Like all art, anime is a reflection of the society that bore it, a means to echo its beliefs, traditions and behaviours. But in isolation, art alone is not enough to decode an entire country and can instead present a skewed image of a nation. There seems to be this shared assumption that Japan doesn’t have a drug problem, that its cultural conformity is a safeguard. Of course, there is some kernel of truth to this notion, with the country claiming one of the lowest numbers of drug users in the world. However, drug abuse is on the up, with marijuana, ecstasy and amphetamines especially having become more popular and easier to acquire via the internet. If art does indeed mirror real life, then perhaps it’s little surprise that drug use has become more commonplace in anime over the last ten to fifteen years.
Drugs are still a major taboo in Japan, and the country has the toughest penalties for drug crimes in the developed world. Back in 2015, voice actor Ai Takabe (best known for the 2012 slice-of-lifer Kill Me Baby) was arrested after a small amount of cocaine was found at her home. The punishment, both judicially and socially, were severe. Following her arrest, her name was erased from the credits on the Kill Me Baby official website. She was also dropped by her agency, and many of the works she was involved in were struck from streaming services. Takabe is far from a unique case, with actors, singers and other performers having experienced similar erasure following a drug charge.
But these taboos are slowly crumbling, if not culturally then certainly among young people, with getting high a more common pursuit when going out with friends. This will likely come as a shock to western anime fans who are frequently treated to images of teens partaking in club activities, making food or studying. As we’ve explored in our series on art as a cultural coping mechanism, there’s often a generation gap between what’s going on in society and what creators are making. Drug use of this kind is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon in Japan, and so anime has only just begun to tell stories that reflect this culture.
The light novel series Durarara!!, and especially its 2010 anime adaptation, were on the cusp of this cultural shift. Back in 2010, the Japanese government estimated that there were some 2.76 million natives who had used illegal drugs. This amounts to around 2.9 per cent of the population, which might seem low, but considering that the country didn’t have a “drug problem” until at least the mid-nineties, it becomes quite clear this is significant.
Durarara!! is concerned with the seedy underbelly of urban Japan, both in a fictional and mythological sense, but also exploring the changing face of youth culture and gangs. The series’ most prominent drug is a hyper-addictive substance known as Heaven’s Slave. By creating a fictional narcotic, Durarara!! can both address Japan’s own drug usage whilst also distancing itself from it. It’s a safe starting point to discuss these issues, one which several other anime, past and present, have deployed.
Cyberpunk and sci-fi series are fond of the fictionalised drug trope, with Ghost in the Shell and the Adderall-like substance ‘Accela’ in Serial Experiments Lain chief among them. The Capsules – Akira’s biker gang – are frequently popping a kind of amphetamine as well as dealing to other delinquents. Code Geass involves a fictional stimulant known as ‘refrain’, which enables people to relive better days. Its users remind the viewer of scenes of Victorian opium dens with people splayed out, locked into their own consciousness. Though ‘refrain’ is fictionalised, Code Geass does capture some of the realism surrounding drug use; that hopelessness, nowhere else to turn and, crucially, that escape from reality.
Yet outright usage of real drugs in anime and manga is rare, which is understandable given the cultural climate. There are a few allusions to drug use in turn of the millennium series, utilised for social realism as in the 2000 series Gambler Densetsu Tetsuya, where a character dies from heroin overdose. Then, of course, there’s drugs being used for humour.
In the classic ‘Mushroom Samba’ episode of Cowboy Bebop, the crew accidentally ingest magic mushrooms, which sends them tripping in various amusing ways. Even Ein, the ship’s genetically enhanced corgi, is seen under the influence. When this episode first aired, magic mushrooms were still perfectly legal in Japan thanks to a loophole in the law. It was only before the country hosted the World Cup back in 2002 that they were made illegal over apparent fears that foreigners would partake and, well, make a scene. Bebop’s opening episode, ‘Red Eye’, revolves around the titular stimulant, and elsewhere there’s characters seen puffing cannabis. Shinichiro Watanabe’s later series, Samurai Champloo, is more overt in its portrayal of cannabis, with its characters getting well and truly blazed.
One of the most realistic and earnest portrayals of drug use and dependency is not in sci-fi, but in the drama series NANA. To help cope with the double whammy of past traumas and the stresses of being part of a famous band, Ren Honjo – Nana Osaki’s boyfriend – turns to heroin which quickly spirals into a full-blown addiction. Most heartbreaking of all is that, with a little help from his friends, Ren takes the reins of his life into his own hands and plans on going to rehab but is killed in a car accident before achieving that goal. Ren isn’t the only character whose life is turned upside down by drugs in NANA either, with fifteen-year-old Shinichi Okazaki getting arrested for possession of cannabis. Keeping with the series’ social realism and sharp drama, the scandal of Shinichi’s arrest forces Nana’s own band, Black Stones, to withdraw from their current tour. As with the case of Ai Takabe, the social stain and potential loss of livelihood following a drug charge is as bad, if not worse, than any conviction. Its interesting to note that the above examples appeared only in Ai Yazawa’s manga but weren’t present in the Madhouse anime.
Shoujo favourite CLANNAD navigates drug abuse issues in a unique and redemptive way belying Japan’s overarching attitudes. The mentor and first boss of protagonist Tomoyo Sakagami, Yusuke Yoshino, became a rock musician in order to articulate and purge himself of his emotions. Upon learning that other people were fixing their own emotional realities and meanings onto his songs, he simply couldn’t cope and turned to drugs instead. From there his life fell to pieces, and his career lay in tatters. But he managed to kick the habit and built a new life for himself, becoming an electrician and marrying his high school sweetheart. It’s this redemption that gives CLANNAD’s approach to drug abuse much of its potency, and makes it stand out in anime.
As countries the world over either enact or ponder the legislation of cannabis, it’s unlikely that Japan’s cultural taboo surrounding drugs and its harsh punishments are likely to change. What is becoming clear, however, is that drug use is on the up, especially among young people. Anime and manga are really beginning to reflect this changing social strata, telling more stories that revolve around substance abuse. The last few years have yielded a number of series that deal with drug abuse and its consequences.
The protagonist of Charlotte turns to cocaine in desperation after suffering a loss halfway through the series, although he is stopped by a friend before snorting. There’s also the heavy handed portrayal in Gangsta and 91 Days, in which Nero is passed a bag of coke, and the overt drug use in the nightclub scenes in DEVILMAN crybaby. Doubtless we will see drugs feature more prominently in anime going forward as its narratives become ever braver and go on reflecting this shift in culture.