Purity in Anime Isn’t So Simple

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When the words “purity in anime” come up, I think the typical association is with sexual purity. Between past stories of fans being angry at individuals both fictional (Nagi from Kannagi) and real (Suzumiya Haruhi seiyuu Hirano Aya) for not being virgins, to the idol industry’s forbidding of relationships for its stars, there is a valuing of chastity that is often tinged with the desire for someone’s virginity to be in a state of limbo: always on the cusp of losing it, but never going to do so. At the same time, however, while sexual innocence is one form of purity, it’s not the only kind, and often it takes the form of a “naive perspective,” a “pure heart,” or a “child-like desire.”

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To shift the discussion away from female characters, I’d like to talk about perhaps the most famous character in all of anime: Son Goku. Suffice it to say, he needs no introduction, but one recurring trait of the character is that he is pure-hearted. It’s what allows him to ride Kintoun (Flying Nimbus). When confronted with the Devilmite Beam, an attack that turns one’s negative thoughts into damage, Goku is completely unaffected. Even as he fights planet-crushing adversaries, has two kids, and generally grows into an adult, Goku is still portrayed as innocent of mind. His love of fighting is genuine, and even sex doesn’t really change him.

Looking at more recent titles (unless you count Dragon Ball Super), a character like Nagisa in Clannad is supposed to be an epitome of innocence and purity, but by the time of After Story she’s married and is no longer a virgin. Even though her tragedy quotient shoots way up (as tends to happen in Key works), Nagisa is much like Goku in that sex doesn’t actually impact the sense of purity her character exudes. In terms of child-like desire, Haruka in Free! views the act of swimming similar to to how Goku approaches fighting. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the simple joy of the activity itself, whether that’s swimming to feel the thrill of the water regardless of competition, or wanting to test one’s strength against strong opponents. It’s as if the ultimate purity is one that maintains itself no matter the circumstances.

I can’t forget that there is a double standard when it comes to sex. Girls, be they fictional or real, are subjected to the issue of being “ruined” or considered “sluts” in a way that goes well beyond the limited world of idols where both sexes are subject to scrutiny. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if it’s possible for a character to be viewed as pure yet also sexually promiscuous? I don’t think it’s impossible. Perhaps even the enjoyment of sex can be portrayed innocently, even if that might not necessarily be realistic. That said, the degree to which people would be able to accept something like this is probably small in the grand scheme of industry and audience reactions, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing either. One question I wonder is how fans can reconcile a desire for purity in some cases with a strongly sexual presentation at the same time, but it might just have to do with having the option to shift responsibility, especially in the 2D realm of anime and the 2.5D realm of idols.

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In the first paragraph I mentioned Hirano Aya and her fall from grace due to the idea that she had sex with her band mates. The backlash essentially sent her from being the top otaku idol to only working in anime sparingly, but ultimately it’s my opinion that this has made her voice acting career better than ever. No longer is she pushed into roles that are tailored towards keeping her as that “goddess of anime.” She can be Migi, the alien symbiote in Parasyte. She can be Paiman, the weird panda-like hero in Gatchaman Crowds. She can be Dende, guardian of the Dragon Balls in Dragon Ball Super. It’s possible to look at her full CV and see that her acting is not limited to that which is most sexually thrilling or geared towards otaku appeal qualities. By de-coupling her from the very idea of virgin purity, her acting is arguably purer than ever before.

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Goku vs. Javert: Voice, Performance, and Interpretation

I’m not big into musicals, but after watching the Les Misérables film and seeing all of the criticism of Russell Crowe’s Javert (especially in terms of the quality of his singing), I began looking into the Javerts from Broadway, most notably Philip Quast, who was used for the 10th Anniversary performance. While Quast is clearly a more powerful singer and better at acting through his singing (as opposed singing along with acting), what stood out to me was the sheer difference in Crowe’s and Quast’s interpretations of the character of Javert.

Quast’s Javert is supremely confident in both himself and his sense of justice, with the idea that, as the story progresses, he begins to lose his philosophy of absolute righteousness. Crowe’s Javert, in contrast, comes across as someone who is constantly at war with himself, fighting against the fact that he is “from the gutter too.” What amazes me about this, as perhaps someone who’s spent arguably too much time with anime and manga and not enough with other media, is that the same lyrics, the same script and dialogue, could result in such different characters.

In thinking about this in terms of recorded media, I have to think about the position a particular work has to have in order to get to this point where multiple interpretations of a character can exist based on the same core script. Sure, remakes happen, whether it’s anime, film, or something else, and American superhero comics are known for re-inventing characters through the different minds of new creators who revisit or take on older properties, but it’s not quite like having a stage play (or a movie that tries its hardest to be faithful to a stage play), where having new actors, new people to give their voice and mannerisms to the same character and script, is expected.

Dragon Ball is one of the most famous manga and anime ever, and between Dragon Ball Kai, Dragon Ball Super, Resurrection ‘F,and more, its characters have been coming back stronger than ever. In fact, Kai had all of its dialogue re-recorded even though the story was Z’s. In a way, that idea of having different interpretations despite the same script happened, only most of the voices were the original cast, and it’s more seeing how experience has changed them.

Where the “actor interpretation” idea might exist in anime is, perhaps, the act of dubbing. For most who grew up with the English voices of Son Goku (most famously at this point Sean Schemmel), Nozawa Masako’s original Goku portrayal is extremely jarring, her shrill voice sounding much less masculine than their image of Goku. Because Dragon Ball is so internationally successful, that also means that it and similarly popular works (Pokemon, One Piece) all give these potentially very different experiences due to how the same (or similar) script is communicated through dozens of languages. English-language Goku and Japanese-language Goku are in a way very different, and I can only imagine that Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic Goku are all going to bring variations even though they share the same basis.

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