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