I come by my love of speculative fiction honestly: my parents. They both like and appreciate Science Fiction– and fantasy, to a lesser extent– and are actually fairly big consumers of Sci-Fi television and movies. Neither are what I’d call a nerd, exactly, but neither are they really mundanes. And maybe that’s why I find their unwillingness to attempt to watch anything animated– particularly anime– so mind-boggling.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’ve known a couple other folks of their age who appreciate the fruit of the nerd world and won’t touch animated works. Mom can’t get images of Speed Racer out of her head, apparently. But then, I know a few people out there of my age or younger who also won’t touch the stuff. And I suppose, at first blush, it’s reasonable. Until recently, the stereotype has been big eyes and poorly-dubbed, poorly animated cartoons; as of late, the stereotype is big eyes and probably a little sleazy, or else cute monsters and children.
So why do I keep dragging up anime shows in this column? Why should the uninitiated care?
Here, the genuine “weeb” would probably lecture you about the superiority of Japan and Japanese animation. I’m not; I think a lot of it has been utter crap lately. (Though I think it’s likely that Sturgeon’s Law is just more visible with the internet making importing foreign entertainment easier. Once upon a time, we had to wait for a company to decide it was worth importing and localizing an anime, or a fansub group deciding it was worth their time; now it takes about 12 hours for even amateur fansub groups to translate and release an episode.) What I do think anime has going for it is, A), a limited-run format that typically encourages shows to have complete story arcs, B), a willingness to gamble and creatively stretch due to that limited-run format, C), a foreign culture that gives fresh perspectives on things, and D), what is, as far as I can tell, an almost complete lack of SJW taint.
Anime is a medium dominated by genres: mostly the speculative fiction genres (fantasy, scifi, and horror), slice-of-life, comedy, and romances. There are all the usual sub-genres, plus a healthy dash of things that more or less originated with anime, such as the magical girl show (Sailor Moon, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and the giant robot (“mech”) show. (And yeah, Heinlein probably had the first mechs in Starship Troopers, but I wonder if that was so much the inspiration as it was a parallel evolution.) I don’t know if steampunk really originated with anime, but I know that I was definitely seeing steampunk settings from Japan well before I’d heard the word or saw anything steampunk from the West.
The limited run format is a huge draw for me with anime. There are some series (Naruto, Bleach, etc.) that go on forever, but it’s more common for a show to run 10-13 episodes or 24-26, and that is that. Second seasons are uncommon, and when a show is good enough to get one, it’s usually more of a sequel series than a second season per se. What this means is that you usually get a complete story from anime: series are frequently written with an end in mind and in sight, and you have very little worry about a show you like being cancelled midstream, ala Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles or Dollhouse. Even Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, despite running sixty-some episodes, is almost straight story with little filler material. (Even anime has filler problems.)
That limited run format for televison also opens the medium up for experimentation. That isn’t to say that anime tropes can’t get stale– we’re in a period of terrible big-eyed staleness– or that producers don’t meddle. (There near-future, Tom Clancy-esque mech show Gasaraki made its producers highly antsy when they found out it would contain precisely two types of robots, both of which would be fairly drab and military in appearance. “But how do we have toy sales with only two robots?”) But when you’re only on the hook for twelve or thirteen episodes, you can get a little crazy. Try to imagine a slow, surrealist cyberpunk series about an adolescent girl surviving on Western television; if it ever got out the door, I’d imagine it’d be canceled after the first season. But Serial Experiments Lain ran its whole arc and became a classic.
After a while, you get used to Japan and the Japaneseness of things. It’s easy to forget that, despite being probably the most Western-style nation of Asia, they come at that from a very foreign perspective with a different set of foundational assumptions. It’s probably most clearly seen in the fantastic Studio Ghibli’s films: Princess Mononoke, viewed by some as a environmentalist sort of film, is actually more reflective of Shinto beliefs and values than it is any sort of legitimate environmentalism. The studio’s gentler follow up, Spirited Away, draws even more heavily on Shinto beliefs: it is largely set in a bathhouse for the multitudinous “spirits” of Japan, the kami, and while you don’t need to understand Shinto to watch the movie, it really makes the film pop when you have a basic grasp on it. (There’s an easy to read and fantastic book by a former professor of mine, Dr. Thomas Kasulis, that’s a good intro to Shinto.) The different fundamental assertions of Japanese society makes for, if not a more creative approach to fiction, at least a more novel one; the creators of this stuff are working from a different perspective, and that’s refreshing, especially given the sudden desire for conformity to a political agenda we’re seeing in the US. And that’s probably one of the really refreshing things: Maybe it’s the physical distance, or maybe it’s the cultural difference, but I don’t know the last time an anime tried to lecture me about social justice concerns. They don’t really seem to have bought into the wholesale politics-mongering that we get from US and European works; they’re usually more interested in telling their stories than they are in anything else.