Depth, Elitism, and Whether Anime Needs Any Justification (Part 2)

Continued from part 1

A Personal Reflection on Otaku Insecurity

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.

Conclusions

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 admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

And if an anime is those things–well, you’ll hear about it right here.

12 thoughts on “Depth, Elitism, and Whether Anime Needs Any Justification (Part 2)”

  1. Watch Claymore – I find something new every time I think about it or rewatch an ep. I often watch an ep 2 times or even 3 times before I write an review.
    Avoid El Cazador – I also watch this 2 times before I write an review, but I often don’t find much more than the first time around.

  2. Well, the funny thing is I actually happen to think that Lord of the Rings is indeed juvenile trash but I also do hate the artificail division between high brow “art” and mass “entertainment”.

    So, I have to say you have written this editorial very well and I agree with most of it.
    Very true about characterisation, especially in the case of anime – if I have to list series that have really impressed me plot-wise, I’d be able to list just few and character-wise – a lot more.

  3. It seems to me that a lot of if not most good anime out there have great characters but only OK plot-wise. There are shows with great plot and good characters but alas these are few.
    Wow, Lord of the Rings as juvenile trash? I feel like I dare not mention some teenage novels that I used to read and enjoy 14, 15 years ago, namely from Christopher Pike, in front of some of you. No I don’t read these anymore, but I’m not going to call them juvenile trash, either.

  4. That was epic, for lack of a better word. Very apt, painfully astute, and I’m in awe of your level of understanding. If blogs allow for brief insights into an author’s mind I believe you’ve given me a tour in all its full-blown glory with the trimmings, and I thank you for that.

    >>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.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Darker than Black has your name written all over it. I’ve rewatched episodes on a whim and found a new layer of understanding that wasn’t there in the first viewing, and it never fails to deliver a huge impact emotionally — all this while delivering on the action front. You’d do well do give it a shot.

  5. Thank you, Owen, for your very kind comments. I have actually watched up to episode 7 of Darker than Black–then it got licensed. :) It was definitely one of the most promising shows of the spring, and I had originally planned to do an extensive “first impressions” review–but for some reason I never got around to it.

    I’ve been meaning to get into Claymore, Ray. In fact I’ll put that at the top of my backlog. Jeremy also tells me it’s one of his favorites and filled with real substance–I can’t wait!

  6. Look for Mike’s very own audio column – not exactly very, very soon, but hopefully soon. Of course I’m shamelessly promoting his works – because they’re that good.

  7. “I believe everything good and worthwhile is worth celebrating as a measure of human creativity, which is a reflection of the creativity of God.”

    Great line. Brilliant post.

  8. very fine post. i particularly like your discussion of the value of entertainment and how it is related to, although sepparate from, art.

    after the abstractions and obscurities of the dada, cubist and minimalist art movements, i think it becomes difficult to argue that anything is difinitevely not art if someone is tryign to prevent it as such. however to say that all art, and indeed all entertainmet, is equal is as you say to deny the different abilities of different works to be lasting and meaningful.

    i think two standards of judgement should be applied to all art, be it written word, paint, music, sculpture, comic, animation or video game. one is exactly as you say, the ability of a work to be meaningful to its audience and be meaningful in layers that can reach a multitude of people over time.

    the other, however, is the ability of a piece to make use of its medium appropriately to achieve a goal. i like what you say about eva, that it simply would not work as a book. but, its not a book. its animated. not only that, its a series. each medium has something it can add to the universal human discussion that no other medium can. and, each work has a different intention. having layers of meaning does not automatically label a work “good”, and neither does a simple work with a single, focused statement deserve the title “bad” or even “shallow”. a work of art is good if it uses its medium appropriately to reach a goal. (arguably this goal need not be actually intended by the creators.) a
    work of art is classic if it can do this and endure.

    excelent post.

    (i think lord of the rings appears juvenile because it’s themes are, at this point, completely ciche. that doesnt take away from their truth or their value though. cliche things often become cliche because they’re fundamental truths somehow.)

  9. srincognito, thank you for your extensive and intelligent response.

    You know, I actually intended to mention that as another one of my critical criterion–whether a work succeeds at what it intends to do. If it’s a comedy, is it funny? If it’s a contemporary realistic drama, do the character behave believably? etc. I realized later, though, that this is much tricker and much more limiting than it ought to be. A lot of the very best art succeeds precisely because it does a lot more than the artist may have originally intended or planned, and transcends whatever genre it may participate in. Plus there’s the trickiness of discovering what the intent of the artist is (the “intentional fallacy”). I decided to leave it out and maybe post on it another day. :)

    As for art vs. entertainment: one of my bedrock convictions on the matter is that the word ‘art’ needs to be made neutral. When people say, “now THAT’S a work of art!” they really mean, “now that’s a work of FINE/GOOD/HIGH art.” Since the avant-garde took over the art world in the 19th century the word “art” and “artist” have acquired an elitist cast which I suggest is unhelpful and limiting. Our debate should not be over whether anime, in this case, is “art” or “entertainment.” All anime is art and all anime is entertainment. Rather, we should be debating whether particular anime is good or bad art and entertainment. I also wanted to remove the stigma of the word “entertainment” too.

    Finally: yes, you are right, having “layers” is not sufficient to make something good. Plenty of contemporary literature and film is richly layered and almost made for academic analysis–and will be rapidly forgotten. (I suspect, alas, GitS: Innocence will most likely fall in that category.) I do think though that any enduring piece of work endures because people continue to find meaning in it, and if that’s the case then it must have something that reaches out beyond the surface. Something–gasp!–deep. It can be simple: many of the stories in the Bible are simple, like the prodigal son parable. But it is still rich and inexhaustible.

    I hope that clarifies some of what I mean. Thanks again!

  10. i agree. what i mean by artistic goals is sometimes something hard to explain. ive only got two examples in mind.

    Koyaanisquatsi is one of my favorite films, and seeing it for the first time i thought it was just generally amazing in terms of its imagery. after hearing the director’s comments, though, it became more amazing. he talked about his attempt to show how we no longer live in a natural environment, how technology IS our environment. he goes on in more detail. now every time i watch the movie i feel like he really DID what he set out to do. my opinion of the movie as art is heightened. it was moving, but almost more importantly it actually said the unsayable thing he was going for.

    in contrast, there’s a art gallery near me that displays pieces in windows open to the streat. near halloween there was a piece that was a cobweb of colored lights, tacky light up decorations, and chachky glowing ornaments. the whole mess was a little grotesque, i thought, and a bit disturbing. it resonated with me and i thought it was commenting on the chlostrophobic feeling i get from beign in a department store, or the bizaare morbidity of hanging plastic santas. but when i read the artists statement nearby, the intention was to “brignt light and cheeryness to the dark, gloomy time of year”. as far as i was concerned, the art piece had totally failed to achieve its goal. it created the exact opposite reaction. i still like looking at the piece, but my opinion of it as “art” dropped.

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