As a young person navigating the gender and relationship confines of the modern world, I've latched onto storytelling as a why to process and except my identity. I go to stories to find characters I relate with so they can teach me to feel comfortable in the body I was born with. Below, I'm going to share a few (of the many) characters who have spoken to me as unique examples of self-confidence. Incidentally, all these characters are from Japanese Anime or Manga.
Lio Fotia from Promare...
Is the first on my list and a character who has spoken to hundreds of viewers since Promare's debut in 2019 (Maybe including you.) But what I personally think makes Lio really stand out as a unique character beyond his flashy armor or flame wielding prestige is the sense of confidence in his identity he emits even when standing with the much more masculine men sharing the screen with him. A confidence that leaves viewers who may have like me assumed he was female from the film's poster no longer questioning his identity and chosen gender.
Koushi Sugawara from Haikyu!!...
Suga brings something completely different to the male gender. Laid back and often apologetic, Suga moves through the world with a level of grace and a lot less force then his teammates on Karasuno High-school's boy's Volleyball team. As shown by his nickname Sugamama, Suga is highly valued by his teammates no matter if he looks or acts differently. And even after losing his place in the team's starting lineup he won't stop fighting for a chance to prove himself worthy again. Sometimes it takes a mix of perseverance and patience to make a character great and Suga has ample supply of both, and a confidence to be himself no matter what.
Tamaki Suoh and Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran Highschool Host Club...
These two take gender in a completely different direction. The main two characters in Ouran High school Host Club, a Shojo comedy full of gender commentary, they're both comfortable taking gender roles a little more lightly than your average character from a romantic comedy. Haruhi, the heroin of the series, spends all her time at school cross-dressing as a boy. But instead of limiting her male counterpart's attraction, Haruhi's masculinity adds to her appeal, and gives her the space to act the way she wants which is decidedly un-Disney princessy. I'm still blown away each time I'm reintroduced to the manga that she was created over 12 years ago.
Snowbebe form Cats of the Louvre...
Is on this list for a slightly different reason then the four above. For more then half of the one volume Eisner Award winning manga Snowbebe, the central character of the novel focused on the Louvre, is a small white kitten with long fluffy fur. Like something out of my 10 year old imagination, Cats of the Louvre follows a mismatched family of cats living in the recesses of the huge old museum. And there's something about Snowbebe that's just slightly different from other young male leads. He's freed from the confines placed on must young boys making him almost a male equivalent of Chihiro, the heroin of Miyazaki's Spirited Away. In the future I hope there's more examples of children given the chance to star their stories with the positive gender undertones expressed by Snowbebe From Cats of the Louvre.
In Pureland Buddhism (Jodo in Japanese), Amida Buddha, a monk who reached Buddhahood and earned his own pureland through his merit, is seen as a kind, compassionate figure who invites all who chant: “Namu Amida Butsu” (Hail to the Amida Buddha) to live in his Western Paradise after they die. His is often portrayed in a Raigo (“Welcoming approach”) which is an image (painting or sculpture) of him descending to earth to welcome the souls to the Western paradise. At the Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall), a part of what was once a villa of the Fujiwara clan near Kyoto, Japan, images adorn walls and a door, showing scenes of the Raigo. This building was constructed in the 1000’s during the Heian period (784-1183 CE). The text in the book Art Beyond the West describes the imagery:
They include monks and bodhisattvas on clouds, and an orchestra-chorus of music-making and dancing Buddhist beings dramatizing the arrival of the Buddha. Together the many raigos, concentrated in this small, intimate space that was once a home, dramatize the compassion and glory of the Buddha in this popular sect of Buddhism (P. 164, Chapter 5).
At the end of the film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, however, the almost identical image is interpreted in a vastly different way. While Buddha appears both kind and compassionate, and his many attendants exhibit a beautiful, peaceful air, they are coming to take the title character, Kaguya back to the moon, from which she had previously left after hearing rumors of earth and the emotions living there evoke. Kaguya, who has spent almost a decade on earth (though she ages faster) has come to love it and it’s natural world and people. When she is being taken back to the moon, her adoptive parents, as well as many people she knew and some she didn’t watch her leave and express a grief at her going. She too had become desperate when she realized she would have to return, saying that she did not want to forget the earth and the places and people there, and the emotions they had inspired. This is a stark contrast to the emphasized joy and celebration of Pureland Buddhism and seems to question the idea that there should be a place of greater joy and beauty for us than the earth on which we are born, live our lives, and die. It also seems to suggest that if the earth is awe-inspiring and worthy of contemplation, as many Japanese practices say it is, then the it should not be abandoned in hope of finding greater understanding and happiness elsewhere.
While the film The Tale of Princess Kaguya does not have to be viewed in a scholarly or even analyzed way, such an approach does present some fascinating and helpful connections. For instance, the film is set in either the Heian (784-1183) or Kamakura (1185-1333) period, which for those of us with a bit of (art) history knowledge, will quickly become clear. However, one of the most important things about watching any Studio Ghibli film, and specifically this one, is to enjoy yourself a little, to laugh at the simple charming moment, or to just let the beauty and sorrows and longing and hope present in any of these films catch you up a little and let you see a new way to look at the world, a way that is both distinctly Japanese, and broadly human.
Princess Kaguya, a young woman adopted by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, grew up in the country among the peasantry until her father deemed it wise to take her to the capitol to be raised as a lady. While being quite uncomfortable and unhappy there, Kaguya managed to flourish and not break down in frustration. During her coming of age ceremony, however, she overhears some drunken men mocking her father for trying to make her into a noblewoman. This is too much and she flees from the mansion and off into the countryside.
The animation here changes distinctly from the previous gentle ink style, becoming wild, desperate, and quick making it almost impossible to distinguish figures from landscape. This sudden switch seems to reference a style of ink painting that was introduced to Japan from China during the Muromachi (Ashiga) period (1392-1573 CE) known as haboku (“broken ink”) painting. This style, based off of the Chinese Song dynasty style of the same time, was rooted in Chan (or Zen in Japan) Buddhism and embraced spiritual inspiration and spontaneity. This is clearly seen in a work such as Haboku Landscape for Soen by Sesshu Toyo, which is an incredibly simple, yet deeply expressive work. The ink tones vary beautifully, creating a vague impression of a small island with huge rock pinnacles behind, almost as if it is being seen through a mist.
According to the book Art Beyond the West: "Painters working in this style believed there were traces of spiritual inspiration to be found in the accidental and spontaneous patterns formed by ink splashed onto the paper in this way. In [the painting], Sesshu uses very loose brushwork, yet by creating sharp tonal contrasts through a variety of washed and strokes, through a few carefully placed marks, he is able to capture the spirit of an entire landscape with its rocks, mists, and deep spaces. Although careful analysis might reveal how each mark contributes to the representation, the picture is not the product of any kind of premeditated calculation of this sort" (P. 171, Chapter 5).
This spontaneous and abstract approach to representation fits perfectly (and devastatingly) into the scene in Kaguya, which later turns out to have been a dream. The emotion and desperation, while not the original intent of the painting style, is clearly visible when used in a storytelling context and with the added touch of animation, it reaches another level of movement very literally. While this style does not match the time period Kaguya is set in, it brings in some important stylistic qualities of Japanese paintings and aesthetics.
The film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins, in the manner of older western movies, and as many studio Ghibli movies do with the credits of filmmakers and cast over a unique background. However, for this film the animators noticed a chance to place the movie in a specific historical context and display the credits over a sheet of woodblock printed paper (See the image on the left). This kind of decorated paper was often used during the Heian period (784-1183 CE) for anthologies of poetry which had been beautifully rendered in calligraphy. This technique, called Chigiri-e involves handmade paper which is torn and aligned on other paper and additionally decorated with flecks of metallic dust or colored pigment. After completion, a calligrapher could write poetry over it, creating a beautiful, almost rustic look. As the textbook Art Beyond the West states:
two pages of the collected poems of Minamoto no Shigeyuki (?-ACE 1000), Artist Unknown
In these upcoming posts I will point out some particularly interesting parts of the film that tie into important aspects of Japanese aesthetics and techniques of art-makingOf all of the Japanese animation film studio, Studio Ghibli’s films, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is arguably the most rooted in Japan’s secular and religious history. Full of references to traditions in both artmaking and society, it not only celebrates Japanese religious and secular culture but also looks at and brings up important questions about certain less than perfect parts of that culture.
I also will address the broader philosophical ideas that shaped Japan’s culture, connecting these concepts from the film with quotes from the textbook Art Beyond the West by Michael Kampen O’Riley. The film Princess Kaguya is a visual masterpiece created appropriately in the popular Japanese anime style, an animation style which incorporates many historic Japanese illustration tendencies and traits of the past. This seemingly small yet incredibly effective choice for the movie, as well as the Studio's other films, makes it clear that this film’s intent is not just to look at and analyze the past but also to examine the present and elude to the future. While the movie may take on more complex meanings to those familiar with the artistic traditions and culture of Japan, Kaguya also lets those who have no such context appreciate and connect with the film and come away with new enlightening ideas about the world, life, and being human. I will begin by examining the Chigir-e torn paper artistic technique, then take a look at the Haboku (Broken Ink) painting technique, and finish with Pureland Buddhist imagery and philosophy. Together these different historic and cultural tie-ins will highlight some interesting aspects of the film, providing a fascinating context for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
For the first Silverfists blog entry, I wanted to give a bit more context for the company and its imagery.
During high school art class, I started sketching a logo that featured a smudged fist holding a pencil. Inspired by the way my hand would routinely be covered in graphite after a drawing session, I developed an image to suggest that creative abandon. At that point, I wasn’t sure what I would use it for – perhaps a symbol for a future design firm? Fast forward 20 years and the logo finds life as the central symbol for the Worshipful Company of the Silverfists.
This time the original logo is joined by two additional fists. They clutch a non-photo blue pencil, a micron pen, and a watercolor brush, suggesting sketching, inking, and coloring, steps in the illustration process. The multiple fists also point to the collective nature of the company – illustration isn’t an individual effort.
Our shield includes the previously mentioned graphite smudged fists trefoil, holding the illustration tools.
It is complete with primary colors, harkening to red, yellow, and blue as the building blocks of all color.
Our supporters include our cats, Momo (dexter supporter) and Mooch (sinister supporter – sorry, Mooch).
They are rearing in battle as is unfortunately too often the case. They stand on books, linking the silverfists with both illustrated story and sketchbooks.
The mantle that wreaths the helmet includes both a walnut and oak branch. They are local floral for us in Iowa, and both are sources of beautiful drawing inks via walnuts and oak galls.
The Helm is a rendition of Keith Kogane’s paladin helmet from the Netflix series Volton: Legendary Defender.
The crest perched on the helmet is an homage to Momo the flying lemur from the series Avatar: the Last Airbender (the namesake of the previously mentioned cat).
The Silverfists firmly agree that both Voltron and Avatar are classics of modern animation in both imagery and story - more on that in a future post. We anticipate both the silverfist helm and crest changing at points to reflect the wide variety of our cultural interests.
Finally, beneath the shield is the banner that contains the Silverfist motto.
Though I took Latin class in highschool, that was too long ago, so I am trusting google that this phrase roughly translates to proclaim...
Proudly We Bare Our Silver Fists!