Howl’s Moving Castle: Exploring Themes of War in Japanese Animation

In his review of the 2016 animation In this Corner of the World, Mark Kermode reflected on the power of anime to ‘talk about very big, adult issues with a innocence and simplicity that a live action film would not be able to handle’. The movie follows a young, newly married woman named Suzu in the months and years leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beginning innocuously with her shy, awkward, marriage to a man she barely knows, as Suzu grapples clumsily with her newly married life viewers are lured into a false sense of security concerning the horrors that will shortly unfold.

What follows is a deeply harrowing story of loss, devastation and the nauseating brutality of war. The truly disturbing nature of some of the images we are shown – a little girl clinging to the rotting corpse of her mother, the charred body of a dying man, the brutal death of a small child – are somehow rendered more bearable by their animated nature. Animation holds the power to explore the darker aspects of human history in a way that would simply be too horrific in a live action format. But while films like In this Corner of the World directly depict events from history, themes of war also run in a more subtler manner in many Japanese animated media.

Released in 2004, Howl’s Moving Castle is not only one of animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films, but also an example of what Takashi Murakami calls ‘superflat’. This term describes allusions to the trauma of the second world war visible within Japanese popular media. While on its surface a whimsical, fantastical love story between a cursed young woman and a handsome, self-centred wizard, the darker backdrop of war that permeates the movie holds a deeper, more complex significance.

War is intertwined throughout Howl’s Moving Castle, and forms much of the inner conflict of the movie’s titular wizard. Originally running from his wizardly duties to fight in the war on behalf of his king, his growing love for Sophie ultimately gives Howl something to fight for. However, this desire to protect her, and the ravages of war that he exposes himself to for the sake of this, both figuratively and literally breaks down his humanity. Transforming into a large bird to fight, Howl’s bird-like appearance steadily becomes more grotesque as the movie goes on, before he almost loses the ability to change back altogether.

In this sense, Howl’s story could be seen to echo the experience of many a young man sent out to fight for their country during the second world war. Young men who set out to protect their loved ones and their country, only to be consumed by the horror and futility of war. Unlike In This Corner of the World, Howl’s Moving Castle ends happily with the war coming to a close and Sophie successfully saving Howl from himself. But both movies demonstrate the power of anime to depict the horrors of war in a poignant manner that is easier for viewers to cope with.

If you would like to find out more about superflat and the presence of war in Japanese media, I highly recommend reading Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, which I have included the details of below.

Further Reading

Murakami, Takashi (2005). Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Yale University Press.

Reflections on Calligraphy in Japan: Part, Present & Future

Out of all the forms of art to come from Japan one of the most influential – if not the most influential – has got to be calligraphy. First introduced to Japan during the 6th century calligraphy’s artistic significance has continually transformed throughout history. Today, in the 21st century, it is possible to look back at reflectively at the history of calligraphy in Japan to consider the way that its socio-political influence has changed, both within Japan and the wider world. This reflective consideration of calligraphy has been a focus of study this week, and as such this post will analyse two different academic discussions about calligraphy’s influence throughout history.

The first discussion comes in the form of an hour’s lecture produced by the Metropolitan Museum as part of their Sunday at the Met series. The lecture, consisting of talks by Tomoko Sakumura and John Carpenter and a brief calligraphy demonstration by Shodo Harada Roshii, was largely concerned with the role of calligraphy in pre-modern Japan.

Beginning with a discussion on waka – or ancient court poetry – before moving on to an examination of the presence of calligraphy within medieval artwork, the talks concluded by looking at the aesthetic dimensions of calligraphy as a form of writing. The topic of this talk was very much on calligraphy’s influence within Japan alone, examining the way this artform was expressed during a time period yet uninfluenced by the wider artistic world. However, the second academic discussion I have looked by contrast shifts its focus sharply towards calligraphy’s influence on the wider artistic world following the second world war.

The work of our very own Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, the creator and course director of UEA’s MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde considers how post-war calligraphy bridged artistic interests between Japan and the East. ‘Bokujinkai’ refers to the 1950’s calligraphy research and exhibition collective who worked to advance avant-garde or ‘modern’ calligraphy. In her book, Professor Bogdanova-Kummer details how the abstract form of calligraphy was likened to American interpretive art. Inspired by this similarity, a blending of the two artforms was proposed as a way to unite the two previously warring nations through art. The efforts of the group, and the success of their monthly publication, Bokubi, would pave the way for calligraphy’s recognition within the western modern-art world, cementing a place for the art form not just within Japanese art, but also internationally.

Having moved from the use of calligraphy in pre-modern Japanese art to its post-war use as a means of improving east-west relations, it is curious to consider how the significance of calligraphy has changed within Japan over time.

And this has got me thinking; having gone through such a fundamental transformation over the past millennia, what is in store for the future of calligraphy? This is a question that it appears only time will answer.

Further reading

The Met (2013). Sunday at the Met: Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan. Accessed at

Bogdanova-Kummer, Eugenia (2020). Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde. Japanese Visual Culture, Vol 19. Brill. ISBN 9789004437067.

Dissertation Planning: Analysing Depictions of Disabled Characters in Contemporary Manga

When discussing how contemporary manga both reflects and contributes towards a growing awareness of disability in Japan, you are forced to carefully select what works you refer to support this argument. And having chosen the topic of disability representation in manga as my dissertation topic, this is currently the quandary that I find myself in.

As a disabled person, I have always been acutely aware of the way that disabled characters are portrayed in popular media, and manga has been no exception. And as someone in my late twenties, I have also witnessed a definite shift over the last decade and a half in the way that the disability is depicted in manga, and the type of narratives that disabled characters are being featured in.

After much consideration, I have selected four specific manga that I feel best exemplify the changes that are observable in disability manga over the last two decades. Split in to four case studies which will examine portrayals of developmental disability and physical disability respectively, I will be analysing the following four series:

With the Light by Keiko Tobe

Serialised in For Mrs magazine from 2000 to 2009, the manga depicts the struggles of a young mother raising her autistic son. Originally created as an educational manga to teach readers about autism, later storylines also discussed other developmental disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia, with an overarching focus on the issue of accessibility in education and the workplace.

That’s My Atypical Girl by Sohachi Hagimoto and Renji Morita

Beginning publication in 2019, That’s My Atypical Girl portrays a romantic relationship between two autistic adults, exploring autistic sexuality and contradicting the common infantilization of developmentally disabled adults in media. The manga is particularly significant regarding its depiction of autistic parenthood, as well as its sensitive discussions of the challenges surrounding pregnancy and childrearing for autistic mothers.

A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima

Serialisation from 2013 to 2014, A Silent Voice is perhaps the most renowned example of disability manga on this list, largely thanks to the release of Kyoto Animation’s award winning movie adaptation in 2016. Depicting the bullying of a deaf student at a mainstream school, the manga explores the dehumanisation that can be suffered by those who are unable to communicate in a way that able-bodied/neurotypical people readily understand.

Perfect World by Rie Aruga

Serialised from 2014 to 2021, Perfect World places a paralysed man and able-bodied woman in the centre of a romantic serial aimed at adult women. While I have written a little about the manga in a previous blog post, it stands out for its frank exploration of the physical barriers faced by wheelchair users in Japan, as well as its strong focus on the issue of accessibility.

This is just a brief look at what I have planned for my dissertation and I do hope that readers will join me for other instalments of this journey. The subject of disability in manga is something I am endlessly fascinated by and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts or recommendations in the comments!

Third Thursday Lectures – Spontaneous and Playful: Kawanabe Kyōsai as a Performer

On a sunny spring evening we congregated virtually for another Third Thursday Lecture, this month hosted by Professor Sadamura Koto. A fellow of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, Professor Sadamura is currently curating the Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Exhibiting works from the eccentric 19th century artist, the exhibition is the result of Professor Sadamura’s years of research into Kawanabe Kyōsai and will be open from the 19th of March to the 22cnd of June 2022.

Kyōsai was certainly a fascinating figure in Japanese history, and Professor Sadamura’s lecture served to shed a little more light on to the life of the prolific artist. Born in 1831, Kyōsai began painting at the tender age of 7, completing his formal kano artist training by 19 years old. Originally trained in classical painting with a specialism in large compositions, during his 30s he would begin gravitating towards more satirical art. Images depicting animals engaged in human-like activities as well as absurd erotic art known as shunga have remained some of the most popular examples of his work. Unflattering allusions to governmental figures – typically in undignified or compromising situations – were another notorious aspect of Kyōsai’s art and would even lead to him being imprisoned in 1870.

Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831 – 1889), Courtesy of The Soame Jenyns Collection of Japanese and Chinese Art

Kyōsai’s life was a colourful one and as Professor Sadamura recalled his exploits it was hard not to be feel a degree of affection towards him. But for me personally, one of the most moving and interesting parts of this lecture was the recollection of his friendship with Josiah Conder, a 29-year-old British watercolourist who became his pupil in 1881. Having originally travelled to Japan for the 1881 Domestic Industrial Exhibition, the apparent shine that Kyōsai took to the younger artist is perhaps surprising considering the less-than-flattering way he had previously represented foreign powers in his art. However, it was a friendship that was clearly a deep one, with Condor remaining friends with Kyōsai right up until his death in 1889 and having reportedly held his hand as he died.

Following the artists death, it is his sekiga – or ‘spontaneous paintings’ – that have remained a fascinating aspect of his artistic legacy for modern art enthusiasts. Publicly drawn as a form of entertainment, these incredible paintings were created in a few short hours and remain some of the most impressive examples of his work.

And it is these sekiga that are at the heart of the Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection exhibition. By displaying examples of these works within small spaces, Professor Sadamura wishes to ‘create a space where visitors feel as if they are experiencing the lively presence of the artist’. Due to money and time limitations it remains to be seen if I will get to experience the lively presence of Kawanabe Kyōsei for myself, but this has certainly been a fascinating lecture into the colourful life of a highly influential artist.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection will be open for public viewing at London’s Royal Academy of Arts from the 19th of March to the 22cnd of June 2022. To find out more please visit their website.

‘From the Collection of a Private Man’ – A Look at the Work of Edmund de Waal

The nature of collections is a very personal thing. What we choose to collect, how, and why can say a lot about us as individuals. And when we look at collections from a historic perspective they can offer tantalising clues about their previous owners, and even provide scholars with a breadcrumb trail to trace the linage and travels of a particular family.

This is the premise of Edmund de Waal’s bestselling non-fiction book The Hare With Amber Eyes, in which he used his family’s collection of 264 beautifully carved Japanese netsuke as a storytelling tool to document the history of his family. This week’s blog post, however, does not concern this specific collection of Japanese artefacts, but rather the influence of the theme of collections – and of Japan itself – on Waal’s own artwork.

Having trained in Japan as a potter, Waal is an accomplished artisan in his own right, and one of his pieces has recently found a home in the Sainsbury Centre’s collection here on UEA campus.

From the Collection of a Private Man by Edmund de Waal, as displayed at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, photo taken by myself

Entitled From the Collection of a Private Man, the art-piece is a collection of roughly 50 separate miniature ceramic pieces, arranged among 7 shelves behind a glass frame. A stark, clinical white in colour and with a repetitive uniformity of form and shape, I have to admit that at first glance I did not find this piece particularly enticing. Nor could I see any obvious trace of Japanese influences. The collected pieces in fact seemed – to me anyway – disappointingly minimalist, and modern, with seemingly nothing to discern them from the work of artists who had not honed their craft in Japan.

However, upon closer inspection – and the minute forms of these objects really urges the viewer to peer closer – I noticed something very interesting. On several of these pieces – such as the example below – you can see little lines and touches of gold, as if marking invisible cracks or chips in the works.

These lovely, subtle touches of gold are not simply stylistic embellishments but actually an example of a Japanese practice such as kinsugi. Rooted within the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a philosophy encouraging the appreciation of the beauty in imperfection, kinsugi translates literally as ‘golden repair’. It is a technique of lovingly fixing broken ceramics in a manner that highlights – rather than conceals – the damage it has suffered, preserving it for posterity in the form of a beautiful, golden scar. This is the first time I have seen the influence of kinsugi reflected in the work of a European artist, and it is curious to see the presence of such a uniquely Japanese art within a distinctly contemporary and minimalist piece.

It is left up to the viewer’s assumption whether this is an example of genuine, necessitated repair, or a deliberate artistic allusion by Waal, intended to exemplify his Japanese influences. Either way, it is a truly a lovely touch, as well as a humbling reminder to myself not to judge a work by first appearances.


De Waal, Edmund (2010). The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. Penguin Random House. ISBN 978 0 099 53955 1. (2021). Kintsugi: A How to Guide. Accessed at:

Podcast Announcement

Happy April everybody!

After a short absence I just wanted to take the opportunity to announce an upcoming podcast that I have had a hand in creating on behalf of UEA, relating to the exciting field of interdisciplinary studies!

As those who follow this blog know I am a MA student studying Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies at the University of East Anglia, a course run in partnership with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture (SISJAC), also based here in Norwich. As such, it has been really fun to channel my own experiences as a student of interdisciplinary studies in to this podcast, speaking to some interesting guests and exploring the career possibilities out there for graduates of interdisciplinary degrees!

So if you are interested in completing an interdisciplinary degree, curious to know what jobs you can get in interdisciplinary studies, or simply want to find out what my voice sounds like (and be very disappointed!), please do stay tuned for episodes 1 and 2 of Where is That Going to Take You?, coming soon!

Explorations of 3/11 Through Artwork: Yasusuke Ôta’s ‘Deserted Town’

Natural disasters have been a recurring element of Japanese life for centuries. Located on a highly active tectonic zone, earthquakes and tsunamis pose a constant risk to the people of Japan and have repeatedly devasted towns and cities throughout its history. But as much as the threat of such disasters are well recognised in Japan, it does not make it any less devasting when they do occur.

At 2.46 PM on the 11th of March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Tohoku region of Japan, the strongest earthquake in recorded history. This earthquake was shortly followed by a devastating tsunami that struck the North-eastern coast of Japan, wiping out entire towns and killing more than 19,000 people. Adding yet further devastation, these dual disasters would then result in a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, displacing a further 150,000 people as the surrounding area was forcibly evacuated.

What was left behind in Fukushima however was unknown numbers of domestic pets and farm animals. And it is these animals that have become the subject of one post-3/11 Japanese photographer seeking to explore the aftermath of the disaster through his photography.

Ôta, Yasusuke. Deserted Town. 2011, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the photo Deserted Town from Yasusuke Ôta’s collection The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima, we are met with the surreal image of an ostrich strolling through the deserted streets of a Fukushima shopping district. In any other context, such an image could be considered highly comical. And indeed, it could certainly be argued as a moment of levity in a photo collection largely comprising of disturbing images of dead animals.  

But as much as this kind of comical image may seem to diminish the seriousness of the situation, as a matter of fact the production of humorous and surprisingly light-hearted art pieces in response to natural disasters has always been commonplace in Japan. In her book Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923, Gennifer Weisenfeld discusses various examples of humorous artworks created in the wake of historic disasters in Japan. Much of these artworks depict comical causes of such disasters, such as the childish misbehaviour of gods, or the antics of a mythical, gigantic catfish that was historically blamed for the occurrence of earthquakes.

This light-hearted response to mass loss of life and physical destruction may seem strange, but ultimately, it says a lot about the nature of human beings. Humour has always existed as a coping mechanism for humanity in the face of traumatic events. And this trend can be seen as much in older artworks created in response to natural disasters in Japan as it can now. In situations of destruction on a scale beyond human comprehension, maybe the only way that we can truly process such events is through images that depict the surreal and absurd. Such as, perhaps, the image of an ostrich taking a stroll through inner-city Fukushima.

Further Reading (2022). Yasusuke Ôta’s collection The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima. Accessed at

Weisenfeld, Gennifer (2012). Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923. University of California Press.

CJS Webinars – Museums of Themselves: Disaster, Heritage, and the Future of North-eastern Japan

Fittingly held on the 11th anniversary of Japan’s 3/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, this month’s CJS lecture invited Leiden Universities’ Dr Andrew Littlejohn to discuss local efforts at cultural preservation in the aftermath of the disaster. Having concerned much of his career as a researcher with issues of cultural property in relation to natural disaster heritage, Dr Littlejohn spent a year living Minamisanriku between 2014 and 2015. During this time, he studied the way that museumification has been utilised as a strategy for local regeneration in tsunami devastated communities, research which largely forms the basis of this talk.

‘Museumification’ can be loosely defined as a way of preserving cultural forms by fixing them in place to prevent change. In the context of Dr Littlejohn’s research, this term primarily concerns the way that local communities have attempted to preserve examples of their intangible cultural heritage as a means of facilitating disaster recovery. ‘Intangible cultural heritage’ here refers to elements of local culture and tradition, such as festivals, dances, traditional livelihoods or religious practices.

In other words, in contrast to physical objects such as buildings or artifacts, intangible cultural heritage covers a range of local practices that typically transform over time and are inherently in threat of declining. However, Dr Littlejohn notes that the 3/11 disaster inflicted serious damage to such intangible cultural heritage, through factors such as the death of practitioners or the destruction of performance spaces. In this manner, in Dr Littlejohn’s own words, 3/11 has ‘accelerated existing trends of museumification’ already present in local communities in Japan.

Typical examples of museumification in the years following 3/11 include the staging of local customs, such as traditional dances or spiritual rites, in public performance spaces, complete with available commentary. Here, we see what were once private events with a shared, commonly understood meaning for local people, being instead transformed in to public spectacles for visiting tourists. The intention behind this shift is to draw tourism into the area, bringing in much needed financial revenue for local communities struggling to rebuild their lives in the face of such devastation.

But is museumification actually an effective approach for preserving intangible cultural heritage and supporting struggling communities in post 3/11 Japan? Dr Littlejohn unfortunately does not believe so.

Ending his lecture on a self-acknowledged ‘sombre note’, he reflected poignantly on how, in his opinion, museumification is not sufficient to fix the real issues facing small, local communities. First and foremost, the combination of depopulation and aging populations, as younger people move to bigger cities, leaving a lack of able-bodied workforce to maintain traditional industries in small localities. This was a bittersweet ending to a thoughtful and well structured lecture which has certainly left many audience members, including myself, with some serious food for thought.

‘Making Japan’ & ‘The Japanese House’ – A Review of Virtual Exhibitions

For this weeks assignment we were asked to visit and review an exhibition related to Japanese art or textiles. However, due to money and time limitations I was unfortunately unable to visit an exhibition in person this week. Instead, I have decided to bring you a mini review of two separate (free) Japan-related exhibitions available for online viewing, where I will share my thoughts along with links for any interested readers.

(Leeds Museums and Galleries) Making Japan: Art. Life. Culture.

This beautifully laid out virtual exhibition explores a collection of physical objects encompassing the breadth of Japanese history and culture. Very effectively in my opinion, Making Japan is broken into groups of objects related to specific aspects of Japanese culture and history; samurai, religion, celebrations, food, popular culture, and most pertinently for this assignment, crafts. This specific display emphasized the wealth of different influences that have shaped Japanese crafts over the centuries, such as zen Buddhism as well as Western influences during the Meiji (1868 – 1912) era.

An really interesting aspect of Making Japan for me was the link between the collection and the Gascoigne family, who were living in Japan between 1946 and 1951. While it was not clear how many of the objects included in the exhibition were once owned by the family, it does feature several photos taken during their time in Japan, along with some rather lovely, colorized camera footage. This little detail provided a personal touch which really made it stand out and was an added highlight in a very visually appealing exhibition.

(Barbican) Online Exhibition Tour: The Japanese House

This tour differed quite dramatically from Making Japan in that rather than providing a mixture of text and images, this exhibition takes the form of a google maps style walkthrough. The Japanese House is the UK’s first major exhibition to focus on post-war Japanese domestic architecture, taking visitors on a (virtual) walkthrough of Japanese homes over the last half a century.

While I do want to highly praise the curators of this exhibition for the obvious amount of careful planning that went into the design and content of this exhibition, I do have to be honest and say that this virtual tour was a very jarring experience. It was impossible to zoom in on a lot of the text and images featured in the displays, which was very disappointing. And certain parts of the exhibition, such as displays on the lower floors, were also impossible to (virtually) travel to as far as I could see.

This is not at all to suggest that The Japanese House is a poor exhibition; from what I was able to make out, quite the opposite is true. However, I do think the visual walkthrough format was the wrong choice for an exhibition for such small text and images, and a reconsideration of the choice of format may be in order.

Ainu Culture in Japanese Colonial Photography

Colonialist photography has a complicated and chequered history in Japan. With the surface intention of demonstrating Japan’s anthropological prowess to the rest of the world, it also served the additional function of strategically dehumanizing the indigenous people who populated different parts of Asia. By reducing them in the public mind to uncivilised ‘savages’ in need of the paternalistic guidance of colonialist powers, nations could effectively dismiss lingering moral concerns about the subjugation of indigenous people.

In addition to their role in colonialist propaganda, photography featuring indigenous people also became a major source of curiosity for Japanese people during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Typically distributed in the form of single postcards or anthologies, images of different races and indigenous peoples became popular collector’s items. These images ranged from isolated profiles emphasizing the physical characteristics of different races to photographs purporting to capture the everyday activities of native people. These photos were typically highly staged, with careful planning put into composition, location and who and what was featured in an image. However, that is not to say that more organic images of the daily lives of indigenous people were also not captured during this time.

For today’s post I would like to look at one such example of seemingly un-staged colonialist photography. While I am unable to directly post this photograph to my blog due to copyright restrictions, it can be be viewed for free if you follow this link to the Layfayette online collection.

This photo depicts an Ainu community participating in an iomante or a ‘bear ceremony’. The Ainu are an indigenous group who, while today mostly isolated to Hokkaido, once occupied northern Honshu and the Sakhalin and Kuril islands. Centuries of oppression and subjugation under Japanese rule stripped the Ainu of their lands and rights. And as with so many other indigenous groups in Asia, they also became a much-studied subject within Japanese colonial anthropology.

Looking at this photo as it is displayed on the Lafayette website, there is actually little information about this image. We do not know the identity of its photographer, but we do know that it was taken in Hokkaido between 1933 and 1945. We can also infer that the scene it depicts is organic rather than orchestrated due to the context of the events that are taking place in it.

Iomante is a ceremony that involves the ritual killing of a young bear. The Ainu traditionally view bears as kamui or ‘gods’, and during the winter hunters will venture in to caves to seek a baby bear to bring back. Fed only the best food and raised lovingly by the local community for the duration of one to two years, it is believed that the sacrificed bear will then return to the land of the gods, grateful for the kindness they have been shown. This gratitude will then be repaid in kind through the spiritual protection of the bear deity. As such, this ceremony is not a regular occurrence, and it can be surmised that the events taking place in the photograph are genuine. The history of colonial photography is an ugly one, but images like this are certainly intriguing from a historical perspective.

Further Reading (2020). Japan’s forgotten indigenous people. Available at

Ka. F. Wong (2006). Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900). Japanese Studies, Vol 24, no. 3, pp. 283-299.