08 April 2010

Mis-understanding Anime

How many times has this happened to you? You discover a truly amazing anime, one that completely changes your life. Compelling characters; intriguing, twisting and developed story; moody, completely appropriate art. It changes the way you view the medium so much, that you feel the need, no, the duty, to tell other people about it, especially those who are unfamiliar with the medium as a whole. And they listen to your passionate words with smiles, nod, and tell you “it sounds nice, but I prefer real television shows.”

I say this because this past week, I fell in love with Monster. After listening to Aleks tell me all about how awesome the show is, I began to watch it in earnest. And not since Fullmetal Alchemist have I anticipated a show so much.

For those who are not familiar with this series, it is a crime drama set in Germany shortly after the reunification of the east and west. It revolves around a young, hotshot prodigy brain surgeon Kenzo Tenma, who one day defies the orders of his supervisor and saves the life of a young boy who had been shot in the head over the life of the mayor of Munich. Because of this “insubordination,” he finds himself stripped of everything he once enjoyed in life, right down to his fiancee, the daughter of the hospital director. At the end of his rope, knowing full well that every ambition he once had will never come to pass, he finds the director and his rival doctors dead, and the boy he saved gone. What follows is a breakneck series full of mystery, suspense, philosophy and human nature.

And above all, a series that would make a marvelous addition to any television network. Not since early Law and Order or CSI has a crime drama been so fully realized, mixing high emotion with deep storytelling and fitting, edgy art. And this is what I tried to convey to a friend in order to get her to watch the show. Her response?

“I only watch shows with real people who have real personalities, not cartoons.”

Needless to say, I was rather dejected after that.

Since I began watching anime, and indeed moved beyond looking at anime as merely cartoons with crazy art and fantastic settings, I began to notice how much of it is truly exemplary. A lot of the shows I have enjoyed over the years have left me just as satisfied as some of the best scripted, live dramas and comedies on American TV. Even with giant robots (and sometimes because of them), many of the shows I have grown to love exhibit all the characteristics of the best television I have ever seen anywhere. And yet, because it does not use “real people,” it gets ignored.

Part of me wants to blame the stereotypes and connotations found within western animation. Growing up, one of the most compelling western shows I watched was “Gargoyles,” one of Disney’s misunderstood and under appreciated heroes of weekday afternoon television. Take away the “stone by day” nature of the animated warriors and what was left was a lovely jaunt into the world of speculative science, philosophy and William Shakespeare, upon whose plays “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the series paid heavy homage to. And unlike many other mainstays of children’s TV, Gargoyles still manages to be compelling and edgy by modern standards, testing the limits of both intellectual/philosophical storytelling and its balance alongside mindless violence and the supernatural. But alas, in many cases Gargoyles was the exception, not the rule, and I was still judged for being that strange fourteen year old kid who raced home to watch cartoons after school.

We can tote how much anime has invaded our pop culture, as Roland Kelts did in his amazing “Japanamerica.” We can see how much of the influence is found in western created shows like Avatar and X Men Evolution. We can read into the depth of Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, and then we must ask, will it ever be enough? Or is the deck stacked too much against the animation medium for it to ever be taken seriously?

One of the reasons Kelts says anime became such a juggernaut in the western world is because of the fact that it does NOT follow the rules found in American animation. The good guys do not always win. The good guys are not always that “good.” In a society where good and evil are often equated with black and white, morally upright versus morally devoid, the gray area of anime and its ambiguity found a strong foothold among youth discovering that the world is indeed not all black and white. Shinji Ikari needs to save the world, he is the only one who can fight against the angels. But Shinji is horribly naive, lacks self esteem, desires a lot of things he cannot have, confronts lust, confronts sloth, needs confidence, needs his father’s love (or at least his acceptance)- the list goes on forever. He is so much like us that he relates to viewers on a level rarely found in western animation. And he fails. He runs away. Could you imagine Superman running away? Or Goliath? Or Popeye, for that matter?

Robert V Aldrich makes mention of this fact when he describes how the everyman is such a prominent force in anime. Unlike western shows, where often the protagonist has special powers or is himself a respected (or feared) force of the world (Superman, Batman, Bob from the groundbreaking series Reboot, Scrooge McDuck and pretty much anyone from GIJoe or Transformers come to mind), many of the anime protagonists lack this. In fact, in most circumstances, the protagonist finds himself thrust into the action without training, on a lick-and-a-promise moment that will shape the rest of his or her life. With the possible exception of Spider-man and Lion-O from Thundercats, you would be hard pressed to find similar examples within western culture. And even with the two aforementioned, it must be duly noted that the very appeal found within those two series stems from the fact that, at least initially, they were intended to be flawed, relatable characters. Through the awkwardness of Peter Parker, it was thought that “normal” kids everywhere would be able to relate to his adventures, sympathize with his difficulties and cheer for his exploits. And despite being the leader of the Thundercats, Lion-O was still a teenager at heart, forced to be a warrior when his stasis tube malfunctioned, and he had to confront the perils of responsibility while still tackling his raging emotions.

But unfortunately, this is more an exception than the rule. And cartoons move on, saddled with a stereotype that they are just for children, that they hold no deeper meanings and should be discarded upon reaching adulthood.

I suppose the point I am making (and yes, I am trying to make a point here), is that anime is more than just a cartoon, and needs to be recognized as such. Just because a show is hand drawn does not mean it lacks what makes “live” shows worth watching. And just because someone chooses to watch said shows does not make them childish or immature. Rather, it shows that the viewer is more interested in experiencing television and television culture to their fullest, and will not allow labels to color their perception. Who knows, maybe the next show you watch might be the one that changes your life?

Now if you will excuse me, Dieter just kicked his soccer ball at me. I think he wants to play.


  1. Well said! I've always found it rather bizarre that, simply because a story was drawn (or animated), it would be viewed as material exclusively for children. What is it about art that is outgrowable? It just doesn't make sense. Perhaps in the west, its not the story that is followed, but the actors/celebrities. Without a doubt, anime has by far the best written stories available on television today, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. This post hit the nail on the head, and I'm definitely going to check out Monster. Thanks.

  2. It's a great series, easily on par with any crime drama on broadcast.

    Anime mimics live action Western series so much, I'm shocked it still gets stigmatized as juvenile. The kicker- Hayao Miyazaki is so respected by adults, yet they fail to realize that his work is directed at children first, with depth for the parents.

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  4. Speaking as a cartoon nerd, I can confirm Popeye at least runs away in one short.

    But yeah, this topic is not a new one, and it's something we as cartoon fans have no choice but to either accept that there's nothing we can do to fix this, or hope that the glimmer of accepting animation for what it is will actually happen, and usually people are 50/50 with the issue (if you want links for examples of this, I'll be glad to find some for you). It's pretty much the same reason we'll never see an animated film win "Best Picture"; no one is ready to accept the fact that animation can go against the big boys in Hollywood; it's beneath them.

    But at least we have the people who are determined to do something about this, and Pixar recently been nominated twice for best picture, so who knows what this business will bring us. And believe it or not, back when Disney was making some of his earlier films (Snow White to Bambi), some intellectual circles throughout they were better than the live action films at the time (here's the source, which I think you'll love reading...http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2010/06/universal-kid-space.html).

    So yeah, like I said, who knows what'll happen. After all, animation has constantly changed itself almost every decade or so (and again, if you want examples, I got 'em!).

    BTW. have I ever told you on how delightful this blog is? :)