Why I Watch Anime: An Internal Dialogue

In short, why do you watch anime?

A few reasons. One is that I enjoy the community. A few problems aside, I like exchanging thoughts with other fans on blogs, forums, and Twitter. Conventions and podcasts can be fun, too, and it also gives me something to share with my little sister.

Of course, there’s also my interest in Japanese culture generally; I’ve studied Japan’s language and history, and seek out Japanese films and literature. Primarily, though, the medium of traditional, 2D animation fascinates me, and Japan is the only nation that produces a lot of it.

What is the appeal of animation, then? If there’s a relative lack of material in that medium such that you have to go halfway around the world to find much of it, why not focus more on, say, its cousin film, which has a greater quantity and quality of work?

Live action film is the more accomplished medium, I’ll admit, but part of what draws me towards animation is its great potential. This stems mainly from its additional level of abstraction from reality, which facilitates surrealism and suspension of disbelief in general.

In Spirited Away, for example, the designs of the spirits and monsters are quite fantastic, yet we easily accept their existence and though we notice the incongruity of the human protagonist in this world, it never strains our suspension of disbelief. Think also of the scene where her parents turn into pigs; it’s grotesque, but the abstraction of animation ensures that the audience isn’t outright repelled by it.

There’s also an expressiveness to animation that’s difficult to replicate in live action. Facial expressions, especially in comedy, are a common example, but an animator can also intensify a scene by using gestures or poses that would otherwise be at least awkward, if not impossible, or he can use gimmicks like changing backgrounds or animation styles altogether.

Switching between animation styles can also contribute to a feeling of otherworldliness. Studio Shaft is well-known for this technique; in Madoka Magica, for example, most of the show is relatively straightforward in style. When the heroines enter a witch’s lair, though, everything but the characters themselves are animated as paper cutouts. The audience can tell that they’ve entered a strange place, but the switch still feels like part of a coherent aesthetic; in live action such a technique would likely appear far more jarring.

These things aren’t really impossible for live action film, though.

That’s true. The original Star Wars famously created many fantastic creatures using animatronics, Beetlejuice created a strange world by mixing live action with claymation, and one can find plenty of surreal films in, say, German Expressionism or Dadaist film.

That leads us back to the earlier question: why animation and not live action?

Ultimately, the spectacle. Animation, especially in the hands of the best directors and designers, has an aesthetic beauty that live action can’t quite match. Even something that could certainly be done in live action, like Snow White or Redline, looks more appealing animated. Perhaps it’s the idealisation of the subjects, like much painting versus photography, or just the greater universality, and thus relatability, of cartoon characters, similar to what Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics, but whatever the cause cartoons just look more appealing somehow.

“Spectacle” sounds very subjective, though, if not simply shallow.

Perhaps we can add some class by appealing to Aristotle? Near the end of his Poetics he considers whether tragedy is superior to epic poetry and concludes that it is, partly because tragedy not only has all of the tools of epic but also has more spectacle which, when used skilfully, heightens the effect of the story.

Similarly, animation can do just about anything live action film can, sometimes more easily, but can also do a few things its cousin cannot. For example, in my survey of Disney films I often refer to Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants” because I can’t imagine translating that scene to any other medium. Though not impossible, I also struggle to imagine a successful live action translation of, say, FLCL or End of Evangelion.

That’s not to say animation is outright superior for every project. Like any medium, it excels at some types of story but is less well-suited to others; grittier genres like film noir or war films probably are more suited to live action treatments, for example, but I think it’s no coincidence that the most popular film version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels is Disney’s animated version. As I said in my post on that film, Alice, like a great work of art, takes full advantage of its medium.