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  • Priya Mu


Quite a while back I went to a second-hand furniture shop in Hongo to get a chair for my study desk. I came across an antique wooden cabinet with a lot of drawers and text on each compartment written using outdated kanji characters. I got curious and asked the shopkeeper what this cabinet was.

"People used this to store herbs and medicines in old times," he said.

"Ooooh... Like in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)?" I asked him.

"Ah! sou sou sou," he agreed with a nodding smile.

As I stood there taking a closer look at the cabinet, I forgot about the chair and momentarily teleported to Kamaji's boiler room. The excitement that I felt exploring the cabinet lingered for a long time even after I left the place.

The phrase "God's in the details," is often attributed to the German Architect Mies van der Rohe, but the origin of the phrase is still debated. I'm more concerned about what it means than the origin here. The phrase manifests the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly and that the details are of paramount importance. While this applies to anything and everything, an average human being comes across only a few things in life that can have the level of detail intensive enough to invoke something within oneself. Some might find this in the writings of Charles Dickens, and some might find it in the cogs and gears of a vintage Swizz watch. For me, I find it in the strokes and hues of Japanese anime drawings, particularly the backgrounds.

When it comes to imbuing life in anime, the character design, voice acting, direction, etc., are also crucial, but I believe the pièce de résistance lies in the details of the drawings. Anime series with abstract backgrounds can also make me feel like I am part of a fictional world, possibly because of their longer duration, but I don’t think they have that transcending effect where I experience the glitch in the fabric of reality, like when I encountered the medicine cabinet in the second-hand furniture shop.

Realistic backgrounds are a trademark of Japanese animation and can be found in almost all anime, but I am particularly drawn to the realism portrayed in the ethereal drawings of Kazuo Oga (Studio Ghibli), Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children), Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers), Hiroyuki Okiura (A Letter to Momo) and sometimes Makoto Shinkai (Your Name.), Shinkai uses a little too much light flare for my taste. All these movies are masterpieces in their own way, but the movie that has a special place in my heart is Okiura's A Letter to Momo (Momo e no Tegami). It is a simple story of a young girl (Momo) and her recently widowed mother (Ikuko) moving from Tokyo to Ikuko's hometown, an island Southwest of Hiroshima. Every single frame, including the animation, was completely hand-drawn taking the movie seven years to complete. The details, such as the wall clock that stopped working and how Ikuko looks at it, the shrine in the mountains where Momo always goes to hide from the rest of the world, the streets, the shops, what the shops sell, the clouds, the rain, and just everything, everything is part of the story portraying the grief, regrets, love, and hope the characters experience. The subdued watercolor backgrounds, so detailed and so delicate, manage to effortlessly teleport me to the islands of the Seto-inland Sea every single time I watch the movie. I haven't yet traveled to these islands, but when I do, I bet it won't feel like it’s the first time.

One common aspect about the animators and their works mentioned here (except for Tokyo Godfathers) is that they bridge the real world to a world of fantasy. The interweaving of fantastical elements with everyday life makes these earthly objects and places transcend into a magical world, but there is also a reverse effect. Whenever I come across these places and objects in real life, the magic spills out into the real world, making me want to believe in Yōkai, forest spirits, and Suzuwatari (aka Makkuro kurosuke - Miyazaki's dust bunnies). While the possibility of an alternative universe filled with these mystical elements gets me thrilled every time, the drawings that make my heart clench are the ones that portray the mundane and quotidian aspects of Life in the city or the countryside. Tokyo-Sunsets from the windows of Yamanote Line, empty trains on Sunday afternoons, the bridge to Enoshima, futons hanging on the balcony, hidden shrine in the middle of the city, the long stairs that lead to the shrine, the flickering lights of vending machines, old Japanese houses especially in the countryside, and more. When I come across them, I experience a momentary glitch. The glitch that seems to have in it a placebo for the illnesses that come as the side effects of contemplating Life. Though Life in Japan is not just endless anime backgrounds or magical encounters, and there are countless moments that can make you feel insecure or plainly empty, these moments, woven into the fabric of everyday life, help me take a deep breath and remember how to talk about my dreams without adding sentences that start with a "but."

Photos by Priya Mu


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