We rarely treat anime with the reverence we reserve for cinema and literature. Even after I have spent some time arguing its merits, people usually just concede that, ‘Anime isn’t only for furries. It’s very beautiful too.’ Like photography is just the beginning of cinema, drawing is just the starting point for animation. We lose sight of the skilled story-telling involved in anime production when we reduce the medium to beautiful images, and that’s it.
The truth is that I used to think the same about anime. I didn’t think it went much further than Animax. Even now I don’t think I could call myself an expert on the subject. In fact, that’s why you ought to listen to me – our experience is likely to be similar.
So I will try to make a case for anime by describing the artfulness of a few few fantastic shows – just like someone might try to show you Ratatouille or Dil Chahta Hai to make a case for movies. Some spoilers will follow.
Steins;gate is an anime about a bunch of high schoolers that discover time travel. One thing leads to the next and a few hundred resets later they’re trying to figure out how to save the world à la butterfly effect.
There’s a few things that make this better than the Ashton Kutcher flick. I don’t want to bore you so I’ll just talk about the most important one. One of the things I found most off-putting things about anime was how dramatic it tends to be and how difficult it is to take the characters seriously. Steins;gate plays on that expectation by using two stereotypical characters to undermine those very stereotypes.
The first is a very soft-spoken female side character, Mayuri. The second is Rintaro, a typical anime protagonist, a buffoon with a heart of gold who, for some reason, must gesticulate wildly to get even a single sentence out. A few episodes in, the show uses narrative to undermine these stereotypes and giving the characters more depth. We are shown that Mayuri’s delicate nature is a result of losing family early on, and Rintaro’s wild manner evolved from a need to entertain Mayuri when they were growing up.
In fact, anime culture is one of the things Steins;gate seems to address head on. It’s really marvelous how both characters play on common tropes and otherwise discuss anime culture (one of the other mains is an ‘otaku’ or a young person who is obsesses with computers).
Neon Genesis Evangelion
NGE is often touted as one of the greatest anime to ever air. It was the first to be widely watched by people of all ages across Japan – not just lonely young men who draw etchi (sexually playful things, considered a sub-genre of manga) and read manga all day. The reason? It was one of the first shows to tackle mature themes.
NGE is an anime where children climb into huge robots to go toe to toe with invaders from another world. In other words, it’s a mecha (large armoured robot, manned by someone inside it) anime. Seems like exactly what you’d expect from those hentai-loving, cartoon-drawing Japanese, doesn’t it? However, NGE subverts the genre by focusing on the psychological damage suffered by these kids. It’s basically an anime about child soldiers. One of the most harrowing scenes involves Asuka, one of the pilots, losing her skill mid-battle. A depression has beset Asuka and she no longer finds it easy to do the one thing she’s good at. The cost of such a lapse, appropriately, is a fatal strike that leaves her in a coma. She’s 13 at the time.
NGE doesn’t shy away from brutality on the battlefield or in the mind. Series creator Hideaki Anno actually struggled with depression during the show’s original run. As a result, NGE began to take on a more contemplative and macabre tone. Shinji, the protagonist, constantly struggles with himself and finds it hard to connect with any of the other characters in a meaningful way. He is sometimes read as the embodiment of anime’s original audience before – ironically – NGE made anime mainstream-famous.
The most remarkable thing about this show is that NGE succeeded in developing these themes (and more) with just 25 episodes (and well, one movie too but that’s optional viewing). As a result, it is revered as a masterpiece of animation and has inspired a fair amount of academic research too.
So when it comes to anime versus art, the fact is, it’s difficult to decide what art is. So we use the word to describe things that are beautiful, touch us, impact us or speak to us about our lives in some way. If you agree with this, I think you’ll find that there is no reason for one thing to be art but not another. And hopefully, after reading this you will try out one of the above or Samurai Champloo or Cowboy Bebop.
Sureet Singh is a 21-year-old economics student from NMIMS, Mumbai. Find him on Twitter @_kenoshakid
Featured image credit: Youtube