Is Anime Too Illogical?
I often like to hear the opinions of other critics. I find a recurring pattern in the criticism of other Western, fellow 20-30-something geeks is that they usually want most fictional works to strongly adhere to scientific and logical sense. Sometimes they harshly dismiss or reject anything that doesn't "make sense". And yet, for all that they lampoon "anime logic", they still seem to come back for more. To me it seems that the illogical nature of the anime they're talking about rarely seems to make them enjoy the shows any less or stop watching them.
So that got me asking, is logic a value that is taken for granted as always a good thing in Western culture? Are we imposing a Western mentality on Eastern art forms? Does a comparison of Western and Eastern philosophy explain why anime often seems logically inconsistent to us? Why do we expect that fictional universes should adhere to the same fundamental natural realities as the physical universe?
Continuity rewrites, one could argue, are not unique to anime and are also common in American comic book franchises. So is this a case of Japanese culture being different, or just a case of comic books being treated the same way on both sides of the Pacific? Big money-maker franchises tend to get a lot of reboots and illogical changes to their story, just because they're popular enough to keep getting written. Audiences always seem to want more.We also know that science fiction and fantasy in western culture, and sometimes horror as well, also have their own tendencies to be "illogical" in their aim to explore novel speculative possibilities (ex, the Discworld series).
Is the Gotham universe any more logical than the Pokémon universe? Is it apples to oranges?
Western Aesthetics and Art
To really understand why so many western critics have trouble understanding anime, we have to see where they're coming from in terms of the western artistic and aesthetic tradition.
There have been many major developments and philosophical movements throughout the history of western art, but it can be roughly classified into three major periods:
- Medieval & Renaissance
- Modern & Post-Modern/Contemporary
Classical in art refers primarily to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, who had a tremendous impact on philosophy, literature, law, etc. of later European societies. Classical art was logical, driven by a desire to accurately, although idealistically, represent man. The ideal human figure, with the correct bodily proportions, was seen as the pinnacle of beauty.
The emotional and theatrical aspects of later Greek art, from the period called the Hellenistic era, were poo-pooed by Renaissance art critics as inferior to the stiff, emotionless sculptures made during what those critics believed was Greece's cultural golden age. Greece to the Renaissance man was important, not because of its fantastical stories like The Odyssey, its poetry, or its plays, it was important because Greek philosophers were an inspiration for their ideas about learning, math, science, and education. The Renaissance was a time when, essentially, only the more neutral and rational side of ancient culture was being reborn.
This set in motion a tradition in art where aesthetic principles were focused on precision, mathematics, and accuracy. It was to such an extent that artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries started pushing back against this rigid logical adherence in art. Romanticism, cubism, abstract expressionism, surrealism and so on were various ways artists criticized their own historical artistic traditions for being too mechanical and cold, and for not allowing within their structure room for artists to be experimental and daring. They wanted to "break the mold", challenging assumptions about what art is and is not.
Japanese Aesthetics and Art
Though many of their brush-and-ink landscape paintings made use of realistic perspective, the majority of Japanese art never experienced such a push to render objects and people in a realistic or hyper-detailed way. In Japanese aesthetics, more emphasis was instead placed on what a particular work of art made someone feel.
Shinto is a very nature-centered religion, and nature is always changing. Zen Buddhism focuses on change and the impermanence of things. Therefore, Japanese art sees beauty as something that reminds one of change and impermanence. Cherry blossoms are a common motif in Japanese art for this reason; the flowers are aesthetically pleasing not just because they're beautiful to look at by themselves, but because they are short-lived. One must be mindful and fully present in the moment to appreciate the cherry blossoms when they bloom, for the moment is fleeting.
While Western art eventually became less rigid, and Japanese art eventually copied Western traditional methods of more realistic figure drawing, it's still true that when we talk about Western critics of anime, we're talking about bridging a gap between two different cultural traditions with regard to aesthetics.
Eastern and Western philosophy, for centuries, entailed divergent views about what true beauty is. It's important to understand the cultural historical background of anime when talking about it. It's easy to say, "this is illogical, therefore it's bad" but I think that view is over-simplistic and narrow-minded sometimes.
Should we be concerned that anime looks too "weird" or seems too illogical to sometimes be capable of probably going mainstream in the West? Has our culture conditioned us to not be able to enjoy something unusual or different? I do like anime where the logic is consistent and the characters aren't extremely unrealistic. But, I find charm in things like unusual hair and eye colors, unrealistic but cute-looking bodies, and even a lot of the physical and literary strangeness of some anime.
But, I also happen to like modern art, science fiction, fantasy, gaming, and comic books. All of these things require one to stretch their mind a bit and be open to new possibilities and alternative forms of being.
I feel like this mindset of tolerance for seeing reality as a constantly shifting river is the main difference in worldview from East to West, and that this has a tremendous impact on what audiences expect and therefore what creators give out.
What lapses in anime logic have you been annoyed by? Or, what anime do you like despite knowing that certain aspects of it make no sense whatsoever? Let me know in the comments!