By Sam Handrick – I recently saw the season finale of a show that consisted of a man who simultaneously exists in every parallel dimension traveling through space with a talking cleaning robot and a humanoid cat. In the season finale that man fought a giant energy dragon while piloting an armed mechanized version of the Statue of Liberty, ended the universe, and then turned down an offer to become god, instead recreating the universe to be the exact same as before so that he could visit his favorite breastaurant. Does that sound strange? Well, that’s because it is. It’s also incredibly compelling, entertaining, and unique. The show is called Space Dandy, and it belongs to the genre of animated TV shows originating in Japan commonly referred to as anime.
Anime in a Nutshell
If you’re not very familiar with the genre, anime is the collective term for animated productions originating from Japan. The shows, movies, and shorts within the genre cover a wide range of tones, themes, settings, and plots, so as a whole the genre is extremely varied. To give a brief history lesson anime grew out of the Japanese comics known as manga, which began in war-battered post-WWII Japan. Originating from the works of Osamu Tezuka, manga and, not long after, anime soon developed into a gargantuan industry in Japan. Beginning in the 70s and 80s and hitting it’s stride in the later 90s, anime localization soon brought the genre to western shores as well.
Nowadays anime is fairly well known around the world, though almost all shows still originate from Japan where it remains most popular. You’ve probably heard of a few anime shows even if you aren’t terribly familiar with the genre. Shows such as Dragonball Z, Naruto, Bleach, Cowboy Bebop, and Evangelion have become quite popular outside of the groups of people who actively follow the genre. Regardless of this popularity, anime often holds a connotation in the public consciousness of being childish, over-dramatic, or otherwise strange, especially compared to western media. While these generalizations are not without some cause, the genre also holds distinct value to the whole spectrum of storytelling media in the way of its unique and, in may ways refreshingly different, nature in approaching storytelling.
The range of settings, plot types, and general event progression found in anime is dizzying. From the scientifically-based magic of alchemy used in the steampunk realm of Fullmetal Alchemist to the American West- inspired desert planet of Gunsmoke which hides a crucial sci-fi secret in Trigun, anime can certainly run the gamut in the breadth of settings and characters.
This is heavily contrasted by the settings and plots of the majority of western movies, shows, and other stories. When was the last time a western-made story had a compellingly creative setting? This is certainly not to discount the quality of western storytelling. TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones prove the impeccable quality of some western stories, but these also serve as great examples of the fact that western storytelling seems to, at the moment, rely more on the minute subtleties of how stories unfold as opposed to the creative scope of the world’s and character’s designs. This is not to say that minute subtleties are a negative element of writing, and in fact I would suggest quite the opposite, but anime offers a foil to the more conservative storytelling practices of the west which makes it refreshing and intriguing in the degree that it differs from the stories many of us are used to.
Setting a Different Kind of Example
Anime’s large creative breadth is manifested in a wide variety of ways, but a few more prevalent ways in which its stories are often presented are worth examining as to what we may learn from them in crafting our own stories or getting the most out of examining others.
Firstly, stories in the genre seem to be less generally tied down to notions of previously-built settings or premises. Western stories often derive from heavily significant works and often do so without great deviation. Consider how many fantasy stories channel Tokien, or how certain science fiction tales (admittedly to a lesser degree than fantasy) take elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, or even possibly Asmiov’s Foundation series.
While quite a few exceptions exist, anime seems on the whole less tethered to preconceived ideas of world building. Cowboy Bebop‘s still-early space-faring age is at once filled with a sad dystopic quality yet also with wonder and intrigue as other-planetary cities reflect the modern squalor of some urban locales and yet other stars and planets brim with potential and mystery.
Gurren Lagann‘s pseudo-scientific realm of willpower-driven energy contained the sad reality of humanity driven completely underground and living in darkness both literally and in the way of intelligence and ambition clashing with the rising tide of rebellion and hope and the glint of something far grander tucked behind the curtain of what humans know.
Ghost in the Shell‘s choice of a near-future setting (somewhat underutilized in modern storytelling) brings to the forefront for examination our notions of humanity and intelligence while also examining the wonder of human achievement as it clashes with our basest desires and fears. Each of these settings offers a distinct and interesting view of what a setting might be, and what a story could become given the cradle in which we place it.
Not Tied to Realism
Along with not being as inherently tied to pre-made setting types as western media, I also believe that anime on the whole is less concerned with telling an entirely realistic story or only implementing realistically feasible elements (at times even adding supernatural or magical qualities to a normally realistic premise), and that this choice makes for more interesting, or at least, more creatively freeing works.
Code Geass is a show about political strife and rebellion in the face of an overwhelming hegemony, which sounds like an intriguing enough premise alone, one I think you may find more easily in western media. And yet, the show then introduces a further, almost supernatural, element of a control-geass; an ability to issue absolute commands to others (with the limit of one command for a single person) which adds additional intrigue as to how the ability is used, how characters react to it, and how that relates to the already-present concepts of political strife and hegemonic control. It’s a tying of innately-human storytelling concepts with intriguingly new manifestations of those concepts, or new ways of telling a story with such concepts.
Death Note is another show that makes use of this, examining the nature of what it means to be a criminal or law-enforcer, and what the nature of law and punishment actually means yet doing so through a story that makes use of classical Japanese gods of death and a notebook that can kill at will.
For a third example we can examine the previously-mentioned Fullmetal Alchemist, which covers some of the darkest themes of what human potential is capable of, and what scientific advancement means for the moral and personal side of our lives, and yet does so via an almost-magical manifestation of scientific concepts known in the story as alchemy. This element allows these concepts to come to the forefront of the world’s issues and makes it exciting and fascinating to see those ideas manifested in a totally different way through unique story concepts and plot elements.
All of these examples showcase a sliver of the power and entertainment value of telling stories with our own twists and new ideas about the execution of what may be an older storytelling concept and how that makes the work more refreshing, compelling, and entertaining as a whole. In this way many shows or movies in anime also set themselves apart creatively from other stories.
Origins of Anime’s Creativity
The nature of this seemingly greater creative breadth is difficult to pin down, but there’s several reasons that may serve as the primary causes for it. Firstly there is the medium from which anime originated and that which it seems perpetually tied to; manga. Manga, or Japanese comics, feature very similar stories to anime, and the two media types inform each other greatly. The majority of anime produced today originate from a manga, and successful anime series not originating from a manga are usually adapted to manga form at some point or another.
Normally anime production studios will choose to work on stories that have a proven amount of popularity, and thus most anime in existence originates from a manga series made beforehand. Manga volumes, unlike western comics, are often lengthy and uncolored. Manga is also relatively cheap and easy to produce compared to most media, and it is not exceptionally difficult to have manga published. These combined factors make it so that the manga industry is a thriving center for creativity and experimentation that isn’t extremely limited by the need for large teams or high production costs. In this environment we can find an excellent springboard toward getting stories produced as anime series and thus a hotbed of diverse creative works.
Complex and Mature Content
Another element that sets anime apart from its western counter parts is its maturity level. Western animation is almost entirely restricted to child-oriented content, while mature stories are almost universally brought to a TV or movie screen as a live action production. While anime contains a fair deal of shows and movies directed towards children, a large part of the works in the genre are actually quite mature and intended for an adult audience while still being animated.
This has several benefits, the first being the execution of tone and style in anime. With live-action pieces, the artistic tone is limited by the confines of the nature of how our worlds looks. Through various lenses, framerates, and filters we can adjust the look of a live action work slightly, but not in a very significant manner. With animated works the style of the characters, the color palette, the line distinction–all of these can be heavily varied in their execution leading to vastly different looking aesthetics and visual tones.
With this potential tool-set available for stories being made via animation it’s disappointing to see mature western media make little to no use of it. A good deal of anime makes great use of the distinctions in art and animation to make unique and interesting aesthetics to accompany their stories, and it can offer awe-inspiring instances of beautifully done animation on top of the quality of the characters, plot, and setting that they have to offer as well.
Issues with Anime
However, for it’s varied and dizzying large variety of works and often compelling use of animation, anime is still a genre with noticeable issues. It’s likely that even if you aren’t terribly familiar with the genre you’re aware of some of these concerns, as they’ve come to shape the image of anime on an international scale and serve as warnings for other storytelling media and genres.
One of the most prevalent concerns many have with anime is the fact that for the side of it that is intensely creative and unique there are a variety of cliches and tropes that dominate certain shows and movies. Tropes such as harems (stories where a male character attempts to juggle relationships with various girls or women who often have some romantic interest in him), high-school slice-of-life stories, or classic shounen (manga and anime intended for younger boys) tales about young men getting progressively stronger while learning the power of friendship all are examples of over-used plot premises that over-saturate the genre and lead, at times, to predictable, boring, or frustrating stories in the way of their inability to offer anything unique or new in their plot or characters.
Note that I find there is a distinction between the openness and freedom of the concepts and settings of most anime (which as I’ve explained are often unique and well done) and the actual execution of such original settings and plots, which seems to so fall into the hole of over utilizing tropes. Tropes can offer tried-and-true ways of engaging audiences, or be remixed and changed to offer something refreshing, but if utilized to an extreme they lessen the impact of plot elements and make a story monotonous in its predictability, and with the degree to which the tropes listed above and various more are employed in certain anime shows it can be easy to grow exhausted by the amount of shows and movies in the genre that never move outside of the zone of the foreseeable and never employ story ideas that haven’t been previously attempted.
In the same way as sometimes diluting the quality of plot elements through overused tropes, anime also has a habit of reducing the complexity, depth, and interest of their characters through focusing on what is commonly referred to as fan-service. Fan-service is something that can be found in any media with a focus on characters and it is when the creators of a work are interested in or feel compelled to focus on only what the majority of fans for the work find to be the positive or interesting elements of a character.
While aiming to please fans is not necessarily a bad thing, the collection of traits that people like above all else in a character doesn’t always come together to form a deep or compelling character. Fans may enjoy the strength and skill of a certain character, but if creators only focus on those aspects afterward then they lose the capacity to experiment with that character’s weakness or toy with a dynamic of that character being under drastically different circumstances than they are used to.
Even more prevalent than the changing of character traits in the name of fan service is the over-emphasis on physical (specifically sexual) traits of characters. A common scene to find in a amount of anime is one of a male protagonist coming across a female protagonist or secondary character in some stage of undress. Usually the female character gets visibly angry as a result and the scene usually concludes with the male character being attacked by the female. Various permutations of this scene exist, with a plethora of elements differing among different stories, however very rarely do scenes like this ever add meaningfully to the story at hand.
Often scenes such as these, or any extended periods of showcasing characters in a specifically revealing or sexual nature are almost entirely for the point of titillation. Scenes of this focus should not necessarily be considered bad, but these notions of fan service have become so ingrained in the genre that you find them in even more serious or character-driven stories, in which they end up feeling like forced and cheap methods of pandering.
Overall, anime is a strange, complicated, and sometimes contradictory genre. It is in some ways rooted in uninspired and archaic tropes and compelled toward cheap storytelling in the pursuit of appeasing certain fans. From these less desirable elements of the genre we can see the lessons we may take away from anime. In telling stories characters are often more compelling and unique when defined by their own traits and development, and can be easily diminished as interesting people when forced into genre-wide tropes or put in situations squarely focused on fan-service.
However, anime has a lot more to offer than over-sexualized characters and trope-heavy plots. Contrasting the more trope ridden stories are innumerable compelling and refreshingly original settings, characters, and plots that make for an awesome show or movie the likes of which have possibly never been seen before. For every anime show that relies on fan service there is one that leverages a wholly unique idea to create a story without comparison; one that helps to remind us storytellers of what yet remains unexplored in the realm of what we can make and explore through stories and characters.
Perhaps you thought the scenario I opened with was strange or odd, but it (and the show to which it belongs) is also intensely creative and intriguing, as it explores well-tread ground from a new perspective, or toys with a trope in a never-before-seen way, or creates something entirely distinct and new that has the ability to fascinate or make us wonder. These are compelling and worthwhile traits to have in our creative media, and anime can often supply them in spades.
To note, there have been many generalizations I’ve made throughout this piece in an effort to get to a point about the nature of most anime and the nature of the industry, and so not everything I have said applies to every anime series out there. The best way to discover for yourself where these concepts and storytelling elements appear is to find and watch some of the works of anime yourself. There’s a lot to be learned, both good and bad, from the stories that have been told and are still being made to this day, and on top of learning something, you might just be able to enjoy a crazy, wacky, strange, heartwarming, or unique story, because anime has quite a few of those to spare.
Sam Handrick is a college student and writer, with a love of storytelling and Japanese culture. He’s enjoyed anime since he was a child and it helped to inspire his aspiration of telling stories, which he is currently striving to do by majoring in Game Development (with a minor in Japanese of course). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org