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Part I: Comparative Analysis
There is an aspect of many anime stories that has never sat well with me, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it until now. As is often the case, when you see an element of a story that is executed particularly well or in a way that rings true, you can’t help but notice that it was missing or poorly done in other, similar stories. The “Aha!” moment I’m referring to came while I was reading Yuki Fumino’s excellent debut manga, I Hear The Sunspot*.
So, Sunspot is a pretty adorable shounen-ai story. Kohei is tall, handsome and socially withdrawn; Taichi is a cheerful slacker with a big heart and a bigger mouth. Their lives collide by chance, and their relationship slowly blossoms over the course of the manga’s first volume. These boys are entirely endearing. It’s so much fun to watch their opposing personalities play off of one another, creating these situations that basically force you to smile while reading, even if you’re in public.
Sunspot is also a pretty painful story. The reason Kohei isolates himself is because he has a hearing disability. Interacting with almost anyone is a mental and emotional strain. Kohei can feel the inconvenience, the irritation of his conversation partners, and he takes it deeply to heart (as any young person thrust into this situation might). There’s an invisible wall between him and everyone else, an impassable distance between Koehi and a world designed for people who do not have a hearing disability.
Or so he believes. In spite of himself, Kohei’s tightly closed heart cautiously opens due to the warmth of Taichi’s straightforward personality and expressive demeanor. Now, this doesn’t happen immediately, and there are some bumps in the road along the way. But, in addition to the above personality traits, Taichi is able to reach Kohei because he really takes the time to get to know him. Other relationships in Kohei’s life wither under the weight of his disability. For Kohei’s “friends,” the bother of repeating themselves, not standing in certain places while talking, etc. becomes greater than the benefit they receive from the association. The relationship crosses a convenience threshold which indicates that it is no longer a thing that serves its intended purpose for those folks.
Taichi, on the other hand, treats Kohei like a person rather than simply an object from which to receive feel-good. The convenience threshold doesn’t seem to exist with him. You can maybe argue that Taichi is just getting close to Kohei because he is poor and Kohei feeds him, but that part of the relationship goes away very quickly. Even after the regular bento boxes cease coming his way, Taichi continues to truly give a shit about Kohei, despite the latter actively trying to distance himself a time or two. Taichi is emotionally invested in the person that is Kohei, so even if Kohei tries to push him away or the hearing disability gets worse, Taichi’s going to try to work through it and maintain the connection.
OK, so let’s contrast Sunspot with Ookiku Furikabutte (Oofuri going forward) anime. Specifically, let’s talk about the relationship that the team has to Mihashi. If you haven’t seen Oofuri, it’s a baseball anime featuring one of the most anxious and socially withdrawn (despite being a baseball player) protagonists ever created, Ren Mihashi. To say he has trouble interacting with his teammates is like saying I would have trouble guarding LeBron James in a pickup game. Situations that most people would effortlessly breeze through leave poor Mishashi struggling mightily just to produce a facsimile of a (verbal or nonverbal) response. Yet, his team patiently tolerates his neuroses and go to tremendous lengths to attempt to understand him/be understood by him.
On top of these communication issues, Mihashi also relies on his teammates to do things like: regulate his diet, help him stretch, remind him to exercise, keep track of his pitch count, and ensure he is getting enough sleep. Again, his friends allow this dependence and support him entirely. The whole thing strains the bounds of credulity at times, but it can be quite sweet. Oofuri certainly gave me the warm ‘n fuzzies a time or two.
I open this article by talking about a previously unidentifiable something that never sits well with me when it crops up in anime, and what that something is resides in the difference between Mihashi and his teammates’ relationship and Kohei and Taichi’s relationship. Despite the understanding the boys appear to achieve in Oofuri, I can’t say that they form a connection which feels genuine. And without a bond whose foundation feels real, all their goodwill towards him feels so hollow. Why are they doing all those things for Mihashi? Is it out of obligation? To keep him happy so the team will keep winning? It’s supposed to be because they’ve connected, but that level of connection never feels earned. And for the narrative to build upon that level of connection, it must earn it; and the audience wouldn’t be able to miss the earning of such a thing.
Returning to Sunspot: I want to be clear that I’m holding it to the same standard. Taichi’s sympathy and effort certainly extend beyond those of most people when it comes to Kohei; however, the former seems fairly unique among his peers in that he’s not considering whether or how much his relationship with the latter benefits him. This backdrop of the general callousness of the world actually allows their connection feel more real. The sad truth is that most people aren’t going to go out of their way to pursue a relationship that they have to adjust their own lives to accommodate. Sometimes his relationship with Kohei is even a bit much for Taichi. They have misunderstandings and fights. They pull back from each other for a time. While their love’s gravity draws them back together, reconciliation isn’t simple and requires something from each of them.
Am I saying the mark of an authentic relationship in narrative is that it’s gotta suck and be shitty for the characters? Well…kind of? It won’t be that way all the time; Kohei and Taichi have a ton of beautiful moments together. They each make an effort to understand the other, and their lives become better. Occasionally, though, human beings will miss the mark and fuck up, which can strain relationships. After such a fuck-up, when Kohei and Taichi come together to work it out, you feel like “Yes, of course they did, they have good reasons to.” The emotional investment they had clearly and demonstrably made in one another helps their reconnection feel natural.
There are no bumps in the road in Oofuri. No separation, no reconciliation. Not even fights of any consequence, really. On the whole, the positivity, support and indulgence flow unmitigated from the team to Mihashi. While Mihashi tries in his own way, he seems content to live in total dependence rather than get any sort of (mental health) help or make changes in his life. The contrast between Taichi and Kohei’s former friends, the push-and-pull of relationships, the moment when you feel two parties have made a real connection…I get none of that in Oofuri. Consequently, when the boys display results of meaningful connection and deep understanding of one another on the baseball field, it just feels off. It’s happy, lively, endearing at times, but still somehow off. This house built upon the sand, this particular kind of inauthentic relationship in narrative, is that previously unidentifiable something that rubs me the wrong way when I encounter it in anime.
However, even though Oofuri might not feel authentic, it can feel pretty damn good. To be sure, there’s merit in stories that eschew the genuine for the sake of facilitating an endorphin rush. There are all kinds of escapism in media, and Oofuri, I think, happens to be a certain kind of escapism for folks with a high degree of anxiety**. If that’s all there is to it, what’s the big deal? “Why does it bother you, Subs?” you’re probably asking.
* I review Sunspot here.
**For the record, I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder in 2009 and have been actively medicating and going to therapy since then.
Part II: Why It Matters
OK, this essay really did begin life as a simple comparative analysis. Then I asked myself the question I pose at the end of the previous paragraph…and I just started writing. Below are the results. What follows is some speculative stuff and is just my opinion rather than the opinion of Wave Motion Cannon as a website.
I’m probably going to sound like your (least) favorite grumpy old anime director here, but I believe that the particular kind of wish-fulfillment entertainment we are discussing can be unhealthy, especially in large, undiluted doses. A whole lot of anime is made to serve a socially withdrawn demographic: otaku, NEETs, hikikomori and the overlaps in that Venn Diagram. I think it’s fair to assume that these groups contain a number of individuals with social (or other) anxiety disorder. Maybe not Mihashi but in the ballpark. And, this small list makes no mention of analogous demographics in the international markets that anime reaches. Imagine the appeal for these folks of stories in which the world sacrifices all convenience and bends over backwards to tolerate all your faults, with little to no reciprocal effort on your part. A yamato nadeshiko (or perhaps an entire baseball team) will show up and make your life better without the need for you to take the difficult initial steps, to take responsibility for your life. That’s a very soothing world but ultimately far from the actual one. When you withdraw from society, it isn’t going to chase after you, begging you to come back.
Anime is marketed to nerd cultures who enjoy their tropes and can be obsessive, especially when it comes to their media. Obviously, not every anime fan fits the demographic profile, but I think it’s safe to say that anime continues to be marketed to the more socially withdrawn/anxious* demo for a reason. It’s easy to see how these guys, gals and enbies could bite this particular hook, baited with emotional catnip as it is, and then consider it a key ingredient to their anime experience going forward. This outcome isn’t necessarily bad in a vacuum, but, in the words of Plato, we become what we contemplate. Let me elaborate a bit. I’m not making the argument that anime fans can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, nor am I saying they are more likely than anyone else to imitate specific behavior they observe in media. I am also not taking shots at genres such as iyashikei which are predicated on alleviating the stress of their audience.
What I am saying is this: repeated exposure to and absorption of media with a particular worldview or set of underlying assumptions can imprint said worldview/assumptions on the (conscious and subconscious) minds of viewers, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the individual. Repeated messaging can rewire our thinking. Especially if such viewers are largely young people, and especially if those young people aren’t experiencing media whose worldviews are informed by different perspectives. More anime is being made than ever before, and, while I don’t have hard data here, I have personally noticed (a) an increase in anime being made featuring socially withdrawn protagonists and (b) these protagonists getting “magically” socially integrated. Uncritical submersion into a sea of media that is informed by these particular beliefs can function as an unhealthy distraction that enables people to not engage with their reality (i.e. take steps toward better mental health). In the worst cases, these folks may become hostile and angry over how the world is unfair to them because their own circumstances are unlike those of the media they readily consume. Of course, this isn’t likely to be an overnight phenomenon, or even necessarily a conscious one.
I don’t think I’m saying anything disparaging about anime fans here. Propaganda works because of these principles. Kids can grow up with a traditional understanding of gender roles without much prompting from parents because of a particular worldview common to their media diets. People naively hold all sorts of beliefs that they “pick up” from all sorts of places, including their media. It’s concerning to me, though, when you have media undergirded by a worldview that can be harmful to certain folks if they adopt it and that this very media is marketed directly to those folks.
I suppose it can be argued that anime is reinforcing an unhealthy perspective that already exists in people, rather than creating it, and is thus absolved. But, is reinforcing damaging behavior any better than being the catalyst for it? Also, there’s this really fine distinction between someone who is inclined to think a certain way but hasn’t and another person who has already adopted that way of thinking, and diving into this could well and truly throw this essay off track. I do think that if a presentation of a worldview is strong enough to buttress it in the mind of a true believer, then it is strong enough to push some other uninitiated soul toward it, at least a bit.
In the end, what am I advocating here? First, for us anxious nerds to vary up our media intake from time to time. It’s much easier to spot beliefs that are “baked into” a piece of media by being able to contrast it with media informed by different beliefs. Second, for us nerds to support our anime-loving friends and do what we can to help them on their journey to good mental health.
Until recently, something didn’t feel quite right about a lot of the more contemporary anime I watched, but when I read Yuki Fumino’s manga I Hear Sunspot, I had a sort of epiphany. The relationship between Koehi and Taichi achieves an authenticity that, say, Ookiku Furikabutte simply doesn’t. And, it’s this very specific failing on the part of Oofuri–one that I feel many modern anime share– that was unsettling me. Both stories feature socially withdrawn protagonists, but Oofuri’s main character is grabbed his by shirt collar and yanked into a wonderful world of social integration**, with little-to-no initial or ongoing effort on his part. This sort of wish-fulfillment entertainment is fine as an isolated piece, but anime itself is marketed to folks (a) for whom this kind of escapism will be most emotionally appealing (i.e. socially withdrawn people, people with high anxiety, etc.) (b) who tend to get attached to tropes/formulas and exhibit obsessive traits and (c) whose media intake tends to be homogeneous. How much we think this matters and what we feel we can do about it are up to each of us individually. Personally, I know this: as a rabid anime fan who, in the past, has dipped his toe into the waters of social isolation as a lifestyle choice, I am exceedingly grateful for every single connection, virtual and physical, in my life. I don’t want anyone to be without this feeling.
Thank you for reading.
*Perhaps this is me wrecklessly playing armchair psychologist, but the connection between socially withdrawn nerd communities and anxiety disorder seems intuitive. This essay isn’t a scientific study, though :).
**I’m writing this essay with the presupposition that some degree of social integration is more healthy than none at all. I realize that a high degree of integration isn’t suitable for everyone, but I do believe that people benefit from tangible, ongoing, person-to-person-not-mediated-by-the-internet relationships with other human beings.
First of all, WMC review of “I Hear Sunspot” boggled my fujoshi heart. I couldn’t be more pleased. Yes to the painful authenticity in Fumino’s work in comparison to a lot of other manga and anime that cover the same kind of material. It’s why Ai Yazawa’s “Nana” made such a searing impression on me. Relationships are complex and often messy, especially at transitional life periods. A lot of iyashikei anime are like chewy gummy candy–sweet in the moment but leave a residual sense of dissatisfaction.
The rest of your essay reminded me of some screenshots of a conversation between a sociologist (I think) and a Facebook architect who runs the newsfeed feature. A relevant point that came up is how personal agency never exists outside of context. For more individualistic societies, we tend to overemphasise the primacy of personal will over the everything else and are reluctant to acknowledge how much of who we are is shaped by external factors; not just fuzzy ones like parents and peers, but by film, music, advertising, social media run by faceless corporations etc. Even when we’re alert and aware we won’t realise major aspects of who we are and what we believe until we end up in a particular circumstance and are lucky enough to have it highlighted and challenged. Being able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality is often beside the point, IMO, when ideas from our reality are encoded in fantastical narratives which, via pleasant means, reinforce real-world notions. But it, unfortunately, still has to be pointed out since a lot of persons still waste their energy to patiently inform certain demographics that the entertainment they consume is not real life. (The NYT recently lectured romance readers on this bit of brand new information.)
The balancing act between isolation and socialising is hard but worth the effort, for sure. I’ve gone on for too long :D. But I really enjoyed this post.
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Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to write this. I’m very happy you’ve enjoyed it and that I was able to throw you a curve ball in terms of what you expect from WMC :).
I know have to read Nana at /some/ point.
Boy, do I agree with your second paragraph! You’ve conveyed a lot of what I was trying to (and a lot of helpful things I didn’t convey) in an elegant and fairly succinct manner. This part especially “…when ideas from our reality are encoded in fantastical narratives which, via pleasant means, reinforce real-world notions” socked me in the face. That’s exactly the notion I was gesturing towards and why developing critical thinking skills is so very important.
This was an intriguing read (I’m definitely going to have to read Sunspot)! Thanks for sharing. I’m sure you’re not far off in your discussion about the various reasons that anime is so attractive to socially withdrawn or high anxiety individuals. I hadn’t thought much about the connection these specific fans feel with the many antagonists who share these qualities. Sounds like something worth investigating!