Reminiscing about communication devices of the days past and how they’re used to shape interpersonal communication in anime.
People are using smartphones now.
A mind-blowing statement, yes, on par with the wetness of water and blueness of sky. But it’s still one thing to know, and another to actually see the fact enforced through media and pop culture. To see things and devices, which you were growing up with, being replaced and phased out. On the other hand, it’s also through media such as older narrative works that these devices are immortalized and served as period indicators.
Depiction of indirect human interaction (and naturally the various means of communication that entail) is a vital part of visual narrative, especially the ones emphasizing social drama and/or romance. In anime, the shift of ICT industry and user trends may be less apparent due to the medium’s traditional leanings toward fantastical narrative, but there’s still a lot of shows from various periods that reflect contemporary society. Growing up in the 1990s, I witnessed a staggering leap in communication technology and availability as people went from having to prepare pocketful of changes to buy mail stamps or use the payphone, to owning private phone and being able to reach people at the other parts of the world in matter of seconds. As people continue to adjust and adapt, narrative media follow suit, and therefore we can see such cultural shift and advancement by watching several generations’ worth of such media.
I’m not going to extensively catalogue every communication device that has ever appeared on anime, but I think it’d be interesting to take and observe some random examples, including how they’re framed and utilized in way that accentuate a given scene.
Ah, the most romantic way to communicate (*that doesn’t involve bodily contact). Whether conveying the distance of separated lovers, the reprieve from isolation for someone far away from home, or simply the joy of re-connecting with old acquaintances, you can’t beat the sentimental value of a handwritten letter. It’s much less ephemeral than its digital counterparts, too; due to the considerable effort and cost to send one, we just don’t discard and forget about them easily. People (and characters) in our modern society may stop using it as a primary mean of long-distance communication, but its immense historical and cultural significance ensure that we’re still going to see it as a narrative device for the foreseeable future.
Narrative media, including anime, tends to leverage the scenes of someone receiving and reading a letter for emotional impact, highlighting the recipient’s reaction in the process. Some anime use letters to introduce their premise, such as last season’s Orange (letters sent from the future) and 2011 film Letter to Momo (a girl left with unfinished letter from his late father). In both cases, they take advantage of this medium’s inherent nostalgic property to shape a powerful narrative. Moreover, period pieces often get a lot of mileage from crucial letter-related scenes, with Kids on The Slope (particularly the manga version) showing how main character Kaoru and his sweetheart Ritsuko drift apart through increasingly infrequent and shorter mail correspondence.
There are some traditional ways to frame a letter scene in visual narrative, with alternating close-ups between the letter’s content and the recipient’s face as s/he reads it being the most familiar method. Voice-over reading of the message in sender’s voice is often used not only for its practicality (bypassing the need for a long freeze frame to let the audience read by themselves), but also for its functions to strengthen the message’s tone and allow a more dynamic cinematography. When framed properly, such scenes of characters receiving, reading, and reacting to letter could turn into memorable sequences by themselves.
The fixed-line variety, to be exact. It’s very easy to incorporate into a visual narrative and fulfills a lot of functions, such as conveying dramatic tension, advancing the plot through relay of information, or simply serve as casual bridging scene. It’s now largely phased out in favor of the mobile variant, but we’re still going to see a lot of it in office environment and other specific circumstances. The antiquated nature of the older rotary model also lends itself well to generation gap comedy, as seen in Barakamon when Handa struggled to use one. In general, the days of people idly playing with phone cords or a home telephone emitting a menacing shrill (typically used to signify the arrival of Super Bad News, as can be seen in countless crime films) are over, though.
On the surface of it, framing a telephone conversation doesn’t seem to be that different to actual conversation, only with the phone serving as marker of distance. However, there are specific nuances to it when you start thinking about its time-restrictive nature and how each party could not see the other’s expression. I always love the act of putting the receiver down, which brings a physical sense of finality that something like…say, closing out the window of a chat group, could not quite replicate. There’s a particular anime example of it that sticks with me, from Super Dimension Fortress: Macross episode 19, when Hikaru received a phone call from his crush Minmay. Suffering from mental fatigue and grief due to losing his close comrades, Hikaru hung up on the oblivious Minmay—a poignant statement on how divergent their paths have become.
I feel compelled to include this for some reason.
The text-only device enjoyed some popularity in the 1990s, before the rise of affordable cell phones quickly made it obsolete. Its claim to fame in anime form is similarly short-lived, with a single case from Kindaichi Case Files being the only significant appearance that I’ve seen and remember. In said case, Kindaichi The Killer, the titular high school detective is gifted a pager by his childhood sweetheart. The thing proved to be handy during Kindaichi’s plight as a fugitive (he’s framed for a murder), as he used it to notify his allies in way that is untraceable by the police, send coded message, and even as part of birthday surprise to the sweetheart in the middle of all that. That’s probably more mileage than most actual user got from their pager. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the pager doesn’t make any further appearance in the series beyond that case.
Simply put, pager is an awkward transitionary device without enough longevity, influence, and sentimental value to be deemed a significant cultural artifact. It still has its use in certain field of work, but I doubt even the relevant period piece will bother depicting it. Then again, I’ll always have nostalgic fondness for its iconic beeping sound.
The ones from not so far back, when they don’t have approximately 1,001 functions besides sending text message and making phone calls.
It’s easy to forget just how rapid and staggering the rise of mobile phone was; once its ownership became widespread, it radically changed the way we communicate and keep in touch with one another. Narrative media in the 2000s accordingly oversaw a massive uptick of cellphone using characters, whose personality is partly depicted through how they use their phones. Specific attributes and model of individual phones may also form a significant part of one’s characterization, especially for youths and teenagers (which constitutes approximately 97.5% of population in anime).
There’s huge potential for dramatic narrative in the way the device speed up two-way interaction, intensifying our willingness to express ourselves and thirst for instant gratification. Such feelings are tasty recipes for heartburn, and thus majority of modern romance shows have characters making romantic advances through instant messaging, highlighting their euphoria, insecurities, and emotional vulnerabilities in the process. Even simple shots of hesitant typing, phone screen showing new messages (or lack thereof), or the dreaded empty battery/lack of signal would carry immediate and very relateable meaning to contemporary anime audience.
Nana Osaki’s phone is subtly important in Nana, one of the anime where cell phone interaction is regularly seen. An introverted punk rock vocalist, Nana initially didn’t see the need for a cell phone, reflecting her inner desire to stay unplugged. She eventually owned one, not coincidentally after befriending her namesake Nana Komatsu and enjoying productive relationships with her band mates and boyfriend—that same phone would then got broken, symbolical of how everything around her started to fall apart.
There are several other trends with anime and communication devices, such as the popularity of flip phones, which mirrors its once ubiquitous presence in Japan. The expiration date of this particular model came much later in Japan than elsewhere, as it’s only very recently that they’re finally usurped by smartphones. It’s probably no coincidence then that I’m only starting to notice smartphones in anime this year, while belated manga adaptation like this season’s March Comes Like A Lion presented what is might be one of the last depictions of flip phone in the medium.
Like many other pre-2000s speculative fiction, older anime mostly failed to predict the takeover of pint-sized, multi-functional, mobile device (and internet, social media, etc…). Landline video phones made appearances in shows like Bubblegum Crisis (pictured above), while the 1988 anime film Appleseed optimistically depicted a future with tons of fax machines in it. Meanwhile, it’s always amusing to see long-running episodic series have their non-aging characters upgrade to contemporary technology. In the likes of the abovementioned Kindaichi, Case Closed, and Glass Mask, all of which have been going for multiple decades, you can see characters eventually using smartphones and internet while the in-universe narrative clock remains frozen in place.
Despite the risk of appearing dated to future audience, I like it when narrative works clearly signify their time period through cultural/technological artifact (a favorite example: the Ano Hana kids playing their GBA SP and connecting to each other through PNokemon trading). Such moments can be both nostalgic and insightful; just look at how much personality is in Usagi’s letter above!
After all, even as the media and methods keep changing, what being conveyed tends to remain the same.