-by Grant Smuts
Most of the time, when we think of fantasy, the image is predominantly western, based on a prototypical medieval European setting – castles, knights, kings, the age of chivalry and so on. Now, this image has been remarkably successful and has seen a resurgence thanks to George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with Game of Thrones now in its fifth season, and of course the prominence of Peter Jackson’s works with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
But, in the course of all this, one kind of feels that a lot of eastern fantasy and mythology is missed in the process. Now, of course, we have manga and anime, and a lot of Japanese mythology and lore has filtered into popular culture (along with its Korean counterpart manhwa)… but those tend to pass under the radar of the overall plot of those stories. A lot of the fables and fantasy natural to the eastern setting in these things tends to just be taken for granted, it’s usually up to the reader to try to understand the mythological or historical references.
Also, have you seen some of the crazy fantasy creatures the eastern traditions have? From the shapeshifting aswang of the Phillipines to the Japanese oni (troll/ogre/demon), there’s so much that we lose by not knowing more.
Of course, you gotta think that a part of this might be a lack of willingness to translate and export whatsoever fantasy novels might be written in the eastern lands to the west – perhaps there’s a lack of confidence in western readers to pick up a book about cultures so dissonant to theirs?
We’ve seen hints of it in anime and manga – and if you’re into masochism, try visiting the brain-demolishing discussion forums of any particular franchise. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll grit your teeth, you MIGHT JUST DIE from the endlessly stupid tirades people can go on about any particular point or character.
You’ll see it in popularity polls as well – characters who are hated or very divisive in the west are overwhelmingly popular in Eastern countries. One can attribute this to a difference in the values between Eastern and Western cultures. There are far too many examples to count… I’ll go with one for now, and use a popular reference.
There is one character who grew up in a certain village in a certain franchise whose entire family was killed when he was a child. He grew up, swearing vengeance on the murderer, who happened to be his brother. So he eventually accomplishes his revenge, only to find out that the murderer was acting on the orders of the village he grew up in. So what does he do? He swears vengeance on the village, turning his back on his friends, and going on a murderous rampage and becoming an international criminal in the process.
There’s a lot more to this character than just this brief description, but that’s the gist of it.
In the West, he is considered the most divisive character in popular fiction, with almost an even split between people who hate and love the character (and the reasoning for either is either very good or horribly shoddy).
In the East, however, he’s overwhelmingly popular, and it’s because of a single term: Filial Piety.
In the west, most would feel that he should be loyal to his friends (which is to say those alive and still caring about him; those still receiving ‘screen-time’ in the franchise, in other words).
But Filial Piety is a critical feature of Asian civilizations – hence, the only people he will recognize allegiance to are his dead parents and clan. He is, essentially, living for those who passed away, and carrying their will into the future.
But wait! It was his brother’s will that he live on in accordance to the loyalty of his village? Isn’t he misinterpreting his brother’s wishes? Again, that would be a western perspective, and it’s also something to do with the amount of screen-time and interaction the fans have had with this character.
But it’s not about that – it’s about a concept important to Eastern values, which may have something to do with the core of his characterization – and remember the person writing his story is himself of an Eastern background.
Yes, he’s going against the will of his brother.
What of it? In the end, his brother is just one of the many that died because of the village. The character is no longer living according to the will of one person alone. It’s the concept of loyalty to his family – his entire family – that matters to him.
In the end, he became an example of lasting filial piety.
There’s a lot to be said about the values dissonance between east and west – and bridging the gap to understanding the differences between cultures would likely lead to greater acceptance of their works. Filial Piety is just one concept – a lot of the interpersonal relationships in the East have nuances and particularities that are considered strange or sometimes even taboo in the West, and vice versa. For example, in a Japanese work, you may notice a character being reprimanded for laughing loudly, crying or showing ‘an excess of emotion’. You might think what the big deal is, if they’re surrounded by friends. This has to do with the emphasis that Eastern cultures place on the concept of Dignity, and basically not bothering other people with your personal problems. The concept of dignity appears in this form in variation in China and the Philippines as well, and most notably in Japan.
The concept goes both ways, of course. A Westerner’s emotional and comparatively dramatic nature would seem remarkably shameful to the Eastern concept of dignity. And to take it further into specifics, America’s constitutional right to bear arms is absolutely shocking to the Japanese population. Cue the rather humorous stereotype of the ‘crazy-gun-toting American’ appearing in anime as a result.
There’s also the capacity for mirth in values dissonance. The extended middle finger is seen as a harmless, petty gesture in Japan, rather like sticking one’s tongue out. It’s rather hilarious to see someone flip the bird in shows catered especially to children.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to learn about the East, and a lot that we’re not used to. What that is is an opportunity. In the 21st century, what people lack in the age of information is that sense of wonder – the wonder of the strange and the unfamiliar. And while manga, manhwa, and anime are all fun, I feel we could learn even more from true novels, written from the perspective of someone who grew up in the east, raised on the traditions and stories in the same way that we grew up with certain traditions and stories. Imagine reading about something for the first time… I’m not talking about the nuanced stories which we all know and are familiar with the conventions of… I’m talking about experiencing something brand new, something completely fresh. It might instill a feeling of innocence again, and don’t we need that?
There’s a lot to love and learn about the East. And I’m eager to know more. Aren’t you?
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