A Great Divide: Analyzing the Rural-Urban Divide with American and Japanese Cinema

As an election year, 2016 had more than its fair share of think pieces dedicated to how divided the United States is as a country. Gaps exist between people of different races, genders, sexualities, SES classes and more, but arguably the most compelling narrative about division to emerge from 2016 was the division of rural and urban dwellers. The division itself stems from the heavy trend of urbanization the entire world experienced through the 20th century; according to the UN, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas as of 2014, compared to 30% in 1950 (World Urbanization Prospects). Now, with more people than ever living in cities and with no end to that in sight, societies all around the world are facing the problem of the rural-urban divide. The divide refers to the differences in beliefs and practices between people who live in the city and in the countryside. It’s a simple concept that has vast repercussions for society, as the divide splits people through shaping different facets of their behaviors and philosophies. The divide has been argued to be powerful enough to determine the election of the last president here in the United States, as noted in an editorial published in the New York Times from January, although it’s not a specifically American phenomenon. With urbanization rates going up all around the world, several other countries are having to contend with the rural-urban divide.

Even though its a relatively new concept for study, the differences that exist between the countryside and cities has been present in media for ages. One of the most notable character archetypes for literature is the young man from the provinces, who’s a virtuous rural boy who must venture through the world and endure the hardships of cities to grow and bring salvation back to his home (“Character Archetypes”). Immediately, this creates a moral distinction (and high ground) for the rural population, and at the time, this would make sense with the vast majority of people living outside of cities. But in a changing world, media has shifted to illustrating rural people, particularly teenagers and kids, for the cities.

That shift is particularly evident here in the United States, where the urbanization rate just passed 80% in 2010 (“Growth in Urban Populations”) and a huge amount of discussion about the importance of the differences between rural and urban populations as it relates to media and politics exists. Stories of the hopes and dreams of young people who aspire to “make it” in the big city exist from television shows to the discography of Journey, and this is a generally new phenomenon that gets transmitted to the rest of the world, thanks to the United States’ position as a global cultural behemoth. But how relatable is the content coming out of Hollywood for an international audience, specifically one that might be experiencing the same problems through a different filter and in different lifestyles? To explore this question, this paper will analyze the portrayal of the rural-urban divide in two movies, one American and one Japanese, and discuss the forces surrounding each country’s divide and hopefully make those more evident.

The example from the United States will be the animated movie Zootopia, released by Disney on 4 March 2016. The plot of the movie centered around Judy Hopps, an anthropomorphic bunny who dreams of being the first police officer in the huge city of Zootopia. Upon graduating from the police academy at the top of her class, she only gets assigned to be a meter maid and suffers from a considerable amount of discrimination by her superior officer because she’s a bunny and perceived to be not as able as the rest of the officers. On her first day, Judy falls victim to a scam by notorious trickster Nick Fox, and learns about a string of mysterious incidents around the city. She pressures her commander to assign her to the case and ends up needing to seek out Nick’s help, thus kicking off a buddy story about how the two overcome their differences to work together and expose a conspiracy about the disappearances that leads all the way up to the mayor’s office (Zootopia). Upon its release, Zootopia was lauded with praise for its deft handling of social issues, which centers mostly on discrimination based on race and gender; the animals are categorized between predator and prey, creating a parallel between racism in the United States (Moran). While there is certainly room for a Marxist reading of this aspect of the text, the focus of this paper is the more subversive message about Judy’s status as a rural migrant to the huge city of Zootopia, which is framed well in the first act that focuses on Judy’s origins in a large family of rural bunnies who are accustomed to being farmers.

Meanwhile, the Japanese example is the anime movie Kimi no na Wa, released in Japan on 26 August 2016 and in the West as Your Name on 7 April 2017. The movie, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, was partially inspired by Japanese mythology and told the story of two teenagers, Mitsuha Miyamizu who lived in the slow and idyllic town of Itomori in Hida Prefecture, and Taki Tachibana, a male high-school student from Tokyo. Over the course of several weeks running up to a close approach by a comet with a 1200-year orbit, the two find that they switch places with each other in their dreams. However, the switching suddenly stops once the comet is supposed to pass, and Taki sets out to find Mitsuha. The rest of plot centers around Taki trying to reconnect with Mitsuha across time after he finds out that the comet actually destroyed Itomori three years ago, and that they’ve been traveling not only across space but across time as well. After performing an ancient ceremony, Taki gets one more chance to go back in time and give Mitsuha the information she needs to save the town from the meteor strike (Your Name). It’s important to note that Your Name is a teen drama-adventure movie first and foremost; making commentary isn’t one of its primary goals like Zootopia. That being said, the movie’s heavy reliance on ancient Japanese traditions and the swap between a country girl and city boy casts the movie into a role that lets a reader examine the rural-urban divide in Japan. Most of that takes the form of Mitsuha’s angst at being stuck in a small backwater town with few opportunities outside of her family’s traditional role as shrine keepers.

Both movies concern themselves with topics other than the rural-urban divide, but many of the themes and plot devices of each can be tied back to it. Starting with Zootopia, arguably the more direct of the two, the main event of the story is Judy’s move to Zootopia and acclimating to city life. And it’s not shown to be easy for her; she can only afford a tiny apartment in a dingy old building, faces heavy discrimination right off the bat, and gets taken advantage of, all on her first day. These tropes feature heavily in American culture, both as beliefs and as media examples. Generally, cities are portrayed as brutal centers of bitter populations who will only seek to inhibit the young upstart migrant from the countryside. One of the main sociological concepts portrayed by cities in movies, including Zootopia, is alienation, the addition of impersonal space and emotional distance between people who live in cities (Ferris 448). In popular culture, this takes the form of empty apartments, rude people on the streets, and subway cars full of people who aren’t talking to one another. Alienation is usually framed with abundances of people to juxtapose the character’s loneliness against a crowd, and Zootopia briefly does that in the establishing scene where Judy first arrives in the central train station in Zootopia. Having the first scene in the city of Zootopia be full of people sets up the rest of the movie to cast a shadow of alienation over Judy since the viewer will be comparing the current image of the city to that first one bustling with people. This can also be compared to the scenes of her hometown, Bunnyburrow, which were full of small groups and her family. The effect of this is most pronounced in the press conference toward the end of the movie where the hurts her only real friend in Zootopia, Nick, and he leaves her in a crowd of reporters, but the scene is directed to make Judy seem as alone as possible, not because she’s physically alone, but because she’s emotionally alone, even in a room full of people who’ve come to hear her speak.

Also important to consider is the opinions that the characters have about the city. Judy and Nick both see the city as a hotbed of opportunities, evidenced by Nick saying that “everyone comes to Zootopia, thinking they could be anything they want.” (Zootopia), referring specifically to Judy and her naïveté upon arriving to the city. This goes against the viewpoint that Judy’s parents hold, as they seem highly reluctant to send their daughter off and go out of their ways to equip her with self-defense tools like pepper spray. The gap in perception of the city itself, reality notwithstanding, is a clear illustration of the rural-urban divide based on how city natives and country natives perceive the city. Back in the United States, this gets at a point that Leonard mentioned in his editorial for the New York Times. For him, he began to understand the divide after J.C. Watts, a Baptist minister from Oklahoma, stopped in his rural Iowa town on a Rand Paul campaign stop in 2015. Watts said that “…Republicans believe people are fundamentally band, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.” (Watts, as cited in Leonard), and while it is a politically polarized quote, it hints to a phenomenon that gets to the root of the rural-urban divide in the United States; people who live in the city have a vastly different world outlook than people who live in the country do. This quote helps to explain the difference between the attitudes of Judy’s parents and Nick, since the former directs their pessimism at the people of the city and the latter directs it at the system which governs the city.

That idea ends up falling into Mary Douglas’ grid-group theory of society as a set of four political cultures. The theory posits that these four “political cultures or lifestyles” developed as answers to existentialist questions about an individual’s place in society. Douglas’s lifestyle groups consisted of the egalitarians who believe that all people are equal by nature and that social constructs create discrimination, the fatalists who believe in luck and not much else, the hierarchical elitists who believe in a strict caste-like breakdown of society where the people at the top take care of those at the bottom, and the individualists who want their freedom to do whatever protected by and from the government (Berger 61-62). As it relates to Zootopia, Judy can be seen to be fighting to create an egalitarian culture that believes that the distinctions between fox and sheep, rhinoceros and bunny officers, predators and prey, are created by socialization, and that society needs to begin to recognize that and work against that notion. However, her actions, and the society that the movie portrays, is much more individualist in nature, where she has to work to be recognized for her efforts and is pretty much left to her own devices by the public at large, even if she is working to change society. That reflects a self-interest amongst the citizens of Zootopia that eventually shifts to one that’s more egalitarian by the end of the movie, thanks to the efforts of Judy and Nick, who is a fatalist who transitions to more of an egalitarian through the movie as well.

Set against contemporary American society, the movie certainly has an egalitarian message, but because of the overly individualistic nature of American society, it sounds more deviant than its message in-world is meant to. As that relates to the rural-urban divide, the individualism that runs rampant through American society can be seen in Zootopia through the harsh, one-on-one struggle that Judy is put through as a child of the country. The prevalence of this kind of urban underdog story in American culture is a direct result of that individualistic nature, a nature that’s especially persistent in rural areas of the country where traditional values are more likely to remain strong. One of the strongest indicators of this is one of a set of charts that used census data to illustrate the rural-urban divide. The authors, which was a team lead by Dr. Brian Thiede of Pennsylvania State University, found that the most rural counties had the highest rates of entrepreneurship in the country, and that rural counties, almost all the way across the board, had higher rates of entrepreneurship than metro areas (Thiede). This aspect of the rural-urban divide is even reflected in Zootopia, as when Judy quits the police force after hurting Nick, she ends up working with her parents selling produce by the side of the highway at their own stand. Another character then drives by and is shown to also own his own business. Contrary to in the city of Zootopia, the only self-employed characters are seen to be Nick and his partner Finnick, who make a living scamming people. This strong individualist message could be read as a way of making the more deviant, and therefore harder to swallow message of egalitarianism, palatable for the American audience.

Switching gears to Your Name, the first major difference that’s noticeable is the focus of the movie’s use of the rural-urban divide. Whereas Zootopia sought to approach it in what could be read as a more Marxist fashion, Your Name uses it to illustrate a more interactionist end; the rural-urban divide is used to illustrate the differences between modern and ancient Japan. Mitsuha’s family lineage as shrine keepers directly ties her to a history more than a millennium old, whereas the only millennial connection that Taki has is that he lived through the new one. In Itomori, Mitsuha’s duties as a shrine maiden are given extensive attention and the customs that she practices and learns in her small town end up being conduits for the plot, such as the sermon given to her and her sister by their grandmother about the importance of maintaining tradition, even when the world seems to move on, like it did when the town’s documents were lost in a fire 200 years prior. A subtle mirror on this is done when Taki has to research Mitsuha and the fate of Itomori in Hida Prefecture rather than in Tokyo. It’s likely that he could’ve done the research at home, but the fact that he actually travelled out to the countryside reinforces the rural-urban divide. It can also be seen in the kuchikamesake ritual, where Mitsuha and her sister perform a dance and chew on rice that they spit out and store to ferment and create sake. This is a public performance, and it ends up being indicative of a gap between new and old when Mitsuha’s classmates comment on the datedness of the ceremony. The misalignment of their perceptions suggest that Mitsuha’s living on the wrong end of history, and the fact that the ceremonial music is playing on an old boombox illustrates both the lack of participants for the ceremony as well as the fact that the shrine has had to keep such an old piece of technology for whatever reason, probably because rural areas tend to underperform when compared to urban centers. This even gets touched on in a scene where Mitsuha, while in Taki’s body, gets shocked at the prices of sweets in a Tokyo café, remarking that she could “live for a month with that” money (Your Name).

While the movie itself has two leads, most of the thematic development takes place with Mitsuha, and its on her end that the first conflict of the film is set up; she hates her life in Itomori and wants nothing more than to leave for the city. A teenage movie portraying teenage angst is nothing revolutionary, especially when it comes to a wanderlust for anywhere that isn’t home, even more so when home ends up being a rural town far removed from anything that could be interesting to a young person. But Mitsuha has the unique opportunity to experience the life that she explicitly wishes for at the climax of the movie’s first act; the life of “a handsome Tokyo boy” (Your Name). She manages to finally get a taste of some of the things that she’d been so desperate for back at home as Taki, like a proper café, but it comes at the cost of a fast-paced lifestyle and having to work a part-time job to make up for the high cost of living. Compared to Itomori, though, it seems like the perfect escape for the tired shrine maiden who only wants to fit into the crowd. Returning to the topic of alienation, Mitsuha almost yearns for the city just so that she can break the multiple social links that plague her in Itomori for not only being a figurehead for tradition, but for also being the corrupt mayor’s estranged daughter. In an interesting twist, Your Name never portrays Tokyo as the same kind of impersonal maze of concrete and steel that Zootopia makes its titular city out to be; Taki has a solid social circle and interacts with people every day. His loneliness is discussed but it never comes up as a result of alienation in the city, rather as a result of eventually losing his connection with Mitsuha. That being said, Your Name does still have an individualist edge to its characters, but since they already exist in a more egalitarian society than the United States, the conflicts they would have with society at large don’t exist. Rather, Taki and Mitsuha’s main obstacles include the intangible: outer space, time, distance, emotions, and so on. Keeping that individualist flair might be a product of that narrative circulating around the world on a frequent basis thanks to American media, but it also just makes for a compelling story; in a way, Mitsuha is the young man from the provinces who goes to the city and returns to save her people from a seemingly unbeatable force.

Having explored two examples of different cultural depictions of the rural-urban divide, it’s worth spending some time discussing the forces that create those depictions in Japan and the United States. The main difference between the two can be read as the contrast between the United States as an individual-driven culture and Japan as one that embraces groups to a higher degree, although not fully group-driven. In a 1994 paper, Japan was concluded to exist somewhere in between individualism and collectivism after returning mixed data across multiple studies (Parks 709-710). In that same paper, the results of a study between Americans and Vietnamese, which is a very collectivist culture, showed that when both groups were faced with a social problem, they regressed to their individualist and collectivist ways, respectively. Using this as a benchmark, one can see this reflected in the movies, to a certain degree, once Japan is placed at the midpoint between the United States and strong collectivism. In Zootopia, the main characters have to act mostly alone to achieve their goal, even when they could ask for help, whereas in Your Name, the first thing Mitsuha does is ask her friends for their assistance in saving Itomori. However, it’s very much only their small group working against the rest of the community who either react with indifference or confusion or the mayor’s office, who tries to shut them down. As it relates to the rural-urban divide, collectivism is more attached to rural areas generally, as a result of being isolated amongst small population groups. People would need to rely on one another to survive outside of a larger group. Sociologically, this view is supported by a 2006 paper from Sweden, where the citizens of that country “associated the countryside with local engagement” and “solidarity” 53 and 50 percent higher than the cities (Jansson 92).

In some ways, looking at the rural-urban divide through a lens of pop culture is the best way to decipher it and understand it. After the 2016 presidential election that saw the United States divided strongly on the boundaries of cities, special attention was given to the differences that existed between those two populations. In December, the New York Times published 50 maps that showed the popularity of 50 television shows on Facebook, broken down by county (Katz). The results showed that network series and comedy shows were more popular in urban areas and that reality tv and crime dramas were favored by rural audiences. Part of what could drive this discrepancy is that the themes displayed, especially in the crime-centric shows, tie into traditional values that are more closely held by rural people, such as justice being served and having clear-cut good and evil forces. Meanwhile, the urban audiences preferring comedic programs can be explained by comedy’s embrace of more varied topics and characters. For example, Katz cites Modern Family, a show with a diverse main cast that occasionally addresses topics associated with that diversity, as a show that naturally fits with having a viewing pattern dominated by more liberal cities. On the opposite end, a show like Duck Dynasty, which centers on one family hunting ducks in Louisiana, has almost exclusive rural popularity with a monolithic cast.

The divisions the United States is facing after last year are nowhere close to closing, and in the search to pinpoint one for discussion, the attention has fallen on the rural-urban divide. Being able to pick out examples of this phenomenon in pop culture, specifically one of the most successful movies of 2016 in Zootopia, the forces like Douglas’ political cultures that dictate that movie’s handling of the divide become evident. And when comparing it against a movie such as Your Name that originated from outside the United States and displays the same concept differently, the highly individualist nature of American culture and how it reflects in the rural-urban divide appears clearly. The disconnect between the traditionally individualist country and progressively collectivist cities is something that American society will have to continue to study and eventually rectify, since it still does play a part in polarizing people. Hopefully, with time and continued effort, the seemingly impassible gap that Leonard presented in his editorial will finally be bridged.

Works Cited

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Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, Toho, 2016.
Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, Disney, 2016.