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Why Do I Like Anime?
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say to someone who doesn't like anime or who doesn't like the same anime that you like. It can also be a bummer to hear people knock all anime because one show in particular had a nonsensical plot, unsympathetic or boring characters, or unskillful visuals and execution. And I'll admit, there are times when I think, shouldn't I be over this? Isn't it just for kids? Am I getting to be too mature to still enjoy it? Why is it that it's an enduring passion for some people and something others could take or leave?
So, I decided to come up with a list of things I love about anime, despite the fact that each series has its flaws and the fact that people often consider it immature when it isn't.
As a recent cracked.com video talked about, a common problem with western entertainment is that the protagonists in many popular franchises are essentially blank canvases. The idea behind that is that a sort of bland protagonist allows the audience to insert themselves into the story. The fewer personal traits the main character has, goes the convention in western film, the more that the audience can imagine themselves as the hero. Every girl can imagine herself as Cinderella or Bella Swan and every guy can imagine himself as a Disney Prince or most action heroes.
I think this is boring and stupid. I'm not the kind of person who has to be able to imagine that I am exactly like the main character in order to be entertained by them or to feel interested in their stories. I guess that, since Action Girls are so rare, I'm not used to expecting a heroine who does what I would do in most situations (hint, it's not just sitting around waiting to be rescued). Yeah, there are a few characters in movies I like to identify with, such as Belle from Beauty and the Beast or Danielle in the feminist historical-fiction retelling of Cinderella, Ever After. But I'm not a big fan of the generic everydude/everygirl character who functions similarly to a video game avatar that's generic enough that they can be anyone.
And while the generic self-insert character shows up in genres of anime that revolve around some kind of audience wish fulfillment fantasies, like the harem and magical girl genres (girls imagine themselves as being super-powered and super beautiful, guys imagine themselves as having a lot of hot girls attracted to them), most anime shows have main characters who are a lot more complex and individualized than in a lot of western movies and television shows.
You get more of a sense that writers of anime and manga create complete characters as well. They aren't usually one-dimensional stereotypes who react the same in every situation, they have drifting moods, development and derailment, lessons they learn and lessons they forget that come back to bite them in the ass later. A lot more time is spent in anime showing the audience the full range of the character, and through watching anime you get to experience the characters' inner conflicts and inner beauty a lot of the time. Are there generic or boring ones sometimes? Sure. But the majority of anime characters are fascinating individuals whom you as the audience feels privileged to be allowed to get to know.
Since anime is usually adapted from manga, or comic books, and comic books are a visual medium, it's no surprise that anime is a primarily visual storytelling medium. It also often surpasses western animated movies in terms of creative concepts and imaginative special effects. Light, dark, color, intensity, and lighting sources are often played with in anime more than in western animation, where they're kept more static. Anime is almost a visual language by itself; so much is carried by posture, color, mood lighting, even the character's hair, eyes, and facial expressions, that if a scene is animated well enough, words become almost unnecessary.
A criticism of anime I often hear comes to bitching about something to do with the words; the dialog was crap, or it was poorly translated, or they did not like certain voice actors. Whatever. Anime is about the visuals. And most of the time, if you watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles, the dialog doesn't sound as clunky as it can in a poorly done dub. And as for sound effects, the music and sound effects in most anime is definitely top notch as well.
One cool thing about anime visuals is the character designs. With the exception of a few shows, anime characters are usually drawn beautifully and uniquely. They are drawn in a way that instantly conveys to the viewer their personality, but they can also defy conventions and stereotypes in cool and interesting ways as well. And I like that anime characters aren't usually limited to just what's considered usual or natural in terms of hair color, eye color, or body shape. In fact, the great thing about anime visuals is they seem to care more about aesthetics than about real physics or logic. And I think that's a good thing! Animation is about doing something that would be hard to do in a live action film. Animation is about surrealism, about something above and beyond reality. Anime visuals often nicely capture this transcendent nature of animation as a medium. To me, often many western animators are too timid and don't take full advantage of the possibilities with this, leaving me to wonder why they bothered to animate their stories in the first place.
3. Imaginative World Creation
Anime often creates neat alternative worlds that are unlike anything real and, at the same time, definitely influenced by certain aspects of the real world that the writers considered particularly meaningful. I love the fact that there is no standard anime setting; each one has a unique setting and often the settings are as varied, complex, and interesting as the characters. In fact, anime alone draws deep parallels between the characters and the kind of environment they live in. For example, Trigun takes place on a desert planet, so people are violent and harsh like the place they inhabit. Cowboy Bebop takes place on several human colonies scattered throughout space, so people are more distant, aloof, and slow to form personal bonds with each other. In almost every anime, the setting plays a significant role in the plot, and you can't say that for many western stories.
Even in stories with a more mundane Japanese setting such as Tokyo, the way that Tokyo looks and functions in different anime can be surprisingly variable and specific to the mood of a particular anime. Sailor Moon and Death Note both take place in Tokyo, for example, and yet both of them show the mood and behavior of the city in different ways. In Sailor Moon, the cheerfulness and human variety of the city are emphasized, in Death Note, it's the grittiness, the mass media panics, and the sheep-like crowd behavior that are used to emphasize the dark horrors that unfold in the show.
In almost every anime, the mood of the characters is in synch with the mood of the place, and almost equal time seems to be spent developing the back-story and characteristics of places as to that of people. And I think that makes anime cool.
4. Emphasis on Friendship and Relationships
Perhaps this is about a Japanese cultural particularity, that they focus more on groups and their internal dynamics than on individuals. But one strength in anime is that it often focuses on the relationships between characters. Usually, this also means balancing their duty, what society thinks they should act like towards a character, with how they personally feel about them.
Love, friendship, and team cooperation are often involved heavily in anime, but I notice a major difference here between the way these things are portrayed in western fiction vs. in anime. See, in a lot of western media, particularly movies, relationships are formed between characters for a single purpose or goal; they want to find the treasure together, beat the bad guy together, or have a series of romantic comedy mishaps that lead to a marriage, and the marriage is the end of life, or at least the end of the movie. Plus, western storytelling tends to focus more on a single character and what that person does alone, with friends, family, and romantic interests playing little active role in the story, since all the hero stuff is reserved for, well, the hero. Singular. I think this convention is wired into western storytelling from the days of Greek mythology.
In anime, however, the focus is often spread throughout the perspectives of multiple characters, and retelling the story from different perspectives is also common. The anime writers maturely realize that 1) everyone is the hero of their own story, and 2) events that are important enough usually impact more than just one person. A lot of the story especially in long-runners is about relationships that build over time, that aren't easy, and that take continuous effort but become easier as the characters get to understand each other. But it's a much more sophisticated and realistic portrayal of things like friendship, teamwork, and romance. It shows that these things happen over time, and also shows that even the best of friends have disagreements at times because people are different, and sometimes they react to the changes that are happening to them differently. In western animated films in particular, being a "good" character as opposed to an evil one means usually that you have the same goals and perspectives as other "good" characters, but in anime, more realistically, being "good" can have different shades of meaning to different people. For example, in Sailor Moon, there are five "inner senshi", Sailors Moon, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, who are united as a team, but then comes along two other "outer senshi", and later a third, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto, who disagree with the main characters about what the Sailor Scouts goals should be, who pursue objectives that sometimes conflict with those of the main cast. This doesn't make those characters evil; it just realistically shows that people have differing interpretations of morality.
5. Learning About Japanese Culture and History
Japan is a fascinating place, and, since it experienced centuries of isolation and remains enigmatic at times to westerners today, learning about it feels like a real privilege. Through anime, you get to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, to experience a different culture from your own (unless of course you are Japanese) and to learn about a fascinating people and their history. What interests me particularly is the history of the Meiji Era, which is captured beautifully by the stellar anime Rurouni Kenshin. A lot of neat life lessons can be gleaned from the samurai code of ethics and the old Japanese ways. I also think a lot of modern anime that involve a lot of destruction are commentaries on World War II and it's devastating impact on the Japanese psyche. A lot of sophisticated and witty social commentary can be found in anime such as Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and other anime that ridicule certain aspects of Japanese culture. As a big fan of Stephen Colbert and the Onion, I know that good satire is always delightful as well as often deep and thought-provoking.
Symbolic social criticism is often found in futuristic anime, such as Ghost in the Shell, which criticizes current government policy and society through a futuristic lens. Anti-war sentiment is also fairly common, not as vitriolic hatred, but more about a silent sorrow and deep pain felt from the damage of war on people's lives.
Through anime, you can learn a lot about Japanese history, philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and feelings about a wide range of topics. So it becomes not only about appreciating the talent of artists from another country, but also about learning the "why" behind what they do that makes it so enthralling for inquiring minds.
6. Emotional Impact
I get that this is going to be highly subjective, but I think that anime has the most natural-feeling but strongly evocative emotional scenes of any media. In anime, it rarely feels like the rushed mood whiplash you get in western movies, where the happy ending is thrust upon the audience often before they have time to form a reaction to the darker stuff that precedes it. And usually, emotional scenes in western media seem manipulative, like you can see the strings, but in anime, they seem somehow more real and naturally-occurring. I think the reason is that emotions in anime are rarely simplified into the childish caricatures they are made to be in western animated film. You might have a happy scene, a sad scene, a romantic scene, etc. sure. But that's rarely all that's going on inside the characters' heads. They're thinking "I'm happy but also sorry that it had to end this way and I have this regret" or something similarly conflicted. They're not about just the present feelings of the characters, but also their emotional baggage from the past and their hopes for the future. Even though anime is often picked on for being kids' entertainment, it's often a lot more emotionally mature than most western cartoons.
7. Anime is a Community
Sometimes, this is used as an argument against anime, to the effect of "ALL ANIME FANS ARE LOSERS/ANNOYING/WEABOOS" etc. But the thing is, that's not really what I experience at conventions and in online anime fan communities. I see anime fans as mostly a loving and supportive group of people, who, despite their passions for debate, are tolerant about other points of view. I also love going to conventions to meet people and see how much effort and time they put into cosplaying, creating props, making fan art, or other fan activities. If anything, one thing that's kept me going when I doubt myself is just seeing some of the awesome things other anime fans are doing and continue to do. I think that they are creative and fun individuals who are cool enough to appreciate the wonder of anime as an art form. I hope to keep continuing on this journey alongside my fellow fans, forgetting the negativity spewed at us by "haters". They're just jealous.