07 October 2013

ID project: how 2013 made me love anime again


One of the inherent problems with being a fan, indeed one that every fan encounters at some point in their fandom, is disillusionment. After spending so much time and energy on the object of one’s passions, the idea of letdown is both foreboding, and unfortunately inevitable. Television shows have flat seasons, movies lose some of their luster on repeated viewings, interests begin to diverge- there are so many reasons why fans begin to find their fandom waning. Some point to the “low quality” of the fan in general- how if they truly cared, they would never feel this. Others might criticize the product, lamenting how it was better “before,” and how can the fan be blamed if their interest starts drying up.

This is natural, though more than a bit disheartening. After all, you have spent so much time and energy on your fandom- occasionally coming to see it as an extension of yourself and your identity- that losing that spark can feel downright catastrophic for some, almost akin to losing a family member or an old, good friend. This flip-side of fandom is one of the ever-present aspects of belonging to really any externalized community, but when emotions and expectations are involved, the pain can become very real. 

I was going through one of the periods a few years ago. I had lost a lot of interest- and faith- in not just anime fandom, but anime itself. Too many seasons passed by with precious little to catch my attention. The constant presences of shows that I had no interest in were dominating the convention circuit, while the shows of my “generation” were fading away. I could find little to hold my attention (though not for want of trying), and on those occasions where something new satisfied the otaku in me, I found my enthusiasm alone in a sea of personal pursuits and “mainstream” devotions. 

Anime has always been one of the major interests in my life. At one point I referred to it as one of the “big three” spheres of fannish engagement my personal identity revolved around (the others being music and gaming). It would have periods of rapid ascendancy in my daily life- 1998-2002 being the major period- only to lose steam after a year or so, and fall back beneath the rise of another sphere. This framework for my fandom was fairly constant as well- science fiction and fantasy fandoms, themselves of limited scope in my interests, have had periods of wax/wane, as have interests related to comics and internet participation. 

But as the last decade ended, I found that anime was fast on the path to joining both music and gaming in a mutual decline, where all three major facets of my life as a whole started breaking apart. While this might not sound pressing on paper, it was part of a massive collapse of the very things that made me who I am, and to lose all three simultaneously would have been disastrous. Imagine if everything you held dear suddenly lost all its meaning, and you were adrift in a proverbial sea of disinterest, with nothing to hold your attention or facilitate attachment- that was me. I would speak the words, and go through the motions of being an anime fan, but I hadn’t watched a show in years, or even had the inclination to. Were it not for my participation in the convention scene, anime would have faded away for good. As it was, the cons began to give me some hope for my otaku identity, and as I began to place more and more emphasis on research, lecturing, and education, it halted the slide before it was too late. 

There was just one problem- I still was holding on tight to the anime I knew from the 90s and early 00s, with little interest (read: ignorance) in what was being currently aired. Anime fandom might have stabilized, but anime as a medium was still in decline, kept afloat through interactions with fans and the power of the convention weekend. I was more engaged by the practices and events of the fan community than I was by the shows that ostensibly the community was based upon. This newfound stability, if one could even call it that, was tenuous at best, as I was essentially replacing one fandom for another, albeit related one, which itself would likely began to falter as time passed and my interests diverged yet again. 

What I needed wasn’t a fandom bandage, but something within anime to reinvigorate me, remind me why I started watching in the first place. I wanted to watch anime for fun, not because I needed to for a lecture, or because I had to be “up on things.” Anime had lost that fun-factor somewhere in the last decade, and I was watching an episode here and there because I felt I had to, not because I truly appreciated or enjoyed what I was watching. I needed a new “Outlaw Star,” or “Cowboy Bebop,” or even “Dragonball Z.” I needed to be reminded why I even started watching this in the first place. Anime needed to stop being a chore. (Which I discovered were my motivations during an attempt in 2011 to “bring anime back into my life.” It failed. Miserably.)

Two words changed that. Psycho Pass. 

Psycho Pass was my first real exposure to the works of Gen Urobuchi. “Shocking” as it might seem, I skipped Madoka when it first was released, mostly because it was at the height of my disillusionment period, where I was more invested in playing a role than expanding my foundations. Psycho Pass stood out for me, its darker narrative and relation to the works of Phillip K Dick definite pluses in a season where nothing else screamed at me for attention. It would be sharing my media stage with Persona 4, itself part of a second “renaissance” of games that were restoring my faith in a post-Warcraft world, and provided a solid complement to the game’s psychological themes and deep storytelling. Gradually, things began falling into place as I began watching the show.

It blew me away. I couldn’t wait for the subsequent episodes, and I would watch them over and over until the new ones aired. On Twitter, I began saying to friends “If you’re not watching Psycho-Pass, you’re doing it wrong.” I made sure to incorporate as many aspects of the show into panels and lectures as possible as I “fanned out” over the first show in years to grab my attention so quickly, and so solidly. 

Everything about the series worked to me. Much like Outlaw Star and Fullmetal Alchemist had done in the past, I loved the characters, music, stories, and setting. The dystopian reality in which the Sibyl system controls how people think might have been criticized by some as a pale imitation of Dick’s classics, but it stood out in a sea of moe schoolgirls and teenage fantasy. It was mature, compelling, and addictive- all traits that pulled in my 30 year old brain and made me think. 

I devoured Psycho Pass. It carried me through a mostly hollow Winter season, and provided a perfect setup for what was to come. For, while I didn’t know it yet, Spring of 2013 would provide for me the second validation to my anime fandom in less than a year, and firmly cement my interests and rejuvenate my flagging anime appreciation. 

That show was Attack on Titan, and I know I’m not alone in pointing to it as a standout series in a year of truly standout series. When the dust settles on 2013, Attack on Titan will be my favorite show of the year, indeed of many years, precisely for the same reasons I was seeking when I first started watching Psycho Pass. Attack on Titan was fun. Forget the implausibility of the show for a moment (and implausible it is). Anime is implausible most of the time. The best anime series often have the most bizarre moments of head-scratching and shrugging one can find. Gravity defying hair? Energy blasts from odd places? Angels and demons making love? None of that makes sense. But those are some of the best reasons to watch anime, because they make the shows fun. 
Attack on Titan was that show. From the opening moments, with a gigantic, humanoid THING staring over the wall at the people below, the series screamed “over-the-top.” Perilously depicting mankind as a species under siege- or imprisoned as the show often references- Attack on Titan was both related to the technocracy of Psycho Pass, and apart from those same dystopian elements. The world has ended, we persevere. We are not slaves to the machine, we are slaves to the monsters. The machine controls us, the monsters consume us. In a sort of “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” kind of way, one series warns of the perils of machines, the other warns of the perils of nature, and shows a humanity striving to survive. Both aspects of the same coin, both referencing our loss of self, identity, and autonomy. At their core, Attack on Titan and Psycho Pass were the same series, approaching the same decline, from opposing sides. 

Lightning striking twice in a year? Had you asked me back in 2010, I would have shrugged and laughed. Now I was eagerly anticipating the next releases of two shows that had reminded me how to have fun, and enjoy what I was watching. I felt refreshed, and my fandom identity had something new to latch onto. Disillusionment? Please, I have new shows to watch. 

Addendum: I feel the need to assert that there were other series aside from those two that made this year feel special. This has been a great year. And I have no doubt that the Autumn season will continue to be great. If you find yourself with some time on your hands, and want to try something new and fun, check out the following: Eccentric Family, Sasami-san @ ganbaranai, Yami Shibai, Gargantia on the Verderous Planet, and Gifu Doudou. While those shows did not have the same impact on me that Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan did, they still validated my love for anime. 

11 comments:

  1. Sounds like you just need someone to give you actually worthwhile recommendations. If you haven't checked them out, give Saint Young Men, Thermae Romae, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Kill la Kill, Silver Spoon, Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san, Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, and Hataraku Maou-sama a try. That should be a good start from the last year or so. And Steins;Gate or Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita if you missed out on them. They're both one of the best from their years.

    Anyway, disillusionment really hits everyone differently. I used to watch every single show every season. And I continued this for a few years too. Eventually I realized I wasn't enjoying watching those shows anymore, and it had just become a chore. I started hating talking about shows, and even hearing people talk about them. Don't get me wrong, I still watch most things, but I'm far more selective than I used to be. But watching every show also taught me something important: there is always something good to watch. No matter how thick those nostalgia goggles are, current anime is not all trash. And on the flip side, you probably have not "grown out" of anime either. Anime is not something you love simply for the style, or the fact that it's animated. I love anime for the content: art, story, characters, setting, etc. It's like saying you don't really like books or movies anymore. You don't really hate or dislike the medium. You just think you do. At least, that's how I see it.

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    1. Oh, and if you weren't at the announcement at otakon this year, keep an eye on Space Dandy in the winter season.

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    2. Yeah, I heard about Space Dandy. Sounds promising. This season, the most rec'd was Kill la Kill, which also is grabbing my attention. Steins;Gate should have been a contender (not to mention Ao no Exorcist), but neither registered. I did watch Jintai all the way through, and enjoyed it, but it didn't make a strong enough impact.

      I have had friends giving me suggestions since...2010 or so, but aside from the occasions of shows like Drrr or Eden of the East, noting seemed to take. I wanted to enjoy the medium, but it was more chore than fun. I would watch a few eps of a new show, and then lose interest. This repeated for a VERY long time, until last Fall. Now, I'm pretty solid with following 3-4 shows a season, but now I also enjoy what I'm watching again.

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  2. Ah disillusionment, I've gone through it and cam really kill your enjoyment. I remember being disillusioned on anime for about 4-5 years, ironically it was the first FMA adaptation for me that did it as the later part seemed more melodramatic as though the series was more focused on getting a reaction out of you than telling an coherent story, and worse I realized that a lot of anime did the same thing.

    When I was going through that disillusionment what brought me back was Gurren Lagann, and then an anime called Baccano!! Two anime that couldn't be anymore different from one another yet were so great that I remembered why I loved anime in the first place. Now though I don't watch every anime every season, I mostly play it by ear and I don't really rely on the advice of others because just because an anime is popular doesn't make it good which was a lesson I learned from the first FMA adaptation.

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    1. Both those shows were oases in the storm. But those shows also came at me before the disillusionment really took hold. If I had "staggered" my viewing, maybe...

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  3. Two cents worth of friendly but genuine constructive criticism from a new reader of the blog: It seems to me that a potentially huge contributing factor in your disillusionment with anime fandom is the extraordinarily narrow segment of the medium you seem to be confining your viewing habits to for some reason. Many (but certainly not all) of the shows you mention in this article are either highly Western in subject matter and explicitly draw influences from specific Western literature and film (Bebop, Psycho Pass, Attack on Titan) or otherwise can be pretty narrowly grouped within the sci-fi and fantasy action/adventure genre categories.

    Just as a thought exercise, consider for a moment the thematic breadth of other popular shows from 2012/2013 (as determined by fan community sites like myanimelist and anidb) and consider where your viewing selections fit into this mix: Accel World, Acchi Kocchi, Black★Rock Shooter, Chihayafuru, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, Free!, Gatchaman Crowds, Girls und Panzer, Haiyore! Nyaruko-san, High School DxD, Hyouka, Kokoro Connect, Little Busters, Nisemonogatari, Samurai Flamenco, Shirokuma Cafe, Yowamushi Pedal, Yuru Yuri.

    Taste dictates you won't love all these shows, but that's almost three score of fan favorites culled from just the last two years! If you can't find anything in this list that resonates with you, you might want to seriously spend some time thinking about breaking your mold and discovering some new ways to connect with more diverse expressions of the artform.

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    1. I've actually seen a few of those you mentioned. Each season, I aim for 2-3 shows to watch, as that's all that fits in my time scheduling. Alongside Psycho-Pass, I watched Chuunibyou. Haiyore! was a personal favorite of mine from 2012, and I've seen all the "Monogatari" series. Additionally, I also had a lot of fun with Jintai while it was airing, and just last season Gingitsune and Kill la Kill both resonated strongly with me.

      The reason I focused on those two shows were because they literally BLEW ME AWAY. Reignited a fire that I hadn't felt in years. Part of that is burnout, which hit me hard in 2013. Too many cons, too many projects, too little time to reflect. Eccentric Family was a contender, but it was riding the high Attack on Titan started, benefitting more than creating.

      My major issue most times is that my interests work in cycles, and anime's cycle was slowly waning. Whenever that happens, I need something explosive to wake it back up. Usually that comes in the form least expected, like BECK did when I finally watched it in 2011, or Summer Wars before it. Those moments define something about the medium I love, and keep me going through the seasons until the next one arrives. Its hard to explain why that happens in my head, but in all honesty, nothing in my head makes sense most of the time, until after it happens.

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    2. I hear that, and I'm pretty sure there's always that visceral spontaneous emotional element setting apart what artistic media resonates with one's self and what doesn't, but what I'm trying to convey in commenting on this post is that it seems to me, looking in as an outsider, that your mechanism for achieving that blown-away experience very much involves you waiting for anime creators to venture into a certain comfort zone and make shows like Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan which are rooted deeply in familiar narratives of western literature and blockbuster films like Minority Report and Cloverfield among others.

      This probably strikes me as odd because I got into anime in the rebelliousness of my teen years because of how different and novel and foreign in perspective anime as a medium can be. I deliberately seek out stuff like Black Rock Shooter and the Monogatari series for just that reason. The Psycho Pass's and Attack on Titan's are well made to be sure, but for me at least, the subject matter seems too well worn by Hollywood, and not all that well suited for the wide-open visual and narrative freedom that animation offers. Spielberg could have made Psycho Pass or Attack on Titan... and in a way that's a compliment I guess... But shows like the Monogatari series and others that I listed in my first post are things that I've never seen, and wouldn't expect to see from Spielberg or western creative minds in general for that matter, and I guess that's why, for me, that "blown away" experience seems to come from anime as distant creatively from Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan as I can possibly get?

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    3. Some of my motivations are definitely rooted in nostalgia. That's why shows like Psycho Pass work. Sometimes they are rooted in philosophy, or elements of Japanese culture that I find intriguing. But you are correct in that I often do not seek out shows. I get most of my seasonal stuff from recommendations, or from reading the anime charts. At one point, I was very set in my ways, picking shows that felt familiar. I'm still not a full convert to the "moe movement," preferring something darker or ambiguous about what I watch. And even then, if something related to Japanese folklore or mythology, I will snap that up immediately (like I did with Sasami and Gingitsune). I rarely deliberately seek out new shows. I never really did, I relied on friends who watched every show to throw something my way based on what I "liked."

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    4. I got that impression, and I'm glad that you're aware of that and able to acknowledge it. I get frustrated with that contingency of anime fans out there that have walled themselves into this totally wrongheaded mindset that anime like Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop and Hellsing and Black Lagoon are more representative of anime as an artform than they actually are, and criticize other kinds of shows, and often entire genres while they're at it, for daring to stray away creatively from that stifling grimdark dystopian hyper gun-violent archetype they've built up in their heads. They like to bellyache about the supposed collapse of anime as an artform and complain about not being able to find anything new they like, and for me their disappointment isn't surprising because I'm not sure whether that person ever opened themselves up and experienced anime on its own terms, instead of expecting it to conform to their existing tastes and attitudes towards entertainment, and that's really too bad, because anime is incredibly diverse and has a ton to offer viewers if they're only willing to expose themselves to it. Anime fans 50 years ago probably made this same case to detractors of Astro Boy.

      Not to pigeonhole you. Like I said, I'm new to the blog and I really like what you're doing here. But when I read this piece on fan disillusionment and how you experienced it and what you thought you were missing, the same thought occurred to me that occurs to me when I see people rant about anime's downfall, which is basically that sticking to closely to the familiar can be the self-inflicted cause of disillusionment. I think that seeking things out and taking chances on diverse and different content once in a while goes a long way to solving that problem. Just wanted to share that thought.

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    5. Well, one thing I don't complain about is the "downfall of anime." My disillusionment was a personal choice- I like a certain type of show, and I hadn't seen one in a while, so I became a bit deflated. That doesn't mean anime is in some way less than its ever been. Quite the contrary, I love a lot of what Japan does. Just because it's not my cup of tea doesn't make it bad, it just means I'm picky. And I am. it took me two full years to even open my BECK box set, because it wasn't what I was used to. I watched the show in 3 days, and it's currently my favorite series.

      I have a hard time trying to separate true disillusionment from burnout, which I also experience a lot. 2011 had a lot of burnout, despite loving some of the shows I chose that year. 2012 had less burnout, because I was having fun. 2013 was another burnout year for me, and when I'm burnt out, I stop watching anime, stop playing games, stop doing pretty much everything I like. When I wrote this piece, I was in a weird transition between burnout and excitement. Excitement for those shows that reminded me why I liked anime. And burnt out from stress. So take that as a sort of fixed point- burnout can destroy even the most ardent fan.

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