French patisseries are abundant in Japan. Convenience stores sell crème brûlée, tiny sandwiches and croissants. In Harajuku, people wait sometimes hours to get into a maid cafe. Inside these cafes, women wear baby pink Victorian dresses and ribbons in their hair, covering half of their face with a fan in one hand as they sip a petit cup of Chamomile tea with the other. Prior to the kawaiisa cultural boom in the ’70s, it would be fair to mistake this as a shot from the streets of Paris. Alas, this is modern-day Tokyo.
It’s not just limited to food and fashion, anime has absorbed things that were once culturally recognised as French and made them their own as well. In fact, I’d dare say that some of your favourite anime and manga creators are straight-up oui-aboos.
Think about it. Lupin III, one of the most famous and long-running characters in Japanese pop culture, is based on the infamous gentleman thief archetype of Arsène Lupin from French novelist Maurice Leblanc. Like Leblanc’s original character, Lupin III is suave, cheeky, and clever, constantly outwitting his foes and doing it with class.
That same character archetype is everywhere in anime, from Joker from Persona 5 to the tea-sipping villain Gentle in My Hero Academia, to even Laurent Thierry, a literal French con-man in Netflix’s Great Pretender. Fun fact: Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki‘s first feature film was set in the Lupin III universe and features an art style mirroring pages of a Tintin comic book.
Despite the series being based in Tokyo, shots of Tokyo Tower in Sailor Moon look eerily like the Eiffel Tower. Usagi and her friends’ everyday street fashion is heavily inspired by luxury French fashion brands like Chanel, just as the visuals in magical girl transformations are rooted in French impressionism and cultural interpretations of France.
Roses aren’t a Japanese flower but thanks to anime, they’ve become synonymous with the magical girl transformations of the Sailor Scouts, and the dramatised duels over the Rose Bride Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Sailor Moon animation backgrounds could make a perfect vaporwave cover art (1992, Toei Animation) pic.twitter.com/p6tNN2DE3P— Tohad (@sylvainsarrailh) May 8, 2019
Rose of Versailles is a manga retelling of the French Revolution from the perspective of a masculine-presenting female guard to Marie Antoinette named Oscar François de Jarjeyes. Visually, it draws on French imperialism symbols, cartoon interpretations of the Versailles Palace, the court and royal ballrooms, and a mix of triumphant military-like music and a romanticised J-Pop soundtrack in a striking, melodramatic yet art-nouveau art style.
As if someone was trying to make a L’Oriel ad for the French military at the time, its opening theme features Oscar trapped in a bed of rose thorns, before cutting to her dressed in a soldier’s uniform and standing on a hill with her long blonde hair floating in the wind, and then a white-turned-red-rose.
Was this article one giant excuse for me to bring up one of my favourite anime and anime openings of all time? Maybe! Irrespective of that supposed claim and no matter where you look, French culture is everywhere in anime.
In 19th-century France, maid outfits were strictly worn by servants of a house. Now, there are literally hundreds of anime characters dressed in them each season. Over on TikTok, it’s become a fashion trend as masculine-presenting people dress up in them for fun. Despite its cultural origins, the maid-core aesthetic is more closely associated with Japan’s nightlife hosts and anime fans on TikTok than the Parisian mansions of the Victorian era.
But where exactly did this fascination for France come from, you might be wondering. Well, it stems from a larger conversation about how Japan became a country of oui-aboos.
How Japan became a country of Oui-aboos
Japan has always had a loose historic relationship with France since the late 19th century, dating back to the Franco-Japan Treaty in 1907. But it was over the 20th century that the country grew more infatuated with the French, thanks to the lifting of political restrictions around international travel and imported culture that followed.
In pre-World War II Japan, airfare travel was limited to diplomats and military commanders. So unlike other countries where people could go overseas, many Japanese views of Europe were formed on its exported culture rather than any real-life exposure. As products, French cinema, and cultural movements like the Parisian avant-garde and art nouveau made their way to Japan, Japanese people gravitated towards them and glorified them as symbols of high status.
As Chinatsu Takeda explains in a Japanese academic essay (the abstract of which is in English), Japanese women’s magazines would idolise luxury products from France and other European countries, creating the impression that they were not only better than homegrown luxury goods but were a stepping stone to a sophisticated and elegant lifestyle. When international travel for pleasure and business opened up to the country in the mid-’60s, it was still seen as a luxury. Only the wealthy, educated Japanese could travel to Europe.
It’s partly why the exchange student trope in the medium exists; the new student from America or Europe that would eventually fall into the main protagonist’s life is always seen as culturally richer than their peers and otherworldly or more desirable. Or, if not, these characters are boastful, wealthy, and obnoxiously self-absorbed—Nanami Kiryuu, the blonde-haired and wealthy member of the Student Council in Revolutionary Girl Utena, is a very good example of this. If they’re not alien to their school, they’re a hime-sama.
Anyway, the historical origins of this idea can be traced back to the manga and anime of the time. The first chapter of Monkey Punch’s Lupin III was published in 1967 and Ryoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles was first serialised in 1972. With Rose of Versailles, reports at the time claimed that young girls were obsessed with Oscar, with some even threatening to self-injure themselves from sheer fanaticism. Early examples of Japanese animation in the ’50s and ’60s were influenced by Western styles of animation and the Eurocentric imagery of Walt Disney.
This infatuation for France and French things only grew when the kawaiisa movement began in the ’70s. The kawaiisa movement was a cultural movement that started in the ’70s and lasted till the late ’90s before it manifested into the mainstream. After World War II, Japan struggled to divorce itself from the vilified image it was globally seen as having during the war, and with an intense recession, people grew disenfranchised with traditional Japan. The kawaiisa movement, and the early days of otaku culture, was born as a direct reaction to that.
With kawaiisa, people were less interested in traditional Japanese symbols like kimonos, and more enamored with cute, child-like objects and trends that divorced themselves from their pre-existing image. Japan’s image soon became based on mascots like Hello Kitty, maid cafes, anime, and Harajuku and lolita fashion. It’s an era that created a huge economic boom for the country after a long recession and led to what we know as Japanese pop culture today. And, interestingly, a lot of the ideas that came from that cultural wave were influenced by what Japan saw as European culture.
When oui-aboo culture leads to a psychological condition: Paris Syndrome
Japan’s—and by extension, the anime community’s—infatuation with France may be doing them more harm than good. In fact, according to the medical journal Nervure and Professor Hiroaki Ota, it’s literally led to a psychological condition: Paris Syndrome.
Paris Syndrome is a psychological condition that refers to Japanese people who visit Paris only to find it doesn’t meet their expectations. According to SBS News, it’s “an extreme case of culture shock”, and can cause “an acute delusional state, hallucinations, anxiety, dizziness, and sweating.”
Back in 2007, the Japanese Embassy in Paris reported that there were at least 12 people suffering from this each year. In 2018, it’s believed that roughly 5 million Japanese people visited France, so, assumedly, there are a lot more people experiencing this. The sheer fact that Japan has become so enamored with an idolised idea of Paris and alleged Parisian things that people are suffering from literal hallucinations is wild, but it also speaks to what I’m talking about here. Japan is a nation of oui-aboos and the over-romanticised interpretations of culturally French things in anime are partly to blame.
So, when you next watch an anime and see a maid outfit, a dashingly suave gentleman thief or something aggressively Parisian, remember that there’s a political reason behind it. From Naoko Takeuchi to Hayao Miyazaki, your favourite mangakas and anime studios are all absolute Francophiles.