Today’s Anime Blogging Collective-sponsored moment talks about yet another anime film, as opposed to TV show, and it’s one that actually got quite a lot of attention outside the provenance of otakudom–Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. Film critics generally dig anything done by Kon or Miyazaki, and honestly, it’s not hard to see why: they are some of the most original and artistically distinct talents working in anime today. And Kon’s film features one of the most arresting and effortlessly glorious opening scenes ever.
Today’s moment is brought to you by the Anime Blogging Collective and Makoto Shinkai’s wonderful film anthology, Byousoku 5 Cm, which is perhaps the apotheosis of Shinkai’s work and themes and–hopefully–a turning point in his career. Each of the three films are filled with wonderful moments to highlight, often for sheer visual beauty as well as a perfection of atmosphere and emotional resonance, but the one that stood out to me for this series was this particular moment, at the end of the second film “Cosmonaut.” It is a hallmark of how far he has come as an artist and storyteller since his astounding self-produced debut as well as an emotionally redeeming moment.
Time for today’s Moment of the Season, brought to you by the Anime Blogging Collective and a dozen others! Today, I bring you a turning point that signals not only a change in that particular show’s mood but a reflection of what has happened to anime fandom’s expectations in the past half year.
Today’s ABC blogfest gorge of 12 great anime moments is from what I think is this year’s best formula show, Seto no Hanayome. It’s a show that’s full of belly laughs already, with many refreshing aspects which I wrote about in my series review, but this one has to take the cake for its, shall we say, extreme nature. It’s not just hilariously disturbing, awful, and uproarious; it’s also a brilliant piece of otaku satire.
I speak, of course, of this scene, from episode 20.
Yes, folks, it’s time to be part of the Anime Borgosphere Collective and take part in yet another rush of posts! This time, we’re doing a countdown to Christmas with a post every day about a significant moment in anime this year. I choose to interpret the rules loosely and talk about anime not just from this year, but from other years too (but that I’ve watched this year nonetheless). So why don’t we start with something appropriate for the season?
Day 1: Hayate vs Santa Claus
When Hayate no Gotoku was new, it seemed like the freshest comedy to come along in a good while. It broke the 4th wall constantly, the narrator was hilarious (back then), and the humor was self-aware without being obnoxious. It also really looked like that the show was going to take some chances and go to places rarely gone in anime, and this scene captures the early promise that I think has largely been squandered up to now.
This scene, of course, is really about Hayate and God. Santa Claus, after all, is the image of God that many people actually have–the content of the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a kind of systematic theology of its own. Hayate has a frank discussion with Santa and, at one point, even punches him out, but at the same time, it is his belief that actually gives him the wherewithal to buck up and be the capable, responsible boy he is. (This Santa passes off a version of the Americanism that Santa helps those who help themselves, and doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment either.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite this clever in anime for a while. I had thought that Santa, for one, was going to make regular appearances whenever Hayate faces a crisis, but these elements all fade away by the second half of the first season and, at the moment, the show is really more or less a random sitcom whose characters produce predictable gags.
It’s a shame, really. I wrote early on that this was one of the most interesting elements of the show and I hoped to see more of it. But during its early golden period, it was stunts like these that made Hayate no Gotoku genuinely special. It seems to be true of many shows this season, which of course you will read about in the next 12 days. :)
For some reason, this fall season has resulted in me only blogging three shows regularly–Clannad, Kimikiss Pure Rouge, and especially ef-a tale of memories. All are either primarily or feature romance in prominent places, and of the teenage variety to boot, and a good many have either some real heavy drama/trauma or at least the threat of such. What gives? Why am I sucked into these shows time and time again? Is it time to wonder whether Ray is right and I’m much more confused about my sexuality than I assumed? :)
Yeah, I’ve tried to cover a lot of shows in Fall 2007, and since then I’ve concentrated my efforts on 4 of them while keeping an eye on others that I were blogging before. For me, so far none of the shows impressed me or elicited in me strong reactions as I have for some shows in Summer 2007.
Shows that I’ve been reviewing for the fall: Gundam 00, Genshiken s2, Blue Drop, Bamboo Blade, and Sketch Book – Full Color’s.
Shows that I’ve reviewed or talked about in the summer: Claymore, El Cazador, and Zetsubo Sensei.
Please note that I’m well aware that the shows that I’ve been writing about varies in genre and making strict and direct comparison is obviously unfair. However, compare with the quality and the variety of shows I’ve experienced for summer, I find shows in the fall somewhat lacking. Of course, also note that this is only the mid-season review and many shows have yet to be fully developed and still have vast potential.
Next is my view on the shows I’ve been writing reviews about and some of my observation for fall 2007 in general.
When Hayate made the remark in the title to his would-be girlfriend Nishizawa, he was actually lying: he said it as a way to avoid having to deal with her affections and all the complications that would ensue. But did he know the way he said it would be taken as such a huge rejection–of her as a woman and as a real partner? Sure, she might come to “hate” him, as the narrator says, and that was his intent, but going nuclear? Was he too naive to figure out that the average person cannot help but be deeply, deeply hurt to have been passed over in favor of something fundamentally unreal?
Perhaps he had been spending too much time with hikkikomori otaku Nagi, who clearly prefers the 2D world, period, and had begun to lose perspective. Or, as the narrator says comedy anime guys just never get dumped with dignity.
Hayate was lying, but the barely covered profiles of the SOS-Dan tell another story–this scene is funny because, for the otaku who get the full weight of the reference, it might actually be true on another level. Is this a problem? Is this why there’s always a certain kind of fan service (the sexual kind, I mean), aimed at the young otaku male, no matter how couched in irony and self-reference it’s been in recent years? Why exactly do we find animated 2D girls, in other words, objects of actual genuine lust?
This is my attempt to organize some thoughts on the matter.
I think at least part of the reason why so many fans insist that anime is “deep,” compared to American cartoons at least, is insecurity. I know, because I fell prey to it myself throughout my years as an otaku. American fans in particular–like myself–still often labor, sometimes subconsciously, under that base assumption which dominates our culture: animation is for kids. And if not, it must be porn. Saying that anime is “deep” is a defensive reaction to that perception.
I remember the beginning of my fandom. Having been thoroughly unimpressed with Akira and Ghost in the Shell, a friend of my lent me a copy of Neon Genesis Evangelion. “You’ll like this,” he promised, “since you’re into theology and literature and all that.” He was right. Being only 18 at the time, I was easily impressed not only with its emotional intensity and raw psychological power (all the while laughing at its clumsy appropriation of Christian symbolism), but the degree to which the structure of the plot–particularly the endings–the Jungian and Freudian motifs, and the final message of the story all worked together in harmony. Yes, it lapsed into either silliness and incoherence. Yes, it was histrionic at times. But damn it–that was the way art was supposed to work, not “children’s cartoons.” Shinji and Asuka expressed thoughts I was unable to put into words. Did Anno really do all that?
Yes, I thought. Of course he did.
I became an Eva-tard after that: shouting the praises of the show to everyone. Forcing another non-anime watching friend to watch most of the series with me. Watching everything else Hideaki Anno directed for Gainax and marveling at the parallels, the stylistic similarities. And what was my justification? “This is really mature. This is a genuine reflection of the depressed mind and an interesting appropriation of Kabbalistic and psychological imagery to boot. It dares to go where no animated show dared to go.” I don’t remember using the word “deep.” But the concept was surely there. All the while my parents were bewildered with why their college-age son was starting to watch cartoons again.
That has a lot to do with it too, I think: the fact that many, if not most, American anime fans became such in college or high school. Americans at that age are generally insecure and trying to define themselves apart from their parents and the rest of society, and at the same time, often desperate for approval from others. In my experience the “deep” moniker is generally not aimed at teachers or other guardians of the “high culture.” It is aimed at friends and family who find it weird that they are still watching cartoons. The thoughts that lurk underneath are: am I immature for watching this and loving it? Should I be doing this at my age?
I don’t mean to demean the people who think this way. This is, in fact, still my instinctive reaction whenever someone wrinkles their nose when I mention my love of anime and manga, especially in the field I’m in. But I would like to suggest it’s something we ought to get over as fans. Because–as a branch of TV/film and as entertainment, I would like to suggest that anime needs no justification.
So is anime “deep”? Must it be?
All anime is entertainment, like all of TV and film. There, I said it. But “entertainment” need not, and should not, be a demeaning word. It is a word often set in contrast to “art,” but that’s wrong. Anime is also art, because art is any deliberate product of human creativity. The question is whether particular animes are good or bad art.
The idea that “entertainment” is somehow less worthy is a product of the “high” and “mid” and “mass/popular” culture distinctions that started up in the 19th century and perhaps achieved its height in the 1950s. Back then, there was a national book club with selections chosen by such literary luminaries like WH Auden, Lionel Trilling, and Edmund Wilson. Hemingway and Faulkner were still alive, and John Updike was producing his best work. JFK surrounded himself with intellectuals in his cabinet. And when an odd book called Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 1955, from an odd Anglo-Saxon professor named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Edmund Wilson savaged it as a mere “boy’s own tale” with “no shades of gray” and whose archaisms revealed its fundamentally hollow, pretentious aspirations. This is not real literature. It has no depth or ambiguity. This is trash. Read this quote: can you feel the dripping disdain?
As for me, if we must read about imaginary kingdoms, give me James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme. He at least writes for grown-up people, and he does not present the drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins.
So: does anyone still remember Poictesme 50 years later? So much for being “grown-up,” when the grandchildren of the original readers of Tolkien are now starting to pick up that piece of “juvenile trash” for themselves! It is Tolkien and his heirs who have triumphed. Lord of the Rings is destined to become a genuine classic, having already been read by 2 generations and counting (and the movies ensure it will be read for many more) Fantasy and even comic books, in the movies at least, are mainstream. What appeared simplistic and merely “entertaining” to the guardians of culture half a century ago turned out to actually have real meaning and real “depth” after all, or else it would not continue to speak to people after so long.
My point is: don’t be put off by the word “entertainment.” Don’t be ashamed of it. The people who dismiss things as such can often be wrong.
To be entertained is to be enriched. It means you have experienced an emotion that rang true to you in a show–you laughed, you felt a frisson of terror, you cried at the pathos of a character and his or her situation. You followed a story all the way to the end because you cared enough to know what happens next, and at its best, you felt like you were somehow participating in the story (especially emotionally). This trait of storytelling–catharsis–is, as Aristotle argued, both ennobling and dangerous. It is noble because it is so fundamentally human; only human beings can create these works out of seemingly nothing and react so heartily to them. It is dangerous because those emotions are powerful and, in the wrong hands, a Joseph Goebbels, can lead so many astray. This is why we must pay attention to even the things we regard as “mere entertainment” and understand that just because it is does not mean it’s unimportant, or that it can’t be greatly ennobling as well. In our modern world “entertainment” is not just a distraction. It is our culture.
So let us celebrate “entertainment” and conflate it with art. But that doesn’t mean that there is no difference between a well-crafted story and poorly-crafted one, a well-animated series and a badly-drawn one. One thing I’ve learned just by watching lots of popular culture on anime and on “regular” TV, and helping out on film crew sets, is that an enormous amount of time, craft, and energy has to go into even the crudest and most poorly planned production. Every art is also a craft, with disciplines, masters, and guidelines. And let’s face it, the reason why something often fails to entertain is because it is poorly crafted and is thus a failure as art as well. Bad “entertainment” is often bad art, and we as audiences know it. So long as this is true, there will always be a need for standards and critics to uphold them. Pointing out flaws is a way for art to improve.
Some Notes on my Philosophy of Criticism
This is particularly true of storytelling. There are really only a few kinds of stories in the world that follow fairly standard plot outlines. The richness of the story typically doesn’t come in the plot, but in character and setting, which is where there can be tremendous uniqueness and variation–because there can as many of those as there are people and as there is the space to dream them. This is why I pay much closer attention to character than to plot; it’s why skillfully characterized shows like Honey and Clover move me so much even though “not much happens.”
You know what? One of the first rules of criticism is to listen to your gut when you’re watching something. Don’t uncritically accept it–that’s the second rule–think about it, think about why you felt that way. But the truth is, even “ordinary” audiences can simply feel when something is off in a movie, which is why some movies triumph on opening weekend and then disappear forever. It is not an infallible reaction, to be sure; some arts require sustained attention and reflection, which puts off many. But for most mainstream storytelling mediums–and anime and manga is definitely in that category–the audience often knows when a character is behaving unbelievably. When cheap shortcuts have been taken. When the scene has failed to portray any conflict or resolution, and thus feels “slow.”
The key is often the second watch or the second read. If new layers and new meanings reveal themselves, and questions one might have had somehow get answered cogently–“aha, that’s why he did that! That’s why that happened!”–it is usually a very good sign that there was care and attention put into the story’s craft. That is real depth, and that is worth celebrating, no matter the medium. Plus, for me anyway, very few shows and movies entice me to watch them a second time. The ones that do usually turn out to be the very best crafted ones–Evangelion, Honey and Clover, Grave of the Fireflies, Boogiepop Phantom, Cowboy Bebop, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. They are not disposable, giving a moment’s pleasure only to be forgotten. They stuck in the mind long enough to arouse curiosity and make me want to return to that world.
I’ve gone on too long, but I hope I’ve laid out the theoretical groundwork for why I do what I do here. I see what I do here as an adjunct, really, of what I hope to do in the future–read and write closely the best works of every culture, as seen through the lens of Christian theology. I believe everything good and worthwhile is worth celebrating as a measure of human creativity, which is a reflection of the creativity of God. Careful thought and reflection on such things is merely a way, in the end, of obeying the guideline of St Paul:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirableâ€”if anything is excellent or praiseworthyâ€”think about such things.
And if an anime is those things–well, you’ll hear about it right here.
I am a latecomer to the ongoing and past debates about whether anime is “deep” and what the value of “elitism” is. But I always wanted to say something about it, because it touches on a number of things I think about a lot as a writer and a critic, and it’s also a good time to lay out what it is I look for when I review anime. Here it goes.
Where I’m Coming From
Here is my elitist C.V. :) I was an English literature and creative writing major, and I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology. That means I’ve read lots of old books, long books, and books regarded as “classics.” Some of them–the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Augustine’s Confessions, Shakespeare’s Othello, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov–not only moved me, but have profoundly shaped my thinking about life, the universe, and everything. Storytelling is a part of my bones. I love writing stories and I love reading them, and I believe they have a unique power that no other form of communication has. I also know how difficult it is to write a good story, which is why I celebrate anyone who can do it, no matter what the medium or genre.
Something happens to you, though, when you are consistently exposed to the most enduring stories that a culture has to offer. Character unbelievability, for instance, starts to grate on you more than it did before. So do cliches and pat conclusions, or, since we’re talking about anime, a lack of any conclusion. Melodrama–unearned excessive emotion–also starts to become annoying. You start to wonder why you see the same sorts of things over and over again.
There’s a reason why the “classics” (and we can debate endlessly what should be given that title, but that’s another thread) are considered “deep.” It’s because you can discover new things as you can keep going back to it. It’s because you discover that there are structures and symbols and meaning in things you didn’t notice before, and you can connect it to not just the time it was written in, but to the eternal human condition. The characters feel real. The story stirs you. The themes are true, good, and beautiful, and therefore timeless.
The true “classics” are well-nigh inexhaustible. People have found meaning and have argued about them for generations, even centuries. You get enriched when you stop and reflect on them, not disillusioned. It’s got layers.
What This is Really About: TV and Film in General
There is no reason why anime cannot aspire to that kind of depth. There is also no reason for every anime to be judged on that lofty criteria, either. Nor does an anime cease to be worthwhile simply because it fails to be “great art.” But there is no reason why the best anime can’t be “great art” simply because it’s animated.
Anime is just a branch of the mediums of TV and film. It can do some unique things that live-action photography cannot, to be sure. The kind of visual chutzpah and wild imagination in a film like Paprika is a great example of something that would be near-impossible to do well in live-action. But a debate about whether anime can be “deep” (I prefer the word “profound”) is really a debate about whether TV and film can be regarded as great art, to be mentioned in the same breath as the great authors I mentioned above.
Some, like Neil Postman, think not. Postman particularly disparages TV as being a medium incapable of serious and logical thought: which is why the news programs, not the sitcoms and dramas, to be the most pernicious part of TV. His point though, is this: commercial TV, as a medium, depends on emotion. It depends on illogical associations that evoke primal feelings, consistency and coherence be damned. (Think of Evangelion: the show made me an anime fan because of its emotional resonance and intensity. It rang true to me. Were it a book, though, I’d never have given it a pass for its storytelling lapses.) And Postman is really echoing a critique by Jacques Ellul, who, in The Humiliation of the Word, wants to argue that the triumph of the electronic visual culture spells nothing less than the regression of Western Civilization. Our attention spans are killed. We become slaves to our passions. We become unable to think straight.
Postman and Ellul, in my judgment, massively overstate the case. The problem with their argument is that they are applying the criteria of print media to visual media. But visual media has a different vocabulary and way of communicating. Visual art can have levels of complexity with the kind of layering and inexhaustible discovery which we attribute to the great literary classics. Cultural elitists usually have little problem attributing those things to Michelangelo or the Old Masters. Why can’t it apply equally to moving photography? Or moving paintings? For that is what animation is.
Of course, now, some live-action films are considered “great art.” Ingmar Bergman, who just died, is often named as an example of great film artist. (I’m partial to Carl Th. Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu myself, though Bergman had some very intriguing things to say about theology.) People now accept that film is a medium for “depth” and they are just starting to come around to TV, with shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under winning praise for its complexity and great writing. But so many people have trouble admitting the same for animation. Why?
The problem, really, is simple. Animation is still regarded by many as primarily a children’s medium. And how can a kid’s medium be worth taking seriously?
To be continued: on the meaning and value of “entertainment” and why we still need standards even if it’s only for “fun”