What's Up with Anime Fans?

A recent conflux of posts on blogs I follow has me thinking about the place and perception of animation in the United States. On Friday, Yumeka over at Mainichi Anime Yume wrote about introverted and extroverted fans. An excerpt:

At first glance, it seems like anime should be a hobby one indulges in in an introverted way. After all, in our society it’s not typically considered “normal” for adults to be really into foreign animated shows. […] Like other so-called “nerdy” hobbies, in both Japan and elsewhere, anime tends to be associated with anti-social geeks/otaku who have few real-life relationships and stay at home all day on the computer – a prime example of introversion.

Coincidentally, Akira at Moe Fundamentalism, whose “12 Years of Anime” is part of what prompted me to write my own recent retrospectives, wrote a post “On Shame,” worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:

I am very uncomfortable with the vast majority of otakudom. […] As someone who’s sold merchandise at booths for many years now (think yaoi paddles), I have seen some truly outrageous behavior at cons. I have often said this, but being an otaku at a con does not give one free license to stop observing basic standards of social decency. It is never acceptable to randomly hug strangers, nor is it acceptable to scream out loud when you see some doujinshi that you want. You’re buying pornography, for God’s sake— have some tact.

To round all this out, Proph over at Collapse: The Blog, which typically covers more serious cultural and political material, also wrote about the anime subculture. Though he admits his experiences with anime and its fans are relatively brief and anecdotal, he does share a few observations:

I confess to having watched very little anime in the past, most of which I was forced to watch by an anime-loving friend. I’ve been mixed about what I’ve seen.[…] I don’t get the appeal, perhaps because of my instinctive dislike for the idea of being a grown man sitting around watching cartoons all day. I think what turned me off most was just the casual and unquestioned weirdness of it all. It’s not even divergent enough to be surreal, because it takes itself too seriously.[…]

So I suppose it’s a good fit for people who are themselves casually weird, the kind who grow greasy, patchy beards and wear oversized coats with way too many pockets and chains and collars and all that crap.

If you read the whole thing, you’ll see he pulls no punches in his description of the fans he’s met. Neither does Akira, for that matter, and I can’t really disagree much with either of them. So, is there something inherently weird or childish about animation? If not, why does it attract the sort of people Akira and Proph describe?

To the first question, I can easily answer “No.” Though most American cartoons are for children, outside of a few comedies like South Park or The Simpsons, we needn’t even leave the West to see animation can facilitate serious films. France, after all, has produced Persepolis and The Illusionist. A look at Japan furnishes plenty of examples of shows that are neither for children nor comedies. Though even the best animation does not quite reach the levels of older media like literature or music, ambitious works like Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion indicate that it’s likely just a matter of time before the field matures enough to produce a classic. Some would argue that some creators, usually Miyazaki Hayao or Kon Satoshi, already have, and maybe so - we’ll see how they stand the test of time.

The only reason I could see for considering animation unsuited for adults is that it is a level farther abstracted from reality than live-action productions. I may grant that animation may be less suited to grittier genres like war films or noir, but this abstraction is animation’s strength. It facilitates the audience’s suspension of disbelief, very helpful for science fiction or fantasy works like Mushi-shi, as well as comedy like Cromartie High School, and allows effects that would be too jarring in live-action, like the paper cutouts in the witch segments of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, for example.

So, it would seem that the only reason to look down on animation in general is that it’s an uncommon interest. This does, I think, have some merit. For a society to function, some degree of cohesion is needed, and culture, including popular culture, provides a set of common experiences that facilitate that. I do think that every American, for example, should know how to play baseball, have read a Mark Twain novel, and seen a couple Disney cartoons. I’ll add that, if Western nations produced as wide a variety of animation as Japan, I would probably focus on those and only watch the best of the best that Japan produced.

That said, though, individuals do each have their own interests, and though it’s polite not to “flaunt” them, one shouldn’t need to hide them, either. My boss and coworker, for example, know that I like anime, and out of politeness even ask about it occasionally. For the same reason, I’ll occasionally ask about my coworker’s hunting and fishing trips, even though I’m not very interested in these myself.

So, why feel embarassed about anime? The answer, I’m afraid, is “the fans.”

Take another look at the above quotes; read the full articles. Though I’ve been around anime fandom long enough to know anti-social behaviour is far from universal, I have seen enough that I think it’s worth addressing. One of the conventions I go to has apparently had some conflicts with the hosting hotel over attendee behaviour, some of it legitimate, some not. Ultimately, the convention moved, probably in part because of these conflicts. The new location is probably better anyway, but it’s a classic example of a few bad eggs almost ruining something for everyone. In any case, Proph asked in his post why such people are attracted to this particular subculture. I gave a brief answer in a comment on his blog (as Richard Carroll), and I’ll expand on it a bit here.

In part, it’s a phenomenon that feeds itself. As a niche hobby, there’s less social pressure attending it than most other things, so it’s easier for socially awkward people to fit in. It gets a reputation, then, as welcoming to the awkward, so it attracts even more socially awkward people while turning off those who feel uncomfortable around such people. The result is something of a community of misfits, which isn’t in itself a bad thing (it’s good for everyone to have a place they feel comfortable), but there’s also less to rein in the worst tendencies of such a group. Perhaps I should note again that this tendency is by no means universal, just noticeably more common than in the general population.

I’ll also concede that anime may attract the “casually weird” because it can be a bit weird. At the very least, as a Japanese product, it’s going to be a bit exotic to Westerners. There also exist a variety of fetishes that some shows feel compelled to pander to.

I must emphasise again, though, that none of this is inherent in animation as a medium, and exceptions to what I’ve described abound. I have always, with little difficulty, avoided the worst aspects of the anime subculture, and found plenty of shows well worth the time to watch, and come across interesting, thoughtful people, offline and online (you can find some of the latter on my blogroll). Also, part of the appeal of anime is the variety of genres. A show like Mushi-shi, for example, appeals to a different set than Gurren Lagann, and both are distinct from, say, Azumanga Daioh. Of course there is a fair amount of overlap, but it’s not 100%.

So, having said all that, how extensive is anime’s image problem? I’m not quite sure, myself. I’ve never had any problems, but maybe that’s just because of the types of people I hang around. Most Americans, at least, are barely aware of anime at all, much less of the stranger subsets of anime fans. To the extent there is a problem, though, there’s not a lot we can do about it, besides just acting sensibly in public. That is, don’t hide your hobby, but don’t obsess over it or push it on people, either. Support quality shows. Dress like a grown-up. If someone does criticise anime, don’t take it personally or get overly defensive or make a fool of yourself by denying that lolicon or whatever exists or that anime aren’t cartoons or anything else fans sometimes get upset over. Just point out that there’s plenty of quality material, and be able to point to yourself as a good guy or gal who happens to like cartoons.