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.
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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!
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on June 12, 2015:
You bring up some interesting points. I think that it can be a problem when a villain seems to lack sufficient motivation for destroying the world, that was my main issue with Age of Ultron, was that Ultron could have been a lot better as a villain if they didn't go the "omnicidal maniac" route that they always seem to go when it comes to all A.I. in movies. Many anime villains also, like you said, want to destroy the world because humans are destroying the world, or for the heck of it. I think the idea is that the aliens, if evil, are arrogant in thinking they're superior to humans. Villains letting the hero have time to formulate a way to escape is a little annoying too.
Another thing to add to the article, I like how paradoxical elements in anime can sometimes lead the audience to contemplation. Many people don't like things that challenge them intellectually in entertainment, but if you think about it, some of these things are basically like Zen koans where the concept is to be contemplated but maybe not answered decisively. Maybe sometimes it's meant to be puzzling to trigger discussion. For example, I think the hesitation of villains to kill immediately isn't always lazy writing (they want an easy way for the heroes to defeat the villains and escape their struggle), it can also show the villain as psychologically struggling, if done right. Not all villains want to rush to kill, or be seen as butchers. And, even bad people sometimes hesitate before going so far as to take a life.
poetryman6969 on June 12, 2015:
With anime I look for pure mindless entertainment. With batman he'd better explain what is happening and why because that is fundamental to the gig.
Since I watch way too much of the DC and Marvel comic book universes, the problem I have sometimes is the notion that the only way defeat a bad guy is to hit something until it breaks. That does not seem to be a good way to solve problems in general. Also, ultimate villains have weird habit of letting the good guys squirm out of things when they don't need to do so. One of the clever things they began doing with some series of comic book cartoons was to actually have a rationale for not killing the good guys when they could so easily. Namely they were using the good guys for a long range plan which in some cases was quite effective.
It is interesting now and then to notice that in some Japanese cartoons like Naruto, the ultimate villain seems to want to destroy the world because of what happened to some childhood playmate. But that is a flaw in many cartoon or movies I have run across. Insufficient justification for the apocalypse.
Alien beings punish mankind for destroying the earth by....destroying the earth. And said aliens do this after demonstrating that fixing all our machines so that they didn't pollute would be child's play for them. So the lesson they teach to anyone who might be watching is that you should always use the most destructive solution you can think of even when a simpler, easier, and much less destructive solution is available.