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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.

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