The Drug(s) of Anime

Throughout the filmic canon, depictions of drug-cultures and drug-users are commonplace. Trainspotting (Boyle, 1997), Reqiuem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000), Traffic (Soderburgh, 2000) and Candy (Armfield, 2006) are only a minority of the films that have established themselves on the niche thematic platform. And of course that’s not to exclude the litany of films with more casual references and moments of drug-use or, at the very least, which contain a drug presence. Yet it is with Eastern eyes that we recognize a lack of drug representation in both the anime medium itself and the academic literature surrounding it.

Drugs would only begin to explain Haruko and Excel's antics.

While many anime give the impression of being on a hybrid cocktail of Ritalin, LSD and methamphetamines – ahem FLCL (OVA) (various, 2000), Excel Saga (TV) (various, 1999-2000), Panty & Stocking with Garter Belt (TV) (Imaishi, 2010) and Cat Soup (OVA) (Sato, 2001) ahem, ahem – only a handful address illicit drugs and their effects, fewer still having anything insightful to say on the matter. And furthermore there is even less literature on the topic. In fact the only specific reference I could find to anime and drugs was a brief passage in Patrick Drazen’s work, Anime Explosion (Drazen, 2003). Drazen discusses a scene in the supernatural samurai OVA Sword for Truth (Dezaki, 1990) in which an almost pointless lesbian sex scene takes place under the influence of opium ‘which adds another layer of meaning to the act in a culture where recreational drug use is much more harshly denounced and penalized than in the US’ (Drazen, 2003: 97). What Drazen alludes to here is the harsher penalties for illicit drug-use in Japan than in many Western countries.

Indeed a study carried out between 2002 and 2004 from the World Mental Health Japan confirmed a low prevalence rate of drug use in Japan (Miyake, 2009). The use of marijuana and cocaine was lower in Japan than in other developed countries such as the United States and many European nations (Miyake, 2009: 781). But as the same article reminds, studies have illustrated that punitive illegal drug policies are not necessarily concordant with low levels of drug-use, suggesting that it is more likely cultural factors that are influencing the trend (Miyake, 2009: 781). Interestingly though, the paper, while addressing the prevalence of methamphetamines does not mention perhaps its most common derivative, MDMA, the drug most popular in the form of ecstasy pills. This seems odd considering the drug has been reported as on the rise with police seizures jumping from 150, 000 tablets in 2003 to almost double within the first 6 months of 2004 (Yamamoto, 2004: 437). Another self-acknowledged limitation of the World Mental Health Japan’s study was the neglect of the adolescent demographic where such party drugs like ecstasy, one would assume, would be most prevalent. Yet even given the strong youth market consuming anime, I could only find one reference to MDMA (assuming the pills in Akira (Otomo, 1988) are in fact ecstasy), and none to methamphetamines, the most abused drug in Japan (Yamamoto, 2004: 431). The only other illicit drugs referenced in anime, as far as my studies have gone, are marijuana, LSD, opium and mushrooms. The rest are fictitious drugs (with fascinating technological implications to be explored later).

'So many colours...'

Here is a list of anime that reference real-life drugs that I am aware of:

  • Afro Samurai (TV) (Kizaki, 2007) – marijuana, it is never mentioned but is quite obvious as it is smoked in pretty much every scene.
  • Akira (Otomo, 1988) – ecstasy, assuming that is what the pills are.
  • Cowboy Bebop (TV) (Watanabe, 1999) – mushrooms in episode 17 (whether the events actually happened or not, it is still referenced).
  • Gintama (Takamatsu, 2006) – a hard drug similar to heroin although not labeled as such in episode 7.
  • Gunslinger Girl (Asaka, 2003-2004) – casual and slightly condemning reference to marijuana[1].
  • Kara no Kyoukai Part 7 (Takizawa, 2009) – marijuana and LSD mentioned and combined into a fictitious drug.
  • Oni-Tensai (OVA) (Kendo, 2000) – marijuana is mentioned.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (TV) (Furanhashi, 1996-1998) – an arc of the series deals with opium[2].
  • Samurai Champloo (TV) (Watanabe, 2004) – a field of pot is set ablaze and everyone gets high in episode 7.
  • Sword for Truth (OVA) (Dezaki, 1990) – opium in the aforementioned lesbian sex scene.

That's some good shit.

That totals ten… and this list took some research and thought. I’m sure most could rattle off ten Western films/TV series that reference drugs without too much effort. Within this list, most link drugs to violence, crime and suffering. Of course this is not too far from the truth; many drugs and drug-abuse have strong connections with such anti-social behaviour and the emotional and physical aftermath of such actions. However only Samurai Champloo actually approaches drug-use from a positive perspective, the others are either negative or indifferent.

Drugs and violence.

Samurai Champloo has two opposing groups putting their differences aside and getting along by unintentionally getting high in a carnivalesque celebration. It is funny but also interesting in its depiction of the ego-dissolving properties of such drugs. It works at bringing people together despite ideological differences; it is unifying. And yet this is an anomaly. My opinion, that others in the field of anime scholarship share, is that drugs are stigmatized far more in Japanese culture than in many Western nations such as the United States, Australia, the UK and New Zealand[3].

'Anyone got a light?'

Interestingly, it is the portrayal of fictitious drugs that are far more insightful than their real-world counterparts. Here is a list:

  • Cowboy Bebop (TV) (Watanbe, 1998) – episode 1’s ‘bloody eye,’ a drug that seems to offer an increase in combat abilities.
  • Boogiepop Phantom (TV) (Watanabe, 2004) – episode 4 deals with a drug called ‘Type S’ that leads one character to slavery and eventually insanity. As his dependency grows, his grip on reality slips and he becomes obsessed with an employee whom he starts to believe is his dating sim: infatuation becomes obsession that becomes madness.
  • Fractale (TV) (Yamamote, 2011) – episode 1 references a ‘data drug’ briefly.
  • Serial Experiments Lain (TV) (Nakamura, 1998) – episode 2 deals with a drug called ‘Accela’ that increases one’s brain’s functions by 2-12 times its normal capacity (similar to the new film Limitless (Burger, 2011)). It is used to help access The Wired. (For those unfamiliar with Lain, The Wired is similar to the Net in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kamiyama, 2002-2003), a Matrix-like cyber-world where it is easy to lose touch with reality.) The user in this episode commits a murder-suicide. Interestingly, the drug looks machinic (see below).
  • Tales From Earthsea (Miyazaki, 2006) – heroin-like drug that destroys lives in the city of Hortown (one of the few interesting moments in this film).

Accela

That totals five. Three of these are related to technology (techno-orientated if you will… sorry ><). They increase the body’s capacity to act and become, as is also the case with ‘bloody eye’ in Bebop. To borrow a term from rave literature, these drugs are ‘body technology;’ they are ability enhancers, biological upgrades (St John, 2004: 4). Accela is particularly interesting: it is used to transcend corporeal limitations and access another plane of existence, a becoming-other in a cyber-world of possibility. The comparisons between cyber-reality and drugs are obvious; our ’addiciton’ to the internet, blogging, Second Life, WoW (for some…), etc are similar (anti-)social tropes (The Matrix (Wachowski bros., 1999) has also made the comparison with the red pill/blue pill plot device).

The overwhelmingly negative portrayal (and the minor representations) of drugs in anime, while an imbalance, alludes to some wider social values and attitudes. Firstly, it embodies the Japanese stigmatism towards illicit drugs, equating them with crime, violence and suffering[4]. Secondly, the lack of representation reflects the lowered prevalence of drug-use than in most other developed countries. And thirdly, the majority of the fictitious drugs are negatively associated with obsessive, otaku[5] attitudes towards computers and cyber-realms. This is perhaps a reflection of the generally negative stance on losing oneself to technology too completely that I have discussed on other occasions throughout this blog.

'Wanna party?'

Now I’m not saying that we need more drugs in anime (or society for that matter), but I do believe that there should be a more balanced portrayal of drug-use within the medium. But perhaps anime audiences don’t really care about drugs or their representation. I mean if an audience is offered either giant mecha battles or some loner tweaking out in an alley to watch on a Friday night, I think most would choose the former. Similarly, as the research may suggest, drugs are not so prevalent in anime because they are simply not so prevalent in Japanese society. However I think this is too simplistic an interpretation. Rather, I believe the lack of representation is predominantly due to cultural and marketing factors. Perhaps drugs as subject matter just aren’t that interesting. Perhaps drugs just don’t sell.

Now what drug-anime have I missed?

Note: some of the citations to anime are episode-specific and hence may only list the director and year pertaining to the episode discussed. My source for this is Anime News Network (www.animenewsnetwork.com).


[1] I have not seen Gunslinger Girl and have only been told about this scene. As a result, I do not know the specific episode.

[2] I have only seen some of Kenshin and have not seen the opium arc, hence I have referenced the whole series.

[3] Finding specific academic references to cite here proved very difficult. The opinions I refer to have been gleaned from forums and through email correspondence with academics in the field.

[4] Indeed the first time I was in Japan some Japanese friends of ours were talking about drugs and the North Korean criminals who were known to be pushing them. Suffice to say, they weren’t happy about it. Drugs analogous with crime. The Yamamoto article supports this, identifying North Korean organized crime as the one of the main traffickers of methamphetamines (Yamamoto, 2004: 437).

[5] I am, of course, using the Japanese definition of the word here not the internationally adopted one.

About shumbapumba

Would-be intellectual keeping my brain busy. View all posts by shumbapumba

10 responses to “The Drug(s) of Anime

  • ghostlightning

    While I’m almost sure I remember seeing a number of negative portrayals aside from your examples, none come to mind at the moment.

    Well, this isn’t quite anime, but in the Robotech novels, Khyron (Kamujin in Macross) is addicted to ingesting the leaves of the Invid Flower of Life, the base material from which Protoculture is derived. It is suggested that the leaves have a hallucinogenic effects… and well, by the time one finishes reading the Sentinels books and The End of the Circle, one is convinced that the authors are at the very least pot heads, but LSD is also likely.

    Almost anyone with an addiction is some kind of villain.

    Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door… I’m no longer sure if Vincent was addicted to his medication. Same with Anemone in Eureka SeveN, who may be drug dependent but the drug itself started off as necessary medication.

    • shumbapumba

      Yes I’m sure I’ve missed a few so let me know if you remember any. Interesting stuff about the Robotech novels. Yes addiction is almost always viewed negatively (and rightly so) but it’s the more casual and acceptable use of drugs that I was finding a distinct lack of. I guess Afro Samurai has the most casual reference to weed. It’s there, but it’s not there to make a specific moral point on drugs; it’s not key to the story (in the episodes I’ve seen). Interestingly, Afro is the most US-influenced show I have mentioned… I should check out Eureka SeveN. Thanks!

  • 21stcenturydigitalboy

    Welcome to the NHK novel and to a lesser extent the manga feature casual and frequent consumption of a cocaine-like drug, which pretty much just does to the character what you’d expect it to. The drug use was cut entirely from the anime, assumably because of censorship.

    • omo

      I thought they kept enough of the nods from the first episode…

      Also, did they cut the prescription drug abuse bit in the anime? I never got past the beginning.

      • 21stcenturydigitalboy

        I didn’t think the first episode had any references to it. There’s no drug abuse in the anime whatsoever. The manga mentions the white drug briefly in chapter one, but not after that AFAIK (I never finished the manga). Nothing like the rampant drug use of the novel.

    • shumbapumba

      Yes I did come across Welcome to the NHK during my research but I was specifically focusing on anime (I don’t have enough manga knowledge unfortunately). I had been told that the anime adaptation had, like you said, removed the drug references so I didn’t check it out.

  • D...

    That’s really interesting. You know I have been trying to rack my brains to think of more, because for some reason I thought there would be more. But I can’t seem to come up with more.

    I think in the U.S. drug use is so common, it almost seems like marijuana is right of passage during college. The fact that possession of drug paraphernalia is only an infraction in California is quite telling. Not only that but shows like Weeds and Breaking Bad are quite popular, they are cable shows, so they take greater liberties.

    My friend lived in Japan for a several years and their crime rate seems dramatically different. Maybe it has to do with what their TV programs deem as permissible. I can see how socially it is a less acceptable topic for them to deal with, especially if it keeps their ethics up. But alcohol is pretty pervasive in Japan and that’s reflected in anime also.

    I’m going to think about this more, it’s a really interesting topic. I wonder how other countries tackle the subject.

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