Anime has gradually been experiencing more and more success with Western audiences ever since Studio Ghibli made their most successful film to date: Spirited Away. A children’s film, it defies this label and is mainly, in the west, enjoyed by adults and it marked the begining of anime being normalised in western culture, though I would still argue that there are three distinct groups surrounding it; those who watch it almost to the exclusion of everything else (which, as an aside, is really bad as you limit yourself to only one medium and form of entertainment) those who watch it as a mix with everything else and those who don’t, with a subgroup of the last being those who think anime is childish.
I don’t think anime is childish, but I also don’t think it is Japan’s greatest gift to the world like some people. In fact, we should probably thank them a lot more than we do for keeping North Korea in check in alliance with South Korea. The reason I think this is because there are a lot of things that just don’t cross cultures very well when you watch it and, unless you are a complete weeaboo.
There are different examples in almost every anime, but I’ll go with what I think is a fairly common one; the inner monologue. Japanese story telling seems to have a weird emphasis on inner monologues which Western media just doesn’t have, and, while I think this is indicative of how Japan expects people to interact with entertainment, I don’t really have any facts to back that up so you can completely disregard what I just said if you wish. However, the fact remains that many anime that I have watched have characters that go through inner monologues and audiences that endure such things. To me it breaks the fourth wall too much and disenfranchises the characters. It makes you feel like the story is completely predetermined and then, when anything happens to alter that predetermined story leaves you feeling cheated.
However, a good example of something with an inner monologue is the first half of Death Note. In that anime, which is about an ambitious criminal and a legendary yet quirky detective, if I am to sum it up in its, you see the story from both the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s point of view and their monologues are directed at each other as much as they are at the audience, and it reinforces the tense one-upmanship that pervades the series.
This brings me onto another things that popular anime’s seem to have and that western audiences don’t seem to mind as much as I (a writer) mind. Popular anime seem to have a real problem with bringing about conclusive and meaningful endings and I can’t tell why this is, though to me there are 3 possible reasons; 1. The writers are just bad, 2. The popularity has gotten to the people making the anime and, in a bid to keep it open for a possible sequel/drag it out to get more money, they write a new, longer, but less fulfilling ending, or 3. Japanese writing just invites more obscure and slightly alienating endings.
I’m not ruling out number 1 because soap operas are insanely popular and they have terrible writing in them, and even really good series have bad episodes or bad series. Number 2 there are clearly some examples of, the aforementioned Death Note being one of them but Code Geass is also a perpetrator of this gross and heinous crime, along with Attack on Titan (which I have a very specific hatred for after episode 6) among others that you can probably name. However, number 3 seems the most interesting to me.
I’m going to talk about Sword Art Online first because I feel like it is partially a subject of all 3 but I want to think that it is mainly committing number 3 which gives me small hope. SAO is an anime about a virtual reality MMORPG in which, if you die in the game, you die in real life because the creator decided to do an experiment and lock people into the game on the day it was released. As a gamer, I thought it showed potential but it wasn’t fantastic. It seemed, very much, like it was the “flavour of the month” if you will. [Spoilers Ahead] The ending of the first half of series 1 is incredibly underwhelming. We have the inner monologue with the protagonist, along with a huge amount of dossing around in episodes that results in sod all happening, but it actually could have done a really cool thing. Basically, to get out of the game you have to beat all 100 levels by beating the boss on each level. However, they find, on level 75, that the final boss is actually the creator of the game and he has been involved in the community since level 1. The main character gets a chance to fight him. He loses. His health reaches zero.
YET HE, THROUGH FUCKING WILLPOWER, GETS UP AND BEATS THE FINAL BOSS AND ENDS THE GAME AFTER DYING.
There is a theme in Japan that technology (armour, weapons and such) are an extension of the self and I think this is a reflection of that. Kirito, in the game, is just one extension of himself and he uses this to beat the creator, who has not got the same bond between man and machine that Kirito has. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t come across to western audiences because we just don’t have the ideas that surround this extension of the self. I think partially this is bad writing but it’s mostly just a bit rough around the edges rather than outright bad. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other problems with this anime that made it difficult for me to watch and then the second series, even for diehard fans, was difficult to stomach because it was so slow, so disconnected from the first and so underwhelming.
The problem is with number 3 is that it really depends on how it is handled. Berserk is a particularly intriguing anime, even if it shows its age a bit. It has this same theme of the weapon being an extension of the self and has a very simple story with relatively simple characters, and I think herein lies its strength. From what I can gleam from the anime that I’ve watched it feels like a lot of anime is trying to be everything at once. Evangelion wants to have symbolism that means something, have complex characters that deal with issues that, as kids, they’ve never faced before… and also wants to have giant robots fight aliens that are called Angels. It’s trying to have its cake and eat it and it divides western audiences. But then again, I don’t really know why I am complaining. I say that an anime is trying to be everything at once but it’s only really trying to appeal to Japanese people.