Friday, November 5, 2010

Things I Learned from Anime, pt. 1

It's gotten to the point where a number of writers my age are acknowledging the profound effects video games had on them as developing storytellers. Something you don't hear so much about, probably because it's a bit more embarrassing, is anime. For my part, anime has been and continues to be a rather huge influence. This is not to say I see it as being generally high art -- I don't -- but the combination of an unfamiliar culture and an attempt to take a powerful form (animation) seriously as a means of producing art has been a great spur to my own storytelling.

I started watching anime (here I show my age) with crowd-pleasing crap-fests like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z. This was what was on TV if you didn't have cable (and, well, also if you did). I would occasionally get a glimpse of Gundam Wing, which was simultaneously more dignified and more ridiculous.

I'm still rather fascinated by the Dragon Ball Z formula in particular. It's probably the best show to watch drunk. They have to make about twenty minutes of television on a budget suited for six. It's a show about aliens, some of which look like people, punching each other over and over. The fights are, when they manage to animate them, beautifully over the top -- but most of the time they stand or float, shuddering, talking about how strong the other guy is, or how strong they are, or etc. Hint: They are always getting stronger.

It's really just about the stupidest thing on television. There isn't really any art to it apart from pure gratification of the audience. But there's a shamelessness about it that almost becomes beautiful; the show is definitely and only about increasingly strong dudes hitting each other through increasingly large rock formations, up to and including planets. It's weird, exploitative, occasionally racist, poorly structured, even pornographic, but everything they do is aligned with the simple purpose of getting the viewer off. Even if you know how ridiculous it is, even if you're way outside the 8 to 14-year-old male demographic the show is aimed at, occasionally you find yourself enjoying the sight of a guy punching another guy into the sky, teleporting behind him, and intercepting his face with an elbow.

In the US, we understand the competing desires of creator and audience as one of the principle tensions in making art. In fact, we often imagine the tension as out-and-out conflict: either you're making great art, which is overwhelmingly likely to alienate, confuse, and irritate your audience, or you're making low art, which is designed to gratify them at a cost to your own dignity and the quality of the work itself. Extreme cases of either impulse are, depending on who you ask, totally unacceptable: art for art's sake can quickly become masturbatory, where as art for audience's sake can become ugly pandering. Most creators try to find a balance between the two.

In Japan, however, you'll often find maximal interpretations of both mandates side by side in the same work. Consider, for instance, Ghost in the Shell, a franchise that balances masturbatory high art with naked fan-service. Here's some art from the show:

Yes, she really does dress like that -- when she's wearing clothes at all. The character is a tough-as-nails future cop cyborg who combines intense intelligence with a capacity for shocking violence, and she dresses like a space hooker. The first time you see her in the original film, she's basically naked (and killing a guy). If you believed the promotional materials, you'd think it was a show about the unique charms of the android nipple.

To be sure, there are some intellectual/artistic gestures made through the presentation of Kusanagi's body; the films are participating in the very strange discourse of technology, the body, and femininity that seems to have some very deep roots in human psychology, and occasionally there will be a striking image that seems to justify the exploitative imagery in those terms. Generally the films and TV series are just plain exploitative, however, at least concerning its protagonist's body.

At the same time, the characters are given to lengthy philosophical discussions about the natures of existence, consciousness, virtual reality, machines, the soul, etc. They reference -- sometimes obliquely, but often directly -- the works of such relatively obscure worthies as Donna Haraway and Jean Baudrillard. These conversations are sometimes fascinating but somewhat tangential, but often they form the spine of the plot: if you aren't interested in the philosophy, you're probably not going to know what's happening at all by the film's end.

Ghost in the Shell is exceptional in that its crowd-pleasing gestures and high art maneuvers actually sort of resolve into a working piece of art/entertainment, particularly the Mamoru Oshii-directed films that established the franchise. This is due in part to the cyberpunk genre, whose tenets have developed precisely to allow this sort of uncomfortable meld (see the delirious works of William Gibson, etc.). But I think it mainly means that Ghost in the Shell is good Japanese film/television. You see a lot of shows trying to do something similar. I have no idea if it's the majority (I can't ever get a good sense of how much of their output gets translated + localized, how representative what we see is) but it doesn't seem uncommon among some of the most successful shows: Neon Genesis Evangelion is likewise largely successful at weaving its exploitative and crowd-pleasing gestures into one of the most notoriously bizarre, high-art entertainments ever created. (The film that capped the original series is a particularly gorgeous little mindfuck.)

To be sure, the results of this philosophy are often merely crappy in two competing ways: you don't have to dig deep to find a series that pays excessive attention to little girl panties one minute and moral lessons the next. These are worse than hypocritical, they're bad.

So one thing I've learned from anime is to embrace aesthetic hypocrisy and self-contradiciton. Purity is for losers: be an artist, be an entertainer, make what you like. Find beauty wherever and however you can. (There's more to be said about hypocrisy, which is actually arguably the ethos of anime, the philosophical obsession of many series. But we'll return to that point in another post.) The American obsession with philosophical/aesthetic purity and correctness often seems childish and counterproductive as a result. I've always aimed to make art that was as thrilling to myself and my readers on as many levels as possible: the visceral, the sensual, the philosophical, and so on. Why not? What could be more absorbing?


  1. Great post, man. Really brought back a lot of memories. And I have to admit, I'm surprised I haven't seen more writers bring up Neon Genesis Evangelion.

  2. Truth is I never watched the whole series -- I know and respect some people who speak very highly of it, but some of its tendencies REALLY grate on me. I am watching the new movie remakes with some interest, however.

  3. here's one thing I learned, YOU CAN NEVER DIE FROM BLOOD LOSS oh, and the louder you yell the stronger you get