Partizipative Projekte aus dem Bereich der Japanologie

5. January 2023 von Melissa Gatterbauer

Bulimia in the anime “18if“ – Eating disorders in Japan

Eating disorders are considered to be among the most fatal mental disorders with the highest mortality rate. Bulimia nervosa in particular harbors a big risk, while the people affected by it are predominantly young women. The anime “18if“ seeks to portray the mental and physical struggles of a person suffering from bulimia as accurately as possible. My research focuses on the character Airi, highlighting parallels to the real-life issue of bulimia in Japanese society.

Bulimia nervosa (jpn.: shinkeisei taishokushō) can be a precursor to a life full of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, and people with the disease often don’t know how to escape its harmful patterns. Bulimia is still considered a taboo subject in Japanese society and is therefore hardly ever portrayed in Japanese popular culture. There are, however, some exceptions. The topic is unmistakably present in the anime “18if”, produced by the anime studio GONZO, as I was able to demonstrate in my paper. “18if” tackles various societal issues (depression, bullying, etc.) and showcases them each in one episode. Using film analysis, I looked at two expressive scenes from the episode “The Witch of Gluttony” and afterwards attempted to analyze them.

The first scene introduces us to the character Airi, the protagonist. She suffers from bulimia. Criticized by her ex-boyfriend, that she wasn’t thin enough, Airi develops self-critical thought patterns. Despite her already slim figure, she holds on to a negative and damaging self-image, believing, that she isn’t graceful or delicate enough. As a consequence, Airi drowns her sorrows in a binge eating episode. Leaving behind an empty fridge and food packaging on the floor at a late hour, thousands of calories were consumed within a short time. After that, the ‘purge’. In an attempt to prevent herself from gaining weight, Airi puts a finger down her throat and forces herself to vomit. That’s how the ‘damage’ supposedly gets undone. Airi is shown with tears in her eyes in her poorly lit bathroom, melancholic piano music underscores her dire mental state.

In comparison, in the second scene, Airi appears as the “Witch of Gluttony”, a toddler dressed in a colorful outfit. Her dream world shows up in similarly vivid hues and is full of calorie-rich foods and dishes. With a smile on her face, the Witch of Gluttony expresses how much she delights in the fact, that she can eat whatever she wants. This may be hinting at Airi’s carefree childhood, where she could allow herself to enjoy her grandmother’s cooking. However, remembering the binge-eating episode from the first scene, her cheerful expression twists into an empty stare. Suddenly she doubts her attitude and eating whatever she wanted without worry. The playful background music warps into threatening sounds and noises, as her world is shaken by an earthquake.

It’s evident where “18if” draws its parallels to Japanese people suffering from eating disorders (as recorded elsewhere in secondary literature): the wish to have a child-like body, presumably to reconstruct a carefree past, the fetishization of young women with child-like features and the societal expectation to not eat too much and therefore having to hide acts of gluttony. Bulimia is expressly showcased in this episode, portrayed by the characteristic consumption of high-calorie foods and the subsequent ‘purging’ by vomiting.

Through my research I was able to affirm, that this 24-minute-long episode did well in portraying the suffering of Japanese people with bulimia accurately and provides a good example of bringing a delicate issue closer to its audience in a humble yet factual manner.

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