Urbanism and Anime Pilgrimage
Fifteen months ago I began writing a regular column, the Weekly Review of Transit, Place and Culture in Anime. The initial concept was to point out examples of how urbanism in Japan influences everyday behaviors and is reflected in the visual and narrative elements of popular culture output. It was an opportunity to explore urban planning concepts, particularly transit-oriented development, in an unusual context. I was already aware that real world settings are often incorporated into the background art, but as I began to systematically analyze the shows I was surprised by just how frequently they are used. As a second layer, in addition to the brief explanations of planning principles, I started identifying and indicating the actual locations, in the event that anyone wanted to go to see for themselves. Initially, I made the identifications using only clues from the show, Google Maps and my limited familiarity with Kanto and Kansai area locations. As I went deeper on this axis and became better at using Japanese in search queries, I unexpectedly stumbled on a very active subculture of anime pilgrimage.
Seichijunrei (聖地巡礼) translates as “holy land pilgrimage” and is what anime and manga fans use to refer to the practice of visiting the real world settings used in a show or comic. Some people include visual novels (a type of video game) as well. The term butaitanbou (舞台探訪) “scene/stage exploration” is also used, and the two are frequently encountered together. My observation has been that seichijunrei generally refers to anything from the most casual visits to very deliberate efforts. Butaitanbou implies a higher level of rigor and exhaustive photography that recreates the individual cuts from one or more episodes, usually for the purpose of publishing a side-by-side comparison analysis.
What I find fascinating about seichijunrei/butaitanbou (I just use pilgrimage in English), besides the fact that it just seems like a lot of fun, is that the practitioners demonstrate an unusually acute awareness of design elements in the built environment. When comparing frames side-by-side, they can point out exactly what the animator has chosen to include, omit or change in the transfer. Pilgrimage often involves going to unfamiliar places and having a limited amount of time for discovery and collection. This creates a test scenario for legibility, the term planners use when they talk about how well a city’s layout can be understood by people navigating through it. When legibility is high, train stations, plazas and other points of interest are discoverable with relative ease. When legibility is poor, you are more likely to get lost or not find what you’re looking for.
Until very recently, I was just an observer of pilgrimage phenomena, vicariously exploring far-flung cities and suburbs across Japan through their blogs and Twitter feeds. In the last couple of months I became brave enough to start reaching out directly, and was fortunate to find a few good-humored folks who don’t mind my very slow and broken Japanese. But the point-of-no-return for me came on a recent trip to Japan. My wife and I were staying in the Kansai area, with one day planned to visit Nara. Currently airing Beyond the Boundary (境界の彼方 Kyōkai no Kanata) had appeared to garner the greatest interest among pilgrims in the region, so I planned a few hours to explore some of the real life locations from the first three episodes before we toured the historic sites. While not enough time to prepare a thorough butaitanbou post on the level of the seasoned experts, I wanted to at least get a feel for what it’s like to be in their shoes.
We visited Nara and Kashihara on 2013 October 18.
Mirai Kuriyama lives in a low-rise apartment complex that includes a small shōtengai (shopping arcade) on one side of the building. Out of respect for the privacy of residents at this relatively private location, the pilgrimage community adopted a convention that they would not openly share the specific location. All of these screenshots for this location are from the first three episodes.
Yamato-Saidaiji Station (大和西大寺駅) is a transfer point for multiple Kintetsu rail lines, so anyone traveling in this area is likely to pass through from time to time. In the above frame from Episode 3, we see the side of the station from the viewpoint of the north exit.
I’ve got the right station but wrong platform (^_^;) Some pilgrims map out their expeditions in advance and prepare a stack of screen captures in order to precisely recreate them with a camera. I relied solely on memory, so the perspective or zoom is slightly off in some cases, but this was the only complete mistake.
The Mexican restaurant from Episode 1 is a Saizeriya on Sanjō-dōri (三条通), the main commercial street.
The abandoned houses in Episode 3 are just to the southeast of Sarusawa Pond (猿沢の池).
Kashiharajingū-mae Station (橿原神宮前駅)
Plaza in front of the train station
Grade level railroad crossing (踏切 fumikiri) on the walk to the school
The appraiser’s shop is on a narrow street parallel to the tracks, but the building in the show is based on Jashumon (邪宗門), a cafe in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.
Seishin Gakuen Secondary School (聖心学園中等教育学校). The screen capture actually comes from Episode 6, as I didn’t have an earlier one handy, but the school has featured in the show since the first episode.
Fukada Pond (深田池)
Though it has not appeared in the show as of this writing, we stopped for a quick visit at Kashihara Jingū (橿原神宮), a Shinto shrine built in 1889 on the site where the first emperor of Japan is claimed to have acceded to the throne in the 7th century BC.
My usual approach to street photography is spontaneous and relatively unstructured. I might have a general walk plan, but I’m not pressing the shutter until I see something that catches my interest. The butaitanbou experience requires a very different and more disciplined approach. The smallest details can be of the utmost importance and the reward comes from the rush of being able to match spatial elements from a flat image to the multiple planes of three dimensional space. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and a substantial investment of work. I’ll go into detail about this kind of hyper-engagement in a subsequent post. I’ll leave things here by saying that I now have an even greater appreciation for the dedicated fans who share these experiences through their photography and writing.