Celebrating Japanese arts and culture in Durham


Japan has a rich arts and culture scene, with a significant history and diverse artistic spread. Its practices and pieces have had, and continue to have a critical influence on the arts globally: from the production of the world’s first ceramics by the Jōmon people 17,000 years ago, to championing some of the world’s most revered artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai and Hiroshi Yoshida, and now heralding a modern anime industry valued at 2.74 trillion Japanese yen (2021).

I wanted to explore how Japanese artistic and cultural practices materialise in Durham on an everyday basis. I spoke to Thomas Mills, president of DU Anime Society about how this renowned creative medium and cultural icon is celebrated within Durham.

What are the key themes or elements that make anime an iconic and unique art form in Japan and beyond? 

As an art form, anime is surprisingly varied compared to a lot of Western animation – it’s not just comedies or action series. While many anime embrace cartoony elements, others use the expression afforded by animation to really push their themes with their visuals. The vast fantasy landscapes in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the unsettling bright and empty spaces of Serial Experiments Lain, and the energetic and minimalistic art of Ping Pong the Animation all add to the feel of their respective shows in ways which would be difficult to replicate in other media. We’ve tried to emphasise variety this term by showing a series and film with a certain theme or genre each week, which has certainly introduced me to shows I never would have watched otherwise!

What’s the aim of DU Anime Society? 

Our aim is to promote Japanese animation, as well as discussion and the culture surrounding anime. In practice, we hope to provide a space for anyone interested in anime to meet like-minded people and take part in anime-related activities.

For someone who has not come across the society, please summarise the kind of things you get up to. 

All sorts! The majority of our events are screenings, where we show a few episodes of a TV series or a film. We also organise three or four larger socials a term, which usually involve wider culture surrounding anime. This term we’ve held a cosplay competition for Halloween, a visit to a small convention in Newcastle, and a karaoke event. We also hope to run some smaller, relaxed events, such as visiting a cat café or restaurant, which were successful last academic year.

What would you say was the highlight in Michaelmas term for your society.

Definitely the karaoke! It’s always popular, and is a great opportunity to hear people’s favourite anime opening songs or just their favourite songs in general. We’ll probably be holding one of these each term and we encourage anyone to come along, whether they’re new to anime or not.

Do you have a favourite Japanese anime studio, artist, manga or anime? Why? 

Two series I’ve really enjoyed recently are Ping Pong the Animation and Insomniacs After School. Both are good series for anyone interested in getting into anime. Ping Pong has an iconic and expressive style, which really shines through during its table tennis matches. Insomniacs After School features some fantastic shots of the night sky and makes for a very relaxed watch.

How does the society bring and celebrate Japanese culture and arts into and around Durham? 

For the most part, simply by providing a communal space for people to access and discuss anime. Whether we’re showing cult classics or brand-new series, we aim to widen the scope of people’s interest in anime. We also have some enthusiastic cosplayers in the society. At events like the cosplay competition or karaoke, we encourage members to dress up, which is a great form of expression which doesn’t require traditional art skills.

What would you suggest for someone looking to expand their engagement with other cultures and their arts whilst at uni? 

For those interested in anime specifically, coming to our events or simply chatting in our Discord server are good ways to find new shows and recommendations. If you’re interested in Japanese art and culture, the Anglo-Japanese and Manga societies are other ports of call. We’ve held joint events with both of them this year and they’re also passionate about sharing Japanese art and culture, so there’s plenty of choice for those who want to engage with Japanese culture or meet new people. 

Though we’ve only highlighted one society here, there are countless ways to expand your knowledge on arts from around the globe without even leaving Durham. Societies are a great start, not to mention Durham’s wonderful Oriental Museum! Hopefully this interview with Thomas encourages you to investigate some of these in 2024…

Image: DU Anime Society logo

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