So Why Anime, Then?

In the anime Twitter sphere I’m a part of, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about animation. More specifically, about the role animation should play in the evaluation of anime. Some people whose opinions I respect have posited that, since it is the element that separates anime from other media, it is inherently the most valuable. And honestly, I don’t personally value it all that much. It’s not that I think it’s valueless. It’s just that how well something is animated isn’t often primary, secondary, or even tertiary to me. And yet anime is still my favorite medium, which forces me to confront an important question:

“So why anime, then?”

For me, what makes anime good isn’t the elements that are exclusive to it. It’s elements that aren’t exclusive to anime combined or executed in ways that are nearly exclusive to the medium. I don’t think “anime” as we define it can simply boiled down to one or two elements, so it’s not just one or two elements of anime that I love.

So why anime? I guess this is as good a time as any to break out listicle format. But don’t worry, it’s not like I’m going to call this post “The Top 5 Reasons I Love Anime (Number 4 Will Blow Your Mind)” or anything.

1. The Length

Okay, this is admittedly a weird one, but it’s true. I’m big on pacing, and for whatever reason, 12ish to 24-ish half-hour episodes just seem like the right length of a show for me. Half an hour (or 23 minutes, as it may be) feels like the right amount of digestible time, and for whatever reason, I can just mentally reset after each episode to watch multiple episodes without a problem. Hour-long shows just start to drag on for me after a while. And maybe that’s conditioning. But the lengths of the shows themselves also seem right. Because anime so often airs in chunks of 12 or 24 episodes, it means they’re produced with a story of that length in mind. It’s short enough to have an end goal and not feel like it’s dragging on, but long enough that all the ideas it presents can be fleshed out.

Film is a medium I personally really don’t like for this reason. Movies somehow feel simultaneously too long and too short for me. Sitting down for an hour and a half or longer is a big time commitment, and often times I feel like the pacing will drag. At the same time, there’s often way too much crammed into that timeframe for all the elements to get the attention they deserve. Film characters will often feel shallow or the romances rushed. Obviously this isn’t the case for all film, and I’m probably not just watching the right movies, but it’s the general trend. The length of the average anime, however, is short enough that the story doesn’t drag on forever but long enough that everything can be properly fleshed out.

2. Serialization

Another kind of weird one, but one thing I legitimately like about anime is how they’re serialized stories. Again, this obviously doesn’t apply to all anime, but when talking about a genre as a whole, broad strokes are needed. Western television has, for quite a long time now, been very episodic. Even in shows with long-running narratives, each episode is still expected to have an individual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let me use LOST as an example. LOST is famous for its long-running, complex narrative, but it’s also famous for how all its episodes were character-centric and had a complete story in the form of a flashback complementing a character’s growth on the island. Even a series so infamously continuity-heavy as LOST was also, at its core, episodic. This isn’t a bad form of storytelling, mind you, and plenty of anime is also episodic. However, it’s prevalent in almost all western television and has only now, as advances in technology have given rise to the possibility of binge-watching, started to shift. Game of Thrones is perhaps the foremost example among western shows where each episode is the next part of an ongoing story rather than a complete story in itself.

There’s a reason Game of Thrones is structured like this: it’s an adaptation of a series of novels. Anime, while often not based on literature, has a similar structure, perhaps due to its relationship to manga. Watching an episode of anime is often akin to reading a chapter of a book. There’s rising and falling action, and it usually ends on some sort of climactic note, but it’s just a piece that advances a larger story rather than a story in itself. This is a structure that is familiar and reassuring to me because I didn’t enter anime from a film, television, or art background. My background is in literature. Of course I’m going to be drawn to elements that remind me of it.

And again, I’m well aware that this is not the case for all anime. I know there are plenty of anime out there that are heavily episodic. I’m just saying that, in broad strokes, anime is more likely to have this structure than other similar mediums.

3. Cultural Storytelling

Media created by people of any culture will heavily differ from media created by people of other cultures because of various different influences. I’m no expert in what exactly causes these influences. Sometimes it’s just impact certain works have made. Lord of the Rings, for example, has had so much influence that it’s pretty much ruined western fantasy by turning the majority of it into a homogeneous mess. Sometimes its historical. A lot of British literature has been influenced by colonialism. But sometimes I have no clue why something is different, just how it’s difference through its use of various tropes, humor, storytelling structures, etc. And sometimes those cultural products just resonate with people more than works from their own culture. Some people love British television. Some people love Russian literature. I just love the elements present in anime (and most modern Japanese media in general), because even if they don’t necessarily need to be in anime, I don’t get them quite as frequently or reliably anywhere else.

4. The Artstyle

I just like the general aesthetic of anime. I find it visually pleasing. No big explanation for this one. Sue me.

5. The Possibility of Story

I love fantasy. It’s schlocky. It’s escapism. And I’m aware of that. But I love it. It gives me the freedom to escape into a different world and feel like I’m part of something incredible for a while.

In escapism, immersion is absolutely key. The goal is to feel like you’ve been completely transported somewhere else. And anime is, in my opinion, one of the best mediums for sheer storytelling possibility, perhaps only second to literature. Willing suspension of disbelief is needed for only one thing: the fact that everything is animated and not “real.” Once you can accept a cartoon world as reality and are able to lose yourself in it, very few things will kick you out. In live-action, I have issues with jarring CG, or being unable to separate actors from characters. In anime, there’s still the risk of recognizing voice actors/actresses, but because they’re projected onto characters with different appearances, it’s still easier to separate them. And yes, CG is still an issue, but fewer effects need to be CG, and it’s a little less jarring seeing it against an animated backdrop than a live-action one. So why anime, then? Why not western cartoons, which should, in theory, check all the same boxes? Well, because so few western cartoons take advantage of this potential. Western cartoons have gained an older following in the past few years, but the target demographic for nearly all of them is children. Almost every exception is a comedy aimed at young adults. Cartoons just can’t be taken seriously enough here yet to tell a serious story.

So why anime, then? That’s why. Honestly, I may actually like manga, visual novels, or light novels more as mediums. I’ve just consumed fewer of them, since anime is more mainstream. And hey, you’re free to like anime for different reasons. But these reasons are mine. Honestly, I’d be happy if they’re different. After all, it just means there are a lot of different reasons to love the medium.

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