field’ out in front isn’t grass but rather a sandy kind of dirt, where the kids can play baseball, the bugs can’t thrive, and the school doesn’t need to do anything but rake and occasionally weed it.

japanese school

Nearly every school in Japan.

Perhaps in part because of how relatively easy and cheap they are to build and maintain, and possibly also because of Japan’s almost fanatical passion for uniformity, there are precious few public schools that don’t adhere to this basic appearance; the Japanese government simply doesn’t permit many breaks from the norm. And of course, since schools essentially look indistinguishable from one another no matter where in Japan they’re situated, it only makes sense that most anime schools set in Japan look pretty much the same as well, from classics like Sailor Moon and Great Teacher Onizuka to more contemporary shows such as Hyouka and Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun.

school hyouka

Hyouka’s Kamiyama High School

Take it from me that they sound precisely the same as well, thanks to the chime played in Japanese schools the country over. Known as the Westminster Quarters, this distinctive tune is actually one of the most, if not the most, common piece of music played by clock chimes around the world. Though adopted by the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster (where Big Ben hangs) in the mid-18th century, the tune is not only heard plenty in England but also for example in Taiwan, where as in Japan, the sound signals the beginning and end of class periods. It’s also a common sound at train stations in Indonesia, where the tune is used to indicate train arrival and departure times.

Although the reason why Japan decided to use the Westminster Quarters specifically as the nation-wide school bell is something of a mystery, it’s said that the reason it was changed from the previous bell is that it sounded too much like an air-raid siren. Perhaps the choice of a British tune was inevitable, given that the sailor fuku is also modelled after the uniforms of the Royal Navy. In any event, the Westminster Quarters has now been closely associated with the Japanese school system for over half a century, and so the sound has practically become its own establishing shot as far as anime is concerned. Tenchi Muyo, Cardcaptor Sakura, Toradora, K-On – take your pick, the chimes are nearly always the same.

However, this isn’t the only sound heard in a huge number of anime. Another noise common to hundreds, likely thousands, of anime titles is that of cicadas. Cicadas in New Zealand can be loud. Cicadas in Japan are generally much bigger but also much, much louder, and for three to four months in the summer, they scream from dawn until dusk. Some don’t even stop there, since the big cities create so much illumination that the poor things apparently get confused and keep going well into the night. What’s more, there’s something like thirty different species of cicada that can be found throughout Japan, all of which produce their own unique sound.

No matter if you live out in the countryside or in urban Japan, the noise of chirping cicadas is so noticeable and so unrelenting that to omit it from an anime set in Japan during summer might feel a little odd. As a result, it’s not just anime like Natsume Yuujinchou, Barakamon, and Non Non Biyori that take place in rural settings which heavily feature the sound, but also titles set in the city. One of the subtly unsettling things about Evangelion, for example, is that even in a big post-apocalyptic city like Tokyo-3 the sound of cicadas never stops, because the world is in a state of perpetual summer.

Moving away from the future and back into current-day Japan, another thing that anime consistently gets right is the look of the streets in a modern Japanese town. It’s quite distinctive and you’ve probably noticed it yourself if you’ve watched any anime at all, but it was only after our respective arrivals in Japan that we realised just how accurate this portrayal is. There are three main aspects to it which are immediately noticeable: the streets themselves, the buildings which line them, and what this does to the amenities we would normally take for granted.

Streets in Japan are narrow – really narrow. Partly this is traditional, partly it’s the way property taxes are calculated, but the end result is that real estate is at a premium. Even most main roads aren’t generously proportioned by Western standards, and once you get off them and into the side streets they get even more cramped. Shows with a slice-of-life focus like Bakuman and Usagi Drop get the look and feel absolutely right. To cope with the confined streets and sharp angles, innovations like kei cars make a lot of sense. If you’re not sure what a kei car is, you’re not alone – I’d never heard of them before I came to Japan either. Calling them small is to miss a perfect opportunity to use the word diminutive, but they still manage to fit in a 660cc engine and usually four seats. Their short wheelbase and low fuel consumption make them very popular in towns here (and the different taxation requirements don’t hurt either.)

bakuman street

A street scene in Bakuman

The same factors that influence such narrow streets also apply to the buildings that line them. There’s a strong pressure to get the utmost use out of every square meter of land, which means that houses and shops usually go right up to the very edge of the boundary. And this does precisely what you’d expect: gardens, roadside parking, and footpaths are remarkable more for their absence than their presence (or, if present, for their confined and regimented nature). Even roadside drains are affected by this, having a standardized design which is deep, small, and right-angled – and those that are not covered over present a real menace to navigation when trying to drive a car down a side-street. In any case, the combination of narrow streets with sharp angles and buildings right up to their edges means it can be difficult to work out when it’s clear to turn a corner, so circular convex mirrors are a common sight at intersections.

The other extremely distinctive feature of Japanese streets is the overhead cabling. It’s nowhere near as bad as it is in some other places like Vietnam, but it’s still something of a surprise in a developed country. Practically all power and communication cables are strung from poles at the side of the road, and even in big cities such as Tokyo, well over 90% of the power grid is located above ground. There are arguments both ways, of course; overhead cables are much cheaper and easier to install (and repair in the event of damage), and they provide handy places to put streetlights and signs. However, they’re also very vulnerable to bad weather, and can block road access in the event of a natural disaster. As you might imagine, even Japanese people are divided on the issue, and Tokyo is considering a concerted effort to clear at least some areas in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. Aesthetics aside though, the real issue preventing underground cabling being taken up more widely seems to be the cost and difficulty of doing so. There’s a lot of infrastructure already down there, and rearranging it all to make room for the cables might simply prove impractical. At any rate, overhead cables are certain to remain a feature of both rural and urban Japan for the foreseeable future.

japanese power lines

Spiderman would probably have a hard time getting around in Japan

Needless to say, just about any anime set in modern-day Japan has a lot of the above features, especially shows with a big emphasis on outdoor establishing shots like Kare Kano and Aku no Hana. However, if you’re after only one title which has examples of every single point discussed in this article (to say nothing of also being quite sweet and endearing), you could do a lot worse than checking out Kamichu!. The setting is based on a real-life location, and is absolutely convincing as a rural Japanese seaside town. It’s these kind of shows which go a long way in reminding me that although anime as a medium is often prone to intentional exaggeration, it’s also frequently more accurate than non-Japanese viewers might think.

Question of the post: What aspects of anime would you expect to be most reflective of real life in Japan? Are there any specific anime titles that you feel are especially authentic?

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29 thoughts on “Art vs. Reality: When Anime Gets It Right

  1. This was really informative, thanks. 🙂 I always love seeing comparisons between anime and real life, and it’s amazing to me how much work goes into making their backdrops and cities look realistic. I don’t know if you watched Shirobako last two seasons, but it really shed a lot of light on how much research goes into designing everything.

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    • I’m glad you found the article interesting. 🙂 I did watch a couple of episodes of Shirobako, but it didn’t really turn out to be my thing. However, the level of attention to detail in the show is definitely admirable.

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    • Thank you for saying so! And yes, I agree – the increasingly large number of photo-based backgrounds we’re seeing in anime these days certainly contributes to these factors. However, I also think there’s been a general increase in anime titles which pay a large amount of attention to even seemingly trivial details, and that trend also helps.

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    • I don’t think it’s entirely true, but if you’re talking about the towns then they can look a bit flat at times. This is especially true in the inaka, where a combination of salt air, high energy biosphere, and declining population can make it hard to keep the outside of buildings looking fresh.

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    • I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of Japan being grey. It’s true that there’s plenty of air pollution in the big cities, but even then I’ve noticed that in many areas, Japan makes a concentrated effort to keep things clean and beautiful. As for the countryside, in the summer it’s as fresh and colourful as I could ever hope for.

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  2. I see what t-shirt you’re referring to there. 😄

    One of the things that really got me (besides the déjà vu I got the first times I came to Japan, especially in summer) was watching an episode of Ranma 1/2 after I had already been living in Japan a while. There is a scene when Akane walks to a neighborhood shop to buy sakura mochi, only to find a hand-written sign on the shutter door that they are closed that day. It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t have paid any attention before, but now it really struck me how true to life the setting was. I watched a few more episodes and was amazed how differently I see the setting now than I did when I was 14 and it was all still fresh and new and full of daily life I had no way of recognizing yet.

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    • Yes, exactly! I get excited or nostalgic or amused by seemingly unimportant or random scenes in anime now, because I can ‘recognise’ a lot that I would never have paid attention to/had any kind of connection with before – most of which takes place in either suburban or rural types of locations.

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      • Yeah, like that little river that runs between the rice fields? Isolated bus stops? The random bamboo forest? I feel like I’ve done anime pilgrimages everywhere!

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  3. Also, got to mention Makoto Shinkai’s love-song to the Japanese rail-system in the first ‘episode’ of .Five Centimetres per Second’. I swear I can identify actual ticket machines from which I have bought tickets. Also, although things have probably changed a bit, I would bet you could still make that journey using stills from the anime as a non-verbal guide book . . .

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  4. Public schools in some Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia also adhere to a uniform look similar to the Japanese ones you mentioned, the exceptions being some newer schools and anything from the colonial periods.

    Speaking of colonial Japan, are there any working public schools that are still housed within a brick/stone Meiji/Taisho-era type building?

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    • None that I’ve seen. I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were still a couple around the place, but if so then they’d definitely be a rarity nowadays.

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      • There’s one in Seiyo-shi, I think, the Kaimei school. I don’t believe it’s still operating as an actual school, but I know it offers a one-day “school experience” of some sort. It was built in 1882, which would make it Meiji-era, but it’s made of wood and clay – no bricks, sorry.

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