Have you ever been immersed in a film, TV show, or book and thought, "Wow, this feels so Japanese"? (or American, or French, or Chinese…?)
The Icelandic mystery drama series Katla gave me that exact feeling– it was just so… Icelandic. The show is about a community living in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, but it wasn't just the expansive scenes of volcanoes, glaciers, and fjords that made the show feel uniquely Icelandic. There was something about how the story was told and what the director chose to focus on. But this makes a lot of sense! Just think about how cultures have shared stories over time, like the Māori whakapapa of New Zealand (a way of understanding and recording family relationships and lineage) or the epic poems of Homer in Ancient Greece, first passed down orally before they were eventually written down.
There are so many ways our cultures differ when it comes to storytelling!
Culture through characters and themes
A culture's values and beliefs shape the very foundation of their stories, from their underlying ideas and themes to the individuals who inhabit their worlds.
In Japanese storytelling, themes often revolve around unity, nature, and the harmony of family. In the works of Studio Ghibli—the Japanese animation studio known for films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke—characters are complex, interdependent beings whose actions and decisions affect not just themselves but the natural world around them. They must learn to navigate and adapt to the world while staying true to themselves. This deeply ingrained sense of harmony and unity is a reflection of the collective nature of Japanese culture. For Japanese storytellers, the choices we make don’t just affect us, but others, and the world around us.
This differs from themes in many U.S. stories, where individualism often takes center stage. Maybe you’re familiar with "The American Dream": the hope of achieving success through hard work, determination, and initiative. In the TV series Mad Men, ad executives in the 1960s pursue their own definitions of the American Dream while balancing ambition, success, and societal expectations. Because U.S. culture values self-reliance and personal autonomy, stories often focus on a single protagonist who has to overcome personal challenges and external obstacles to succeed. In the end, the hero is transformed and emerges a stronger, more resilient version of themselves.
Who counts as a "hero"?
Even imagining what a hero should be reflects the values and beliefs of each society, and nearly every culture has their own brand of hero! For example, back in Japan, heroes often prioritize the greater good over their own desires, showcasing the importance of duty and self-sacrifice in Japanese culture.
In Britain, heroes are often characterized by their honor, chivalry, and intelligence (think: Sherlock Holmes and Hermione Granger). British heroes often showcase their wit, wisdom, and willingness to stand up for what's right. British heroes may also be less physically imposing (we’re looking at you, chiseled, sculpted American action hero), relying more on their cunning and intellect to overcome obstacles and adversaries.
In South Africa, heroes are celebrated for their courage, resilience, and commitment to justice. Across Latin America, it may be important for heroes to exude defiance, rebellion, and a strong sense of justice, while Australian Aboriginal heroes demonstrate connection to the land, ancestral wisdom, and respect for tradition.
Each culture also has a distinct approach to how its stories view and confront different challenges.
In Latin America, authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez weave tales that merge the real and the magical, giving birth to a unique genre known as magical realism. This distinctive style often tackles complex social and political issues and explores the complexities of Latin American society, history, and culture. Allende's The House of the Spirits and Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude both use magical realism to explore family, love, power, and societal upheaval. These stories confront their challenges with a sense of wonder and resilience.
Traveling eastward to South Korea, we find stories like Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite. This darkly comedic, suspenseful film touches on the stark social disparity and class struggle prevalent in South Korean society. Through a tale of deception and survival, Parasite exposes the harsh reality of wealth inequality and the lengths to which people will go to escape poverty. Similar themes unfold in the Netflix series, Squid Game (tug-of-war and marbles will never be the same).
In Scandinavia, crime novels blend thrilling narratives with social justice and gender equality. The protagonists in these stories often work tirelessly to expose corruption, confront misogyny, and seek justice for the disenfranchised. A prime example is the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
Unique storytelling styles
Our storytelling style also reveals our values and perspectives.
A colorful example of tradition can be found in Bollywood films from India. These movies captivate audiences with vibrant stories of destiny, love, and family. The characters often embark on journeys defined by serendipity, passionate romances, and strong family bonds. The celebration of these core values highlights the importance of community, spirituality, and emotional connection in Indian storytelling.
Venturing into the realm of the existential, we find German TV series like Dark and 1899 by creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. These stories delve deep into the complexities of human nature, grappling with themes of identity, time, and the nature of reality itself. The enigmatic and often dark tone of these series reflects the German inclination towards philosophical inquiry, an introspective exploration of the human condition, and the relentless pursuit of truth and understanding.
But what we value as a culture can change over time, and we often see this play out in the stories we encounter. No culture stays stuck in one moment in time, and our art reflects that.
Our cultures shape our stories!
Storytelling involves many elements—pacing, dialogue, narrative structure, voice, motifs, the list goes on!—and each component tells more than just a story… They teach us about the storytellers themselves. So crack open a translated novel, put on something with subtitles (or no subtitles, if you’re studying with Duolingo 😉), and let a new voice share their culture with you.