Editor | Nathasha Lee Contributing Writer | Hanna Wdzieczak, Wanling Goh, Rebecca Huang Photographer | Heather Lim
I remember watching my first Bollywood movie when I was eleven and my sister brought home a DVD of 3 Idiots. What followed was an extravaganza of rousing musical numbers and colourful characters that made me get up and dance along to the movie’s signature song, “Aal Izz Well.” Beyond lead actor Aamir Khan’s boyish charm and Delhi’s intriguing urban landscape, I was deeply struck by how the movie portrayed the anguish the characters faced in finding success within a cut-throat education system. It was a concern that seemed to strike as much at the heart of my society as it did in theirs.
Bollywood was not just foreign entertainment to me—by exposing me to myriad topics, it made me open my mind. Though I’m not a sports fan, I found myself stirred by the epic cricket match at the end of Lagaan, and the crippled protagonist’s plight in Guzaarishmade me see how euthanasia could also be humane. The diversity of these movies made me see India as a more complex country beyond the stereotype of its large wealth gap and migrant labour I’d received from the news and people around me. As a child, it made me think for the first time about how people who lived in very different parts of the world also loved, fought over and cheered for the same things I did.
Similarly, for Hanna Wdzieczak, Iranian books and movies were a window into a side of Iranian society she had never before considered:
"For a long time the Islamic Republic of Iran was just an another totalitarian country for me. I heard about revolution, war, and violation of human rights. However, I did not think about how ordinary people find themselves in this world.
But then came a movie called Manuscripts Don’t Burn. The story about a dissident writer who tries to save his writings revealing state secrets from the state police, had a great impact on me. Iran was no longer a closed and undemocratic state which I could easily deem as dangerous and thus not worth my interest. Manuscripts Don’t Burn introduced a human dimension to my previous knowledge which was made up of facts read in the media. Since that moment, I got to know today’s Iran as a society made up of many restless people, who are trying to study, work, have dreams and simply live their lives despite the unfortunate situations they find themselves in.
Then I read Persepolis, which gave me an insight into what it is like to be a teenage girl during a violent revolution and war. Later, I also had a chance to watch great films: Tehran Taboo and Bodyguard, which exposed me to an everyday reality of modern Iranians and their struggles between family, responsibilities, sense of identity and the desire to shape one’s life.
I believe that keeping in touch with contemporary art from other countries is one of the biggest favors we can do to ourselves. If I never watched any movie from Iran, or if I never read Persepolis, I would still regard Iranians through the prism of nuclear weapons, political tensions and obligatory headscarves for women. Now I think about Iran as a country which has produced renown artists and brave activists, such as Hafez, Asghar Farhadi and Shirin Ebadi."
Hanna Wdzieczak is from Lodz, Poland. She likes reading novels, watching dramas and listening to Muse.
Two of our writers were drawn to learn about different societies through another popular form of foreign entertainment: anime. Wanling Goh reflects on the appeal of diverse genres and how they might reflect values held by Japanese society:
"I started watching Japanese anime in 8th grade, and it’s made me more interested in the gender roles of Japanese society. For example, why is it that the shows labelled as shoujo, designed to appeal to the young, female demographic, are often romances featuring a shy, female protagonist? Meanwhile, shows aimed at young boys in the shounen category have characters with heroic tendencies and an unwavering loyalty to their friends against a backdrop of explosive action scenes—often consisting of few, if any, female characters.
I’m as much of a sucker for cheesy romantic comedies as the next person, and I realize I’ve only mentioned and generalized two of very many genres of anime. Labels for age groups and interests are only guidelines for viewers and not rules for how one should live. But the common tropes of different genres show me, an outsider, how these Japanese animators and producers view the proper gender roles of their country.
I know it’s beneficial to be critical of the content I consume, but I should also be wary of imposing my own views on a society I don’t understand. I approach the world with a more liberal than conservative point of view, which sometimes results in me being frustrated or confused by the behaviors and words of characters. That said, it’s interesting to see how the anime community reacts to the more unconventional or game-changing anime (I’m looking at you, Yuri on Ice!!) or more mature shows (like Parasyte, which made me contemplate the purpose of my existence right after I finished the last episode). I don’t watch or enjoy all genres equally, but it’s definitely interesting to try and understand the gender roles of Japanese society through its portrayal in anime."
Wanling is a freshman who enjoys long walks and keeps the important people in her life close and her love for animals (especially cats) closer— which is ironic since she’s allergic to her feline friends.
Another anime lover, Rebecca Huang, talks about the human connection she felt through Japanese media not just from the performances of voice actors, but in phrases from the Japanese language:
"During the summer break before high school, I watched Natsume Yuujinjo. Theseiyuu, or the voice actor, of the main character Natsume was Kamiya Hiroshi, who would later become sensational for playing LeVi from Attack on Titan. I became interested in his career as a seiyuu, and therefore started to follow his and other seiyuus’ anime, radio shows and also their “drama”s, or broadcasting plays. Through listening to and discerning their slightly different speaking habits, I became more sensitive to various Japanese pronunciations. The scope of my search oftentimes went beyond what translators were able to produce, so I began to listen “bare-ears” to these shows. That was when I realized that I had internalized many Japanese words without myself knowing.
Moreover, certain emotional experiences were told to me in Japanese, and therefore I can only recall it in its native language – 高校制服 (koukou seifuku, high school uniforms) and部活 (bukatsu, clubs) frenzy, 花火大会 (hanabi daikai, fireworks festival) and maybe some 届けなかった告白 (todokenai kokuhaku, undelivered love confessions), 仲間 (nakama, companions) and 強い絆 (tsuyoi kizuna, strong ties) … These are some classic themes in Japanese animation, and have also been deeply internalized and reflected on in my drawings. To better reconstruct and express these emotional experiences, I embarked on the journey to learn the Japanese language."
Rebecca Yuqi Huang is a third-year urban studies major and student artist at Yale-NUS College. She spent her freshman summer learning Japanese language in Kyoto. Her next language learning aspiration is probably Korean.