Why Do We Anime: The Contemplations of an Otaku
Before I get into the meat of this article, I’d like to note that this is an opinion piece about why I like anime as much as I do, which is largely based on my own experiences. While I think many people can identify with my ideas and conclusions, not everyone will. Please do not be offended by any sweeping generalizations I may make about otaku culture.
“Anime was a mistake.”
7:00p.m., the editors and writers of The Vault Publication sit in a conference room discussing business as usual. Suddenly, one innocent statement thrusts everyone into the existential crisis that is “why do we watch anime?”. This is not an extraordinary event; this opinion has been expressed and debated before. None of us really have an answer, yet we all remain steadfast in our love and devotion to the medium. Why is that? I’ve asked myself this question many times since becoming a self-proclaimed “otaku”, and there are many legitimate reasons I can think of. From the brilliantly illustrated worlds and adventures, to the vibrant animation of unrealistically cute creatures and unrealistically attractive characters, there is no shortage of reason to support being as obsessed with anime as the next cosplaying convention goer.
Unfortunately, the equally heaping number of reasons to detest anime cannot be overlooked. There are too many longer genres with repetitive arcs and cyclic story progression, where the lesson learned is almost always “THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP!!”. Even in shorter genres most storylines and plot devices seem overused and tired. To further this argument, the absolute abundance of cliché tropes and character archetypes gets tiresome really fast. When all is said and done, we still have to deal with crap narrative that typically has us feeling more second hand embarrassment and guilt for watching than the parent of a convict sitting in court. The worst part is that despite it, we somehow always find ourselves midway through a new season of anime wondering why we’ve wasted x number of hours on whatever action thriller, murder mystery, or gratuitous JRPG inspired harem title is currently playing on the screen in front of us. We all wonder, and yet 99.9% of the time we immediately make the decision to see it through to the end, ignoring our screaming unwritten papers and better judgment just to achieve some meager sense of completion and closure.
I may seem like a staunch supporter of the anti-anime movement when, as a matter of fact, I am quite the opposite. I love anime of all sorts, no matter how cheesy or unfulfilling it can be, but even I sometimes have a hard time understanding why. Before writing this article I tried to pro-con anime only to find myself no closer to an answer. Thus, I’ve decided to approach the problem differently by taking a look at the otaku lifestyle as a major derivative of the anime medium. Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain the otaku.
In Japan, the term “otaku” classically refers to people with obsessive interests, usually bearing a strong negative connotation and directed at males. The word was coined to label a very specific demographic of young to middle aged men who were unsuccessful in marrying and improving their social standing after high school or secondary education. Due to their lack of success, these “unattractive” individuals would then funnel all their time and money into hobbies, attempting to retreat from their disappointing lives (harsh isn’t it?) by seeking asylum in fantasy. What hobby happens to align perfectly with spending money and escapism? Anime,manga and games, thus giving rise to the otaku subculture. Contemporary usage of the word is now equivalent to “nerd” or “geek”, namely anyone who is obsessed with anime, manga and gaming as more than casual hobbies or forms of entertainment. People classified as “otaku” are typically singled out and judged as being out of touch with reality, unproductive members of society, or “hikikumori” (recluse or hermit) in extreme situations.
When the word was adopted into the English language, its meaning changed and the negative connotation was dropped. In Western culture, “otaku” simply refers to an individual who is interested in anime and manga. It is also sometimes used for individuals who like Japanese games or Japanese culture as a whole. Otaku are still classified as “nerds” and “geeks”, but they are not widely discriminated against because of it. Of course, this depends on who you ask. Some people have definitely faced their fair share of bullying troubles and my heart goes out to them. That being said, most people can live day to day without being harassed for their love of anime as much as the Japanese counterpart. Is that all it means to identify as an otaku in our Western culture? I think there’s more to it, but to discover the real value of the westernized otaku lifestyle, you need to take a closer look at the direct effects anime has on people. Like games, comics, and all other things “geeky”, anime has the ability to indoctrinate its spectators. While resultant changes in lifestyle can largely depend on the individual in question, most people exposed to anime gain the same socializing and escapist habits. These are the two components of the otaku way of life I’m going to further analyze below.
Otaku is essentially a synonym for fan (I actually did a google search of “fan lifestyle” and the wikipedia page for “otaku” was only fourth down on the list). Naturally, where there are fans there will be fandoms- and hundreds of them in the case of anime. Fandoms are a huge part of the otaku culture because they dictate how we socialize. I remember the very first fandom I interacted with. As a kid I religiously watched Adult Swim’s evening anime lineup, which included the likes of Naruto, Bleach, Gundam Seed, and a few other long running shounen series. My favourite of the selection by far was Inuyasha. I adored every aspect of the show and was silly in love with Inuyasha himself. Six year old me thought Inuyasha was- very literally- the perfect combination of badass samurai and loveable puppy dog. Imagine my surprise when I discovered legions of fans who shared my adoration for the wild, sword wielding demon boy. Be it classmates, kids I met in extracurriculars, or the faceless people of the internet, there were loads of other people who wanted to talk about Inuyasha just as much as I did. Even now, years after I grew out of my girlhood crush, I still connect with so many people through a shared past devotion to the show. The same is true for so many different fandoms. Whether you choose to be a Narutard or a soapbox preacher of Haruhiism, there’s plenty to talk about with fellow fans.
An interesting point that was brought to my attention was the role of tropes to fans. I know I knocked tropes pretty hard earlier in the article (because they tend to be detrimental to both plot and character development) but what I failed to mention was how beneficial they can be to the viewer. Like it or hate it, character tropes help us decide what to watch. It’s pretty easy to pick up on anime tropes in the first episode- sometimes even in the poster alone- due to the appearance, behaviour, and even voice acting for a given character. So many people love tropes simply because they are a tell tale sign of which characters you’re going to like, and by extension which series. Since these “what to watch” decisions are made so loosely with this method of consideration, most otaku end up watching anything and everything with ease. You don’t have to like it or finish it, and everything you watch adds to an encyclopedic knowledge that will eventually come in handy when deciding on a cosplay and trying to make conversation at conventions.
Conventions bring me to another anther aspect of the otaku’s social experience, and that is how friendly and open the community is. If you’ve ever been to an anime convention you’d know that for the most part everyone is in high spirits and you can approach random strangers with a random anime-related topic and end up in a lengthy conversation. Anime really has the ability to help us let down our guard, embrace our weirdness, and bring us together. Nobody fears rejection or alienation so out go the facades, and in come the confidence enough to run around in full costume while having loud, animated debates about anime in public. You aren’t judged for having any less or more knowledge about the medium than others (like with comics), and there’s no overbearing animosity or toxic feelings between fandoms (like the gaming community). Everyone in the otaku community is pretty happy to be themselves, be a fan, and have as much fun doing so as is possible without complication. It’s a very hard to find a similar psychographic, and I believe it increases the value of the otaku lifestyle tenfold.
Being able to make easy conversation with everyone in sight is a plus for anime in my books, but what if I want to be alone? The social aspect of the otaku lifestyle is a big one, but the other side of the coin is escapism. Entertainment media is made to provide the audience with an escape from reality, but anime is perhaps one of the most effective getaways. With vibrant colours, brilliant sounds, and interesting stories, before you know it you’ve slipped into a binge watching coma with no intention of stopping.
Visuals and sounds are hugely important for escapism. While anime soundtracks can be spectacular and memorable, they aren’t that different from any other movie, game, or television soundtracks. For anime, the big emphasis is on visuals, which have always been known for having unique style and vibrant colours. There are many styles of animation, each with their own twist on the classic elements of anime graphics. Characters are fairly static; big eyes and Barbie like proportions are fairly consistent across many animation studios. That being said, some studios remain more steadfast to these guidelines than others. Kyoto Animation is a good example of stereotypical anime style. Titles always feature very delicate and cute looking characters with big, sparkling eyes.
Some creators diverge from this pattern in a big way, as is the case with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Upon release of a remake anime for the third instalment in the series, “Stardust Crusaders”, back in 2014, the JoJo franchise has seen a huge boom in popularity. With the show featuring numerous extremely muscular, perma-posing, male protagonists- accompanied by tons of over exaggerated sound effects- who wouldn’t want to be a die-hard fan?
As long as we’re talking about escapism and anime, it’s crucial to cover how settings are depicted in the medium. While character animation is critical to anime, background illustration and colour are what allow the viewer to really escape into a show. So many anime use creative and imaginative settings that serve as great showcases of the medium’s illustrative prowess. Personally, if a show is beautiful, I am immediately drawn to watch it and drown in the visuals. Anyone who’s ever watched a Studio Ghibli movie would understand this drowning sensation. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
In the movie Ponyo, the earth began to revert back to an ocean planet. The idea is terrifying, but the world is breathtaking and it almost makes you wish it could be true.
In the movie Spirited away, Chihiro works in a spirit world bathhouse run by a witch. The spirit town and bathhouse themselves are gorgeous, and the movie is constantly delivering more beauty as the scenes go by and the setting changes with them.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, a romantic story of magic and war, there are many scenes where true imagination comes through. The mechanical castle that serves as a home for the protagonists its otherworldly to be sure, but even a simple bedroom setting displays so much creativity.
The last Ghibli movie I want to draw from is Laputa: Castle in the Sky. As stated in the title, Laputa is a floating castle that was lost to civilization for decades, perhaps centuries. At its core, Laputa is the abandoned home of a powerful society where numerous secrets lie dormant within. On the surface it’s simply a beautiful ancient city inhabited by adorable creatures and a friendly robot.
Ghibli is a shining example of beautiful visuals, but there are so many other anime with visuals that are just as stunning, but for different reasons. For example, the Gundam universe is another shining display of imagination and creativity in anime. Gigantic robots and other mechatronics transport you into the sci-fi world with ease, and each series is successful in helping you forget your desktop in order to focus solely on the show. Another anime I love for its unique style is Kyousou Giga. There’s a stark difference from the beauty of Studio Ghibli, but its extremely vibrant colours and clean animation are just as effective means of escape.
Last thing I want to talk about is the story. Anime plot can be frustrating, but it remains to be one of the most important elements when it comes to escape. Anime like Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, Death Note, and many more are revered for their stories because they keep you at the edge of your seat, constantly wondering where the plot will take you next. Even when the narrative is lacking, with the proper progression and developments, story can still shine through and make for a great viewing experience. I found this to be the case with Kill La Kill. The first half of the series was extremely episodic and shallow, focusing more on fan service than story. I dropped Kill La Kill after episode 13, only to pick it back up when the show finished airing because I felt the need to finish it. Much to my surprise, I ended up loving the rest of the show, binge watching the remaining episodes in a matter of hours. Even after so much empty dialogue and hundreds of semi-nude battle sequences, by the latter half of the show I found myself really enjoying the story. By the end, the characters had been well developed and the plot was resolved in a way I really enjoyed, so much so that I felt a loss when there was none left to watch. More than anything, this demonstrated to me exactly how efficient a good story is to escapism. By pulling me in and holding my attention captive, I didn’t even realize I’d escaped until I was thrown back into reality after the show ended.
If writing this article has done nothing else for me, it has definitely reinvigorated my desire to watch anime. Even though the vast majority of anime have terrible narrative and subpar storytelling, every so often you’ll discover a gem that was worth sifting through the proverbial garbage for. Regardless of whether or not you’re already an anime lover, or need something to convince you to jump on the bandwagon, I hope you’ve come to realize that despite its many flaws anime is well worth any frustration it might cause. You may not agree, but I honestly believe anime has enriched my life in a way very few other things have been able to, and I hope it continues to do so for the rest of my life.