Anime loves long shots of power lines with the sound of cicadas chirruping in the background. It seems like an odd subject to focus upon. After all, power lines and transformers aren’t exactly beautiful unless you are some kind of electricity nerd. That’s a lovely distribution transformer! Just look at the center-tapped secondary winding, and how well it produces power for single-phase three-wire homes. Ehm, anyway, these scenes have an important purpose besides eating up air time: invoking atmosphere. The majority of Japan’s power lines are above ground, so it’s common to look up at the broiling summer sky and see the stringy foundation of modern society (Baseel, 2014).
Power lines and the cicada symphony that accompany them allow anime and manga writers to emphasize a fleeting moment while establishing atmosphere. The scene represents fragile presentness. Often, these scenes appear after a momentous event happens to the main character that leaves them overwhelmed and uncertain. Power lines and cicadas act as a period to the character’s emotions, a full stop that hammers home the crushing impact of the event.
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Power lines are fairly new when compared to the sounds of the cicada. The noisy bug appears throughout Japanese literature, even as far back as the world’s first novel—the Tale of Genji:
Where the cicada casts her shell In the shadows of the tree, There is one whom I love well, Though her heart is cold to me.
Without the cicada, power line scenes would lack their effectiveness. Cicada can be noisy creatures. Males can get up to 95 decibels, about the same noise level as a subway train. Some species spend between 13 and 17 years underground before they emerge to mate. After 3-4 weeks of mating and noise-making, they die. Males make all the noise by using a membrane on their abdomen called a tymbal. The vibration of this membrane generates the noise Japanese writers loved and hated (Milius, 2013; Edoh, 2014).
Japanese writers focused on the largest and loudest cicada—kumazemi, which can measure 7 cm long [about 3 inches] (Holden, 2007). Despite their size and noise, cicadas aren’t dangerous. In fact, they can’t bite, hide, or fly well. Their only defense is sheer numbers (Milius, 2013). And these numbers make summers hum.
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According to Lefcadio Hearn (1900), cicada-catching was a traditional summer pastime for children. He accounts how captured cicada despair:
The sound made by some kinds of semi (cicada) when caught is really pitiful, — quite as pitiful as the twitter of a terrified bird. One finds it difficult to persuade oneself that the noise is not a voice of anguish, in the human sense of the word “voice,” but the production of a specialized exterior membrane. Recently, upon hearing a captured semi scream, I became convinced in quite a new way that the stridulatory apparatus of certain insects must not thought of as a kind of musical instrument, but as an organ of speech, and that its utterances are as intimately associated with simple forms of emotions, as are the notes of a bird — the extraordinary difference being that the insect has its vocal chords outside.
Whenever manga and anime use the sound of summer cicada, they touch on this tradition and on a branch of traditional Japanese poetry. Many of these poems are short and attempt to mimic the sound of the cicada. The 18th-century poet YokaiYayu notes:
The chirruping of the cicada aggravates the heat until I wish to cut down the pine-tree on which it sings.
While some poets enjoyed the cicada, many more were like Yokai and found the bugs annoying:
Meseems that only I, — I alone among mortals — ever suffered such heat! Oh, the noise of the cicada!
Gone, the shadowing clouds! —
again the shrilling of cicada
rises and slowly swells, —
ever increasing the heat!
Fathomless deepens the heat:
the ceaseless shrilling of cicada
mounts, like a hissing of fire, up to the motionless clouds
Anime tries to capture this by making the cicada’s background noise loud in relation to characters’ conversations. This isn’t a sign of bad sound mixing, but it pulls from a tradition of cicada annoyance in Japanese literature.
I’ve seen some anime fans speak about scenes of power lines with the chirruping of cicadas as metaphors for how everything interconnects. While this may be true in some stories, these scenes primarily seek to invoke nostalgia and provide a period at the end of an emotional event. These scenes convey relentless heat in a visually poetic way. They use what many people consider an ugly necessity to suggest a fragile, beautiful moment in a character’s life. Power line scenes provide a space for reflection. After all, most of us don’t see power lines and eventually grow deaf to the sound of summer cicada. Anime and manga force us to take a moment to notice these mundane parts of life and consider the fact they aren’t mundane at all. This act of reflection acts as a stand in for what the character may well be feeling as they reflect on events they’ve experienced. Power lines and cicadas call us to awareness.
Writer. Librarian. Japanophile. Chris enjoys a good, musty book-fort. As a librarian, he gets to indulge his love for books and research on a daily basis. When he isn't writing about Japanese folklore, he enjoys painting and getting lost in the woods. You can read his attempts to smash words together at www.japanpowered.com.