Seminar: Anime & Ecology is a Christ College course where students study anime to understand tensions between human culture and the natural world as depicted in Japanese pop culture. The course, offered in Fall 2021, is worth three credits and can be used to fulfill either a Cultural Diversity or a Humanities requirement.
The course is taught by Jennifer Prough, Interim Dean of Christ College and anthropologist of Japan. According to Prough, one of her main goals in developing the course was getting her students to take anime seriously.
“We take literature seriously in class, right? We read novels in a range of classes, and we think about the ways that they can help us learn about what humans are like or the human condition,” said Prough. “So, luckily, as humans, we don't actually have to experience everything personally in order to learn from it.”
Prough noted that, just as people learn about topics from both historical facts and literature, she believes anime can be used to learn about various issues as well.
“While [anime is] a cartoon, it really tackles big human issues and so it was quite like literature in that way. I wanted us to closely read anime and think about what it might be telling us about ecology or the relationship between humans and nature,” Prough said.
Prough had been interested, prior to this academic year, in starting a course about analyzing anime, but was unsure about what the theme would be due to the sheer volume of anime that exist.
She eventually decided the theme would be ecology due to its presence in various anime.
“I picked ecology, mostly because there's a wide range of anime that are dealing with some kind of tension between humans and nature, humans and animals, or broader ecological themes. And that’s a topic that we're thinking about in the world today,” she said.
Prough decided to just focus on films instead of series to make the class more accessible to those unacquainted with anime.
“Because I am offering it to students, some of whom know a lot about Japan, some of whom know a lot about anime and some of whom know nothing about either one, I wanted it to be really accessible to anybody. So, I picked feature length films instead of long series,” Prough said.
Students are watching eight films in-class. Aside from the live-action Japanese version of “Godzilla”, all were directed by either Miyazaki Hayao or Shinkai Makoto. The films presented in the class are: “Godzilla”, “Spirited Away”, “Weathering with You”, “Pom Poko”, “Princess Mononoke”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Your Name”.
“Every one of these films has some either ecological disaster or a tension between industrialization and modernity, human settlements, and the animal world or the natural world - or in the Japanese context, the spiritual world. There's a lot of kamis and spirits that become a part of the natural world,” Prough said.
In addition to watching anime, the class is also looking at readings like “The Book of Yokai” to get a broader understanding of Japanese culture.
“I've given them more contextual readings about scholarship on anime, the role of nature in Japanese culture, a little bit about Japanese religion and Japanese folklore. So, that's some of the content they're getting from me as a Japan scholar,” Prough said.
As a final project, students are to review one to two anime and write a 15-page research paper on them. Students are allowed to make suggestions for which anime they’d like to analyze. However, one of the films shown in class is preferred.
“So, we read and watch the films, but then they'll have to pick - I think I'm limiting it to no more than two films - and write a research paper on themes or issues or visual analysis of one to two films. So, it's not a super long research paper - 15 pages - but you know, it requires external research and watching the film multiple times,” Prough said.
In designing the course, Prough wanted to appeal to non-watchers of anime as well as fans and is interested in seeing both perspectives.
“That means they [students] can learn from each other in both ways. So, the students who know anime really well can connect the films they’re watching with other things they’ve seen. But the students who don't know anime will see things that those of us who are familiar with anime don’t notice,” Prough said.
Therefore, regardless of knowledge of anime or Japanese culture, this class is meant to be a fun way to explore issues about the world everyone lives in while also enjoying visceral art.
“Both of those perspectives, the wider anime culture, the wider Japanese culture, and watching these films fresh with these particular topics - that's what I think will be a really rich experience in the class,” Prough said.