Life Imitating Art
I Thought This Was Just A Movie
© November 28, 1992, by Curtis H. Hoffmann

Sing-song voices:
Ryan Matthews asked about this, and I responded in
a different post. Suffice it to say that nearly any voice you hear in
anime can be found on the train or subway. Some girls really do seem to
be singing when they speak. Stretching out “ha — i,” or “De — su” in
a sentence to give it a sexy feeling is relatively common in these
cases. This can be found most often with receptionists, and elevator

Sou Desu Girls:
Women still play a subservient role in Japanese
society, and this is commonly visible on TV, where the women on a game
show (or when they appear as panelists,) are there strictly as eye candy.
When any man says something, the girls (or attractive, scantily-clad
young women) will react as if the guy had been very witty and deep, by
replying with “Sou Desu Ne,” in a properly impressed voice. In these
cases, “Sou desu ne” has no real meaning. But, because it’s so common to
hear, they’ve become known as “Sou desu girls.”

During sports shows (and especially during the Olympics coverage,)
you’ll have two or three guys acting as sports announcers, and they’ll
reply with “Sou desu ne” to whatever their partners say, even more often
than “Sou desu girls” do. Prompting me to call them “Sou desu boys.”
Examples of this pop up in Yawara.

Ho ho ho:

When you watch a show, or read manga, and a female
character laughs out loud, you may notice that she covers her mouth and
the sound is “Ho ho ho.” In Japanese, certain sounds are used as verbs,
and “ho ho ho” is one such example of this (“ho ho ho suru” means to
laugh in a feminine way.) Further, each kind of laughter conveys a certain
emotion (as it does in English.) “Fu fu fu” normally is an evil laughter
coming from the villain. Women laugh with “ho ho ho,” which causes the
mouth to be open less than it will be with “Ha ha ha.” But opening the
mouth wide is still considered to be impolite, so she’ll cover her mouth
with her hand or a fan at the same time. Examples of this occur in nearly
every series ever made.

Pachinko Parlors and vending machines:
These are everywhere. The parlors have lots of neon and florescent lights, and are very noisy when
the doors are open. In a business or entertainment district, you’ll find
them every couple of blocks. The addiction to pachinko gambling is the
same as for other forms in Las Vegas. But the odds against you are worse,
and most parlors have some kind of links to the yakusa. The only sight
more common than a parlor is a vending machine.

You can not gamble for money, so you cash in your balls for some kind
of trinket or candy bar, which you then take to an office next door to
trade in for cash. Pachinko machines can be set to change the odds of
winning. Usually, the odds of losing are very high, but when a parlor
brings in new machines (happens a couple of times a year, I’m told,) it
will have a “grand opening day” and a number of machines will be set to
improve your odds. So, the best time to play is when a parlor has one
of these special days.

The odd thing is that pachinko parlors don’t appear often, unless
it’s in a manga story running in a magazine dedicated to pachinko players.
However, they do show up consistently in the Maison Ikkoku and
Cooking Papa anime, and to some extent in other manga.
Vending machines can be found in the oddest places, and are usually
only on the streets, 50 feet apart. They sell everything, from soda,
cigarettes, and cup ramen, to disposable cameras (found at tourist sites,)
kilo bags of rice, dirty magazines, and condoms. Just about the only thing
you CAN’T buy from a vending machine is candy. With the recent attempts
to import frozen sushi into Japan, we may expect to see sushi vending
machines in the next couple of years.

Most anime doesn’t show vending machines much, partially because it’s
the same thing as product endorsement (but you can still find them in
Assemble Insert, and Video Girl Ai.)

Conversation houses:
These are an odd feature of Japan, and I haven’t
seen them used in anime or manga yet (but just give it time.)
Basically, many Japanese have learned some form of English in high
school, but this is just a matter of memorizing words, and NOT
understanding the language itself. (Which is why you’ll see animators
making so many spelling errors in their background signs.) So, the only
option is to find gaijin to practice on, which is kind of difficult,
especially because the Japanese are shy, and afraid of being embarrassed.
However, in a conversation house, the gaijin are mainly there to talk to
the Japanese, and vice versa. Gaijin are admitted free (to lure them
inside,) and the Japanese have to pay about 1000 yen each per night.
(1500 yen at Mickey House, the one I frequent.) Coffee and tea are free,
beer and soft drinks cost more than if you bought them from a vending
machine, but less than if you were in a bar.
These are great places to meet unusual people (both foreigner and
native) if you happen to have the time, but most are open only from 6:00
PM to 11:00 PM, and you’ll only find them in the bigger cities.

Drinking and Smoking:
I don’t need to say much about this. Most
older people don’t smoke as much as those between ages 15 and 40. You
can find salespeople giving out free cigarette samples in front of
department stores in Tokyo — to school kids as well as to adults.
Nearly everyone in the above age range smokes in Tokyo (from what I’ve
seen,) including most women. Many are chain smokers.
Drinking is considered a form of bonding, both between groups of men
and of women. One person will be designated the official drunk for the
evening, and the rest of the group will pour alcohol (normally beer)
down the guy’s throat until he or she passes out. Then the rest of the
drunken group will try to drag their friend home — stopping
occasionally to either piss against a wall on the street, or to throw up
on the sidewalk.
Smoking appears much more often in anime than drinking, but both
are shown often in Maison Ikkoku.

Rigged News Interviews:
Simply put, someone will be stopped on the
street, given a script to memorize, and when the camera rolls, will be
asked to “voice their opinion” on some subject. Afterwards, the person
will be thanked, and given a present and sent on their way so that the
crew can find the next “man on the street” to question.
Several scandals involving rigged “investigative reports” have
surfaced recently, and I’ve received second-hand stories about people
that have gone through this themselves.
When you watch a show where a news reporter is on the street and her
(usually a her) interview is blown, keep this in mind. She acts just
like a carefully rehearsed operation has to be re-shot.

School uniforms:
Maiko Covington described the life of a schoolkid in
Japan, in great detail, and is an excellent source of additional
information. Some of that info deals with the wearing of school
uniforms, which is something nearly every kid has to do here. School
life is very regimented, and often can become insane (Ranma 1/2 contains
more real-life examples than you may expect.) Every school uniform suit
and dress you see in manga and anime can be found on the trains, on the
city streets, and in stores.
The most popular outfits in manga and anime right now are: For boys
— the dark blue (or black) quasi-military jackets and pants, with a
lighter-colored shirt underneath; the high, stiff collar, and
gold-colored buttons. For girls — the sailor dress (either in white
with blue trim, or blue with white trim. Refer to Rokodenashi Blues for
examples of the boys’ outfits, and Sailor Moon for that of the girls.

Hip Boots and Kimonos:
The Japanese have a very odd fashion sense. Although kimonos and
get a (wooden sandals) are only worn for special occasions nowadays,
you’ll still see them a few times a week in Tokyo. Businessmen
sometimes wear thong sandals with their three-piece suits, and it is
still possible to see someone in yukata (the equivalent of Japanese
pajamas) and get a walking down the street. If you stay in a capsule
hotel, EVERYONE there will be wearing the yukata supplied by the hotel.
Basically, the reasons westerners wear clothing is not quite the same
as for the Japanese. Women don’t wear slacks all that often, so when it
gets colder in the winter, you’ll see them in short skirts and knee
boots (or cowboy boots) — the boots are for keeping the legs warm, and
that’s about it. So, if you think that any outfit worn by anime or
manga characters is weird, keep in mind that something more outrageous,
or tasteless, is being worn in Tokyo at this very moment.

Odd-colored hair:
This isn’t as common in real life as it is in
anime, but just go to Yoyogi Park on a Sunday, and you’ll see some hair
styles that are wilder than many of those in your favorite TV series or
OAV. Usually, it’s high school and college kids, but some women have
dyed brown, or bleached white hair. The sculpted style of the punk high
school mangas are common in real life even for young businessmen.

Normally, you’d expect a wide variety of faces in real life,
and that’s what you’ll find in Tokyo (even if you don’t include gaijin.)
Of course, that variety is lacking in anime. But, the important thing
to notice is what happens when an anime character is drawn in 3/4
profile. Sometimes (and I’ve noticed this in Omoide Poroporo,) the face
will appear distorted, with more of the far-side eye and cheekbone
showing than one would expect. Thing is, the anime representation is
actually correct in this situation.
Certain Asian races have flatter, broader faces than Caucasians do.
Therefore, their 3/4 profile will show more of the far-side of the face
than you may be used to.

Panty Shots:
Anyone that’s watched anime, or read manga, knows what
this is. Part of the excitement comes from the fact that pubic hair can
not be shown in any media in Japan, so all most Japanese see in
magazines, or on TV, are panty shots. Also, very short skirts are
fashionable now, so the opportunity exists in real life. Therefore,
when one does get to see a woman’s panties on the train, or elsewhere,
it’s a quick cheap thrill.
Problem is, I only hear about other people seeing this regularly on
the trains. I personally don’t consider it to be as common a phenomenon
as it appears to be in anime and manga.

Trains and Subways:
The most common ways of going from point A to
point B (not counting walking and riding a bike.) Everyone in Japan is
familiar with the insides of a train station. So when you see a train
station, or people waiting on a platform, in a manga, keep in mind that
a lot of one’s time is spent in Tokyo doing just this. The movie
Omoide Poroporo has some FANTASTIC scenes involving the insides of
trains and stations that are exactly what you’d find in real life.
Train tickets can get expensive, and it is a lot more cool to have a
rail card (like a phone card, but used for buying tickets.) You
don’t see this cropping up as often in manga or anime, but just wait.

Food Carts:
You can see these quite often in the episodes of Yawara
where Yawara’s father is out eating. Basically, it’s just a food cart
that will be rolled to some street corner, and the owner/chef will cook
up some ramen or udon. It’s a little more expensive to eat at these,
the food is greasier, and they can only seat 4-5 people — but they’re
very popular with drunk salarymen later at night, when they need
something to eat and all of the regular restaurants are closed.

Phone cards:
Most R.A.A. readers will be familiar with the credit
card-sized magnetic card with a picture on one side. It’s used for
making phone calls, rather than using 10 yen coins. Animate Shops in
Japan also have collectors cards featuring some great artwork from
Ranma 1/2, 3×3 Eyes, Patlabor, and nearly everything else.
One result of this type of technology is the fact that these kinds of
cards are also being used for buying train tickets, and a couple of
other things. Japan does not yet use credit cards much, but machine
cards are showing up in odd places. You’ll see them in manga and anime
pretty soon, too.

Manga and Anime:
These two forms of entertainment are so
all-pervasive as to become self-referential: you’ll often see characters
reading manga in the manga, and (with Project A-Ko) characters in anime
going into a theater to watch an animated movie. It’s even gotten to
the point where references appear in other forms, like when a character
in Twinkle^2 Idol Star is shown wearing a Sailor Moon t-shirt.

In and around most train stations, you’ll see little kiosk
shops selling bento box lunches, manga, snacks, and beverages (like Calpis
Soda, Aquarius Neo, and Pocarri Sweat.) If a manga or anime contains a
sequence on a train platform, chances are you’ll see at least one of
these kiosks.

Nearly EVERYONE in Tokyo will walk around wearing little
earplug speakers and listening to a Walkman. It becomes a habit to put
in the earplugs before you put on your shoes to go outside, and it’s so
common that when the closing credits for Dragon Ball start running, you
may not notice that Buluma is wearing a set while gazing out the window
into the rain.

During the spring and fall, is the rainy season. This can
stretch on for weeks, without a stop, and has entered the deepest part
of the Japanese psyche. So much so that rain itself is often used as a
plot element. When a major character dies in anime, the skies will open
up in a downpour as a symbol for peoples’ sadness and sense of loss.
Borgman: Lover’s Rain carries this concept a step further.

Tokyo is a filthy place. Garbage is tossed into the street,
trash bins are filled to overflowing, and uncollected garbage bags can
sit in front of houses for several days on end. Garbage also includes:
discarded bicycles, working electronics (tossed simply because the owner
bought a newer model,) and used manga phone books. This is one element
of Tokyo society that doesn’t appear much in anime or manga (although
it’s hinted at in Akira. However, one side-effect of this is that any
commuter that doesn’t want to buy a copy of a manga phone book can simply
wait to find it either on the overhead carrier racks on the train, or in
the trash bins on the platform or in the station itself. And anyone too
cheap to buy something, stands a good chance of stumbling across it in
the trash behind an apartment building (this way, a character could
furnish his entire apartment without spending a cent.)
Examples: none.

People and housing:
Tokyo is a crowded place, and most people stay in
apartments (often sharing them with friends or family) rather than
living in houses. Yet most anime and manga characters living in Japan
have their own houses (or like in Video Girl Ai,) live alone in a HUGE
apartment with lots of expensive electronics. Usually, this is just a
case of wish-fulfillment on the parts of the directors and audience.
Most stories with an urban setting have examples of this.

Studio Alta:
And other environs. Basically, an artist writes, and
draws, what he (or she) knows, and most Japanese artists only know about
Tokyo. Therefore, when you see the insides of a train station, the xerox
copy of a street intersection, or any other hyper-realistic image of
some location, chances are you are looking at some place that the
Japanese audience sees all the time in real life. Shinjuku has been
rather popular in certain manga lately, and the big landmark just
outside Shinjuku train station is the multi-story-tall TV screen on the
front of the Studio Alta building. Many people will gather in front of
the station to watch music videos, or commercials; this is a good
meeting place for people getting together to do some shopping, or to see
and be seen.
However, the key to Tokyo is the Yamanote train line. This is one
big loop that starts from Tokyo station, and runs northwest through the
following stations (takes one hour.) Anyone that spends any time at all
in Tokyo will become very familiar with the Loop, and any manga that
shows place names, or train stops, will probably be employing part of
the Yamanote Loop.

  • Tokyo (The Imperial Palace, part of the Ginza, business buildings)
  • Kanda
  • Akihabara (the electronics district)
  • Okachimachi
  • Ueno (site of Ueno Park, Ueno Zoo, and home to many homeless Iranians)
  • Nippori
  • Nishi-Nippori
  • Tabata
  • Sugamo
  • Ohtsuka
  • Ikebukuro (Shopping district, home of Animate, Manga no Mori, and the world’s biggest ugly city-building: Sun Shine 60)
  • Mejiro
  • Takadanobaba (many schools, and used bookstores)
  • Shin-Ohkubo
  • Shinjuku (Nightlife, shopping, Anime Pero, and Animec)
  • Yoyogi
  • Harajuku (Yoyogi Park, many weird people, street bands, trendy shops)
  • Shibuya (Home of AnimEigo, shopping district, MANY love hotels)
  • Ebisu (Two conversation lounges)
  • Meguro
  • Gotanda
  • Ohsaki
  • Shinagawa
  • Tamachi
  • Hamamatsuchou
  • Shimbashi
  • Yuurakucho (The Ginza area, and closest station to the Comiket site)
  • Back to Tokyo Station

Speaker Trucks:
A common image on TV — evoking the concept of ‘Big
Brother,’ are the trucks roving that streets and blaring ‘good-speak’
messages to the people. And you will find these in the big cities in
Japan. There are several versions, and they are all VERY loud:

Political: Various political parties will have vans with slogans on the sides, and a little stage platform on top. The van will be parked near a train station, the speakers will stand on the roof, and spout political (or anti-government) speeches.

Commercial/traveling: The best example of this I’ve seen are the sweet potato vendors. They have small covered pick-up trucks, with a smoker-oven in the back and the speakers on top. There’s an endless-loop tape belting out the fact that he’s there selling his goods. The Japanese version of ice-cream trucks.

Commercial/stationary: Certain large stores will have a big video wall over the door, and huge speaker stacks along the side. Endless commercials will be played, and can be heard from blocks away. The best example of this is the Fuji film store in Ikebukuro, which has 10 very funny Fuji color TV ads on in a loop.

Short People Ain’t Got No Reason…:
Japan is actually a mix of several races, (Chinese, Korean,
Vietnamese) and it’s rather difficult to tell them apart since the
racial mixing has been taking place for hundreds of years (Japan invades
Korea, the Mongols Japan, etc.) The result is an interesting
conglomeration of people milling about in Tokyo. The best part though,
is that since Japan has been more prosperous of late, the current
generations are growing much bigger and taller than their parents.
So, within 5 minutes in Shinjuku, you can see a withered old lady
barely 4 feet tall with Chinese features, and a hulking giant of a
Japanese towering well over 6 foot. But the average height is still
around 5’8″ for men, which partly comes from the fact that the average
is closer to 40 years old. Either way, while the common perception is
that Asians are a small people, that is changing.

In the West, creativity is highly prized, while individuality is
condemned in Japan. At least, those are the stereotypes, which has a
strong basis in fact. In some schools, Japanese students with naturally
brown hair are told to dye it black to match everyone else. All
primary, junior high, and high school students are required to wear
school uniforms both while in and out of class. Adult men are expected
to wear business suits under normal conditions. Etc.
Note: The stereotype breaks down, because most Americans really don’t
like to see unusual behavior in normal life. How often can you expect
to see a computer salesman with a purple mohawk? Or a business-suited
kid milling around with his street punk friends?
And it’s breaking down in Japan, where people are protesting against
Shin Kanemaru, more street punks are appearing in the trains, and a
growing number of artists are trying things that no one else has in the
rest of the world.

For a long time, anti-establishment heroes have starred in manga and
anime (with the renegade food critic of Oishinbo as a prime example,) as
a kind of protest that salary men could quietly join in on. And now, the
numbers of anti-heroes are becoming even more prevalent, and the current
generation of Japanese are working to change situations that they don’t
agree with. While, in the States, people are becoming much more
conservative. Go figure.

Curtis H. Hoffmann
Dec. 2, 1992