Why Do People Get So Obsessed With Anime?
We've all known people who are clearly in the deep end when it comes to an anime obsession, whether it's one series, a franchise, or anime in general. People can become obsessive. They like to watch episodes over and over again, dress up like their favorite characters, talk endlessly about their favorite shows and characters online, and become emotionally invested not only in the show itself, but in fanfics and shipping wars.
The question that pops into mind is why? It takes many hours, and sometimes collecting figures, cosplaying, and going to conventions costs a lot of money. Why is it that anime causes so many people to get so deeply engrossed into it?
Why is it that it's an enduring passion for some people, and something others could take or leave?
Here's a list of things I love about anime, despite the fact that each series has its flaws and the fact that people often consider anime immature.
Most anime fans become interested in their favorite shows because they like the characters. They want to draw them, act like them, dress up as them, and so on. Their favorite characters are usually young, aesthetically pleasing, and possess desirable traits like confidence, determination, and a positive attitude. Usually in anime, since it's often aimed at teens, a youthful hero or team of heroes has to save the day from corrupt evil people who are older, wiser, and more experienced, but who often have a sad, bitter, jaded outlook in life. So anime resonates well with people who value positive thinking and a can-do attitude, especially when thinking about the popular teen-focused categories of shounen and shoujo. These characters who are brimming with positivity and confidence in themselves often appeal mostly to teens and adults who are shy, withdrawn, and lack confidence. For such people, anime protagonists serve as a hero and role model. Someone they wish they could be like. For example, I look up to Ryuko from Kill La Kill.
But that's not to say there aren't compelling adult characters, and compelling villains in anime as well. Some anime are morally interesting because they have an evil protagonist, or a morally complex protagonist. Others are interesting for having incredibly flawed, psychologically broken characters, like Evangelion. I liked the villains in Sailor Moon as much as, and sometimes more than, the heroines. I knew that they were evil and they had to be stopped, but they were often sexy, very smart, and had compelling back stories and interesting personalities. Since anime runs on "rule of cool", there are numerous examples of cool evil characters as well as cool good guys.
Anime is usually adapted from manga, or comic books, and comic books are a visual medium. So anime is a primarily visual storytelling medium. It's creative concepts and imaginative special effects often surpass western animation. Light, dark, color, intensity, and lighting sources are often played with in anime more than in western animation. Anime is almost a visual language by itself; so much is carried by posture, color, mood lighting, even the character's hair, eyes, and facial expressions, that if a scene is animated well enough, words become almost unnecessary.
Criticism of anime I hear often has to do with the words; the dialog was crap, or it was poorly translated, or some people do not like certain voice actors. Whatever. Anime is about the visuals.
I wouldn't say you always have to pick subbed. But if you watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles, the dialog doesn't sound as clunky as it can in a poorly done dub.
The music and sound effects in most anime is definitely top notch as well.
One cool thing about anime visuals is the character designs. Anime characters are often very beautiful and visually unique. They are drawn in a way that instantly conveys to the viewer their personality, but they can also defy conventions and stereotypes in cool and interesting ways as well. They are not limited to just what's considered usual or natural in terms of hair color, eye color, or body shape. In fact, anime visuals obviously care more about aesthetics than about real physics or logic. And I think that's a good thing! Animation is about doing something that would be hard to do in a live action film. Animation is about surrealism, about something above and beyond reality. Anime visuals often nicely capture this transcendent nature of animation as a medium. Sometimes, western animators and cartoonists are too timid and don't take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium. Which makes you wonder why they bothered to animate their stories in the first place.
Interesting World Building
Anime often creates neat alternative worlds that are unlike anything real. At the same time, they are influenced by aspects of the real world that the writers considered meaningful. I love when the settings are as varied, complex, and interesting as the characters. Anime also draws deep parallels between the characters and the kind of environment they live in. For example, Trigun takes place on a desert planet, so people are violent and harsh like the place they inhabit. Cowboy Bebop takes place on several human colonies scattered throughout space, so people are more distant, aloof, and slow to form personal bonds. In almost every anime, the setting plays a significant role in the plot, and you can't say that for many western stories.
Even in stories with a more mundane Japanese setting, the way that Tokyo looks and functions in different anime can be surprisingly variable, and specific to the story's mood. Sailor Moon and Death Note both take place in Tokyo, and yet both of them show the mood and behavior of the city differently. In Sailor Moon, the cheerfulness and human variety of the city are emphasized, in Death Note, grittiness, mass media panics, and sheep-like crowd behavior are used to emphasize the dark horrors that unfold in the show.
In almost every anime, the mood of the characters is in sync with the mood of the place, and almost equal time seems to be spent developing the back-story and characteristics of places as to that of people. It must be part of Japanese culture to think that way.
Emphasis on Friendships and Relationships
Perhaps this is a Japanese cultural particularity, because they focus more on groups and group dynamics than on individuals. But a strength of anime is that it often focuses on the relationships between characters. Characters are often faced with dilemmas about their duties, their desires, and what society thinks about them.
Love, friendship, and team cooperation are often involved heavily in anime. There is a major difference between the way these things are portrayed in western fiction vs. in anime. Western storytelling tends to focus more on a single character, and what that person does alone. Friends, family, and romantic interests play little active role in the story, since all the hero stuff is reserved for, well, the hero. Singular. I think this convention is wired into western storytelling from the days of Greek mythology.
In anime, however, the focus is often spread throughout the perspectives of multiple characters, and retelling the same story from different perspectives is also common. Anime writers realize that everyone is the hero of their own story, the world is rarely changed or saved by the efforts of one person acting alone, and events that are important impact more than just one person.
A lot of the story, especially in long-runners, is about relationships that build over time, that aren't easy, and that take continuous effort. But the relationships build, becoming easier as the characters get to understand each other. It's a sophisticated and realistic portrayal of things like friendship, teamwork, and romance. It shows that these things happen over time, and that even the best of friends have disagreements at times.
In western animated films in particular, being a "good" character as opposed to an evil one means usually that you have the same goals and perspectives as other "good" characters. In anime, more realistically, being "good" can have different shades of meaning to different people. For example, in Sailor Moon, there are five "inner senshi"; Sailors Moon, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, who are united as a team. But then comes along two other "outer senshi", and later a third, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto, who disagree with the main characters about what the Sailor Scouts' goals should be. They sometimes come into conflict with the main cast. This doesn't make those characters evil; it just realistically shows that people have differing interpretations of morality.
Studying Japanese History, Language and Culture
Japan is a fascinating place. Since it experienced centuries of isolation, and remains enigmatic to westerners today, learning about it feels like a privilege. Anime lets you put yourself in the shoes of someone else, to experience a different culture from your own (unless of course you are Japanese) and to learn about a fascinating people and their history.
What interests me particularly is the history of the Meiji Era, which is captured beautifully by the stellar anime Rurouni Kenshin. A lot of neat life lessons can be gleaned from the samurai code of ethics and the old Japanese ways.
Modern anime that involve a lot of destruction are commentaries on World War II and its devastating impact on the Japanese psyche. Anti-war sentiment is also fairly common in anime, not as vitriolic hatred, but more about a silent sorrow and deep pain felt from the damage of war on people's lives. Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies show the negative impact of war on society, the environment, and individual souls.
A lot of sophisticated and witty social commentary can be found in anime such as Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and other anime that ridicule certain aspects of Japanese culture. Through shows like this, we can learn about Japanese culture and language.
Symbolic social criticism is often found in futuristic anime, such as Ghost in the Shell. Like western sci-fi, Ghost in the Shell criticizes government policy and society through a futuristic lens.
Through anime, you can learn a lot about Japanese history, philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and feelings about a wide range of topics. So it becomes not only about appreciating the talent of artists, but also about learning the "why" behind what they do that makes it so enthralling for inquiring minds. If you're curious about Japanese culture, sometimes anime can lead to an interesting path of discovery.
This one is highly subjective, but I think that anime has the most natural-feeling but strongly evocative emotional scenes of any media. In anime, it rarely feels like the rushed mood whiplash you get in western movies, where the happy ending is thrust upon the audience often before they have time to form a reaction to the darker stuff that precedes it. Emotional scenes in western media can seem manipulative, like you can see the strings. But in anime, they seem somehow more real and naturally-occurring.
I think the reason is that emotions in anime are rarely simplified into the childish caricatures they are made to be in western animated film. You might have a happy scene, a sad scene, a romantic scene, etc. sure. But that's rarely all that's going on inside the characters' heads. They often struggle with myriad internal conflicts. They're not about just the present feelings of the characters, but also their emotional baggage from the past and their hopes for the future. Even though anime is often picked on for being kids' entertainment, it's often very emotionally mature.
The Anime Community
Sometimes, this is used as an argument against anime, in that the toxic or cringey aspects of anime fandom are used to mock, shame, or criticize all anime fans. But that's not really what I experience at conventions, and in online anime fan communities. I see anime fans as a loving and supportive group of people, who, despite their passions for debate, are tolerant about other points of view. I also love going to conventions to meet people, and see how much effort and time they put into cosplaying, creating props, making fan art, or other fan activities.
One thing that's kept me going when I doubt myself is just seeing some of the awesome things other anime fans are doing and continue to do. They are creative and fun individuals who are cool enough to appreciate the wonder of anime as an art form. I hope to keep continuing on this journey alongside my fellow fans, forgetting the negativity spewed at us by "haters". They're just jealous.
When I first wrote this, I truly believed anime was always better than western media. Since then, I've been exposed both to more bad anime (yikes!) and to lots of good western content. It's wrong to say that every anime will have a cool setting, compelling characters, emotional drama, etc. But, enough anime have these things enough of the time for me. I'm not really sure why I find myself connecting emotionally with anime characters more than fictional characters of any other medium. Why it's hard for me to get into a novel or a TV show but not hard for me to like an anime. But being an anime fan taught me a lot about confidence, and anime has made some important life lessons very clear to me in difficult times. I also enjoy western cartoons aimed at adults, western movies and TV shows, art, nonfiction, novels, and even the occasional western graphic novel, many of which are beautiful and drawn well. The world is a beautiful place full of entertainment content. In fact, specializing in anime might be a kind of defense mechanism I have against being completely overwhelmed by all the entertainment there is out there these days. Let's not hate anime fans, but let's also sometimes stop to appreciate that there is good and bad in every genre and medium.
© 2013 Rachael Lefler