Education by Entertainment
I’m not sure why I still watch a lot of anime and read a lot of manga that I do. I got into this stuff when I was in my teens– and back then, it was all revolutionary, because on average, there were a lot more adult themes to anime/manga that you couldn’t find in American comics of the same era. French comics were way ahead of American comics in this respect: they often dealt with taboo content such as sex, violence, and real depravity of the human psyche that American comics dealt with superficially, but I hadn’t yet discovered these at the time so I’ll make the comparison to manga/anime exclusively for now.
Maybe I’m outgrowing it. There are few animes now that I think are trying to do anything intellectual. The last interesting ones that bothered my brain a bit were Psycho-Pass, a story about the struggles of law enforcers in a Minority Report-esque legal system that crosses a bit with Gattica themes of social determinism; and Guilty Crown, to a lesser extent, a story about a young teenager’s rise to power in an Animal Farm setting because he arbitrarily come upon a power superior to those around him (hence, the “guilty crown”). I found those interesting because of the general themes to the animes– in executation however, looking too closely at any bits of it in isolation from the theme revealed how disintegrated animes and managas really are.
I think there’s a big difference between the way that an anime is executed and the way a live action series is executed. I think it has something to do with the serialised nature of the typical television anime– it’s episodal, and there are usually shitloads of characters. However, at the end of the day, anime characters are all scripted by the same person, and art direction is done by usually one person whose job is to keep things in sync. The big difference between anime and live-action is that with live action, the director inevitably creates the screen production by linking together a handful of actors’ interpretations of script– and if you have good actors, you have a lot more space for some really interesting stuff with all of their acting– their acting is a mess of vector quantities trying to push different interpretations of the whole theme in different directions simulatensouly. In animes, the tug is limited to voice.
I’ll give you an example. One of my favourite characters of all time is Louis Litt from Suits. Sure, he gets some great dialouge– but I’m certain that a lot of my image of this character whenever I close my eyes is due to everything the individual actor (Rick Hoffman) put on top of the written idea. The character has a particular posture, a particular smile, a particular rhythm of speaking and body language that I do not think could be planned on paper.
Despite the writers’ of Suits final draft of a script, ultimately it is only a foundation– I think that the tugs of the individual characters are what add the dynamism that keep any series going.
I am not saying that a live action series cannot get boring– what I am saying is that if I were looking at the two mediums, characterisation is something that is, in my opinion, almost always done better in live action than in animes. There are, of course, exceptions, but I’m speaking generally.
In contrast, I feel that the process of creating an anime is a much more “controlled” environment, and that’s exactly the problem. Plot lines and character interactions tend to be streamlined in such a way that if you actually acted out anime scenes with live action actors, it would feel surreally unnatural. A lot of the way that an anime is arranged is all about timing– fitting a few objectives into a 22-minute episode. Sometimes, stalling to fill out 22 minutes.
Anime isn’t the only medium that suffers like this– if you watch any American cartoons of the Nickelodeon variety, it’s the same thing.
WIthout actors to interpret the individual characters and add a certain je ne sais quoi to them, what happens is that the direction maintains such streamlined control over all the characters that, if you’re looking out for it, you see how very formulaic animations really are– especially the ones that reuse frames.
A side effect of the strict control on characters is the need to artifically add characterisation to the characters — and that’s how you end up with anime characters who are exaggerated trophes.
I grew up reading things like Ranma 1/2, Sailor Moon, and City Hunter. Later, in the golden age of my anime watching, I got to grow up watching the early seasons of things like Bleach, Naruto, and Hajime no Ippo. I’ve literally read and watched hundreds of more obscure titles, but I’m just using these as examples because they’re more likely to be common ground with a lot of people.
Nowadays, when I watch Bleach, Naruto, and Hajime no Ippo, I do so out of an attempt at nostalgia more than anything else. I grew up with them in a way that used to make me feel like I was their friends– when I was younger, I had a much more simplistic view of the world.
Nowadays? If I met people like Ichigo, Naruto, or Ippo, or any of their friends for that matter, I would not want to know them– because they’re infuriatingly stupid people. They used to grow– but somewhere, the writers for those characters ran out of ways to make them feel any more real and sympathisable as characters. Indeed, if they became any more real, they might lose the exaggerated qualities that made the trope formulas work in the first place– so the characters remain emotional intelligence idiots. They learn new techniques, they get more powerful, but their ability to interact with other people in meaningful ways? None of that ever changes.
I guess what I’m getting at is that when we’re young, we’re looking for heroes. Heroes are something that we get to look forward to. We want to become them. I wanted to be a Jedi when I was a kid, for example. It wasn’t just because of what they could do– it was because of who they were on the inside that heroes were heroes to us.
But as we grow older, the downfall of stories that continue with us is that if they don’t grow to stay ahead, we feel an emptiness when we surpass them. That is not to say that I am a more powerful ninja, soul reaper or boxer than a fictional character– but as human beings, I feel that I’ve grown in intelligence and emotional capcity. In comparison, these characters are so broken that I sometimes feel betrayed to have ever believed in them– they are so narrowly focused on excellence in a particular thing that they completely ignore growth of any spiritual or emotional sort.
What is the lesson that a typical shonen hero teaches us?
Fight, fight, FIGHT. In real life, that kind of obstinancy makes you a grown adult who is embarassing to be around because you’d essentially be trying out-preach people with tantrums rather than reason. Fighting is a child’s method of argument. When does a character who we aspire to put away childish things? Or at least, learn to use it as a tool as part of some greater thing? Nobody trusts someone with perfect resolve– because that sort of lack of fear or contextual sensitivity is the stuff of sociopaths and psychopaths. Their beliefs are arbitrary, and their orientation towards their personal goals draws a line: you’re either on their side or you’re not.
What kinds of examples do these characters set?
Don’t you feel that oftentimes, the villains have actually thought about social interaction a bit more than the main characters?
Am I the only one who sympathises with Ozymandius and Madara? Why should characters who have actually suffered real loss be marginalised to trophic heroes who are nothing more than indocrtinated partisans who have never really thought about how people in society interact?