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June 26, 2012 / Bradley

Song of Our Country: A Riff on Otome Youkai Zakuro

My father’s job moved my family to Germany for about a year when I was twelve. I loved it there, and I’ve been plotting how to get back ever since. What got to me was the sense of history that surrounds you when you do everyday activities like shopping or going to school. I’d walk by buildings older than the country I was born in on my way to the U-Bahn, through streets too narrow for cars because they were built for horse-ful carriages, and then would pass through towns that still had walls from the medieval ages. It was awe-inspiring to be constantly reminded, everywhere I look, of how old human civilization is. Many towns would have a different cultures, built up over hundreds of years of being fairly isolated from other towns in the same country that were only a short drive away on the Autobahn. This boggles my American mind- our country is barely two hundred years old. Most of the towns I’ve lived in were founded in the 1800s, but only really took their familiar shapes, with sprawling suburbs and concentrated cities, after World War II. We don’t have that sense of history, and we barely bother with keeping our cities infrastructure intact. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why American culture, the kind that’s built over hundreds of years, feels like such a nebulous concept, more about ideas than anything tangible that I can see or visit.

That’s part of the reason why I find Otome Youkai Zakuro, and other stories from the Meiji Era and the national angst that accompanies it, so fascinating. This anime imagines another, familiar alternate history where youkai have lived among humans for as long as there has been a Japan, and now they have to adjust to its Westernization along with everyone else. But they don’t change as easily as the humans do- it’s just not in their nature. The half-youkai Zakuro is especially reluctant to accept any “Jesuit” customs, curling her lip at the smell of milk for breakfast and looking askance at street cars. Her skepticism about the virtues of accepting Western culture compliments the series’ eye for lavish detail and clear love of history, or at least a romanticized version of it. Even though the series is based on a manga published in a seinen periodical, it has the aesthetic of a shojou series, with a fixation on beauty and emotions. Not only the girls beautiful, but the boys are also lean and pretty, and combat isn’t so much resolved by violence as it is by “bewitching” the girls’ opponent. That aesthetic extends to detailed designs for period dress, food and architecture, all lovingly recreated from the final days of traditional Japanese culture’s dominance. The series feels nostalgic for a time no one alive could have experienced. Zakuro also has a solid story and characters, but these have ended up being the details that stuck.

In America, we think of our history as a story of progress, gradually solving all of our problems until we finally sat on top of the world, having earned our dominance. This is such a simple narrative that it’s more national mythology than anything else. But in contrast, the sense of history I get from watching anime and reading books from Japan is a strong feeling of regret. They’ve screwed up, something was lost, they can never have it back. But perhaps I only get that feeling because anime and manga culture is conservative and nationalistic, and I suppose that if someone from Japan watched only American Westerns, they’d get a similar feeling.

I’m not saying anything about Germans or the Japanese here as much as I’m thinking out loud about how spending a lot of time in other cultures has given me new perspectives on my own. You’re not really aware that “this is water” until something pulls you out of the small pond you were born in. Some anime fans have an unwarranted sense of superiority because they watch foreign cartoons, but there’s a healthy root buried under their juvenile contempt, and it goes like this: sometimes, to understand your own country, it helps to look elsewhere for a while.

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