Understanding Anime: Bridging the Gap Between The Eyes and The Heart

winking girl from anime

“Japanese Anime, for example, is one of the great art forms of Japan.”

….Film Critic Roger Ebert

I wrote this article some time ago about what Anime and Manga are, but what I did not get across was how to move beyond a simple understanding of what Anime is technical. I did not quite get across that the iconography and power of these forms – Anime being the animation and Manga being the drawn comics – are a uniquely Japanese art form that crosses barriers of age and social standing. I did not quite get across how tremendously entrenched the form is as a storytelling medium in Japan, and how culturally significant it is.

Going Deeper

As is the danger with any discussion of Popular Culture (caps intentional) it is easy to lose site of the deeper meaning behind the commercial gloss of the product. If Americans live in a consumer society, Japan in a prototype of American consumerism on steroids. Vending machines are on virtually every corner in some areas, any man sell far more than drinks and snacks. Advertisements of every kind fill city skylines in the island nation, and thick, almost phone-book sized “books” of cheap newspaper print comics are everywhere – in subways, on streets. The new ones with the glossy color covers being sold for full price. The old ones – sometimes just a week old – being sold at marked down prices. Students, housewives, businessmen, politicians all read Manga magazines full of various serialized stories – often for years to maintain a relationship with their favorite worlds and characters.

Understanding the Cultural Divide

The “disconnect” for western viewers of Anime (again, think “Animated”) and Manga (think MANGAzine) may not be in the different formats the stories are offered in, but the stories themselves. Japanese “comics” are paced like cinematic storyboards. Stores are told primarily with visual imagery that can sometimes be confusing. A page of manga may contain a great deal of information, but with no words. A character may look at an attractive girl and blush at his attraction, then turn to go “Wide eyed” at seeing his girlfriend directly behind him. The girlfriend’s face may distort into a cartoon mask to two huge eyebrows furrowed over tiny pin-prick eyes and a angry slit for a mouth. The visual style, a cultural shorthand developed over decades of storytelling for one particular culture, can be made out – “Translated” if you will. But the problem is not understanding what you see – the problem is developing an understanding of how such an odd mixture of elements – like humor and seriousness – can get across the simultaneous seriousness and comedy of ordinary life.

Another problem can come from pacing. Unlike American “Cartoons”, Anime generally is not constantly full of rubber-bodied creatures of hit each other with frying pans and fill each moment with visual and physically outrageous humorous moments. Such things do exist in japan, but more often you are likely to see a story paced and presented more subtlety.

And the “shorthand” that these Japanese art forms have developed are often a mixture of various influences. Comedy, drama, and slice-of-life moments can all come together to tell a story that makes a person laugh one minute and cry the next. Sometimes the complex shifting of emotional gears, combined with the “troupes” of the Japanese form can leave a westerner lost in the shuffle of words and images.

The Story Being Told

Manga and Anime can be very powerful as well. Manga have been written about the horrors japan faced when two atomic bombs vaporized their cities near the end of world war 2. Stories of women being cheated on by their husbands, stories of Japanese “Salary Men” staggering home each night from drinking to try to get past the stress of a very difficult day, stories of the nightmares students face in a very strict and unforgiving educational system – all of these stories point to a powerful emotional life hidden under the surface of normally “polite” Japanese society.

A culture can be judged by what it tells it’s self, and by what it dreams about. Stories of of ordinary young people discovering they are royalty or descended from a family of superheroes or have some magical abilities are all popular. But so are stories of ordinary people living their dreams of becoming baseball stars, or sushi chefs. Sometimes even stories of shy young men who read comic books discovering a whole world of love when they meet a woman that touches their hearts and makes them want to be better men – even stories like this exist. And these are but a few of the multitude of comics that often are as important, or more important than written novels. Some cultural scholars examining Japan say that the art forms of Manga and Anime are the way stories are told to the masses in Japan. To ignore them is to ignore the thoughts and dreams of an entire culture.

The Western Struggle

I’ve written before of my own inability to grasp the power and importance of these art forms; to adapt to the rhythms and iconography of a beautiful, but very different society. As a younger man I felt I “should” like Anime, but often felt bored by it. It seemed to be paced more like real drama and comedy being played out by actors. Camera shots would hold on the face of a character in pain – and the face would change little, or even not at all for second after second. It is as though the animator wants us to look at the “actor” that is being drawn, but is just as capable of expressing subtle emotions and any actor. It is as though the animators try to speak in a very visual language that is full of nuance and subtleties we might be tempted to ignore because it is “just a cartoon”.

Looking back on my past inability to make the necessary emotional connection to this art form – and I would passionately argue that it is no less than an art form as real as live performance, live-action film, dance or sculpture – I find amazing the power locked in this strange language that I misunderstood for so long. The heights of love, the depths of sorrow, grief and loss, the wondrous nervous energy of young love, and the dark, hateful secrets that can destroy peoples lives; all of these appear in this unique and often misunderstood artform.

In the west, a cartoon is a cartoon. In the east – animation is as legitimate a form for storytelling as a novel or a film. Films like Millennium Actress or Grave of the Fireflies can move as powerfully as any live-action film. But even less serious films with more wildly elements such as Princess Mononoke can tell powerful tales with frighteningly apt metaphors that carry warnings to modern audiences about how our societies are progressing, and the prices we may have to pay for that progress.

With New Eyes

Sometimes the things we cannot understand can teach us more than those things we can understand. The very act of making ourselves understand – translating the iconography and the visual language of another culture – can rearrange the thoughts in our minds, and the dreams in our heads. If I am a better person for struggling to understand this new language, then I am thankful for it. I am thankful for learning about another culture and hearing it’s stories in their full power.

Whatever prejudices I’ve been able to put aside, I put aside gladly to learn the power of another culture’s storytelling.

All my life I have been fascinated with human relationships, with the deep meaning we give things and why. For all my life I have been searching for the experience of meaning in direct experience and in vicarious experience as well. If expanding my mind and heart to include more has given me anything, it has given me a deeper understanding of the things that make us human. It has given me a deeper understanding of what many people call “Spirituality”. It have given me a greater understanding of love, passion, meaning and purpose because now I am beginning to realize that purpose is not something logical. It is something instinctual. It is a movement in a direction, not a destination. It is a fascination and a burning desire to feel human.

All of these moments shared by artists from half a world away allow me to see more. To feel more. And allow me to feel in ways I did not know existed before.

They allow me to see the world through new eyes, old souls, and other hearts. And if that has not made me a better man, I cannot imagine what would.

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