On the perceived feeling of suburbia in anime

kimi ni todoke bike rack

That’s… an umbrella rack. Why am I posting a shot of an umbrella rack? Why should you bother reading this, when you could likely be reading something headed by a scantily clad cartoon guy or girl? (Hell, two weeks ago I used a scantily clad character, though maybe not exactly the one printed on that pillow slip you’ve been eyeing.) Well, because I want to talk about suburbia. If you’re American, at least, that should trigger seated feelings of some sort in your brain. So. Suburbia and the anime-watching habits of not-Japanese people (myself being my prime example). Interested at all? Woo! Let’s go!

kimi ni todoke empty lot

I thought of this while re-watching Toradora, but these two shots are from Kimi ni Todoke. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you some about myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was a kid I wanted to live in suburbia. I lived out in the countryside, ten minutes in a car from my actual hometown, which is very small. I didn’t want to live in a city. I didn’t even want to live elsewhere. But I wanted a lot of the stuff I saw on TV. I’ve always wanted to learn to skateboard (and still would like to, if I weren’t so terrified of chipping my teeth – weird, I know). I didn’t partly because there was nowhere to go. At the time there were four kids roughly my age in my “neighborhood,” and I’m related to all of them. I was younger than all but one, so I think I was the “tagalong” cousin. Translation: we didn’t hang out much unless our parents were hanging out as well. Also, they lived less than a mile away. I can still see their old yard from mine when I’m home.

Is this picture taking shape for you? I’m not certain I’m very coherent here. I wanted to be in a neighborhood, with people around – friends or not, just people, at times. There were a lot of kids on TV walking to school, and that’s something that wasn’t really possible for me, given that my school was twenty minutes away by car – if traffic was light. There wasn’t a group feeling where I lived. Apparently there used to be, before I was born – according to my parents at least.

So, what’s all this got to do with anime?

You probably already see where I’m going with this. There are lots of anime where the characters walk to school. But they also recycle, see each other when they go shopping, wander into and out of one another’s houses on a whim. There is, in anime at least, the sense that even the most urban areas are, emotionally, suburban. Smaller groups form. Being in a city doesn’t really carry a sense of anonymity, but only of being in a group defined by a set of streets rather than a whole town.

And so what? Other, obviously, than the personal meaning it might have to me? Well, there is a sense, in many anime set in these locations (not a fantasy setting or very rural areas), of panoptic vision. Not of being monitored, but rarely does a character ever do anything anonymously. In Toradora when Ami is running from her stalker she inevitably runs into Ryu, not once but twice. It leads to Taiga beating shit out of the stalker and Ami yelling at him so he runs home and doesn’t bother her again. So for Ami, moving around as a model so much has given her a kind of anonymity that she both relied on and was being strangled by. She is given a supportive network simply by moving to the neighborhood and not shutting people out entirely.

In Kimi ni Todoke Sawako has lived most of her public life alone. Her countenance has accidentally pushed people away in the way Ami was doing with her fake personality. But she lives in that setting as well. I brought up recycling because Sawako goes jogging and picks up trash off the sidewalk as she goes, which is odd at least. She picks her high school because she lives so close by. So what’s happening?

There’s more to Sawako’s status as a social pariah than the show ever directly shows. Living in such an environment and having no connection to anyone in the area – up to and including not knowing the restaurants, the area, even though she runs through it every day. She has one friend from middle school, but so far as I can tell she doesn’t live nearby. So A: Sawako is really a social pariah. Everyone avoids her, until the events of the story of course. And B: as the Christmas arc shows, her father isn’t overprotective but infantilizing. She is childish in her interactions because she’s an only child and taught to interact in that way. She obviously isn’t stupid, but it seems reasonable to her father to still really believe Sawako believes in Santa until she’s 15 (turning 16). Sawako isn’t shocked, of course, but she also isn’t surprised her father thinks what he does. She just thinks of it as one of his cute character traits. And it’s funny, sure, but it’s also one of the elements that have added up to Sawako’s present position. How, then, would she recover?

She always notices that Kazehaya is surrounded by people. He has a circle of friends, not even just a few. She wants that initially. She wants community.

This is one of the things, I think, that makes Earthbound so beloved to American fans. It has that sense of suburban communities. I mean, there’s a big city and it’s the place where space warps around the characters. In short, in the city no one knows anyone and everything’s fucked up forever. Get out into the countryside and you can grind on monsters. Or the desert, you know, whatever. Go to a small town and you find Ness, go to the next and you find Paula. That first area, traveling around Onett, is one of the strongest places for me. You wander around the neighborhood, fighting bullies and dodging cars on the street. Well, the bus. Ness is leaving that environment, that close-knit community – first his home, then his hometown, to do something else. Maybe more, maybe just different, but something important. But like any good game (or anything) concerned with nostalgia, there are phone calls and period bouts of homesickness to deal with. I don’t think I’ve ever played another game that had a mechanic for an intangible emotion (other than some that do insanity, of course). That feeling of belonging that one gets in childhood, provided one gets it, colors everything else that happens afterwards. Robert Anton Wilson tied it to what he called the first circuit – the safety circuit. I think he got his terms from Leary. People who “imprint” on it feel safe anywhere.

And as an anime fan who wasn’t pre-teen after the big anime boom in America (also see video games, books, fantasy, SF, roleplaying games, what have you) I don’t have a lot of personal experience feeling safe anywhere. So these shows, I think, appeal to audiences like me partly for that reason; they dramatize finding those places, at points in our lives where we wanted them and didn’t get them. I got them later, of course; college is traditionally where people like me “fit in.” But I was already used to being paranoid, and so every situation begins that way, even if I relax shortly afterwards. Like Sawako when she first meets Kazehaya, I too watch them, and that show, and marvel at people who feel that safe at that time.

And that’s what I think about suburbia and anime.

If you like the sort of thing I write, you might want to check over at my blog for more stuff just like it. There it’s mostly fantasy/sf/horror stuff, but also comics and video games.

Leave a comment


  1. This is great because it’s so different from why I’m drawn to (certain) stories about suburbia.

    I have a little experience with places like the one you describe–my dad has always had a thing for living in the literal hills and backwoods–but mostly I grew up in suburbia. Or, well, I realize now that I live outside of D.C. that I didn’t know what a suburb even was until eight months ago. But I did live in the kinds of residential sprawls that get broadly tagged as “suburbia.” Walking/biking to friends’ houses was a thing that happened.

    As a kid in suburbia, you can lean one of two ways. You can decide that suburbia is soul-crushing and ironic and make a living writing for the New Yorker. Or you can lean the way I leaned. You can lean in the Pete and Pete direction. Suburbia’s boring on the surface level, yes. It’s concrete and vinyl siding. The sense of belonging it’s supposed to inspire is false, of course, and nobody knows that as well as a suburban teenager. There’s no magic in it at first glance. So you find the magic, or make it. Illegal fireworks at 3am. Here’s a random loudspeaker sort of thing–what does it do and why? Here’s a half-block-sized graveyard. Weird. And, look, this person’s backyard has a river in it.

    I guess I’m trying to say that I’m more interested in characters acting upon the suburbs than the suburbs acting upon them. Suburbia as the English country house in which the wardrobe is hidden, and as the world inside the wardrobe at the same time. Literal magic appreciated but not required.

  2. Although logical thinking requires you to consider population distribution and the way the Japanese built their communities, it’s safe to say that their concept of suburbia is pretty much compressed compared to how people in large countries like the United States see it. But really, it shouldn’t be like that, should it? Considering how big their country is, there’s enough space to build communities anywhere in the continent. However, their culture and subculture dictates that the Japanese are tightly knit as a community, that each house has little to no space between the other, and that a neighbor is only a wall away. It even goes to the point where people think a few meters away from a community vicinity is already considered as a place “out of town”. And this is Japanese suburbia, folks. Places where the general populace don’t usually dare to go unless they go by train. We’re not even talking about the rural areas and some of us are already getting the same vibe as a vagabond pioneer thrust into the frontier lands of the unknown.

    I guess personal magic can play a part or two, but like Pontifus already said, it’s not required. You can’t really go Mark Twain on a place where you have a lot of people to interact with. More like you won’t have the chance to unless you’re a queer.


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