Opinion: Why I Don't Mind That Anime is Illogical

What?
What?

I'm on Youtube way too much and I often like to hear the opinions of other critics, whether it be about anime, games, comic books, movies, My Little Pony episodes, or even the occasional normal person thing like pop music. But, I find that a recurring pattern in the critical voices of other Western, Anglo-American cultured fellow 20-30-something geeks, is that they usually want most fictional works to strongly adhere to scientific and logical sense, often harshly dismissing or rejecting anything that doesn't make sense. And yet, for all that they lampoon "anime logic", they still seem to come back for more and the illogicality of the anime they're talking about rarely seems to make them enjoy the shows any less or stop watching them.

So that got me asking, is logic a value that is taken for granted as always a good thing in Western culture? Are we imposing a Western mentality on Eastern art forms? Does a comparison of Western and Eastern philosophy explain why anime often seems logically inconsistent to us? Why do we expect that fictional universes should adhere to the same fundamental natural realities as the physical universe(s)?

Continuity rewrites, one could argue, are not unique to anime and are also common in American comic book franchises, so is this a case of Japanese culture being different, or just a case of comic books being treated the same way on both side of the Pacific, especially with the big money-maker franchises, which tend to get a lot of reboots and illogical changes to their story overall just because they're popular enough to keep getting written, and audiences always seem to want more.We also know that science fiction and fantasy in western culture, and sometimes horror as well, also have their own tendencies to be "illogical" in their aim to explore novel speculative possibilities (ex, the Discworld series).

Is the Gotham universe any more logical than the Pokémon universe? Is it apples to oranges? Well, let's start by going back to what many consider to be the foundation of Western art, or at least, its high point: The Italian Renaissance, which happened in the 1400's to early 1500's. This period of time was heavily influential, not just in art, but in intellectual discourse of the time, and many see it as the origin, or at least rebirth, of what we might call Western values or the intellectual foundations of Western culture.

Michelangelo's sculpture, "Pieta", depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken from the cross after his death. Although it captures Mary's despair, Michelangelo followed the classical concept of emotional restraint.
Michelangelo's sculpture, "Pieta", depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken from the cross after his death. Although it captures Mary's despair, Michelangelo followed the classical concept of emotional restraint.

Western Thought and the Renaissance

In art, the Renaissance was bringing classical Greece and Roman sculpture into the artists' present in new sculptures, paintings, and drawings which borrowed influence from ancient sculptures that were known or newly discovered at the time. This meant that art was taking a huge leap forward in terms of realistically representing the human form, and as long as the artwork could be said to depict Biblical scenes or figures, the Church at the time was happy to fund such projects. Eves, Marys, Josephs, and of course Jesuses were common. But, the Church had been sponsoring art for centuries. What changed was the realistic rendering of the human body. In painting, the body was not made up of flat patches of color, which had been the case in previous centuries' artistic illustrations of Biblical events. Now, not only were artists looking to ancient sculpture, but also to observing live people or corpses, to put anatomical realism into their artwork as much as possible. They also began to render buildings more realistically, using one-point perspective, whereas previous scenes of cities did not have a realistic sense of scale or proportion, and simply made anything bigger that they wanted to give more detail to or to aggrandize.

But realism wasn't their only goal in the Renaissance. They were also "classicizing", or endowing their art with a kind of graceful emotional restraint. This harkens back to some Greek and Roman sculptures which often had serene facial expressions, and were considered beautiful largely because of this. Later art would be more emotionally dramatic and also less anatomically accurate, and some would criticize this shift to more romanticism. Catholic and ancient Stoic ideas popular at the time seemed to favor hard work, diligence, duty, and emotional self-control, and art of the Renaissance was as much about this as it was about illustrating the Bible for the largely illiterate masses, or about a new revival of interest in visual realism in art.

The Church soon found that realistically-rendered art would become attractive and emotionally appealing, and used this to their advantage, as did the first monarchies to, in later years, create their own academies for the training of artists. Thus, the gold standard of Western art pretty much until the late 19th century was visual realism, and people were often enamored with the realistically rendered people, houses, furniture, streets, landscapes, etc. they got out of this tradition. For a traditional standard of beauty to last more than 300 years, it must have been doing something right, even if it eventually fell out of favor in favor of more experimental forms of art such as cubism and surrealism. So, it became a standard in Western art that art should be a serious, emotionally subdued, realistic representation of objects and people in the real world, even if the reality was sometimes idealized and flaws were sometimes censored for the sake of beauty.


A print bought at the Daiso chain store in Japan by the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro, who originally made it in the Japanese Edo era, sometime in the 1600-1800s.
A print bought at the Daiso chain store in Japan by the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro, who originally made it in the Japanese Edo era, sometime in the 1600-1800s. | Source

Japanese Aesthetics and Art

By contrast, though many of their brush-and-ink landscape paintings made use of realistic perspective, the majority of Japanese art never experienced such a push to render objects and people in a realistic or hyper-detailed way. In Japanese aesthetics, more emphasis was instead placed on what a particular work of art made someone feel.

Shintoism is a very nature-centered religion, and nature is always changing, and Zen Buddhism focuses on change and the impermanence of things. Therefore, Japanese art often sees beauty as something that reminds one of change and this impermanence. Cherry blossoms are a common motif in Japanese art for this reason; the flowers are aesthetically pleasing not just because they're beautiful to look at by themselves, but because they are short-lived. One must be mindful and fully present in the moment to appreciate the cherry blossoms when they bloom, for the moment is fleeting.

So, what we have here is the development of two distinct artistic traditions, with very divergent views about what true beauty is, which are underpinned by various philosophical and religious beliefs, as well as certain physical realities. Japan being a place where nature is frightening and often devastating, Europe being more of a place where nature can a bit more easily be tamed by the hand of man is one such physical difference.

Since the Tokugawa period saw the enactment of harsh laws which severely limited Japanese contact with the West, the traditions remained separate until the Meiji era (starting in 1857), at which time realistic art as an ideal was already being criticized and challenged by more modern forms of artistic expression. In fact, contact with Japan changed Western art, it could be argued, more than contact with the West changed Japanese art (it barely made an impact, since Japanese artists remained fairly traditional in their styles).


Conclusion

Should we be concerned that anime looks too "weird" or seems too illogical to sometimes be capable of probably going mainstream in the West? Has our culture conditioned us to not be able to enjoy something unusual or different? I do like anime where the logic is consistent and the characters aren't extremely unrealistic, but I would be lying if I said I didn't find the charm in things like unusual hair and eye colors, unrealistic but cute-looking bodies, and even a lot of the physical and literary strangeness of some anime. But, I also happen to like modern art, science fiction, fantasy, gaming, and comic books. All of these things require one to stretch their mind a bit and be open to new possibilities and alternative forms of being. I feel like this mindset of tolerance for seeing reality as a constantly shifting river rather than an incrementally growing oak tree is the main difference in worldview from east to west, and that this has a tremendous impact on what audiences expect and therefore what creators give out.

What lapses in anime logic have you been annoyed by? Or, what anime do you like despite knowing that certain aspects of it make no sense whatsoever? Let me know in the comments!

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Comments 2 comments

poetryman6969 profile image

poetryman6969 18 months ago

With anime I look for pure mindless entertainment. With batman he'd better explain what is happening and why because that is fundamental to the gig.

Since I watch way too much of the DC and Marvel comic book universes, the problem I have sometimes is the notion that the only way defeat a bad guy is to hit something until it breaks. That does not seem to be a good way to solve problems in general. Also, ultimate villains have weird habit of letting the good guys squirm out of things when they don't need to do so. One of the clever things they began doing with some series of comic book cartoons was to actually have a rationale for not killing the good guys when they could so easily. Namely they were using the good guys for a long range plan which in some cases was quite effective.

It is interesting now and then to notice that in some Japanese cartoons like Naruto, the ultimate villain seems to want to destroy the world because of what happened to some childhood playmate. But that is a flaw in many cartoon or movies I have run across. Insufficient justification for the apocalypse.

Alien beings punish mankind for destroying the earth by....destroying the earth. And said aliens do this after demonstrating that fixing all our machines so that they didn't pollute would be child's play for them. So the lesson they teach to anyone who might be watching is that you should always use the most destructive solution you can think of even when a simpler, easier, and much less destructive solution is available.


RachaelLefler profile image

RachaelLefler 18 months ago from Illinois Author

You bring up some interesting points. I think that it can be a problem when a villain seems to lack sufficient motivation for destroying the world, that was my main issue with Age of Ultron, was that Ultron could have been a lot better as a villain if they didn't go the "omnicidal maniac" route that they always seem to go when it comes to all A.I. in movies. Many anime villains also, like you said, want to destroy the world because humans are destroying the world, or for the heck of it. I think the idea is that the aliens, if evil, are arrogant in thinking they're superior to humans. Villains letting the hero have time to formulate a way to escape is a little annoying too.

Another thing to add to the article, I like how paradoxical elements in anime can sometimes lead the audience to contemplation. Many people don't like things that challenge them intellectually in entertainment, but if you think about it, some of these things are basically like Zen koans where the concept is to be contemplated but maybe not answered decisively. Maybe sometimes it's meant to be puzzling to trigger discussion. For example, I think the hesitation of villains to kill immediately isn't always lazy writing (they want an easy way for the heroes to defeat the villains and escape their struggle), it can also show the villain as psychologically struggling, if done right. Not all villains want to rush to kill, or be seen as butchers. And, even bad people sometimes hesitate before going so far as to take a life.

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