I get it. Sometimes, we’re all just looking for a way to turn our brains off when we plop down in front of the TV. But I’d make the argument that, on occasion, the best entertainment can often be the type that’s capable of opening our minds to different experiences and ways of thinking. Think about the media you consume which educates you without making it seem like you’re in a classroom, and without asking you to make any effort at all. Sure, we’ve got documentaries to fall back on for this very purpose, but anime can actually do the same thing from time to time when it highlights traditional Japanese Culture. (No, I wasn’t talking about Cells at Work teaching us about the human body–though it did an excellent job.)
While anime is a medium not often known for its realistic depictions of everyday life in Japan, certain series do an excellent job of pulling back the curtain. Sure, slice-of-life series do highlight much of the expected and often mundane minutiae of everyday life on the island. But for those wanting a deeper dive into subjects of more relative traditional cultural significance, certain authors have brought these things to life through their storytelling. And we have anime studios to thank for bringing these light novels and manga series to television screens. Sometimes, we don’t expect these series to be as entertaining as they are. A show about a poetry card game? About Japanese chess? But you’d be surprised.
These series aren’t only influencing foreign audiences to have a deeper interest in Japan, but are also inspiring Japanese citizens themselves to think more deeply about aspects of their own culture. Can contemporary entertainment–like these popular anime series–be called responsible for creating a traditional boom? Either way, you’re bound to learn something if you give these shows a try.
Theater-based Series Highlighting Traditional Japanese Culture
Yes, more than one series exists with a focus on Japanese theater. And yes, the two we’ve picked are definitely worth a watch, not only for the historical information they provide but for the characters and passion they so effortlessly depict.
Originally published as a light novel series starting in 2010, Kabukibu! picked up plenty of steam–enough to inspire a manga and anime series both beginning in early 2017. We’re sure plenty of people are familiar with kabuki theater, with it’s history beginning in the early 1600s–but the intricacies are something we were happy to learn about from the protagonist, Kurogo Kurusu. A high-schooler in love with traditional kabuki, he typically annoys his classmates with his intense fascination, until he works up the courage to start a kabuki club. Filled with plenty of well-timed jokes and sympathetic characters, there’s also a certain joy you’ll feel when hearing these voice actors attempt kabuki lines for the first time. (It’s tougher than it seems!)
And when Japan finally opens up again, you’ll be the resident kabuki-expert when you visit the Kabuki-za Theater in Ginza. Okay, maybe not, but you won’t be completely lost. You can watch the series on Amazon Prime.
If kabuki is a well-known term, we’re betting rakugo is a little more niche. We’ve been praising Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju since the manga series began serialization in 2010 and the anime followed in 2016, though without knowing what you’re getting into, there can be a bit of a learning curve. Rakugo, simply put, is traditional storytelling, in which a single man with very limited props tells a long and complicated humorous (or sometimes emotional) tale.
The art form can be traced as far back as the 1200s, and while interest sometimes wanes, older generations still flock to the theater to hear a decent story. Rakugo Shinju tells the story of an ex-con learning the ways of rakugo, and is largely a true-to-life tale about the difficulties of breaking into the industry. Check out the series on Crunchyroll!
Ready to Learn the Rules of these Japanese Games?
Similar to sports anime, series which focus on traditional Japanese culture through tabletop games can prove incredibly compelling, even to those people who aren’t fans to begin with. (Hey, I have no interest in volleyball, but Haikyu! was a must-see. The same goes for Ace of Diamonds.) Way back in 2001, the Hikaru no Go manga inspired a hugely popular anime series, and went on to get three video games and an overseas live-action drama. Keep in mind, this was a show about a very abstract board game. (Yes, it’s still on Crunchyroll.)
Similarly, March Comes in Like a Lion was an instant smash hit when it hit TV screens in 2016. A deeply emotional series with shogi at its core, the game is also called Japanese chess. And though that can be called the heart of the show, the series is a coming-of-age blockbuster, with heaps of romance and plenty of background into the life of a professional shogi player. If you want to cry, but also be educated, the show is on Crunchyroll.
If you’re going to take one series away from this rant, I beg of you, check out Chihayafuru. If you don’t speak Japanese, picking up karuta as a hobby might be a little more challenging, but that won’t stop you from being wooed to tears by the music and relationships you’ll be pulled into for three expertly done seasons. Following high-school student Chihaya as she aims to become the greatest karuta player on Earth, the series is compounded by a heartwrenching love triangle, plenty of real-world drama and lots of Japanese poetry.
That’s right–karuta is a card game that requires players to memorize 100 classical Japanese poems. If you’re thinking ‘that’s not really my cup of tea,’ you’d be sorely mistaken. The stakes here are as extreme as in any battle royale series you’ve ever seen, and you’d be doing yourself a favor to give it a try. Who knows, you might even be inspired to memorize a few yourself. (Yours truly is up to 62. I’ll be ready to play you guys any day now.) And yes, it’s a very real sport in Japan.
Anime as a Gateway to a Deeper Understanding
No one logs onto Crunchyroll to be educated, but there’s no harm in diving just a little deeper into the culture which provides us so much entertainment and joy. Watching Kabukibu! won’t make you an expert on the 1747 play Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, and binging Hikaru no Go won’t instantly teach you all the tricks and skills needed to be the greatest Go player on Earth. But what it can do is open up a new world to you, beyond the veil of anime and manga.
Personally, anime was a gateway drug, and a life in Japan is where it eventually–and unexpectedly–led me. If you’re here at OTAQUEST, we’re sure that your interests are wide and varied. That’s why we think these series might stir something inside you, and send you on a quest to learn more about traditional Japanese culture.
Oh, and I really will play you at Karuta whenever our next in-person event can happen.