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"Got sake?"

The other day, while browsing at some anime wallpaper sites, I came across a pattern that I really wasn't sure how to take.

It was a simple design featuring all six of the Girls of Tenchi Muyo. Each one was wrapped in a towel, as if they were headed for a soak at the local onsen. Each one was also hoisting one of those small ceramic bottles, and most of them had what I've come to call "that rosy glow." It was hard to tell with Mihoshi, actually, because her skin was the color of a Hershey bar. Above the heads of the characters appeared the title of this column.

Animation and alcohol have quite a history together, even American animation. There's simply no way to tally up the number of redeye-drinking cowboys, hillbillies carrying around jugs with "XXX" on the side, and other tipplers who have appeared in both cartoon shorts and feature-length toons over the years. What would "Dumbo" have been without the "Pink Elephants On Parade" sequence? In "Fantasia," specifically the Beethoven "Pastorale," Bacchus was sloshing vino all over the place. Even as late as 1986, in "An American Tail," Honest John, the corrupt political boss mouse, was first seen bending his elbow at an Irish wake.

I thought of these characters when I saw the Tenchi Muyo wallpaper. Then I recalled watching "Star Blazers" back in the early '80s. That show, of course, was actually a combination of two shows about the crew of the space cruiser Yamato, created by manga legend Reiji Matsumoto. In several episodes in both series, there were sequences where Captain Avatar, the doctor, or the bridge crew in general, toasted one another with large bottles of a clear liquid that was always referred to in the American version as "spring water."

Yeah, right!

A decade later, I noticed the same sort of tampering with reality in several eps of "Samurai Pizza Cats." Once again, they didn't fool me for a minute.

But I found myself wondering, why the double standard? Granted that drinking is nowhere near as widely portrayed as it was in the old theatrical short cartoons; Broadcast Standards and Practices has seen to that.

And you should probably know that I have pretty strong opinions about strong drink myself. That's to be expected, seeing as how I grew up in an alcoholic family. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I'm a teetotaler. Never touched the stuff, never will.

Yet if anime is a reflection of the culture of its country of origin, it's pretty hard NOT to include sake consumption. It's consumed at wedding and funerals. It's something like the national drink of Japan. So it's no wonder that such a solid piece of social reality should show up in the fantasy world of anime from time to time.

Sakura Matsuri, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, can be seen as an apt analogy. For the brief period each spring when the cherry trees are blossoming, people all over Japan engage in hanami (flower-viewing), sitting beneath the trees, reciting poetry, and drinking sake. In theory, one is supposed to meditate on the transitory nature of life.

That's the theory, anyway. The reality, in some cases, is that the participants drink sake until they're as boiled as a brick of ramen noodles.

This explains one of the attractions of anime. No matter how fantastic the setting, no matter how bizarre the plot (Would you believe that an idol singer could be the ultimate weapon against alien invaders? That's what happened with Lynn Minmei in Macross/Robotech), yet anime still has a hard core of reality somewhere amid the fantasy, even if it's only what the characters might be feeling for each other. That core kept series such as Space Cruiser Yamato and Macross from being viewed in this country as simply more animated space opera.

So I can sort of understand the Tenchi Muyo wallpaper where even Sasami is hoisting a container of sake. It's all part of that tension within the art form, the tug-of-war between fantasy and reality. In America, we like our fantasy to be unambiguous, segregated from reality. It becomes more acceptable that way, but it can also lead to serious imbalance. I'm reminded of what Marlene Dietrich once said about sex: "In America, it's an obsession; everywhere else in the world, it's a fact."

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