Common Symbolism in Anime

Warning: I don’t advise citing these notes in your term papers. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a recognized authority on Japanese culture. These notes contain personal interpretations and speculation, as well as information collected from the Internet (and you know how reliable that is!)

Box Lunches. A home-made bentou (box lunch) generally represents love. Mothers make them for their children and a man will be envied by his coworkers if he can bring in a bentou prepared by his loving wife. In any high-school comedy it is inevitable that some girl will offer a bentou to a boy that she is interested in. In a culture where public rejection could be considered an unbearable humiliation, this provides a safe way to signal her interest. Politeness pretty much requires the boy to accept, and if he knows what is good for him he will eat it and say it is delicious, even if it tastes awful. Hopefully he will also understand that it is safe to ask her out. The artistic arrangement of the food counts for almost as much as the taste.

Cherry blossoms. Ornamental cherry trees (sakura) are known around the world as symbols of Japan. The beautiful blossoms, which cover the trees but vanish within a few days, symbolize the transience of life. Their appearance is the occasion for hanami (flower viewing) parties that often feature much drinking and weeping. For the old samurai class the blossoms symbolize the ideal that every samurai should aspire to: a short, beautiful and glorious life.

Five elements. Many stories refer to the notion that everything is made of 5 elements. The 5 Chinese Elements, used in stories involving onmyoudou, are Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. The 5 Indian Elements, which appear in Buddhist tradition, are Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. (The fourth element was originally “Air”, but Japanese commentators naturally preferred “Wind“.)

Gears or clockwork symbolize the impersonal and mechanistic workings of karma. The nature of clockwork, going around and around without ever getting anywhere, suggests the cycle of death and rebirth.

Mirrors. Mirrors are associated with the Sun goddess Amaterasu, the patron of the Japanese nation. According to one myth, when the goddess took refuge in a cave, plunging the world into darkness, she was lured out with the help of a sacred mirror called the Yata No Kagami, which is part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. This is supposed to be a small, round bronze mirror, and it represents Wisdom.

Showing a reflection of a speaker is a way to indicate that whatever the speaker is saying is a reference to himself, or that the speaker is revealing his true nature.

Images of the Moon are very common in anime. In particular we are often shown pictures of the Moon’s reflection in water. According to folklore monkeys will try to grab the moon’s reflection out of the water, but given the popularity of this image there must be more too it than that.

The best-known Asian myth about the Moon tells how a rabbit selflessly offered itself as food to the Buddha, and the Buddha rewarded the rabbit by placing it in the Moon. Thus in most of East Asia the pattern on the face of the Moon is considered to be a rabbit rather than a human face. There are many references to this story in anime; consider for example the name of the protagonist in Sailor Moon.

Of course from a symbolic standpoint being placed in the Moon by the Buddha may be assumed to represent attaining Enlightenment.

This suggests a Buddhist interpretation of the story of the monkeys who grab at the Moon’s reflection. The monkeys are like people who pursue the illusory goals of the material world, not knowing that what they should be seeking is Enlightenment, represented by the actual Moon overhead. Often in the imagery the Moon’s reflection is distorted by ripples in the water (see below). This may serve to emphasize that only the true path of Enlightenment can offer an escape from the trap of karma.

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

101 Zen Stories

The most overused cliche in shows featuring sexual humor is the nosebleed If a male character gets a nosebleed it means that he just got a massive erection. (Presumably this derives from a misunderstanding of how erections work.)

Paper Cranes The Red-crowned Crane is thought to live for 1,000 years, and thus is a symbol of long life and prosperity. Strings of 1,000 folded paper cranes may be given as a wedding present or to a newborn baby. Because of the association with Sadako Sasaki, 1,000 folded paper cranes may symbolize a wish for world peace, or for a dying person to recover.

A red ribbon can be used to indicate that “these two people belong together'” This is based on a superstition that soul-mates are connected to each other by an invisible red thread. Watch for a moment when both characters are simultaneously in contact with the ribbon. This should not be taken as a promise by the writers that the characters will actually end up together; it may just be a setup for some tragic irony.

Ripples. A very common symbol is to cut to an image of drops falling into still water, creating ripples that expand across the surface. Sometimes the ripples seem to hit an off-screen boundary and are reflected back to the center. This is probably a reference to the Buddhist notion of karma: every action, no matter how small, has inevitable consequences that expand inexorably across the universe and eventually return to affect the original actor. Related notions: Fate, inevitability.

If the ripples are caused by the heroine’s tears falling on the water, that implies that her feelings reach across the universe.

According to a common superstition, if you sneeze this means that someone is talking about you,

Umbrella. Sharing an umbrella is a generally-understood symbol for romantic love (though an adult sharing an umbrella with a child merely symbolizes parental love.) Because of the romantic connotation young boys will generally refuse to share an umbrella with a girl.

The weathercock (a weather vane with the image of a rooster) is a Western design with a strong appeal to the Japanese because the call of the rooster announces the coming of the sun goddess. Weathercocks are particularly associated with the city of Kobe, one of the first ports opened to Western trade. The “Weathercock House”, a 19th century brick building, is a prominent local landmark.

White clothing generally symbolizes death. While black is the color worn at funerals today, the dead are still cremated in or with a white kimono. A bride traditionally wears white to indicate that she is leaving her father’s family and joining her husband’s. Depending on the source, the white dress either symbolizes that she is dying and being reborn, or that “white can be dyed any color”.

In some cases (e.g. the OP and ED for Figure 17) white clothing may indicate not so much that the characters are dead as that we are seeing their spirits.

Wind. To get an idea of the emotional significance of wind, just try to find a Japanese popular song that does not include the word kaze. (OK, they exist, but you may have to search for a while. ;-) ) This may go all the way back to the original thirteenth-century kamikaze: two hurricanes that destroyed Mongol invasion fleets in the years 1274 and 1281. These preserved the existence of the Japanese nation and helped to establish the notion that the islands are under special divine protection.

One of the most common symbols in anime is wind blowing across the grass in an open field. This represents the first gust of an oncoming storm. It may be a figurative storm, perhaps a threat to the protagonist, or an emotional upheaval. (But remember that a storm can sometimes be a good thing.)

“You get along so well!” A common anime trope is to have two young characters who are constantly fighting and bickering. Observing this a mutual friend (always female) smiles and says “You two get along so well together!” To understand this we must remember that it is considered shameful to lose one’s temper in front of an outsider. Only within one’s in-group is it acceptable to get angry or otherwise show weakness. Thus if these two repeatedly lose their tempers with each other, this paradoxically implies that they must have a close and trusting relationship. (See tsundere.)

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