‘Bernard-jou Iwaku’ – The Culture of Anime

Something as accurate and funny as Bernard-jou Iwaku doesn’t deserve the lack of attention it gets.

Bernard-jou Iwaku, meaning ‘Miss Bernard Says’ is a short anime series about a pseudo-intellectual girl named Machida Sawako, who wants to appear intelligent and well-read despite never reading anything. Aside from being a perfect representation of many literati types, who make various judgements of authors and novels about which they know nothing, she is also the star of what has turned out to be a very funny little show.

With each episode lasting for three minutes, the writer is forced to forego the conventions of longer anime, including subtlety, gradual introductions to the principal characters, and a plot. Jokes replace these things; jokes about reading, readers, faux-readers, science fiction, Sherlock Holmes, and used bookstores, among other things.

There are only four characters, two of whom are basic archetypes, and the other two of whom are governed by basic archetypes but not entirely consumed by the dark stereotypical virus of predictability that has overwhelmed most of the modern anime industry.

Machida Sawako is an example of the latter. She is an alteration of the spacey, genki-girl type, with a dose of smug self-satisfaction, a fervent desire to appear well-read, and hidden very far under all the pomp and braggadocio, a real appreciation for reading.

Kanbayashi Shiori is a reserved girl who spends the majority of her time onscreen consuming science-fiction novels. Her character is quite basic – a combination of a tsundere and a stereotype of a sci-fi guru, who dislikes certain covers and rants about anal aspects of her chosen medium. She does demonstrate some growth, becoming increasingly tolerant of Sawako’s antics as the series continues, and even manages to get in a few serious moments. By far the best part of the show.

The librarian, Hasegawa Sumika, is a character so unremarkable, I had to rewatch her introductory episode to recall her name. Self-described Sherlockian. Shy. Has a crush on…

The fourth ‘character,’ who is a young man only named ‘Endou’. He has no defining characteristics, only serving as a foil to Sawako and Sumika when Shiori isn’t around. He actually reads books, though, so there’s a point in his favour.

So, really, there are only two characters then, and also two blocks of wood who it’s acceptable for them to talk at. Why?

This is most definitely a show aimed at readers, and at fans of books – and it not only aims at entertaining them, but reminding them to actually read. It references everything from the stories of Osamu Dazai to Thomas Pynchon. This is a script unafraid to name-drop, and if you’re curious enough you’ll discover at least a few things to read in the future. Best of all, it’s contemporary – devoting a minute or two various modern authors like Greg Egan (who I’d never heard of before watching it), and containing an extremely drawn-out joke about Haruki Murakami at one point.

More than that, though, it seems to be about the concerns of people who read. Making jokes about minor issues, like how covers and titles are changed after film adaptations, how cheap mystery novels in secondhand stores are often spoiled in the margins, mis-applications of science-fiction culture like Asimov quotes and Sturgeon’s law, the impossibility of choosing a favourite book, etc etc, is basically the show’s bread and butter. But of course, the emotional aspect enraptures even Sawako after some time – that the joy of actually reading overcomes most of their concerns is Bernard-jou‘s real message.

Far be it from me to read too far into this – it’s merely a slapstick comedy show. Yet it seems to use the anime medium to its full extent – visualising scenes such as a world covered by ice, and allowing scenes to move at a faster pace, with things like motion lines, exaggerated fists, backdrops that only last for a few seconds but that serve to highlight a character’s small speech or mental state. Switching between contexts and moving at such a fast pace is Bernard-jou‘s strength. Which, finally, brings me to my wider point.

There is a definite difference between ‘anime’ and ‘cartoons’ in the western sense. Part of the reason for that is the distinct nature of Japanese culture in general. There’s also the fact that anime is not solely directed at children, and in terms of diversity essentially equals – some would say surpasses – western television in general. A huge culture exists internationally, all based on the appreciation of anime. In Japan, it’s a multi-million dollar – well, yen – industry, and there’s a huge amount of extra content that studios and creators make in conjunction with the actual shows, including soundtracks, OVAs, drama CDs, figures, and other embarrassing examples of capitalism in action. So it’s quite distinct, in a cultural sense – but as a form of media, does anime have anything that can potentially distinguish it from television, or even western cartoons? Is there a theme that can be communicated in an anime better than a western cartoon?

Television and animation are obviously distinct. Anime allows for a complete lack of realism. If you’ve seen even one example of the media form, you’ll understand this. It allows for anything to happen at any moment (which is often exploited) and usually the budget won’t change too much as a result of this, unless 3D stereoscopic animation techniques or some other expensive technique is used. Live-action media does not share this freedom. These facts alone diversify the amount of content that anime can cover – but it doesn’t differentiate it from western cartoons.

What, then, is the difference there? It’s merely cultural. Cartoons in the west are mostly unique in content and style. Since anime is more than the media itself – as the culture includes light novels, manga, and all the peripheral ephemera I’ve listed above – it builds off its own tropes and conventions. The typical noseless style, the hundreds of character archetypes, genres, and plot-setups – from tsunderes to yanderes, space dramas to high-school slice-of-life shows, from cultural festivals to twists on the same types of filler episodes – are all hallmarks of eastern animation, which if they appeared with the same frequency in the western equivalent would be lambasted beyond broadcasting.

These cultural conventions allow for more complex variations and twists – once an understanding of a generic ‘basic premise’ is reached, it becomes increasingly easier for changes to the formula and parodies to follow. Many of the jokes about ‘moe’ in Haruhi Suzumiya wouldn’t work if the culture wasn’t already versed in what ‘moe’ meant, for example. Since this informs the actions and characterisation of a major character in Haruhi, it’s actually quite important. And for another nonspecific example (since actual examples are too numerous to mention) imagine all the stylistic changes in comedic moments, when the show immediately becomes a parody of typical shounen anime, and characters who were previously docile now leap about and scream catchphrases as they demonstrate the heretofore unmentioned ability to crush their foes into the ground, a state of being that only lasts for as long as the joke is funny. I’m not claiming that western animation never makes the joke of docile characters becoming violent, but there are no prominent examples of that ever happening and also being a satire of a specific genre of animation at the same time.

In terms of actual animation, there’s also a difference: Imagine a typical shounen (Again. Only because it’s such a distinctive genre, though – so easy to find examples from). The shocked looks on half the cast’s faces as a major character is beaten into the dust – their faces slowly take over the entire screen, cutting the frame at odd angular places so that by the end of the sequence, the whole screen is covered in various images of surprised faces. I’m sure you understand what I’m referring to. This is parodied in Bernard-jou:  In western animation you will not find an example of characters appearing in bubbles and physically fighting for screen real-estate, as is to be found hereCharacters can move the backgrounds, can shift entire scenes sideways in more comedic moments; playing with the frame and with the fourth wall in a cinematic sense like this seems to be exclusive to anime. I’ve said it on almost every post on this site: It’s always important to exploit the strengths of your chosen medium. Bernard-jou does.

It would be possible, were I more versed in the cultures of western and eastern animation, and understood the actual techniques better (my understanding of the actual creation of an anime mostly coming from the excellent Shirobako) it would be possible to offer deeper commentary. However, for now, this small notion of the immense differences between eastern and western animation is all I can muster.

If you can find it, go watch Bernard-jou Iwaku – it’s something different, very short, occasionally funny, and an easy way to add about 15 books to your reading list.

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