A short while ago, I read a blog post in which the author explained why they loved anime and what it meant to them as an artform and a genre. Sadly, I am unable to remember who the author was, so am unable to properly acknowledge them (if you recognise yourself, drop me a line) but I did think at the time: Hey this is a great idea for a blog post – I should steal it and use it in my own blog.
I’m kidding! The truth is, reading that post got me thinking about why I watch anime and what it means to me. And, believe me, anime means a lot to me. The thing is, however, that I have not until now sat down to consciously think about why this is the case; it was just a truth about myself that I inchoately understood and accepted. So if what follows comes over as a bit stilted or disorganised, I crave your indulgence; in writing this, I am more or less thinking out loud, and thinking through the question, and the answers are not always easy to articulate coherently.
Even with the most out-there story scenario, anime holds a power to relate strongly to my own experience. Or, more correctly, I relate my own experience of life to the characters contained within so many anime, regardless of how fantastic the narrative context in which they operate. Anime relates to me – and I relate to anime – because of the characters, individuals, and human dynamics by which the genre across all its diversity is populated.
Let me break that down to specifics. Many of the characters in anime, regardless of their setting, are what you would call “outsiders”. They are people who, one way or another, don’t fit in, who feel distanced – or even cut off – from the world or the society around them. They see life differently from the normative assumptions and preconceptions of the culture in which they find themselves. They feel alienated or discontented somehow. They are beset by questions, and unsatisfied with the answers (or the silences) which those questions typically elicit. They feel like they don’t belong – it’s almost as though they were born, not just in the wrong time and place, but in the wrong reality. Life seems like a game whose rules they don’t quite understand, whose protocols and ceremonies feel more like an absurd unreality rather than the legitimate dynamics of human interaction.
And I relate to that. Very strongly. By which I don’t mean to imply that my life has been a continuous Greek tragedy of alienation and disappointment. Rather, that the internal landscapes of the characters’ psycho-emotional terrain is one in which I recognise so many aspects of my own inner reality. I get why Character A feels this way about the world, or why Character B experiences awkwardness, confusion, or panic in this situation, or why Character C is beset by these feelings in respect of someone else. And sure, many visual media from painting and sculpture through to live action film can capture our inner lives in powerful and meaningful ways; but there is something about the way that anime does it that feels especially true to me. Perhaps it’s the levels of extremity or exaggeration from which anime often proceeds, the distortions that are so gross they actually become an effective mirror reflecting a more truthful reality. Whatever the case, when I watch anime I am often looking at myself, seeing myself reflected in and relating to the characters on the screen.
In other words, anime has become, for me, a means of interrogating the world, myself, and my understanding of both. And that’s one important reason why it means so much to me: because in no other artform have I seen the reality of my own being so powerfully realised.
In one respect, this element is closely tied to the issue of relatability. There is something about the artistry of anime that conveys a great power to express emotions and other interior states of being, separately – and even apart – from the action and dialogue. A powerfully glowing sunset, a sweeping cityscape at night, the moon depicted as bright and solitary in the night sky – all these, within the context of the narrative but absent anyone doing or saying anything, add to the layers of emotional weight and power within anime. Which, in turn, helps me to connect my own inner being to that of the characters.
But, quite aside from this, there is the art of anime itself, in all its variety of styles and approaches. From classic hand-drawn techniques to full CGI, through the blending of 2D and 3D methodologies, to the use of rotoscoping and other live-action based approaches, the art of anime is wondrously diverse and exciting. It can recall western schools of art such as Impressionism or watercolour techniques, or it can reflect the influence of historical Asian artistic methods like ink-wash paintings, Yamato-e, or ukiyo-e paintings. And, of course, there are the particular forms that are unique to anime itself – especially with respect to character design – even where these are derived from, or inspired by, the manga that form the source material for so much anime. To say that the art of anime is vibrant and evolving is like saying snow falls in Hokkaido in Winter!
Of course, the quality of the animation varies from studio to studio, or even between production teams within a studio. Some approaches are more conventional, while others lean toward the experimental and avant-garde. Some studios – such as Studio Ghibli and Kyoto Animation – are known for a consistent visual style and aesthetic, regardless of who is responsible for the production of a particular piece. For others, variation is the name of the game, the “look” of an animation determined, at least in part, by the story that is being told and the characters by whom the narrative is inhabited. All this diversity adds to or detracts from each production as it is beheld by each member of the audience; but it sure makes embarking on a new anime an exciting prospect in (potential) artistic discovery.
In sum, the art of anime can, at its best, be as good as visiting an art museum and encountering the power of art in all its visceral and complex beauty. Sure, there is a sense of remove imposed by our television/computer/phone screens; but even in a gallery, we are always at some sort of remove from the art we observe. Anime, in that respect, is no different. And it can be just as profound and powerful; and it is, again, another important reason why I watch (and love) anime.
I’m not a fan of happy endings. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan of unhappy endings, that I want every anime to conclude with tragedy and disaster and loss. Rather, it’s the artificial finality that’s built into so many happy endings that I dislike. Happily ever after is a lie precisely because every ending is a new beginning, rendered uncertain and full of potential – for good and for bad – by the ambiguity and openness of life. The only true ending we know in this life is death; apart from that, everything else is fluid and dynamic, and our far future can be unexpectedly impacted by the events of our long ago.
And if there’s one thing that, it seems to me, anime does well, it’s ambiguity. Sure, anime has its share of by-the-numbers narratives that conclude with some version of here endeth the tale. But there are also a whole treasure-trove of anime whose storylines are more ambiguous, more fluid, more open to interpretation and what if? And there are others which, even if they do conclude in a fairly definitive way, nonetheless possess a sense of one story leaving off and another story starting up; the story just told leads into a new story, even if the actors in that new story are different people.
But quite apart from endings, there are those anime in which the ambiguity within the story is just as compelling and important. These are the stories in which a character goes on a journey of personal change or self-realisation or maybe just even learns to grow up a little and deal with new people and experiences – all of which creates an existential narrative that exists apart from the main thrust of the primary tale. In these narratives reside the loose ends and future possibilities that transcend the particularity of any given story. Quite often the characters involved are secondary or even minor characters; it’s kind of like a video game where you can only see a limited part of the game map, and you sometimes forget that in the unseen parts, other events are unfolding within the game narrative. Yet those secondary and minor stories, when they cross our own, have the power to change us and the trajectory of our own lives, precisely because they are part of the whole pattern.
The upshot for me is that, in its exploration of ambiguity, anime is one of the most realistic visual media with which we can currently engage. Which will sound absurd to anyone who thinks of anime as “just cartoons”, or who points to the physical distortions and exaggerated reaction tropes the characters in anime frequently display. What, afterall, is “realistic” about someone’s head blowing up to the size of a watermelon and their eyes turning into cross-hatches when they get kissed by a girl? But that misses the point. Within that reaction is all the possibility which the prospect of love and relationship offer, up to and including the possibility of heartbreak. The reaction is itself an expression of the deep ambiguity with which life is imbued.
Anime tells us that anything is possible. Anything good. And anything bad. And the fact is, we just have to live with that reality; deal with it, and navigate our way as best we can. And, for that reason, too, I watch and love anime.
Writing is – obviously – the heart and soul of story-telling in all its forms: plotting, dialogue, characterisation, etc. And, again, I acknowledge that anime has its fair share of join-the-dots narrative archetypes and story tropes and character standards. By the same token, however, anime also incorporates some of the best writing around that’s available in any medium, visual or otherwise.
One of the primary ways anime writing excels is in its capacity to incorporate philosophical and other concepts from a wide range of historical-cultural backgrounds in order to weave together and tell complex, layered, and engaging stories. Sure, sometimes that results in dense expository dialogue, or, if all the threads are not held tightly in rein, a hot mess of ideas and concepts that spray around like an out-of-control firehose instead of coming together into a neat narrative package. But no other medium in my experience can bring together, for example, French existentialist thought, German Enlightenment social philosophy, and Buddhist or Shinto spirituality in a way that anime does. And not just bring them together, but craft a rich and engaging tale from this potpourri of disparate ingredients.
I don’t know if the people who write for anime spend their non-writing time sitting around and thinking about this stuff, or if they have damned good researchers who tie it all together for them, but some of the results are amazing. What a joy it is to engage a form of entertainment that doesn’t insult my intelligence but actually stimulates it; that doesn’t assume that all I’m looking for is mindless escapism as opposed to some form of personal enrichment. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like “popcorn” anime at all; but, gee, isn’t it nice to have the choice? And, yeah, anime isn’t the only medium that gives you this choice; but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one that does it as often, as well, and as consistently.
But there’s another aspect of the writing in anime that I love: it’s power to simply and powerfully reveal a truth about the human heart. In his book I Am Spock, the late Leonard Nimoy – God rest his soul – speaks about the script of the episode “Amok Time”, and how, through its poetic dialogue, it revealed the complex yet compelling relationship between Spock and Kirk. Nimoy in particular makes reference to the following exchange between Spock and T’Pau (played by British actress Celia Lovsky) to make his point:
T’PAU: Live long and prosper, Spock.
SPOCK: I shall do neither. I have killed my captain and my friend.
In this simple exchange is revealed the depth and difficulty of the Spock/Kirk relationship, in the fact that they are friends and yet also commander and subordinate. Little wonder Nimoy praised it as a “beautiful script”.
The pre-eminent example of anime achieving this same effect occurs in the Cowboy Bebop episode “Jupiter Jazz, Part 2”, through the following exchange between Jett and Faye:
JETT: Julia? What’s she like?
FAYE: Ordinary. Ordinary in that beautiful, unforgettable way you just can’t let go.
In this simple, seconds-long exchange, you have the whole tragedy of Spike and Julia encapsulated: Spike’s inability to get past his former relationship with Julia, which dooms them both. In one line, Faye articulates her recognition of precisely what it is that makes Julia so compelling and unforgettable to Spike: her ordinariness amid the chaotic extraordinariness of his existence. And it is this contrast that he longs for and desires the most, the promise of an uneventful life shared with someone else that is the core of their unachievable dream. Shakespeare and Aeschylus rolled into one. Anime does it so often that it is a thing of wonder to me.
Well, that’s where I’m at with this piece and with my reflections. Maybe I’ll think of a few more things in due course; if so, I’ll let you know. But I think this pretty much sums up the heart of it for me. I hope this connects with you, too; or, at the very least, gives you pause for thought about why you (might) love and watch anime, too.
Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.