Anime: Common Language

Well, it isn’t gaming, but why not…Anime!

While I haven’t been around long enough to witness the first creations when they came out, since I found anime and understood it to be different than American cartoons in the mid 1990’s, I have loved it. Disclaimer, I do not name myself as an authority, nor an arbiter of the best tastes, but dammit I know a bit about the topic.

So where did I start? Toonami, the old school program on Cartoon Network, of course. After school, I loved watching it and was hooked on shows that almost everyone in that age saw: Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, The Big O, Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo!, Outlaw Star, and Cowboy Bebop to name the big ones that stand out from my memory. Some shows, now that I have a frame of reference to judge for myself, were not the best. Others, I still would love to watch even today.

But three shows really stood out for me as being something more than cartoons. Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Gundam 08th MS Team. Looking back, if I has seen Cowboy Bebop from start to finish, it would probably have been added to the list too, but I had not. Anyways, these three really made me question a lot of things. Clearly it was accessible from a turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy kind of binge watching that American programs had mastered. But there was so much more. From the use of cinematographic techniques, angles, themes, motifs, symbolism and philosophical dialogues, those three shows really blew my mind.

For the first time outside of Jonny Quest, I found myself cracking open the Encyclopedia Britannica and searching the internet for context, meaning and information. I found myself asking others what they thought besides ‘and then BOOM! Explosion! So awesome!’ discussions. These shows made me form dialogue with people after doing research to fully appreciate the meanings, messages and informed opinions. Then came other shows into my growing experience like Jin-Roh, Grave of the Fireflies, Samurai-X OVAs, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Gundam, Serial Experiments Lain, Haibane Renmei, Blood OVA, Clannad (After Story), Perfect Blue, Rumbling Hearts, and ok I will stop the listing now because there are many, many shows.

All of the shows have some things in common to me. They all use visuals, narrative, cinematography and music to tell a compelling story at a deeper level than cartoons ever had for myself. It was like finishing reading an R.L Stine book and then graduating to a C.S. Lewis book followed by Dostoevsky. Well, in my case I’m not sure about what I was reading prior to my mother giving me the Narnia set to read followed by Crime and Punishment (I was like 12 and what is this?). An eye-opener, thought-provoker and stimulus when faculties are in-place to enjoy the content.

An odd way to state it, no? But that is honestly how I feel, whether books or anime or anything with complex meanings. After struggling through Crime and Punishment at a young age, I honestly felt that I hated reading. Come back a decade later, and I really enjoyed reading Dostoevsky enough to read some of his other works too. What had changed between 12 and 22? I had changed, or more precisely, the understanding of language and concepts I could grasp, find and draw upon to digest ever more complex subjects grew.

That’s great JVerb, but why bring this up in a post about anime? Well, I was approached by a friend who wanted to get more into anime. But, he also stated that DBZ was his favorite anime of all time. At first I was about to say, ‘What? But how? It wasn’t THAT terrible, but it wasn’t good!’ Then I came to realize that it was not that he had bad tastes, but nothing else to judge that anime against. He had done some due diligence in collecting a list of anime from another friend to watch in time, but I had to give him others to try too. When he got back to me some time later stating how much he really didn’t enjoy the whole day-to-day following of characters, I recommended him a few of my favorite slice-of-life animes to watch between the robo-action animes. A bit later, he found out that he liked some drama oriented slice-of-life animes that he could relate from his own experiences. Currently, we can talk about anime much in the way film critics can talk about films and styles by referencing materials similar and elaborating on why we do or do not like it.

We have a common language of anime by which we can communicate our tastes. It is more than nostalgia or bias. It is a common connection, much like works of literature share. As the audience of anime continues to grow, so should those of us who have been watching anime tolerance of newcomers. Like someone who has only read a few authors or seen very few good movies, anime newcomers need exposure to what makes the medium awesome. Find those rare titles that are on the surface easily accessible and at a second look through fairly deep. I don’t mean tell people to watch Ghost in the Shell and then begin to teach a course to them on the symbology and dialogue choices between English and Japanese. Take it slow.

OVAs are good leap off points as to have people try out new genres. 5cm Per Second is a very good, albeit slower paced, drama which was one of the first slice-of-life shows I recommended to my friend. From there Clannad After Story made it into his playlist, and then White Album 2, Honey and Clover, and Kokoro Connect. Dude may not be the biggest fan of these types of shows, but he does watch something that at first he thought he would hate. 3 of those titles even made it into his top 25 ranking of anime which is over 150 titles now. Funny fact, he at first wanted to re-watch DBZ and the GT series, but he never finished either because it didn’t interest him as much as these more substantive titles.

And don’t worry, it’s not all dramas and rom-coms. From NGE to Gundam shows to FMA and even Black Lagoon, he has asked for, built and watched quite the diverse listing. So when you meet someone who is new to anime don’t lose hope, go into elitist mode, and rip the poor person a new one for liking a weak anime series. Take a step back and engage in dialogue, a conversation that goes both ways. Suggesting and influencing what they consume giving them the opportunity to gain a common language where you both can discuss anime in a positive light. Because, after all, we watch anime because we enjoy it. And no one wants to be a part of a society where the norm is tearing down another belief just because an opinion was given. Why not spread our joy and enthusiasm by sharing and discussing with a common tongue?