This post originally appeared on my now-redundant blog in the summer of 2015. I’m currently working on a follow-up.
I’ve never understood anime. And believe me, I’ve tried. When I was young, kids all over the playground would be talking about Pokemon and Dragon Ball and Yu-Gi-Oh. I didn’t get it. I pretended to enjoy Pokemon; I begged my parents to rent the major motion picture on VHS when it came to Blockbuster. (That has to be the most 90s sentence I’ve typed in a long time.)
But it didn’t click. I couldn’t grasp why each episode would end right before a battle would happen. I didn’t understand why nothing would be resolved. There would always be another challenger, another Pokemon the boy with the hat and his misfit bunch had to catch. There would be 600 more episodes where nothing happened. I didn’t see why all these characters felt the need to yell, grunt, and gasp instead of using real words. And when they did use words, they filled up 22 minutes with complicated exposition in place of things actually happening.
So I quit. I didn’t pay attention to anime for years and years. It wasn’t for me, and that was alright.
In middle school, my dad of all people, started to watch anime. He found the Funimation channel on our cable package, and he began recording their entire catalogue to our DVR, driving the rest of our family crazy. (There, that’s a much more modern sentence.) He watched them all, from supernatural shows like xxxHolic and Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle to school comedies like Peach Girl and Ouran High School Host Club.
I thought he was losing his mind, or at the very least going through the strangest mid-life crisis. I still thought anime was strange. It was odd to see characters that were supposed to be my age placed into vaguely sexual situations. At the same time, I began to see the merit. These were series that actually had plot, that didn’t waste hundreds of episodes spinning their wheels only to go nowhere.
There was one show on the network that held my attention and oddly enough, it was one my dad didn’t enjoy. It was called Mushishi. The only way I can describe it is as The X-Files set in rural Japan. Even though I somewhat enjoyed the stories of townsfolk being haunted by unseen spirits that affected their children and their dead, it didn’t stick. I have a hard time getting into any procedural show without a longform story, so Mushishi didn’t have much of a chance.
Eventually my father’s obsession died off. Whether he got bored or had simply seen all the shows Funimation had scheduled I’m not sure. But once again, anime faded from from my recognition and years passed.
Then came Persona. Persona 4 Golden for the Playstation Vita specifically. A full post will almost certainly be devoted to how awesome this series is, perhaps when Persona 5 comes out. P4G was a game I bought on sale, because it was apparently supposed to be the absolute best game on the system. To keep it short, I was hooked, enamoured with the characters and the story. After playing through the game, and the iteration before it (Persona 3 Portable to be exact) I sought stories that were similar. And so, after all this time, I found anime.
Netflix recommended Psycho-Pass, a story about a dystopian future where a person’s psychological state is readable and potential criminals are apprehended before they can commit crimes. Like Persona, the series deals with psychological themes, specifically the Jungian ideals of a mask that a person projects is different than their internal self. The series acted as an allegory for the stigma of modern mental illness and its perceptions. I blazed through all twenty-two episodes and started looking up other anime.
I quickly learned that anime itself wasn’t an entertainment genre but a medium. If I wanted sci-fi, horror, realism, there were division of anime to satisfy those requirements. I watched Chaos;Head, intrigued by the high school main character’s isolation and in a meta twist, his obsession with anime.
After that I watched perhaps my favorite series so far, Welcome to the N.H.K. Here I learned more about Japanese culture, specifically the term hikikomori, which means a young person that withdraws from society as a recluse. I was fascinated by the way these anime dealt with mental issues from anxiety to depression and suicide in a much more direct and caring way than what is seen in western entertainment. Welcome to the N.H.K. was funny, tragic, and touching. The writing was sharp and consistent, and I actually cared what happened to these characters. It became a series that never wanted to end, and its 24 episodes were over too soon. It will be hard to find a series that can affect me like Welcome to the N.H.K. did. My Little Monster is in a similar, if not less mature, vein and while I enjoyed it, the series didn’t have the same unique charm and characters.
I’ve realized that anime is not told in the familiar three act structure TV shows in the west follow. This means that it’s harder to pick up on story beats, and reveals and twists are more likely to surprise because of the difficulty in identifying when they’re coming. Since episodes aren’t structured the same way, they feel distinct from each other and don’t fit into a discernable pattern. From a narrative perspective, anime has me completely hooked.
But not every anime I have watched has stuck. Based on my sensibilities, I thought I would love Blue Exorcist and its story of the spawn of satan training to destroy demons and eventually kill his father. But I found the slow pace and annoying protagonist too much to overcome. Deadman Wonderland also featured an interesting premise, but it is the first instance I’ve had of “anime snobbery,” where I’ve found the dub to be downright awful. It is also hard for me to care about the whiny protagonist, even after listening to the original Japanese voice acting with subtitles.
I loved Kill la Kill and its seeming parody of my previous issues with anime, namely the sexualization of high school girls and a protagonist battling an adversary every week. But it’s absolutely silly in its deconstruction of these tropes, and the art is unique in its chaos.
Most recently I’ve ventured into super surreal avant-gard anime, like Paranoia Agent, Serial Experiments Lain, and FLCL or Furi Curi or Fooly Cooly (I’m still not sure which is the proper title). These are series that more closely mirror my sensibilities in other forms of media by exploring psychological horror. Paranoia Agent and Lain both continue the trend of blending the psychological with technology. Paranoia Agent features a really cool interconnected story about how we relate to others and attempt to understand ourselves. Serial Experiments Lain, while produced in 1998, adequately extrapolates the development of the Internet and its effect on culture in a very eerie way.
FLCL, is another favorite. I love the absolute madness of its art style and color and the sheer craziness of the plot and the anachronistic setting is right up my alley, not to mention the kick-ass garage rock soundtrack that I will actually be buying some time soon.
I’m not even close to being an anime expert, and I don’t believe I understand half of what I’ve talked about here, but I’ve had a blast exploring this new form of media. I may still enjoy most dubs over subs, but I’ve discovered some incredible stories and characters and I only wish I had been as open-minded earlier. I’ve found stories that explore depression and mental illness in an intelligent way while featuring existentialist themes. I can’t wait to find more series that can influence my own approach to narrative and characterization, or at least have some sort of emotional resonance.