Cultural Influences on Anime Preferences

Okay, so I’m really lazy when it gets to posting.

I think this topic is pretty self-evident, but let’s start with a basic rundown:  Let’s say you’re in North America, watching your favourite show.  Suddenly you get the great idea to start discussion the show with the faceless mass of the internet.  You post your thoughts and think [x] is “oh so cool”.  You got to bed, smiling and thinking that your opinion will be a lovefest for the character.  But, oh my.  The next morning you see, as is common on the internet, that a flame war has broken out.  A contingent of Japanese fans are scratching their heads, wondering how the hell you can like [x].  Then a legion of other viewers come to your defence and call them idiots.

This conflict between two different cultural areas are not uncommon.  Debates like this occur in video games, movies, film, literature…virtually everything.  And this seems perfectly natural: we’re all people.  Liking characters is something that is tied to our personality…so of course there’s someone out there who doesn’t think the exact same thing as me.

But I think there’s a bit more to it than that.  I think the culture of our upbringing will influence what character or actions we agree with.  I’m a mecha fan, so I’ll generally go to the mecha anime first.  And here I’ll select one of the most divisive mecha characters I know: Kira Yamato of Gundam SEED.

I predict this will go well...

Why bring him up specifically?  Well, Kira I find is one of the strongest examples of this cultural division.  In Japan, he’s extremely well thought of.  Many years after Gundam SEED Destiny, the sequel to his first appearance, a popularity poll was conducted.  And Kira was extremely high up.  Actually he ended up #3 for male leads.  And the #1 and #2 spots are iconic characters of the franchise.  By comparison, Kira is pretty heavily reviled.  Destiny is considered and extremely base breaking anime on either side, but it had the (in)famous reputation of being the “worst Gundam ever” for a while on North America dominated sections of the internet and Kira’s ability to absorb the entire show and make it about himself too front and centre.  It’s not hard to find articles which rag on him.  Actually, it’s much easier to remember him by his nickname of “Jesus Yamato” by English-speaking fans.  Seriously, look that up on Google.  You can find old forum wounds about this character.  Actually, it’s more of a hateful conversation, since it does seem to be mostly by cultural lines.  This sort of division isn’t uncommon either.  Emil Castagnier (of the video game Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World) gets very similar treatment.

So I’ve mentioned before that I think this is due to culture.  The trend seems to be along these lines:

  • Male characters which show more feminine aspects (common are: crying or having a more feminine shape) are generally seen in a poorer light in the North American audiences (I will keep using the term North American as I’m not sure of the European trends as much) compared to Japanese audiences.
  • Conversely, North American audiences greatly support characters which show the exact opposite.  In this effect, a male character who shows hypermasculity, or whatever you want to call it as that term tends to come with negative connotations, get the a-ok.
  • Similar trends occur with female characters.  Tsundere archetype characters and other characters which fall more on the “assertive, spirited” side of things are more popular with North American audiences while the more demure characters which fall in line with the yamato nadeshiko archetype gets more support in Japan.  It’s almost the exact opposite; the more assertive female characters seem to be popular in North America.

These trends can be seen fairly easily through popular anime.  Kira is a solid example of the male trends.  A commonly stated case for the female characters is Asuka Langley Soryu (Neon Genesis Evangelion).  In Japan, the popularity of Rei is often akin to that of anime’s leading sex symbol.  At least, at the time.  She easily swept the most popular characters slot and held at top spot for quite a while.  It took nobody else but the iconic Lina Inverse to unseat her (amusingly, another character voiced by Megumi Hayashibara.  Though I guess that really shouldn’t be unexpected given her massive portfolio).  On the other hand, and I can’t prove this with any links like the above…I did a search of 5 polls with 100+ rankings and with voter base of primarily USA citizens, I found Asuka dominated the polls for North Americans, being the most popular (often by a 25% popularity to the next most popular being at 15%.

Where exactly does this come from?  That’s a good question.  I did a little research on more general cultural differences and some are more useful than others, but they are all interesting insights and provide an excellent basis for understanding this popularity divide.

One of the biggest differences has always been in the way romance is handled between the Japanese culture and much of the North American culture.  How this is dealt with directly feeds into how characters are build and how the romance between different characters is initiated, engaged to viewers, and ultimately resolved.  It’s why, commonly, the female character’s actions tend to confuse the North American audiences more than they do the Japanese.  Probably one of my favourite reads for this is a blog post about romance from a North American in Japan.  It’s worth a full read.  I’ll wait.

Quite the cultural divide, isn’t it?  The lack of emphasis on initiative and instead focusing on being able to predict what the other person is thinking is very astounding.  It easily explains a lot of why character [x] and character [y] can go 40-odd episodes without ever taking a step.  It may seem odder to the North American audiences as the romance in North American culture is much more direct, but it’s simply the basis by which are more intuitive to Japanese audiences.  Passivity and emotional control is a huge takeaway as well.  The one line that got me was “Seiji told me much later that dating me made him feel like he was gay, because I was active in bed, and he couldn’t connect that with anything except masculinity”.  Strict gender roles have been well documented within the realm of romance in Japan and the interaction of romance between characters which are sometimes grating to North American audiences can be explained a bit by this difference in action/initiative.  I mean, how many times can you think of the “twice shy” scenario of characters [x] and [y] liking each other but not do anything about it?  While some may find it annoying, it follows that concept of needing to predict the other person’s opinion.

So I think this leads us to reasoning out why female characters with a more demure presence are more popular in Japan: it’s because, simply put, they conform to the Japanese norms more.

But this doesn’t explain everything.  The ideal male norm in Japan is also one of control.  But this conflicts with the culturally favoured characters.  I think we need to take a more general step backwards and consider the culture in terms of acceptable behaviour.  The Canadian Journal of Behavioural Sciences released a paper in 2009 expressing the differences between Canada, USA, and Japan, in terms of what the subjects considered appropriate emotional reaction.  I’ve copied the important results for this discussion below:

The results indicate that Japanese display rules permit the expression of powerful (anger, contempt, and disgust) significantly less than those of the two North American samples. Japanese also think that they should express positive emotions (happiness, surprise) significantly less than the Canadian sample.

This really goes to the heart of why popular male Japanese characters act so differently in my opinion; the cultural definition of a character comfortable with himself I find is one willing to act against cultural norms.  I mean, the most popular character is rarely the rule abiding person who doesn’t stand out from a crowd, right?  James Dean portrayed that perfectly in Rebel Without a Cause.  At least most of the time this seems to hold true.  However, in Japan, the cultural breaking, so to speak, would be to express more emotionally.

The oddity here is that I’m applying different rules to different reasons.  It almost seems like a “well, it fits” type of approach.  I think one of the big differences here is that one directly works with the area of romance and ideal femininity more and the other is how the character interacts with society.  I think a bit of the old standby of the areas of anime I focused on primarily here: I spoke mostly about shows which are meant to appeal to the male audience.  I do suspect that if we talk about shows which appeal to female audiences, the roles would reverse.  In other words, in a show designed for female audiences, the female character who breaks the rules more will be considered ideal and the male character who follows them more are more ideal.  For example, in video games the most popular female characters for female players in North America include the more stoic Samus Aran and Commander Sheppard.

My predictions, of course, comes down to desired partners.  The old concept of escapism stands out for me; people like to explore characters and escape what they see day-to-day.  By having a bit of a rule breaker, you get to see things that stand out from what you know.

So, what does that mean?  I think I can summarize my opinions as such:
The target audience will want to be someone who breaks the cultural standards and will enjoy characters of the opposite sex which are in line with the standards.  In Japan, the standard is to have more controlled emotions and in North America,

Of course, this is all being written at 1 AM…so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff.

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