An Animated Passport? Setting and Scenery in Anime and Manga

When it comes to anime and manga, we all have our favorite elements – characters, storyline, voice actors, music or artwork. But how about the scenery?

In all the whys and whos of anime, it’s easy to forget about where. But location is a big part of the world in which our favourite stories take place. Makes sense, right? A fantasy world is a lot more compelling if the forests and mountains are beautiful and awe-inspiring, and a high-school romance feels just that bit more realistic if you can pick out real Tokyo landmarks in the background.

However, what many people may not realize is that the whole idea of location actually helped give rise to anime and manga as we know it today. And while, in theory, the settings are limited only by the imagination of the artist, it seems that, in some genres, those settings remain… limited.

A Bold New World on Half the Budget

While there are plenty of reasons why anime as a medium developed differently from animation in the West, one of the biggest reasons was, surprisingly, location… specifically, on-location filming. As you may or may not know, on-site filming in Japan can be rather expensive, if by “expensive” you mean “roughly the gross domestic income of a small nation.” Japan tends to be expensive in general, and that’s reflected in the costs of filming. While most J-drama or J-horror titles opt to keep things simple with stories set in specific Japanese cities (e.g. Tokyo) or other Japanese locales (e.g. the infamous camping cabin in Ringu), what happens if you want to film a fantasy or sci-fi story? Leaving the expensive special effects aside, there are often issues with the landscape itself in Japan. There are plenty of forests and mountains (though they’re difficult and expensive to get equipment out to), but not so much in terms of rocky quarries, deserts, etc… at least, not much that isn’t populated to heck and back. So whereas the producers of Star Trek could truck down the road a little ways to get their perfect Gamma Ceti VI at the nearest hiking trail, a Japanese producer couldn’t do the same thing without travelling a long way and spending a lot of money as a result. And filming in studio wasn’t that much cheaper; special effects and props were comparatively pricey compared to their Western counterparts.

So what were eager and imaginative sci-fi and fantasy storytellers on a low budget to do?

Enter anime!

Whereas most people in Hollywood and the West considered animation as something just for kids, the Japanese movie and TV industry soon realized it was a low-cost, budget-friendly way to tell fantastical stories. A desert planet with yellow skies? A white castle ringed by tidy, well groomed woods? A giant spaceship hurtling through a nebula? If the artists could draw it, the writers could write it. The same freedom in setting also cropped up in manga and made it a great storytelling medium limited only by the imagination. It wasn’t long before anime and manga writers were using their cheap alternative to on-location shooting to tell more real-life stories as well. Thus, while Western animation remained a medium primarily reserved “for kids”, Japanese animation developed into an adult artform in its own right, used for the same sorts of plots and stories we’d see in Western live-action movies and TV… with cheap scenery to boot.

So just think, all that mature and intelligent anime we know and love? All thanks to saving a few bucks on locations. The More You Know.

From Tokyo to… uh, Tokyo

Thanks to the freedom from budget (and, in some cases, laws of physics and reality), the locations featured in anime are unlimited in scope and imagination… or at least, they should be. And to be fair, in science fiction and fantasy, they are pretty varied and imaginative. Sure, there’s a lot of Generic Fantasyverse LOTR 101 with woods and mountains, but that’s certainly not only a fault of anime, and there’s still a lot of lush and interesting scenery thanks to the artists. Inspiration is drawn from all sorts of places, from Imperial China to the rainforests of South America. Hooray for variety!

If only anime set in the real world was as varied in its scenery and setting. On the plus side, anime set in Japan certainly shows the environment accurately and realistically, particularly when it comes to the billboards and crosswalks of Tokyo. But for a lot of anime and manga, that’s pretty much all we get. So much “real-life” anime is based in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, instead of taking advantage of the freedom to set it wherever the writers or producers wish.  It makes sense for live-action productions to stick closer to home to save money (though it should be noted that Western TV, especially series like the CSI franchise, happily meanders all over America, Canada, the UK etc rather than every series being set in, say, L.A.). But surely animators could branch out a bit? They’re not bound by the same budget or travel constraints as a film crew, so there’s nothing stopping them from setting their stories wherever they want. As it is, it seems like they may be limiting themselves somewhat.

For example, I’m currently returning home from a road trip around Arizona and Utah. Like so many visitors, I was blown away by the amazing red rock formations, the mesas and hoodoos. It’s an artist’s dream, and a stunning backdrop to any story. Yet I was left wondering, “Has there ever been an anime or manga based in this part of the world? If not, why not? Wouldn’t this be a wonderful setting for an anime? Wouldn’t an artist fall over themselves to draw this as a backdrop to their drama?” Call me crazy, but I would totally love to watch a magical girl anime with the Grand Canyon as the site of the final battle.

Obviously there are some exceptions to the TOKYO OR BUST rule. A lot of espionage anime or titles like Black Lagoon travel a bit further afield and show places like Thailand or Russia. Other titles take a slightly more lacksadaisical approach and offer up settings I like to call Generic!Europe (woods and European castles with a few big cities), Generic!Middle East (flat deserts, mud houses and huts and dark-skinned locals wearing loose coarse clothing, burkhas etc) and Generic!U.S. (either a giant city that resembles New York or some sort of Wild West setting), with the occasional landmark like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty sprinkled in to say, “Look! Look! We’re in a foreign place!” (see also:  a lot of Western TV and movies!)

But I admit, I’m greedy; I want more. If the setting and scenery is limited only by the artist’s skill and imagination, then I want to see more anime set in amazing, real-life places. I want our heroes to roam across the Serengheti searching for the magic gem that saves the world. I want Prince of Tennis-style inspirational stories about ski cross athletes at the Vancouver Olympics, with Whistler looming in the background. I want high-school romance set in the Australian Outback, with the couple’s first kiss in front of Ayer’s Rock. I want anime and manga artists and writers to take advantage of the freedom of the medium and set their stories in all the beautiful, fascinating places this little planet has to offer.

I also want a pony, a million dollars, and a castle made of ice cream.

What are some unusual and memorable settings and scenery you’ve seen in anime? Where in the world would you like to see more in anime and manga?

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