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  • Ominous Images of Youth:Worlds, Identities, and Violence in Japanese News Media and When They Cry
  • Brett Hack (bio)

On July 12, 2013, a sixteen-year-old girl walked into a Hiroshima police station with a confession: “I killed my friend and dumped her body in the mountains.”1 The ensuing investigation revealed that the killing involved six others, only one of whom was a legal adult. A quarrel between the girls that started on LINE, a popular Japanese social messaging application, ended as a fatal group assault. “How did something like this escalate into a crime?” one investigator was quoted as saying. “There are parts of this that I just can’t understand.”2

This comment exposes a perspective, common in Japanese society, that youth are ever more prone to inexplicable acts of violence. News programs show these tragedies flaring up out of nowhere, for no foreseeable reason, dangerously close to home.3 Another evocative case occurred in 2007 in Kyōtanabe, where a high school girl woke up one morning, dressed herself in black, and killed her sleeping father with an axe. The genre-perfect horror of the incident prompted some to locate its cause in fiction itself. One of the suspects was Higurashi no naku koro ni (2006, When They Cry), in which a traumatized girl attacks her enemies with an axe. Originally a dōjin visual novel (a narrative video game by an amateur developers’ circle), this series expanded into a cultural phenomenon with adaptations in almost every media form.4 [End Page 236] Its spectacle of sweet moe characters committing gruesome acts of violence prompted condemnation in association with the incident. Move—one of the light news programs known in Japan as “wide shows”—explicitly forced this connection (Figures 1 and 2).5 Pointing to parallels between the show and the murder, the host Horie Masao asked, “Even if this wasn’t the direct cause, if she compared herself to it and then carried out the murder … what are we to make of that?” Online voices often cite this segment as a factor in the cancellation of the anime on several television networks.6

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Figure 1.

One young character assaults another in one of Higurashi no naku koro ni’s more gruesome scenes.

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Figure 2.

The Move anchors propose a connection between Higurashi and the Kyōtanabe incident

[End Page 237]

Move’s sense of crisis clashes with the fact that violent youth crime is on the decline in Japan. Reflecting on this, Kondō Jun’ya accuses the news media of crass sensationalism. “Deprived of the facts, people’s fears and imaginations become more and more detached from reality,” he writes, “until this ominous image of youth takes on a life of its own.”7

But the media did not create this image by itself. Indeed, Move’s denunciation of Higurashi is ironic, since both are working with a cultural motif that sees youths and adults as existing in two separate worlds of experience. These spheres are examples of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls the “coordinates of the experienced world.”8 According to Geertz, humans depend on this kind of symbolic mapping to make sense of not only their actions but the entirety of society itself. However, these systems do not always match the actual state of social relations. Changes can render them unviable, producing a crisis of representation.9 Such is the case here, where the perceived world of Japanese youth has become invisible to the dominant social imagination. The “ominous image of youth” Kondō describes exists now as a vaguely drawn character threatening cultural order through its lack of any cohesive description. The violence is merely the traumatic manifestation of a hidden subjectivity.

To visualize this narrative leading from seeming harmony to horrible violence, nonfictional news sources must position themselves in the world of adults, peering into the other hidden world in an attempt to delineate its social relations. In contrast, Higurashi imagines the psychological experience from the inside of the youth world, exposing the cognitive limitations of the dual-world structure itself. For all its shock value, Higurashi...


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pp. 236-250
Launched on MUSE
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