At the risk of sounding like a presumptive windbag (well more than usual, anyway) Anime is one of those things that clearly delineates generations in the west. With very few exceptions, basically everyone under the age of 35-40 will know what anime is, and any age much after that will only result in a bewildered look followed by a bark to fetch the pie cap and cane. I dunno, whatever old people do.
Well, that is true of the west. In Japan, everyone knows what it is, from the kid still being potty-trained to the crazy old lady who lives with as many cats as she does years to her age. This is down to two things: sheer ubiquity – anime and the associated style is everywhere – and by virtue of being around much longer. The first anime began to appear in the 1910s, with the classic anime ‘style’ you are familiar with taking hold from the 1960s when ‘Atom’, known to us as ‘Astro Boy’, exploded onto the scene. Think about that: that progression of anime mirrors the western-style animation, especially the history of Disney, remarkably closely. That’s no coincidence: Osamu Tezuka, creator of Atom, made no secret of his inspiration, of the exaggerated features from the American cartoons at the time. Of course, he took it to the next level: the big, expressive eyes, bold lines and sense of space all present in Western animation at the time were adopted, Japanified, spin-washed and leveled-up, a style that continues to this day.
Because – and this is both a plus and a minus – you can never mistake the anime style. The eyes are the most telling feature, but there are countless tropes in anime, most accessible of which are the ‘face faults’: a visual shorthand to indicate a character’s emotion. You have the throbbing forehead vein for anger, the sweat drop for embarrassment, spiral eyes for dizziness, and a complete face-transformation into a white-eyed fang monster for all-out rage mode.
The fact that so many amine use the same visual tricks and cues is, in my book, a bit of a let-down. Oh, I don’t expect every anime to reinvent the wheel – but many times I find it impossible to tell one anime from the other. Big colorful hair? Check. Cherry blossom streaming down? Check. A breeze ruffling up a female character’s skirt, sometimes revealing…well, yeah. Double-check. This lack of identity could stem from Japan’s group-mentality, and reluctance to stand out, which is a shame, because there is some fantastic anime out there with distinctive looks and feels all of their own.
But even so – and now it is confession time – I am not the biggest fan of anime out there. Despite my complaints, I LOVE the look of it, the energy, the boldness. But story wise, I can’t abide most anime. Most TV series start with the best intentions, but quickly devolve into dragging out plots to breaking point, never-ending conflict with little or no resolution…and as I and worst of all, characters just standing around TALKING. Actually, some times you are even lucky if they do that. Sometimes they will stand/sit and just be silent while the camera pans left, right and sideways just to give you some sense of movement. Now don’t get me wrong, I get the need for talk and silence in stories – really, I do – but anime all too frequently pushes the boundary of ‘artistic’ and ‘playing for time’.
Then again, I’ve noticed that a lot of TV from around the world does this as well, so I can’t just point the finger at Japan here. But the problem seems especially chronic here in Japan because anime serials tend to be adaptations of popular manga, and by popular I mean ‘still in progress’. So when an anime catches up with the manga, it often has to jog on the spot and make up stories that deliberately go nowhere until the next manga issue comes out. You can really see this problem in the Naruto anime. One of my favorite anime series out there, Fullmetal Alchemist, instead went down the road of going off on it’s own story altogether, then starting the whole series over again when the manga was actually finished.
But there is no denying it: anime is one of the hallmarks of modern Japan, and despite my personal feelings it deserves to be.