It is a misunderstood culture. You will never find a more wretched hive of body odor and social awkwardness than at the conventions. The clubs are the toddler-fenced play space for would-be autocrats. Every fan seems to be wearing a garish costume and haphazardly tossing foreign words into his speech (fitting the pronoun, the fans are predominately male). America has embraced Comic-Con; that is, sexy people like Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron can go there without having to fear anything more than adoring fans, let alone social disgrace. But will we embrace anime? And why should we?
Hayao Miyazaki recently retired from making feature films. The goal here is to persuade you to care, if you don’t already, but first to try to determine why you might not care at the moment.
Miyazaki-san is the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, which is, in essence, the Pixar of East Asia (so Pixar-like was its success that Disney had to get in on it, making a deal for distribution and theater rights of all Studio Ghibli films outside of Asia). He was directly responsible for the highest grossing film in Japan before Titanic in 1997, and then for the film that overtook Titanic at the box office. Both films, Princess Mononoke and Sprited Away respectively, were animated. A critical and commercial darling in his native Japan and abroad, Miyazaki-san is still fairly unknown in our society, though his more recent films have grossed hundreds of millions in international theaters.
The cultural data in the first paragraph is empirically confirmed, but does it fully explain the position to which anime has been relegated to in our culture? Trying anime and liking it, in America, is like the opposite of trying alcohol or marijuana as a teen. The only common ground is that you can’t tell your parents. No one is getting you out of the closet unless they push you from the back.
My first hypothesis is that everyone starts out liking anime because virtually everyone likes cartoons. As we grow up, the general trend is toward more “mature” programs, and this means shows with real people (whatever that means). Anime is subsequently categorized with Looney Tunes, which is also a great production, but it is separated from adult cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy. South Park, simply because it is “about” fourth graders, seems to cut out its own niche. In any case, the movement away from anime in this instance is rather a general movement toward programs featuring embodied voices, not just voice actors. The abandoned aspect of childhood, the equation of an unrealistic aesthetic with an unrealistic worldview, is concomitant with the yearning for adulthood.
A second hypothesis is that some people like anime even into the age when “adult” programs become the expected fare. However, the more extreme examples of fans (weaboos, otakus), and the expectation that publicly liking anime will result in being grouped with them, necessitates either an opinion reversal – perhaps an extreme one! – or, as stated, hiding one’s opinions and being a closeted enthusiast.
The second group of anime enthusiasts has responded with typical counter-culture behavior, and is as unbearable as anyone who would attempt to define a unique individual, i.e. the definer him- or herself, by a characteristic that is quite common and unremarkable per se. These people have a range of self-expression that can be accurately summed up in the basic “I am _______” model. The results are hilarious, despite any objective legitimacy in the sentence’s object: I am social concern. I am scientific reasoning. I am frat. I am zen (big no-no there!) I am anime.
My final hypothesis for our want of anime appreciation stems from its being Japanese. As world citizens, we should care about Japan. They are the third largest economy in the world. They are a highly influential culture with a rich and significantly unusual history. Not least, they had two atomic bombs dropped on them, and all Americans would do well to develop more sensitivity to, for instance, having four hundred Tomahawk missiles aimed in our general direction.
But anyway, is anime about all that stuff simply because it is Japanese? Miyazaki-san’s final feature length film, The Wind Rises, is about the creator of Japan’s powerful WWII fighter planes, yet has been denounced for exhibiting Miyazaki-san’s leftist views, since they are critical of the war and the increasing nationalism in Japan’s politics today.
Does that mean anime is about Japanese people, around which the history and culture revolve? Or is it about people who happen to be Japanese? Certainly, when watching anime, one gets the feeling that the films were made for someone else. With more watching, one gets this feeling less frequently, until it comes up at about the rate of the feeling sonder (that everyone’s life is as detailed as your own). The culture clash is fleeting. Like swimming, you have to dip your head, briefly bow, to acclimate yourself. Or maybe the water is already warm.
Miyazaki-san has been waiting in the wings for most of this essay. For me, his films defy any argument to be viewed. It is like arguing with yourself not to dream when you sleep, and the analogy benefits from the dreamlike quality of his works. As an American who loves Pixar movies, I say without bias that Studio Ghibli is as good, but it will be different. Subjectivity, you know. What actually matters is how similar it is. Similar to you, or to anyone. And that’s what any given anime is about—the same exact stuff that anything else is about.
Earlier I alluded to the possibility that we as Americans could benefit especially from Miyazaki films. I don’t want to hop on the bandwagon and say that our entertainment culture promotes US-centrism or victory through force, because that would require getting off the bandwagon in the first place. Even our beloved Toy Story seems less than innocent. Woody and Buzz, POW’s in a foreign house (anyone remember Sid’s destruction of Combat Carl?), have to lead the great escape for all the toys. Afterward, they restore the status quo with the ingenious use of a rocket. Certainly this interpretation benefits from framing, and we would not and should not be ashamed about our fond memories of Toy Story. Neither should we refrain from watching it because of any “childishness.”
Studio Ghibli films are “grown-up,” both standing alone and in comparison to our equivalents. Take, for instance, the strange My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki-san’s baby. The film appears to be about a girl and her little sister who share active, morbid imaginations. Shadowy dust bunnies swarm along the corners and ceilings in their house, dispersing at the turn of a light switch. The forest is home to the giant cat-rabbit-hamster, Totoro, who evidently possesses some power to aid the girls. Aid them in what? Well, they’re children trying to deal with their mother’s long, long stay in the hospital, and with their father’s difficulty in juggling parenting and love. Often, the only refuge is in their imaginations.
So that got real. What else? The Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, about a big brother and little sister after the American firebombings kill their mother, is regarded by Roger Ebert as one of the most powerful war movies, and is regarded by almost everyone who sees it as heartbreaking. On a less-depressing note, Miyazaki-san’s Howl’s Moving Castle is about overcoming cowardice, making the best of bad situations, the painful futility of war, and the destructiveness of aerial bombardment (it’s less depressing because the bombardment ends and there’s love, yay!). Spirited Away, Ghibli’s most successful film, and arguably its most hauntingly beautiful, is also about overcoming cowardice and accepting responsibility, but by embracing a childlike curiosity and willingness to forgive. Fittingly, it is the obstinate banality of the protagonist Chichiro’s parents that forces her to summon her child strength, as they have gotten themselves turned to pigs and must be rescued
So what’s left of the stigma? Nothing, right? All that remains to be overcome is the experience itself of watching anime, as opposed to watching theater or movies. The recent popularity of graphic novels should make this transition easy, because, more than anything, anime is a form of literature.
Thus let us all, as always, strive to be more well-read, and let the great Miyazaki-san be your gateway auteur.