Conversations with My Brain About Anime: Smoking Culture

As you may well know by now, I happen to be a frequent writer for Infinite Rainy Day. The reason for this is quite obvious, I’m an over-thinker and a rambler, but I occasionally wonder if that makes my readers think I’m getting a little stale. So I decided to try something different this time and go for a panel debate. I’m not sure if it’ll become a regular series, but it’s at least a fresh take on my writing style. Without further ado, I give you “Conversations with My Brain About Anime”!

The format is pretty simple: I pick a general topic in anime, then let both hemispheres of my brain “duke it out” in an open forum conversation that I “moderate”, occasionally sharing some thoughts to keep everything guided. After the topic has been exhausted to death, I’ll ask for both sides’ closing statements and leave the rest of the discussion open to you, the readers, to talk amongst yourselves. Today’s topic is smoking in anime: is there too much of it, and is it a real problem?

Left-brain’s opening statement:

I don’t like cigarettes as a concept. They’re dirty, smelly and overall unpleasant. Considering what goes into making commercialized cigarettes, all those toxic chemicals and gases that are best left for other purposes than inhaling into the lungs, it almost makes you wonder why they’re being made at all. It’s like the tobacco companies know that they’re selling poison to people, yet still don’t care. And that kinda sickens me.

So it also bothers me when I see smoking being portrayed in film and media of any kind, anime included. I’m not sure what’s so appealing about it: is it sexy? Does it make the character seem kinda cool? Is there an element of suaveness to it that I’m unaware of? What’s the deal?

I get it: life is full of stuff that I don’t condone on principle. I think alcohol is gross too, and drugs like crack and heroin are really uncomfortable to even look at. But cigarettes in particular seem to be the biggest turn-off simply because they’re not seen as being as fringe and ugly as those other, more serious drugs. They’re never outright shown as being non-glamourous in anime, and are even encouraged in some shows and films as part of an element of “normalcy”. Doesn’t that bother you? Because it kinda bothers me!

Right-brain’s opening statement:

Before I begin, I want to first point out that life isn’t always so ideal. People make decisions that I don’t agree with every single day; I, for example, abhor guns, yet I recognize that they exist and serve their function in a messed up world where people commit violent acts. Reality is scary, and I recognize that certain concepts are going to exist regardless of what I feel or think about them.

Smoking, particularly in anime, is no different. You’re right in that it’s often over-glamourized, I won’t challenge you on that at all, but to completely say that it’s never appropriate in anything is being flat-out dishonest. Because, like swearing and nudity, it sometimes is. There are times where not including it is actually being more dishonest than including it at all, sad as that may be. So it’s a catch-22 of evils, I suppose.

Does this mean that I like this reality? No. But even my favourite movie of all-time, Spirited Away, understands that people, well…people smoke sometimes. It’s not the best of habits, I’ll admit that, but unlike, say, heroin or crack, it doesn’t have a lot of the immediate side-effects of other drugs and is at least tolerable. I can be around people who smoke, as much as it might bother me smell-wise. I can’t be around people doing other drugs.

I’ve noticed that both of you have your own particular stances on whether or not smoking is a necessary evil in…well, let’s say anime for this particular situation. Would you say that it’s a by-product of how you perceive the world? And would you be judgemental of those who differ from it?

That’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it? I don’t necessarily judge people who smoke, nor would I openly stop watching an anime show or film that has characters engaging in the behaviour, but I definitely still think it’s a nasty habit. I remember when The Wind Rises first debuted in Japan, and the Japanese anti-smoking lobby heavily criticized the film for its frequent inclusion of casual smoking. There was even a scene where Jiro, the protagonist, openly smoked while holding his tuberculosis-ridden wife’s hand in bed. He even says that he shouldn’t be smoking next to her, yet does so anyway because she “doesn’t care”. If that’s the kind of attitude that’s being portrayed in a movie, then shouldn’t it be justly-criticized as sending out a bad message to people?

Hold on there, Left. You start by saying that you don’t necessarily judge people who smoke, only to then go on and judge people who smoke. Sure, it’s anime that you bring up, true, but that’s still judging. And besides, the reasoning for why Nahoko lets Jiro smoke next to her is obvious: because she recognizes that it helps him think, yet she doesn’t care if it hurts her because she’s already dying and is so in-love with him. You can argue that that’s stupid or silly, but I think that’s pretty telling of the kind of character that she really is in that film.

True, but that doesn’t mean that the film still isn’t guilty of setting a bad precedent with its excessive, casual smoking, is it not?

I guess so, although, given the time period that the film takes place in, one where the average person didn’t know smoking was bad for you as of yet, I don’t think it’s a “bad precedent” to have that scene included.

I’d like to ask you both a question: knowing that we know people in real-life who are heavy smokers/have been heavy smokers in the past, how would you say that anime depicting smoking would impact them if they watched it?

That’s tough. On one hand, I recognize that a smoking habit would be a tough one to break, and I’d feel instant sympathy. On the other hand, especially to those that had started smoking later on in life, wouldn’t that seem somewhat irrational? I know that may be somewhat unfair to say, but given how smoking culture, particularly in anime, is something that actually exists, it’d seem almost unfair to themselves to harm their bodies in that manner. And this is something that anime depicting casual smoking isn’t helping with at all.

Look at Cowboy Bebop, for example. It’s a classic series, yes, but it’s also a heavy smoking series too. Three of the four main characters are chain smokers, and that one episode where Jet tells Spike and Faye to smoke outside seems almost hypocritical considering that he’s never raised a fuss before or after. The fact that Jet suddenly turns into a self-righteous father-figure for his friend’s daughter almost clashes with his character in the rest of the show, even though it might be setting a good precedent for a character who’s clearly bothered by smoking. That’s the kind of weird, tonal whiplash that comes from embracing smoking culture.

Are you referring to “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui”, aka the worst episode in Cowboy Bebop? Because that episode has plenty of problems outside of that one scene where Jet tells Spike and Faye not to smoke in front of Meifa. But even still, while your complaint about the tonal whiplash of smoking culture is valid, I’m not entirely sure if real-life smokers would agree with you. To them, being told not to smoke in front of certain people is normal, and a lot of them are actually quite respectful of such requests. If anything, I’d argue that Spike and Faye acting so defensive when being asked to smoke outside is actually much more indicative of bad writing on that episode’s part than Jet’s behaviour, although I’m not sure if it's because I’m not a smoker. But I’m getting off-topic.

To answer the original question, I don’t know because, again, I don’t smoke. However, I can say that Cowboy Bebop isn’t remembered fondly simply because it endorses smoking. That three of the four main characters are chain smokers is merely a side-point and probably indicative of the fact that the issue of smoking being a problem is never once mentioned in the show. Honestly, a better example of tonal whiplash, although this is intentional, is November 11th being a chain smoker as his price for being a contractor in Darker Than Black. The fact that he even points out how toxic and disgusting the habit is, only to then engage in it himself, was enough to pull me out of the experience somewhat. That rings too true of real hypocrisy, even if the show’s aware of it.

I’m gonna hone-in on that last part for my next question: do you think self-awareness can ever be used to an advantage with anime and smoking culture?

Well, there was that one episode of Planetes where Fee Carmichael is experiencing nicotine withdrawal because she’s never able to get her smoke break due to terrorist intervention. She openly admits that she’s not proud of her smoking habit, yet still tries to anyway. As the episode plays out, we see her start to go crazy from temptation, until she finally crashes her escape pod into the Earth’s atmosphere for some alone time to smoke. The episode ends with everyone chastising her for being so reckless over cigarettes, while she’s busy puffing to her heart’s content. I’ve always read into that episode as being about the dangers of cold withdrawal from addictive substances, and while it definitely ends on a bit of a lame note, it’s actually quite powerful.

Another example would be going back to Darker Than Black. There’s a two-parter episode where Yin’s being hunted down by a pair of contractors because she’s worth something to them, and one of those contractors is an opera singer whose price for using her powers is shoving unlit cigarettes down her throat and puking them back up. She explains that she’d given up smoking when she found out she was pregnant, only to go back to it once her child was born. The tragedy was when her child found her cigarettes, choked on them and died, forcing her to give up on humanity and become a contractor. Again, like Fee’s withdrawal episode, it’s a powerful, cautionary tale about the dangers of addictive substances, in this case towards those you love.

To be honest, that two-parter was never really about the contractors, but more about Yin and how she became a doll. Her backstory was always going to be the best part of those episodes anyway, and a huge chunk of that is because of the montage sequence set to one of the best piano ballads I’ve ever heard in anime to-date. And quite frankly, for as tragic as that opera singer’s backstory was, it never quite hit me the way the show wanted it to because it was all narrated and rushed for time. It felt tacked-on and kinda silly too, and it didn’t need to be there. So cautionary or not, I never saw it as too impactful.

As for Fee’s addiction? You’re right, it was a strong episode about withdrawal. Perhaps a little too strong, if you ask me, as Fee basically went crazy in that episode. But I have to disagree on the ending, as I thought it was incredibly fitting and funny because it was so lame. Because that’s how addictions are sometimes, and I’m glad that Planetes took the time to address that. It felt real, essentially.

What are you implying by that last statement?

I’d rather not say, as it’s kinda personal.

I think that’s for the best. Next question: what, if anything, do you think can be done to combat smoking culture in anime, if at all?

Don't have shows and movies with smoking in them, to start?

I don’t think that’s gonna happen anytime soon, Left…

But seriously, I really don’t know. If smoking really is a part of life, then perhaps educating people on its dangers would be a good place to begin. If I recall correctly, Japanese society is really casual about its smoking, such that it’s not uncommon to see people doing it pretty much anywhere. That’s probably what was so alarming about The Wind Rises to health experts, as they knew that it’s such a problem to begin with. I guess I’d stick with education, but I’m not sure what else to say.

I’d add to that by seconding education, but also recommending personal responsibility. Smoking will happen regardless of what any of us have to say on the matter, and anime’s obviously gonna reflect that even if we don’t want it to. So simply explaining to people at a young age that seeing something on the big-screen (or little-screen) isn’t indicative of how one should act in real-life isn’t enough unless people are taught at a young age to make smart decisions in life. Perhaps, while we’re there, adults should be taught to lead by example too, since they have a lot of influence over children. Far more than they’d want to admit, as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has so plainly shown.

I agree that change has to come from all facets of life, much like how we view gun culture or mental illness in the West. Any closing thoughts?

I recognize that this is a bigger issue than simply two sides of a person’s brain duking it out over whether or not smoking is a problem in anime. I’m not an idiot. But I do think that the culture of smoking in anime, which absolutely exists, is still concerning as is. That no age is immune to it, even children, shows how far it’s penetrated society, so much so that I’m not sure there’s really an easy fix. But I remain firm in my personal belief that it’s worth talking about, even if it’s not easy. Because no addiction is easy, even smoking.

I want to add to that by saying that, even if it comes off that way, we’re not intentionally trying to slander and shame people who do smoke by discussing this. I recognize, like Left, that addiction is a real issue that needs to be reframed by everyone in society, and the pressure to change is multi-faceted. But I also want to stress that life is complicated, and that art should be celebrated in-spite of the questionable components it might not fully-address or might use to convey its message. Because shunning a masterpiece over something as trivial as, in this case, its use of casual smoking is being ignorant and closed-minded, and that’s even worse than acknowledging that it’s a problem to begin with. It’s really no different than swearing, alcohol, excessive nudity or violence in that regard.

Indeed. Thank you for tuning in to my first ever conversation with both hemispheres of my brain. I might do this again in the future if feedback warrants it, but for now I’d like to thank my brain for engaging itself peacefully. I only hope it doesn’t make me look schizophrenic.

You’re most-certainly welcome!


Until next time, I guess!


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