I recently watched Only Yesterday at the Cornell Cinema (highly recommend it!) and the show really got me thinking about the role of rural settings in Japanese popular culture. Note that I didn’t just say anime there! I’m broadening my horizons a bit this week. To which end, we’re going to start with some cultural background.
Modern Japan has a bit of a problem: during the postwar period, the country urbanized at an unprecedented rate (if I recall correctly, it was the highest rate in history, though I don’t have a source for that). While this was integral in rebuilding the country’s economy after WWII, it left an enormous amount of cultural nostalgia for furusato, or “hometown,” back in the country, away from the city. Simulating the idea of a “hometown” as a tourist attraction is actually a big business in Japan!
This lingering cultural anxiety is visible in a variety of places in Japanese media. A famous example of this is Yasujiro Ozu’s film “Tokyo Story.” The movie is about an elderly couple from the countryside visiting their children, who have all moved to Tokyo. However, none of the children want to take care of their parents because they’re too wrapped up in their new, busy Tokyo lifestyle. The film quite poignantly expresses the sense of nostalgia and a loss of the concept of home and belonging (a very postmodern idea!).
You can see this sort of thing in anime, too. Especially anime with rural settings (which, if it wasn’t clear, I like quite a bit). Interestingly, many anime seem to approach the issue from a perspective opposite to Ozu. For instance, Only Yesterday is much more about escaping from city life and finding a place to belong back in the country. Not that this is too surprising, considering the thread of environmentalism that runs through many Ghibli movies.
My favorite example, however, is Non Non Biyori. So first of all, I want to take a moment to recommend Non Non Biyori to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s slow paced, with not much of a plot, but it’s certain to relax you and lower your blood pressure a bit. Also, it’s gorgeously animated to the point that I’d be willing to frame any of its backgrounds and use it as a normal painting.
On the surface, Non Non Biyori isn’t about much. However, if you look closely, it’s very much a story about children growing up and learning that the world isn’t as simple as they thought. For instance, there’s scene in which one of the characters (Renge) has to think about death for the first time when the class’s pet fish die. Another such scene, more relevant to the topic at hand: Watch this video. Maybe I’m reading into this too much, but I see this as a metaphor for growing up, gradually gaining independence and eventually leaving behind those that raised us.
If you have a different interpretation, or think that my tendency to over-analyze is showing, be sure to let me know. I love reading all the different opinions out there. Also, if the historical background I gave earlier sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend you take Professor Law’s Intro to Japan class!
Michael Mauer is a sophomore in the college of Arts and Sciences majoring in Computer Science. His favorite anime is Neon Genesis Evangelion and he never leaves home without his Homura Akemi necklace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, just hunt him down on Facebook or Google+.