otona joshi no anime time – what it means to be a (japanese) woman

Loosely translated, it means “grown-up women’s anime time”.

4 vignettes of 4 females at varying stages of life (based on 4 short stories written by award-wining novelists):

  1. Kawamo wo Suberu Kaze (The wind that slides over the river): Noriko, 33, married with a 4-year old son
  2. Yuuge (Dinner): Mimi, 29, married, no kids,
  3. Jinsei Best 10 (Life’s Best 10): Natoko, 40, not married
  4. Dokoka Dewanai Koko (Here, which is not anywhere): Maho, 43, married, housewife with 2 teenage kids

They could be any woman on the street you encounter in a big city in Japan:  Noriko, a provincial girl, married to a high-flying colleague posted to work in the USA; Mimi who’s so in love with the man she was cooking for; Nakoto the successful career woman still looking for love; Maho who’s the embodiment of the typical japanese housewife.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” 

Each of them had a story they couldn’t confide with family or friends. Yet, none of protagonists appeared to want to change their circumstances. In typical Japanese fashion, they adjusted their own response to them. Which may not be a bad thin because sometimes this is the best way forward. Still, there’s no helping that air of resignedness looming over the stories.

Here’s what I found, in the sequence that works for me.

Life’s Best 10

Let’s start with Life’s Best 10. Natoko, 40 was still single and yearning to be married. Because she didn’t have her own family, she felt her ‘lack of accomplishments’ keenly. She personifies the ‘a woman can only be happy when she is married’ and ‘single women are vulnerable to smooth-talking men’ stereotypes.

“I’d like to get married soon and be someone’s cute wife”

Pink was the colour of choice, the hue of girlish hope and the scenes were infused with different shades of pink. Here’s Hatoko in middle school, confident of what the future would hold. Ah, the presumption of youth.

“when I’m twenty I will be in a passionate relationship, have children before 30 and be friends with my children at 40”

At age 40 sans 1 week, she bumped into her first love, Kishida Yuusaku at a school reunion, and wasted no time reconnecting with him.

the moment she laid her eyes on her first love

But this Kishida Yuusaku was not that Kishida Yuusaku. Here’s the moment she realised she had been swindled by a fake Kishida Yuusaku and actually had a one night stand with a stranger.

the moment of truth

But what the heck. Life had to be lived and chances had to be taken. By the end, she realised that she was no match for her 13-year old middle school self, the girl who was full of ambition, courage and power to take action. Where did all that power go?

what was I thinking?

This is definitely a story that most over-40s can relate to. I had fun with this one.

Dinner 

Yuuge is an archaic term for ‘dinner’. Like the title, the story is a rather archiac depiction of what a woman’s purpose in life ought to be.

Mimi exemplifies the ‘a woman’s job is to cook delicious, nutritious meals for her man’ and ‘love is all we need’ type of old-fashioned values.

It looked aw-so-sweet at first but then you realise Mimi was doing nothing but cooking dinners and waiting for her man to come home. What about her own life?

“its my duty”

Wait, Mimi was married but she’s not living with the man she married. While still married to her husband, she met a garbage collector, Kou, who one day saved her fingers from being crushed by the truck. Because he’s probably the first person in her life who showed concern for her/her feelings and looked her in the eyes, she ditched her husband and started living with him.

“which part of me did you like?”

Even meal times could be fun times with the right person

Unlike her husband who treated her like a maid, Kou was earnest and appreciative. He had neither status nor money but he was hardworking and made her matter. I like Kou.

“I wanted to prove that my life up until now was not for nothing”

Though Kou was sweet, it was disturbing that Mimi centred her very existence on him. He’s considerate, gentle, loving and totally in love with her yes but complete dependency can become a heavy burden.

the beginning and the ending

It was a  happy ending because Mimi’s husband finally agreed to sign the divorce papers so she could marry Kou. I liked this one mainly because of Kou.

The Wind that Slides Over the River 

Noriko’s situation was a bit more complicated. Outwardly, she appeared to have it all – a refined, elegant woman, married to an elite salary man, lived in the USA for the last 5 years. What wasn’t clear was why she was back. Her husband got posted back? A routine visit? To get divorced? Or to follow-up on her obssession with a certain someone?

Noriko epitomises the ‘she who is too ambitious for her own good deserves what she gets/didn’t get’ stereotype.

thinking of the past

As a child, Noriko had always aspired to great things: study in Tokyo, get a job there, marry an elite. The last thing she wanted was to become a common small-town woman, like her elder sister. Yet, she envied her sister and her family for their simple, happy life.

But why was she unhappy? Her life unravelled as soon as she arrived in the USA – the stress of a new environment, a new baby, a busy husband who’s more interested in work and other women. And her bulimia. Even though her husband knew, he never asked her about it. That probably aggravated her condition. Who wakes up in the dead of the night to attack leftovers like a savage and then leave a mess for people to discover. This one definitely required treatment and fast.

messing up the kitchen in the dead of the night

I’m not sure what prompted her to look up Hisao. Actually I wasn’t really sure why she slept with Hisao on the eve of her wedding in the first place. Because of those dexterous fingers?

Hisao was an apprentice of her father (father was a traditional japanese sweets master chef) since they were 15. It was apparent Hisao had the hots for her, just that he was bad at expressing it. Noriko was probably also attracted to Hisao but in her teenage mind, her priority was to get away from the little city she was born in. So, settling down with Hisao was out of the question.

an almost confession when they were 18

I’m not sure if she really loved Hisao though I’m sure Hisao loved her. I have great respect for Hisao, his unwavering dedication to his craft and his unwavering affection for Noriko.

When she finally went to see Hisao again, her secret was revealed – her little boy was actually conceived with him on that night of passion before her wedding. Noriko was about to blurt out the truth but held back when he told her he’s already married with a year old daughter. And Noriko left, after telling him that she was very happy.

he still loves her

Hisao still loved her. The scene where she left in a taxi with her boy and him standing at the taxi stand watching it leave was particularly poignant. This one left a gnawing sadness.

Here, which is not anywhere

The Japanese title itself was a bit of an enigma. Is it here, or not here?

Maho was a middle-aged housewife with an indifferent husband, 2 indifferent teenage kids and a mother who’s self-absorbed. Her husband had been retrenched and while he found work again, it was obviously a much junior position. So Maho had to work the night shift in the supermarket to supplement the income (loans) while still taking care of all the housework.

Even though she gave her college-going son and high-school daughter the best that she could afford, they despised her for being weak, meek and being a walk-over. Shit happens when you mollycoddle your kids.

teens can be so hurtful

Maho embodies the pressure to be ‘the perfect wife, mother, daughter’, to ‘sacrifice everything for the family’ and to ‘provide a mother’s unconditional love’.

Maho made her own bed and now had to lie in it. In fact, she really wanted to get a good rest in her bed. Because Maho was very exhausted. Yet, when her husband and son found her lying on the carpet in the living room, nobody thought to ask her if she was ill. Instead, they just kicked her awake.

Maho woke up early every morning to make breakfast (should ask those brats to go out and eat). Her mum called her incessantly to demand her attention (then pretended to be surprised when Noriko turned up). Her daughter stomped out of home yelling she didn’t want to become like her so she was leaving home (great, let her find out how difficult earning a living was). Her son lounged around at home expecting to be served, just like the dad.

At work, her co-worker hit on her and tried to take her to a love hotel. That’s when she decided enough was enough. And she found that she still had it in her to resist.

Time to show mama some respect and appreciation!

“don’t fuck with me”

It seemed Maho found renewed vigour and came to terms with her situation. If you ask me, the best antidode is to quietly take a month-long vacation – and wait for them to come crawling back for mama.

an affirmation to supervisor and to self

“I’m not going to look anywhere but here”

Being the responsible housewife that she was, Maho didn’t do that. She convinced herself that she would stick to this path and make the best out of it. I found this a bit hard to watch because the overall tone was flat and rather depressing.

I guess some of the stories translate into anime format better. Or it could be the skill of the production team (all 4 were by different animation studios).

Life’s Best 10 (BONES) was face-paced and entertaining. Yuuge/Dinner (Production Reed) was a monologue with only 2 main characters but one which was interpolated with heartwarming scenes of Mimi-Kou conversations against a colourful palette. Kawamo (The Answer Studio) was more staid, sombre, to reflect the ‘boring woman who buttons her blouse up to her neck’ and it did so perfectly with a navy blue/grey colour scheme. Now, what if one of these 3 did the last story. Would it be any different?

But then again, like what Noriko said: What good is a life that starts with an “if”?

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