Why anime?

You may be wondering why on earth am I so fascinated by anime. So am I. I’m even more surprised that what I like best are not the movies but the television series. I quit watching television of any sort when I was about twelve or thirteen, and since I left home I have never lived in a house with a television set. Consequently, my suddenly acquiring a taste for Japanese animated teevee shows seems extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, it happened. Here are some possible explanations.

One is my life-long interest in animation. Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show was my favorite show during my childhood, and there was Bugs Bunny as well. Walt Disney was still alive then and his company hadn’t yet completely lost its soul. Also, one Saturday morning many years ago, the theater in Brigham City, Utah, showed Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, or Magic Boy. It made every Disney film I’d watched seem pedestrian.

Another is that, however strange Japan might be, it’s not as alien a place as Hollywood has become. I have no idea for whom most American movies and television shows are made. It’s certainly not me.

A minor reason is the opportunity to explore an under-appreciated art form. While most anime released in the USA is targeted to geeky adolescents — and they can keep it; don’t expect any reviews of Naruto here — a significant portion deserves a wider audience. It’s an interesting, if time-consuming, project to identify the outstanding titles.

The most important reason, though, is simply that I like a good story, and anime is well-suited for story-telling. A typical anime series consists of thirteen or twenty-six episodes, with a beginning, a continuous narrative encompassing all the episodes, and a definite ending.* Since the plot doesn’t have to be resolved and status quo restored at the end of each episode, there is space to develop a complex story and solid characters.

This is a significant advantage over occidental television. Most American series are open-ended, and their producers hope that they will be renewed year after year.** Individual episodes are self-contained; there’s no continuity from episode to episode. Each episode must tell a complete story in an hour, or half an hour. Farce and comedy can survive this restriction. You can also fire guns and blow up lots of stuff in an hour. But if you have a complex story to tell, or if you want to develop characters in depth, you only have an hour to work with. Good luck. It’s no coincidence that all the television shows I remember without loathing were comedies. And even they suffer from the limitations of the form. I enjoy The Simpsons when I see it at friends’ houses, and several years ago I bought one of their early seasons on DVD. I never watched any episode a second time. Clever though the show is, each story is too short and tidy to sustain repeated viewing. In contrast, I’ve watched the entire thirteen-episode Jubei-Chan: Secret of the Lovely Eye-Patch three times so far.

To put it another way: American television gives you anecdotes and jokes; anime gives you novels.

* There are plenty of exceptions, of course. Some series do conform to the American sitcom model, e.g., Urusei Yatsura.

** I have seen no television beyond a few Simpsons episodes since 1983. It’s possible that there have been a few shows in the past twenty years that transcend their limitations. I’m aware that there is occasionally a series in which a story is developed from episode to episode, but I believe that these are still rare. (Soap operas don’t count.)