In my mind, the question ‘Why?’ is perhaps the most powerful question a person can ask. Three letters can be uttered in a single breath, and they throw everything into question. Entire conversations of complex and delicate explanation collapse under the weight of ‘Why?’; under the demands that they justify themselves solely on their own merit. ‘Why?’ is perhaps the simplest question so often left unanswered – not that it cannot be answered, but it is
So why anime? I can no longer pinpoint when I started watching anime, or what show was the magic ‘I’m an anime fan’ moment. And to be honest, it’s kind of fruitless. Sure, there were shows I remember being there; I watched the same Toonami broadcast as everyone else, but I prefer to think of the birth of my fandom like a road.
It’s kind of unfair to say where a road begins and ends. We do it all the time to simplify locations and give direction, but a road doesn’t just ‘start’, it always branches off some other trail, another road. The shows I remember serve as landmarks along that road; they are all part of the journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the sentiment best, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” But I told you that story to tell you this one: the answer to the ‘why?’ isn’t a particular show.
So why anime? In my early teens I took an interest in psychology, spurred on from realizing that Persona 3 had more to it than a great soundtrack and stylized suicide. Naturally, this time in a youth’s life is monumental in influencing who they will become, and coincides with the time we start asking why. So when I found the works of Carl Jung, it just clicked and, to this day, I still prescribe to a Jungian way of thought. Key to this is the significance of dreams.
Have you ever held on to a physical object for the memories attached to it? I keep all the ticket stubs for every film I’ve seen. Some people buy t-shirts at concerts to embody the moment, others take photos to save the experience… But what if the object was an image? What if that image was unelected? That is the language of dreams. Dreams use symbols and images as shorthand, to tell a story, and storytelling is one of the most powerful ways we learn. Surely a dream about flying doesn’t mean you should notify your nearest airport; it’s symbolic, metaphoric – just like film. But what about film?
“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds – not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it. François Truffaut said that for a director it was an inspiring sight to walk to the front of a movie theater, turn around, and look back at the faces of the audience, turned up to the light from the screen. If the film is any good, those faces reflect an out-of-body experience: The audience for a brief time is somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with the lives that are not its own. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
~ Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. Introduction pg xv
That quote changed me the moment I read it, sitting by my third story window in Greenfield, California. Film is a medium like no other. Explosions and unrealistic expectations aside, it is the closest art we have to life: moving, speaking, breathing – film is sensual. But film is also unlike other art in the fact that it is placed on the ground. For centuries and longer, art was primarily produced by the elites, for the elites. Contrast with now, where a movie can be about the common man in the now; no wonder it’s so empathetic. So what about dreams?
If what Ebert said is true, and we live in a box of space and time, then can’t dreams be a window outside of that? There’s a message, an emotion, some form of communication on a base level; it’s what makes it applicable. Nightmares scare us, not because we understand them, but because they confront us with something we haven’t encountered. But not every snake pit or dream assassin is literal; it’s allegorical – like film. And sometimes, we even dream film.
There was a time in my life not long after discovering analytical psychology where I watched a new film every day (it was a time before metered internet). What was the goal behind that? I can tell you it wasn’t to be some sort of ‘movie buff’ – it was almost a psychological pilgrimage. I was in search of symbols, characters, and things to fill the lexicon my dreams could draw on. After all, if you dream about Darth Vader, it’s the image your mind is invoking, not the thing itself. I was putting mental tools in my subconscious toolbox. If my waking self couldn’t understand the message, I was hoping my subconscious, dreaming self would. But I ran into an issue with film: visual suspension of disbelief.
“Just like in the movies” is really an ironic phrase. Movies are grounded in reality. People sometimes cannot tell the difference and instead overwrite reality with the reality of film. “Based on a true story” is read “A true story.” The experience is that powerful. Everything we know about dinosaurs we learned from Jurassic Park. “Just like in the movies” if we know the movie isn’t real, then why do we pretend it is?
Because movies are so grounded in reality, it becomes that much harder to make the unbelievable believable. “Just like in the movies” is said when we’ve made a connection with the image and reality. But it’s the same reason Attack of the Clones is unrelatable. It’s not that robots being used for war is unbelievable; Terminator is still a frightening idea. It’s because the moment a sloppy-rendered super battle droid enters the frame, it looks out of place, like it doesn’t belong. Even though we know film isn’t real, we accept it as reality; but when something contrasts that, it throws everything back into question. Suspension of disbelief, the image, the symbol – is broken. But not with anime.
So why anime? Suspension of disbelief is assumed at the door, like an ID at a nightclub. Shinji can stand next to Unit 01 and you don’t bat an eye. There is a mutual understanding between the audience and the narrative that the story is artificial and, under that pretense, we immerse ourselves like a tale around the campfire. Except this story is drawn.
But what is a drawing? It is a depiction of how the artist sees or imagines the world. Unlike film, the artist has full manipulation of the image and complete control over that reality – as artificial as it may be. This allows images to take on a life of their own in a way a living, breathing person cannot – as a symbol. Nolan addressed this in his two Batman films (the third one doesn’t exist). Totoro isn’t really a cuddly forest troll so much as he is a personification of a child’s imagination. There are no characters in Evangelion, only mental problems with faces.
Impossible camera angles, hair colors that don’t occur naturally, characters as living symbols: it is because of this that anime inhabits the space between reality and film, dreams and symbols. It’s artificial, all of it. Even when you hear them speak, they don’t sound like real people. But because it is artificial, that means a real human had to make it, and if they do it right, they capture real emotion. As Kaiki Deshu would say “the fake is of far greater value. In its deliberate attempt to be real, it’s more real than the real thing.”
The question ‘So why anime?’ has been on my mind as of late. Thoughts akin to ‘if I spent this much time doing film reviews or video games I could be lucrative’ have slowly crept into my heart. Funny thing is, it’s really not about money, so much as it is success. There is no money in this industry, not even for the people who create these shows. There’s a glass ceiling. I’ve come to terms that no matter how popular Senpai becomes, any random YouTube video labeled Let’s Play! Dark Souls is going to surpass it; it’s not a question of quality. I think the question lies with the revolving door of fans: i.e. they come, stay for two years, then leave.
I think there’s only one clear way to combat this: we need to start treating this medium as we do film, as we do dreams. Film was in its infancy when Emerson gave the aforementioned quote, the quote wasn’t even about film to begin with; but it holds a truth I think we need to acknowledge. Jung too, attributed legend and myth, artificial stories, to holding meaning and virtue in understanding oneself and those around him. And what Ebert said is true if we watch the film, the dream, or anime. We can watch to be somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with the life of someone else, or we can watch from our couch, in the now, concerned only with ourselves.
So why? Why anime? Because emotions are the universal communication, and the ability to draw and tap into emotion is powerful. The very nature of art is understanding through empathy, and without emotion, no empathy can occur. Anime is art. It makes us better people, if we watch it – if we let it.