What follows is a guest article written by my dear friend Kenji and edited by me, on a subject that extends far beyond anime into other forms of modern Japanese media. The purpose of On the Ones, which was founded almost three years ago (how time flies!), is to encourage potential readers to broaden their horizons, and in that regard this informative and engaging write-up is very much of a piece with the other articles on this website.
Denpa is a style rich in its own unique imagery and meaning, yet it is simultaneously broad and wide-ranging enough that its influence extends throughout contemporary Japanese pop culture; far from being limited to just anime, it covers an entire spectrum from manga to visual novels, music, video games, and even cinema. Although it peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s with titles like Serial Experiments Lain (1998), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), and CROSS†CHANNEL (2003), it continues to leak into modern works like SSSS.Gridman (2018) and Subarashiki Hibi (2010). Countless articles and books have been written discussing denpa’s origins and various manifestations, but unfortunately almost none of these have been translated into English. With this article, I plan to draw from what few English-language sources already exist, as well as Japanese-language writing that I have had translated thanks to my friends roboanza and FARfromani, to present an overview of the denpa style; in doing so, I will draw attention to the limits of our knowledge and what questions remain unanswered (for us English speakers, at least) about denpa’s history. My hope is to spark interest in this one-of-a-kind subset of modern Japanese media and the eclectic circumstances behind it, paving the way for more discussion and analysis of relevant works and perhaps even further translations of Japanese denpa-related articles.
The word Denpa (電波) translates directly to “radio signals” or “electromagnetic waves”. Knowing this is useful, as a staple in denpa fiction is oppressive radio towers and people’s consciousnesses being manipulated by electromagnetic signals, but it is important to dig deeper to understand the history of the word and the artistic movement it gave birth to. On the 11th of July, 1981, a man by the name of Kawamata Gunji went on a killing spree near the second Morishita district in Tokyo’s Koto ward. Brandishing a kitchen knife, Gunji took the lives of four victims; the attack escalated into a hostage situation when Gunji dragged a woman into a nearby Chinese restaurant and barricaded himself for seven hours. During this seven-hour siege, Gunji ranted at the restaurant’s security cameras, demanding the Japanese government bring him their electromagnetic engineers; ultimately, the authorities were able to break through and arrest him after the hostage managed to escape. In his trial, Gunji testified that the murders were not his fault, as he was being manipulated by electromagnetic waves. This incident was later dubbed as the Fukagawa Serial Slasher case and sent shockwaves through Japan. Numerous TV dramas, documentaries, and novels were created based on the Fukagawa case . From then on, denpa became synonymous with social deviants and misfits who were disconnected from the world around them.
Denpa fiction also sprouted from this incident and the anxieties it represented. Those anxieties could be summed up in the term muen shakai, a relationless society where more and more people find themselves completely disconnected—where ostensibly low crime rates are interrupted by sudden, seemingly inexplicable explosions of violence .
Films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) capitalized on this existential horror. In Cure, a series of murders take place in which the victims have a X shape carved into their necks. However, the killings have no logical connection to each other outside of the X marking. Ordinary, unrelated citizens break into fits of violence without any motivation or reasoning. Once the killings end, they snap back to normal, feeling disoriented. Cure is moreover plagued with long, continuous shots of sterile rooms and cityscapes; altogether, it is a cold and unfeeling portrait of modernity that represents the heart of denpa fiction.
The denpa movement has inextricable ties to otaku culture, and it would be a disservice to not explore these connections, their history, and the works in which they manifest. A good avenue for exploring the history of denpa’s ties to otaku is the story of Toru Honda and his book Denpa Otoko (Denpa Man). To understand Denpa Otoko, however, it is first necessary to discuss the work that inspired its inception, Nakano Hitori’s Densha Otoko (Train Man). In 2004, Densha Otoko was published to an overwhelmingly positive reception, selling over a million copies within a year and later being adapted into a film, a TV drama, a manga, and more. The novel was based on a series of 2chan posts made earlier that year by an alleged 23-year old otaku who called himself Densha Otoko; he had fallen in love with a girl he met on a train. Densha Otoko kept channers up to date with his crush and followed their advice to get a haircut and change his wardrobe, culminating in him ditching his otaku ways, opening up, and starting a successful relationship with the girl .
While Densha Otoko was well received among general audiences, many otaku loathed it. One of those otaku, the aforementioned Toru Honda, voiced his distaste alongside his own perspective on Japanese society in a 405-page otaku manifesto aptly titled Denpa Otoko. Although Denpa Otoko remains untranslated to this day, we know the basic gist of its contents thanks to an archived 2005 Asahi Shimbun article, A world of his own: Create, erase, redraw, by Sayaka Yakushiji . As quoted in the article, Honda feels that the protagonist in Densha Otoko surrendered to capitalism; instead of changing himself to be more appealing to the girl, he should have made her an otaku and taken her to Akihabara. For Honda, love is dead. It is nothing more than a commodity; after all, men spend money on women to win their hearts. Men like Honda feel they are unlucky, as they have no social capital or wealth to woo women and are therefore marginalized by the system.
Rather than spending his time on real love, Honda embraces moe, his intense emotions for fictional characters in his favorite anime and visual novels. Honda proudly proclaims, “Moe is the saving grace of the otaku. It never flirts; it never calculates—it offers perfect uncalculated love. Moe is, above all else, self-sacrificing; it asks nothing in return.” Behind this diatribe, however, lays Honda’s own backstory. Never having a father figure, being ostracized at school, and losing his abusive mother to cancer before she turned 40, and then having bad experiences with women at Waseda University and losing his home to the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, Honda ultimately confined himself to his own world, playing video games and watching anime in his room all day. In this state he became somewhat unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Take the X Train (1987)
Honda’s perspective is interesting because, when faced with muen shakai, he chose to embrace it as a bizarre form of liberation from the difficulties of maintaining real-life relationships. Many Denpa works, particularly those made for and by otaku, engage with ideas similar to Honda’s; on the surface, these works dabble in sugary excess, but below the surface lies something more sinister. A good example of this can be seen in Denpa music, which is characterized by high-pitched hypnotic vocals, fast-paced electronic sounds, and extremely catchy melodies. Although this music might appear to be embracing muen shakai as Honda does, its nauseatingly cute sound is often a stark contrast to its distressed lyrics, which pertain to strange visions, headaches, and being out of touch with reality .
Another example can be seen through Denpa visual novels. One of the earliest influential visual novels to feature Denpa elements was Shizuku (1996) . Unfortunately, like much of what has been discussed so far, Shizuku remains untranslated to this day. However, we do know that harmful radio waves causing students to go mad were an integral part of its story. The Denpa trend in visual novels paved the way for one of its most prolific writers, SCA-Ji, who made his debut alongside the company KeroQ in 1999 with Tsui no Sora, another early untranslated Denpa title. Tsui no Sora was very much a freshman work for SCA-Ji, as he has said that his philosophy has changed drastically since he has written it, namely by breaking away from Nietzsche and his idea of the death of a shared morality . This can be seen with the remake of Tsui no Sora he went on to make over a decade later, Subarashiki Hibi (2010).
Much like the Denpa music discussed earlier, Subarashiki Hibi has a thin sugary coating of excess veiling a deep dive into mind-bending existential horror. The first route of the game, Down the Rabbit-Hole, is for the most part a bubbly yuri slice of life inspired heavily by Kyoto Animation’s Lucky Star (2007). Certain parts of the story, however, don’t exactly fit together and make you stop and think; these segments are later recontextualized once Subarashiki Hibi begins its descent into madness, marked by the prevalence of an odd character named Mamiya Takuji. Takuji can be read as a parallel to Honda and his ideas. He is a detached otaku with a traumatic past and an abusive mother. Much like Honda, Takuji is deeply misogynistic and has a purity complex. He loathes anyone who isn’t a virgin and secludes himself beneath the school pool in a secret room, where he watches anime and reads eroge. Soon, he begins seeing visions of Riruru, a magical girl character from a popular anime who directs him to commit violent acts. Takuji becomes a horrifying and unpredictable character, whose delusional anger at the world festers and takes the form of a black sludge that corrupts everything in its path.
In Tsui no Sora, SCA-Ji does not go further with Takuji’s character beyond his descent into madness; there, he is simply a heartless monster who exists to kill, enslave, and ravish all in his path. In Subarashiki Hibi, however, SCA-Ji follows through, giving Takuji humanity and a chance at redemption through the bond he forms with fellow outcast Kimika Tachibana, even if only briefly. In the face of hatred and unspeakable terror, SCA-Ji responds with empathy and compassion. He does not naively deny or downplay pain and suffering; rather, he proclaims that, in such a disconnected and horrifying world, we must strive to live happily.
Subarashiki Hibi (2010)
Another visual novel writer, Tanaka Romeo, is worth discussing with regards to denpa. Like SCA-Ji, Romeo began working on visual novels in 1999, first as a writer on Kana ~Imouto~ and a number of other relatively obscure projects, and then as creator of one of the most influential and critically acclaimed denpa visual novels of all time, CROSS†CHANNEL (2003). In the following years, Romeo would write a number of other renowned projects, most notably the untranslated Saihate no Ima (2005), which SCA-Ji proclaimed his personal all-time favorite visual novel in a 2018 AMA published on Reddit .
CROSS†CHANNEL is a particularly interesting case. Unlike Subarashiki Hibi, which is filled with grandiose mysteries, shocks, and thrills, CROSS†CHANNEL takes a slow, melancholic approach. It makes heavy use of repetition: in order to progress in the story, you must reread certain sections multiple times. In itself, this does bring a unique hypnotic quality to the reading experience; more importantly, however, each new reading helps to recontextualize and even clarify the story, such that there is always something new to take away from the text. Indeed, some segments contain three or four different meanings that require deeper knowledge about the story and characters to be fully understood.
The story follows the broadcasting club at Gunjo Academy, an institution for children who are deemed unable to function in society. For their summer vacation, the club members go camping in the mountains; when they return from their trip, they find that all of humanity has disappeared. In addition to the world being empty, it appears to reset every week on a loop. The stores are restocked, any changes are undone, and everyone’s memory is reset. Desperate to find out if anyone else is out there, the students try to get in contact with any remaining humans by fixing a radio tower located on the school’s roof and sending out a broadcast.
The empty world scenario ties heavily into Kentaro Takekuma’s notion of the endless everyday, a state of abundance in which people develop senses of boredom and entrapment in modernity, leading to cynical desires for the downfall of society; the endless summer of CROSS†CHANNEL‘s world is unchanging and cold, to the point where one’s senses become numbed . This is very similar to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984), which was a major inspiration for Romeo’s scenario in CROSS†CHANNEL . Much like CROSS†CHANNEL, Beautiful Dreamer features its cast living out their everyday lives in a bizarre, looping, summertime dream world where everyone else has disappeared.
Unlike Beautiful Dreamer, however, CROSS†CHANNEL is a character study first and foremost. It explores the headspace of troubled Kurosu Taichi, who, due to his traumatic past, is mentally unstable and prone to fits of violence. Taichi desperately wants to connect with those around him, yet fears getting too close and hurting them; instead, he puts up a front, acting extroverted, overstepping boundaries, and making his classmates uncomfortable. Taichi’s actions reinforce his perception of himself as an irredeemable person, trapping himself in a feedback loop of self-loathing and violence. For Taichi, the looping, empty world is in some ways a safe place for him, an endless summer. Hurting his friends has no meaningful consequences; at the end of the week, everything resets back to normal. In part because there are no consequences, there is little reason for Taichi to care; as he learns of the loop each week, he gives in to his violent tendencies.
The endless everyday, as seen in And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool (2017).
The setup of CROSS†CHANNEL is also an interesting take on muen shakai. For Romeo, we are all bound to our own individual disconnected worlds. Although we might find ourselves surrounded by others, we go through life all alone, unable to fully understand or directly connect with each other; the empty nature of the world is a representation of this. However, Romeo firmly believes that we have the means to briefly cross over into the lives of others through various channels of communication: we might be alone, but we can build connections and slowly bridge the gaps between ourselves. It is only when Taichi realizes this that he not only changes himself and performs a grand act of redemption, but also finally crosses over into reality.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) is easily the most well-known denpa series. With its enormous fan following and international acclaim, it is an anime that needs no introduction. Much of the discussion surrounding Evangelion has fixated on its influence on pop culture and the anime industry. While there is value to be found in these sorts of conversations, all of which portray Evangelion as being deeply innovative, certain facets of the series and its conception have become overshadowed and largely underappreciated.
Evangelion was born from studio Gainax, which has a unique history and climate that has shaped all of their major output. Gainax was one of the first major anime studios founded by otaku that had grown up as fans of anime and other nerdy media. From the beginning, its staff proudly wore their influences on their sleeve; the famous DAICON Opening Animations were essentially explosive celebrations of all things geeky. Their later works also feature this level of dedication to their inspirations. For instance, Anno’s own directorial debut, Top wo Nerae! Gunbuster (1988), is a bizarre sci-fi take on Osamu Dezaki’s iconic sports drama Ace wo Nerae! (1973); Abenobashi Mahou☆Shoutengai (2002), meanwhile, is filled to the brim with homages to everything from popular sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977) to classic Tokyo Movie gag comedies like Hajime Ningen Gyators (1974) and Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975). It is evident that the artists at Gainax came from a tradition of celebrating the work they loved through their own productions, and Evangelion was no exception.
The list of works that influenced Evangelion is surprisingly vast. Some are well known, such as the Devilman series and popular mecha like The Ideon: Be Invoked (1982) and Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). Others, however, are more obscure, like the films of Shūji Terayama; his influence is openly apparent throughout Evangelion, whether in the use of monochromatic colors or in various scenes in which on-screen text covers the city. Terayama’s influence shines most of all in Evangelion’s final episode, in which Shinji sits on a chair in a dark room and answers a series of questions: this sequence is taken from Terayama’s radical film Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971), which features very similar interview scenes.
Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971)
In addition to Terayama, Evangelion also borrows heavily from early denpa-inspired anime circulating at the time, like the aforementioned Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984). It is worth noting that the phrase “Urusei Yatsura” or “those obnoxious aliens” is actually uttered by Misato in one episode of Evangelion when describing the angels; neat references aside, denpa tropes and imagery are prevalent throughout Evangelion, ranging from bizarre visions and imposing crowds to massive telephone poles consuming the city. The series is moreover disjointed from the beginning: in his first battle against the angel Sachiel, Shinji blanks out in the middle of the fight only to wake up in a hospital room with no memory of what transpired. There are many other instances of characters blanking out only to find themselves staring at an unfamiliar celling, much like Mamiya Takuji does in Subahibi.
Most crucially, the world of Evangelion is one of eternal summer: time has seemingly frozen up, owing to the lack of seasons after the icecaps melted in the Second Impact. The endless everyday of Evangelion is one where a constant state of war is the norm, where government cover-ups, assassinations, and conspiracy are expected occurrences. Even amidst the chaos and violence, however, life still goes on as normal: the children still go to school, and the adults to work. The state of Evangelion’s world is similar to the unflattering portrait of modernity in Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor 2 (1993), in which a false peace is maintained through military coercion, violence, and exploitation overseas. Altogether, Evangelion’s style is defined largely by its eccentric synthesis of Shūji Terayama with abundant denpa elements; its sheer novelty in 90s anime has no doubt contributed to its unprecedented success amongst anime fans.
Urusei Yatsura (1981)
The explicit messages of Evangelion are very much in line with the denpa fiction covered up to now, but there are some interesting differences worth discussing. Much like CROSS†CHANNEL, Evangelion argues that people can never truly understand one another, that we all live separate lives and are unable to connect. Each of Evangelion’s major characters are faced with loneliness, in response to which they develop ways of trying to fill the holes in their hearts. In search of praise and acceptance, Shinji and Asuka build their personalities around their abilities to pilot the Evas. In a desperate desire to connect, Misato seeks short-term bodily pleasures, using others as tools to fulfill her emotional needs. In his belief that he doesn’t deserve to be loved, Gendo locks his heart away from everyone, distancing himself from his son to focus on reuniting with his late wife, Yui.
The human instrumentality project spearheaded by Seele is the ultimate culmination of the characters’ attempts to escape their feelings of isolation. By discarding their individuality and blending together into LCL fluids, humanity can at last truly escape being alone in the world. However, when faced with the decision to either realize human instrumentality or return the world to normal in Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997), Shinji refuses to run away and chooses the more difficult path, the decision to maintain human individuality. He moves forward, away from the endless summer into an unknown future, knowing that so long as his outlook remains optimistic anywhere can be paradise. For Anno, the answer to muen shakai is to face it head-on, rather than resorting to escapism like Misato or Gendo do throughout the series—to come to terms with oneself and treat other human beings as individuals, rather than as crutches for emotional support or means towards an end.
In End of Evangelion, Anno recognizes the difficulty of this path forward: after Shinji finally rejects instrumentality, the first thing he is greeted with is Asuka laying beneath him, with his hands wrapped around her neck. She then utters the final line in the film, “Kimochi warui”, which can be translated alternatively as “I feel sick” or “disgusting”. This final line signals a return to a harsh reality for Shinji, the fact that he and the rest of humanity must face an uncertain future in isolation. It’s a sobering and somewhat uncertain note to end on, highlighting what a difficult commitment has been made, and how following through will be an arduous feat.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997)
One of the larger mysteries of denpa for our purposes has to do with its influence on Japanese cinema. While there are a few obscure or archived English-language sources that illuminate denpa’s connection to otaku media such as anime or visual novels, there is virtually nothing pertaining to denpa in film, leaving this subject a hitherto-unexplored frontier.
Gakuryū Ishii’s bewildering film August in the Water is an interesting case in point of just how limited our knowledge on denpa in cinema is. Released in May 1995, just months before Neon Genesis Evangelion began airing in October, August in the Water is an enigma. Very little is known about the film’s production, as what little English-language writing exists on the movie fails to shed light on its conception, let alone tie it into the larger denpa movement sprouting at the time. If anything, the existing articles muddy the water and make it an even stranger piece: film critic and director Jasper Sharp has pointed out how August in the Water stands in sharp contrast with Ishii’s previous output, which largely consists of wild, fast-paced action flicks. Rather, August is, like Romeo’s CROSS†CHANNEL, a slow burn that puts the audience in an almost hypnotic trance with its offbeat flow . Ishii’s divergence from his usual style makes one wonder what his inspiration was, and where he was coming from.
August in the Water engages directly with ideas surrounding electromagnetic waves that can be traced back to the Fukagawa Serial Slasher case. The story begins with a brief prologue discussing how, millions of years ago, an explosion of supernovas created a black hole that sent its intense electromagnetic signals to earth; the waves and their influence are immediately tied to incomprehensible, cosmic processes beyond human understanding. Soon, an unusual incident occurs when two meteorites simultaneously drop near one another in a small Japanese town, and suddenly its inhabitants are struck with a strange epidemic in which the victims’ internal organs harden and then turn to stone. Additionally, a seemingly endless midsummer drought consumes the town; citizens inexplicably drop to the ground as the heat persists, their insides hardening and incapacitating them. It’s as though the city itself were terminally ill: everything feels uneasy as the world slowly falls apart under the veil of telephone wires.
August in the Water is as difficult to interpret as it is to contextualize. The movie is cryptic, and the poor English translation does not help. From all indications, it is both a horror film about cosmic supernatural phenomena and a teenage coming-of-age drama. It features elements that may be familiar, such as students hanging out in contrast with the otherworldly. Perhaps it is a commentary on growing up in a distant society, or even trying to make sense of August in the Water’s plot is falling into the trap of aiming to understand the unknowable. The film goes in some weird directions and can be difficult to follow at times, but for those who are interested in denpa fiction, it is essential viewing: very few media evoke denpa imagery as effectively as August. There may be some obscure Japanese interviews that shed some light on how it came to be, and perhaps a new, better translation could help the story make a little more sense. In a way, however, August in the Water works best as a bizarre and inexplicable oddity.
August in the Water (1995)
Unlike August in the Water, the films of Shunji Iwai are much easier to contextualize with regards to their denpa influences. Iwai is an artist who has always been fascinated with human communication. His films all feature people trying to get across meaning in various ways, whether writing, speech, the Internet, dance, or music. Iwai’s oeuvre extends beyond cinema, as he has worked in documentary, animation, TV, novel, and music video formats, further demonstrating his interests in various types of communication. Moreover, Iwai’s works cast a spotlight on the lives of marginalized people in modern Japanese society, whether they are working-class women, immigrants, sex workers, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or outcasts.
The earliest of Iwai’s films to feature significant denpa imagery was All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). Lily Chou-Chou was heavily inspired by Hideaki Anno, specifically by his live-action film Love & Pop (1998): both films explore the lives of youths in the 20th century, prominently feature music by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy, and are imbued with a distinct ethereal tone. These connections make sense, as from all indications Iwai and Anno are good friends; indeed, Iwai even starred in another of Anno’s live-action films, Shiki-Jitsu (2000), and Anno will return the favor by starring in Iwai’s upcoming Last Letter (2020).
In Lily Chou-Chou, Iwai focuses on the lives of high-school outcasts who find companionship in an anonymous Internet chatroom where they talk about their favorite singer, Lily Chou-Chou. In addition to discussing the ways marginalized people can communicate through the Internet and music, Lily Chou-Chou shows how being disconnected from society can be brutal and unforgiving. The film features violent images of bullying, suicide, and sexual abuse. At the end, an imposing radio tower is shown from which a schoolgirl falls to her death.
The motif of a girl falling from a building or tower is important in denpa-inspired work. The suicide often represents a death that is difficult to make sense of: in this supposedly peaceful modern age, why would someone so young die so suddenly? Examples of this can be seen in Serial Experiments Lain, Subarashiki Hibi, CROSS†CHANNEL, and many others. Some denpa works do not actually use this motif but rather evoke the thought of it: for instance, August in the Water features girls at swimming pools standing atop diving boards about to jump. More pertinently, the victims of violence and self-harm in Lily Chou-Chou and similar denpa works tend to be on the margins of society: people who serve no pragmatic use in a competitive capitalist world, who are simply left behind without any connections or safety nets.
A girl on a rooftop in Hideaki Anno’s Shiki-Jitsu (2000).
In his later film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016), Iwai further explores what it means to live as someone left by the wayside in a disconnected society through the capitalistic commodification of emotional labor. In Rip Van Winkle, human connection is something to be bought and sold, and the film asks the question of whether it is possible to find happiness in such a world. Schoolteacher Nanami finds a boyfriend online through a dating app who seems to be the perfect match for her. Nanami dates him and they decide to marry; however, Nanami does not have enough relations to invite to the wedding, so instead she hires actors to play friends and family. For Nanami, love feels less like a romance and more like going shopping and deciding on the best product.
After a series of events orchestrated by her spiteful mother-in-law, Nanami is estranged from her new husband. Having lost all her connections, she wanders the desolate streets alone: Iwai and cinematographer Chigi Kanbe’s unique lighting and camerawork turn the city into an anxious world of empty skies, telephone wires, and chain link fences. Rip Van Winkle dedicates itself to people who inhabit this space and their search for connection.
From this point on, Nanami depends on an eccentric businessman who goes by the alias Yukimasu Amuro. He and his company, which specializes in odd jobs, overwhelmingly shape the circumstances of Nanami’s story as she is dragged from event to event like a marionette: it was Amuro who provided the actors for her wedding, helped her mother-in-law’s scheme to kick Nanami out of the family, and gave her a place to stay when no one else would. But Amuro holds no malice toward Nanami; his motivation is profit, his actions driven by market forces.
Although Amuro brings suffering into Nanami’s life, he also brings joy. At one point in the film, he assigns Nanami to care for a sick porn actress named Mashiro; her job is to clean her messy house and also serve as her companion. The two women quickly become friends and later fall in love, their relationship radically different from that between Nanami and her first husband: their feelings for one another are genuine, even as their meeting was engineered by Amuro. Iwai gives Nanami some respite from the coldness of modernity by showing that even in a world where emotional labor is commodified, people can still find meaning in their interactions with one another. This is very similar to what Anno argues in Evangelion.
Rip Van Winkle’s climax is important because it pertains to aspects of muen shakai we have yet to explore. Near the end of the film, Mashiro succumbs to her illness and decides to commit suicide together with Nanami; however, in an Osamu Dazai-esque twist, Nanami survives while Mashiro dies. This, too, was part of Amuro’s plan: his true intent was to find Mashiro someone she could die with, and that person was meant to be Nanami. After Mashiro’s death, Amuro and Nanami go in search of Mashiro’s only living relative, her mother, who is estranged from her daughter and has not seen her in years. When initially approached by Amuro, she is cold and detached, but upon talking with Nanami, she breaks down in tears and strips herself naked; Amuro joins her in stripping as they all cry, yell, and laugh.
This naked funeral is easily the most memorable scene in Rip Van Winkle. It is a desperate cry for humanity, a tearing away of all pretenses and a release of long-repressed emotions. Additionally, it asks what happens to the disconnected in society after they die. In Japan, there has been a disturbing trend, known as kodokushi, of people found rotting in their homes for weeks—sometimes months—after their deaths. Most of these are elderly folks who do not have any immediate families or are neglected: in 2009, for instance, 32,000 elders died alone , and according to the 2015 national census, 32.6% of Japanese households led by elderly citizens are single-member households .
It is not just the elderly who are relationless in this sense. Hikikomori shut themselves off in their rooms all alone for months and sometimes years at a time. Suicide rates among the hikikomori are rather high: in 1998, 32 to 33 thousand deaths were reported . The elderly and the unemployed youth both have one thing in common: in a capitalist system, they are essentially worthless, and as such they are neglected and disconnected. Even if they breathe, they are socially dead. For these outcasts, there are no places in life or death, no family plots or burial sites. Those who are unclaimed by anyone after death are often accepted by Buddhist temples, which cremate them and place the remains in plots reserved for muen botoke, or “relationless Buddhas”. Others are taken by the state for medical research.
This relationless society is reinforced by the ideology of jiko sekinin, or self-reliance . The idea is that one should strive to live an independent life and not be a burden towards others. This belief has been popular in postwar Japan and essentially leaves behind all of those who cannot live on their own: the marginalized, the unemployed, the mentally ill, and the elderly. It is this world and this ideology that Iwai is frustrated with in Rip Van Winkle, and the funeral scene is a cathartic statement against it.
All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Although denpa peaked in the late 90s and early 00s, its influence still shines in Japanese media to this day. Kunihiko Ikuhara’s most recent TV anime, Sarazanmai (2019), is a splendid example of this: although it is not a denpa work per se, it certainly has denpa in its DNA. Much like the Iwai films we discussed earlier, Sarazanmai is a story about those who live on the edges of society under the constant threat of being disconnected from the world. The characters in Sarazanmai are all repressed; they long to express their feelings, but cannot due to social norms and expectations. Mabu loves his partner Reo dearly, but if he ever confesses his love, his mechanical heart will explode and the two will never be together again. Enta has a crush on Kazuki, who does not share his feelings; thus, he does not confess, but instead represses his emotions and experiences delusions of his reciprocation fantasy coming to be. Much like other works of denpa fiction, Enta’s delusions take form in reality to where he is often unable to distinguish between what is actually going on and his fantasy.
Another recent denpa-inspired anime is Akira Amemiya’s phenomenal SSSS.GRIDMAN (2018). Much like the Gainax classics it was modeled after, GRIDMAN wears its inspirations on its sleeve. While Amemiya’s self-proclaimed biggest influence for GRIDMAN was Anno’s Evangelion, it also draws from countless other popular series including the Braves series, the Ultraman franchise, Gamera 3 (1999), Tekkaman Blade (1992), Gaiking: Legend of Daiku-Maryu (2005), and even some of Anno’s other works like Shin Gojira (2016). GRIDMAN is moreover as much a throwback to the heights of denpa as it is to those of mecha and tokusatsu. Girls on rooftops, chain link fences, powerlines, unsettlingly hot summers, dream worlds, and impending sense of loneliness are all prevalent in the series. Tatsuya Tanaka’s layouts for the telephone poles and powerlines deserve to be singled out in this regard; his compositions are simply breathtaking and effectively establish the atmosphere of the show .
Not only does GRIDMAN succeed in nailing the imagery and tone of denpa, it also features denpa themes and ideas. The series’ antagonist is an otaku named Akane Shinjou, who, much like Toru Honda, locks herself away from the outside world in her room. She creates an imaginary world based on her favorite mecha and tokusatsu series that she can escape to, with friends that will love her unconditionally. This is the world GRIDMAN takes place in—one that Akane can destroy and rebuild with her kaiju for all eternity. At the end of the series, Akane breaks free from this world and leaves, returning to reality. The series switches from animation to live-action as she gets out of bed and leaves the confines of her room behind. At the end is an awakening from the dream, the end of a delusion—illumination, and with it a return to reality and all of its hardships. Much like the endings of Evangelion and CROSS†CHANNEL, what lies beyond the daydream is unknown. However, the misadventures of our delusional knight-errant are at last over. Perhaps somewhere beyond the sky, beyond the hardships of reality, awaits some form of happiness. A pastoral life to take up, perhaps, or a hill of sunflowers.
Don Quixote of La Mancha, as illustrated by Gustave Doré.
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