Art vs. Reality pt2: Not Matching Up

anime funny faces
Some time ago, Watson 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.

anime bento
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.

japan kyuushoku
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.

japan dirty houses
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.

japan cicadas noise
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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17 thoughts on “Art vs. Reality pt2: Not Matching Up

  1. Fascinated by all things Japanese, I really enjoyed this post and its predecessor! 😀
    I don’t know how it really is in Japan, but in Indian suburbs we have lots of automobiles like motorbikes, mopeds and cars, so plenty of noise and traffic. I’ve noticed that in anime portrayals, typical Japanese suburban areas have empty streets and quiet residential colonies. Being a Chennai girl, the fact that in some anime it’s actually quiet enough to hear insects’ noises is very strange to me. 😛

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    • I can definitely see how that would be strange! That’s a good point though, most anime does present Japanese suburbia as fairly quiet – which, unless you happened to live right next to a highway or something, is probably accurate enough. I can tell you that as a rural resident of Japan, it can be pretty much silent during the day while most people are at work/at school, so ALL I can hear sometimes is the insects.

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      • More than the sounds of traffic, it’s the people noise that I identify with and miss. The playground nearby fills up with cricket and soccer teams at dawn and they carry on til sunset. Vendors patrol the streets, calling out every now and then seconds in big booming voices. People gather under the shade of the trees to have idle conversations. Children shriek and laugh, racing up and down the pavement. If it was ever quiet, I’d be worried.
        “True fear is inspired not by that which goes bump in the night, but by that which whispers at midday.” Not sure where this quote is from, but it resonates.

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        • I think that depends a lot on exactly where in Japan you are. It can definitely be really noisy here even in rural areas, especially in the summer holidays with all the kids out of school and a ton of festivals and such going on at regular intervals. That said, it can sometimes be essentially completely silent during the day where I live, other than the drone of cicadas in the hottest months. It’s a small neighborhood, and my nearest city is nearly an hour’s drive away.

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  2. Well, I don’t agree about the bugs. I can’t think of specific titles, but I’ve seen lots of anime kids go bug-hunting and coming up with those huge nasty-looking beetles.

    As for the chimes, I’m sure you’re right (they don’t play them around here, but I live near downtown of a small city). But Azumanga has one notable scene in the Chiyo-chan’s Day episode. It’s a lovely moment because the chimes seemed to cast a spell, leading to something of a permanent happy memory for Chiyo, meeting all her friends in the park and jumping rope.

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    • The only example of bug-hunting I’ve seen is the first episode of Yokai Watch, where the protagonist gets distracted while on exactly such an expedition. But I’m sure there are other examples, I just haven’t seen them.

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    • I agree that I’ve seen a lot of bug-hunting in anime (well, okay, maybe not a lot, but some), but only for those beetles. You see far less, if any, examples in anime of other kinds of creepy-crawlies like the others I mention in this article – spiders, gejigeji, mukade, and so on.

      Now I really want to go back and watch that episode of Azumanga! I don’t remember that scene at all – it’s been years since I watched it – and I’m curious about what tune is played.

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    • More than the sounds of traffic, it’s the people noise that I identify with and miss. The playground nearby fills up with cricket and soccer teams at dawn and they carry on til sunset. Vendors patrol the streets, calling out every now and then seconds in big booming voices. People gather under the shade of the trees to have idle conversations. Children shriek and laugh, racing up and down the pavement. If it was ever quiet, I’d be worried.
      “True fear is inspired not by that which goes bump in the night, but by that which whispers at midday.” Not sure where this quote is from, but it resonates.

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  3. I think the biggest thing I never get about anime is how common non-existant parenting is. I get that for some stories it’s to allow for fantasies or to explain away the plot, but I can’t possibly fathom it’s such a commonplace thing. I also wondered how much it really matters if you’re in the same class as your friends. I get that they don’t change rooms during the day, but so many anime make it seem like a huge barrier to maintaining friendships when they could, Idno, talk after school or something?

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    • There was an article on the topic of anime parenting here not too long ago. As for talking after school, you might be underestimating just how regimented that time is for Japanese kids. After school its off to club activities, which might go for hours, and then there might well be a juku or eikawa for them to go to as well. If they want to stay on top of their homework, that could be a couple of hours too. Whether they make good use of that time is another matter, but a lot of it is accounted for and doesn’t have many gaps for socialising.

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    • I think it’s true that anime often exaggerates the whole non-existent parent thing, sometimes to a laughably implausible degree. Statistically, the number of parents who both work is rising, as are one-parent households, so I’m sure some children do spend a lot of time on their own while at home. However, I expect it’s indeed mostly for the sake of the story that this is the case in anime.

      I guess to us, it’s really not such a huge deal if friends are in the same class or not. I do wonder whether a lot of kids would have time to talk much after school or whatever though – the time and energy spent on club activities and the like, particularly at larger schools, is quite staggering. I think at some schools, it’s also not simply a matter of being able to walk into a different classroom between periods to chat to a friend. Homerooms seem a lot more rigid than that just in terms of general boundaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

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  4. Took me too long to get back to this 😀 Now I am a fan of the little details, the little things that the anime does to make it more real. For me, anyway, it’s a bit of nostalgia that takes me back to my time in Japan. However, one thing that is particularly interesting about anime as a medium is that everything that is in the anime has to be placed there. Every little detail, every little movement is intentionally animated. For me, the question is why do some anime go to the trouble of placing those things in there? Certainly there has to be the effort to bring in realism, but at some point it’s lost on the viewer. Part of it may just be a function of living – when I went to Japan, at first certain things really stood out as different. As the months passed, I stopped noticing them. In a sense, anime is a bit of escapism, so why remind viewers of the humdrum of ordinary life? Things like dealing with hordes of spiders everywhere is more of everyday life, while nearly running face-first into a giant spider on a web spanning a small country road sounds like a scene for silliness (actually happened.) At some point the question is how much realism is going to help and how much realism is going to hurt what the anime is trying to do?

    But even then, it isn’t like film – you have to intentionally put that stuff in there. That makes it a purely artistic/ directorial decision as to whether or not to include them. Thus, it makes for an interesting thought experiment as to how exactly those would affect the tone. It’s also interesting to think of the opposite – how would those anime mentioned above be affected if some elements of realism were removed? If you think about it, it’s almost like the masters of black and white cinema who had to compose every shadow, every shade of gray or black so very carefully to convey exactly what they wanted. In some ways, it serves as a reminder how important the backdrop of the anime is, both for the overall mood and tone of the anime as well as how it can affect characters.

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    • You make some good points here. You’re certainly right in that its the little things that make anime more real – the small details that creators make a conscious choice to put in can really add a whole other dimension to a show. I also think you’re right that for a lot of people, and possibly even most people, anime acts as a kind of escapism in one form or another, and so realism, even in a slice-of-life title set in modern-day Japan, isn’t usually the aim. However, I do think one big reason that these little realistic details are added is to lend anime some emotional resonance. Even if people want to escape from the real world just for 20 minutes, it’s still necessary to be able to connect with their escape on an emotional level, and I think that’s where the stuff of ordinary life comes in. It gives viewers something to relate to, a tangible hook with which to pull themselves in, and it does so in a way that’s subtle enough not to interrupt the experience. Of course, anime has to draw the line somewhere in what and how many details it chooses to add, and to be clear, I didn’t mean for this article to come across a complaint, but simply a few thoughts that struck me as interesting, particularly in relation to the earlier article on the subject.

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  6. “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.”

    I know of precisely one anime that shows this: Only Yesterday (Omoide Poroporo)
    Thanks, Takahata!

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