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”