Edited by The Davoo
Were I to explain in as few words as possible what is the appeal of art, I would state simply that art communicates. Storytelling, for instance, is a means by which emotions, thoughts, and imaginations are packaged into narratives and moved from one mind into another. Illustrative art and photography can tell stories, or can simply relay an understanding of aesthetic sensibilities; illustrations in sequence can be combined with words and strung into long-form narratives containing a continual progression of ideas; music can evoke feelings with an immediacy that words are not often capable of; and film allows us to edit and compile the elements of many other art forms into an amazingly specific presentation of ideas.
Animation, then, is a style of film which allows us to take that specificity to an even greater extreme, because it is not limited to capturing images which exist in reality. Whereas the greatest power of photography over illustrative art is that it is less abstracted and more intimate with our understanding of reality, the power of illustration is that it can reach deep into our psychological interpretation of reality and allow us to communicate ideas which we understand beyond what is represented in the world around us.
In theory, the appeal of animation isn’t very different from the appeal of live-action film, and the lines between the two keep getting blurrier as technology allows us to combine them into one package; and if you were looking at the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, then you could pretty easily say that the appeal of anime film is the same as the appeal of any other film. But it’s probably for this exact reason that many anime fans consider these films to be relatively unhelpful in explaining the appeal of anime; because the appeal of anime really isn’t the same as the appeal of other films–and the reason for that is entirely cultural.
You see, idealistically, a film could be anything. A film could be four seconds long and shot on a cell phone, or a film could be a ninety-hour epic created over the course of twenty years that tells the entire story of the universe. But in practice, that’s not what film is. Film is an old enough and respected enough medium that it does enjoy some flexibility in terms of length and narrative style, but you don’t get a lot of high-budget films that aren’t in the range of eighty minutes to two and a half hours long. You don’t get a lot of short films that have the personnel and means behind them to present their story with expensive visuals and all-star voice acting. And that’s because in every culture on our planet that produces art, that art is reliant on money.
If we lived in a post-scarcity world like Star Trek where all of our needs were met, and every individual could basically do whatever they want, then the scale of your art would only be limited to how long your life is, and how many people you can get on board with creating it. You’d still be limited by the constraints of reality–like, you can’t chose to write a live-action movie about a 12 year-old boy that takes five years to film, because that boy is going to age–but nonetheless, you could do whatever you want in the confines of possibility. But since we live in a world wherein everyone has to make money in order to survive (unless they become the beneficiary of someone who can take care of them), then art is heavily influenced not only by the imaginations of the artists–but by their ability to create something consumable for the paying audience.
In the long century of film’s evolution, the medium has become closely tailored to the monetary needs of its production. You can’t make a high-budget movie if it’s not going to recoup that budget–and therefore, you have to make something which is going to appeal to a high number of people. If you want to make that ninety-hour passion project, you’re gonna have to work on it all by yourself while carrying a regular job on the side, because no one is going to waste their time helping you to make it if they’re not going to be compensated for their effort. And since the skillset which allows people to make a lot of money is largely different from the skillset which allows them to create highly specific art, there aren’t a lot of people out there dumping massive funds into passion projects at a loss just for the sake of their existence. Art is limited by the culture surrounding it.
This brings us to the one medium of long-form filmmaking which does exist in mainstream culture–the TV show; which, nowadays, is hardly ever on TV anymore, so we might as well start calling them “film series” or something. Even more so than regular films, TV series have been very strictly regimented to reflect the most populous, easily consumable and broadly appealing types of storytelling possible. Episodes are almost always the same length, no matter what kind of show it is, genre conventions are usually followed to the letter, and the budgetary limitations of a series are directly proportional to what size and type of audience the work will have. Evolution within the medium occurs very slowly, reflecting massive shifts in the cultural landscape of the world around them–and risks taken are very small, and dealt with very gradually.
This, finally, brings us to the subject of animation, and to the massive cultural divide which has made Japanese animation so appealing to a growing worldwide audience. You see, like any other kind of TV show, animation in the west has been very strictly regimented to fit a certain kind of audience. Even now, as Western animation has been experiencing a sort of golden age, with more and more shows embracing continuous narratives, broader demographic appeal, and more diverse subject matter, Western animated TV shows still inescapably fall into the genres of comedy and action.
While we do have shows now like Adventure Time and Rick and Morty and Moral Oral which are able to present a more complex range of emotions and dive into more diverse themes, these shows are still by and large episodic comedies. Even though Avatar the Last Airbender and Gravity Falls and Steven Universe have been involving more complex ongoing narratives across their episodes, they still operate under the umbrella of an episodic comedy series that can be easily picked up and enjoyed by new viewers along their run. Western animation is slowly becoming more diverse, and that’s something to be celebrated–but when you take a look at the animation which has been coming out of Japan for the last forty years and compare it to the progress which we’ve made so far, it’s easy to understand the specific appeal of anime.
If you want the perfect example of what anime is capable of that simply has not happened in Western filmmaking of any kind, you need look no further than the most world-renowned Japanese television series of all time: Dragon Ball. Between the original series and its even-more-popular sequel, Dragon Ball Z, there are 444 22-minute episodes of the series in total–bringing it to over 160 hours of film; which all contain one single, continuous narrative.
Dragon Ball Z is often made fun of for the length of its major battles, and that’s totally fair. The pacing of the series could be a hell of a lot tighter, and there have been other long-form anime action series which manage to tell the same kinds of stories with better overall presentation. But the quality of the show’s construction notwithstanding, the fact that Dragon Ball Z is capable of dedicating entire season’s worth of episodes to individual, protracted battles is precisely the point of its appeal. What Dragon Ball Z has that no other film series in the world has managed to match outside of its own culture, is an absolutely incredible sense of scale.
I can’t really explain to you exactly why or how it happened–I suspect the list of reasons is as long as the number of days in human history–but the fact is that in Japan, it’s not uncommon for a single, continuous story to be told by the same artist in piecemeal across several decades. Whether it’s a grim, adult-oriented fantasy series like Berserk, which has been running since the late eighties, or a light-hearted adventure for young boys which has published over eighty two-hundred-page collected volumes like One Piece, these kinds of stories exist in Japan. This isn’t to say that just any story would be allowed to continue for such a long time–these stories still need to appeal to a broad audience in order to continue, and as such there are still a lot of commonalities among the stories which manage to go on for an exceedingly long time; but nonetheless, this is a style of narrative which actually exists in Japanese comics and film.
And that’s not the only kind of storytelling which is unique to Japanese animation. Nowhere else in the world will you find fifty episodes of meditative, low-key, some might even say boring episodic adventures through a beautifully drawn rural countryside where nothing all that exciting usually happens. [Mushishi] Nowhere else will there be the same number of episodes dedicated to young girls sailing around a Martian Venetia, quietly learning about life and coming of age without any kind of action. [Aria the Animation] Nowhere else will twelve episodes of college ennui be unloaded in a visually esoteric blend of metaphors, high-speed dialog, and creative use of repetition. [Tatami Galaxy] Nowhere else will a high school full of hot girls beating the shit out of each-other be used as a metaphor for the history of cultural imperialism [Kill la Kill]; and those are just the things you can get without even trying. Once you’ve explored so deep into the medium that you can appreciate its own limitations, and how it comments on, subverts, and plays with those limitations, you’ll find yourself lost entirely in a grand metanarrative the likes of which you could never imagine lurking under the surface of those wacky kung-fu cartoons from that faraway island country.
The appeal of anime is, simply, that anime has a lot more going on with it than any other kind of film. Anime has its own limits, and those limits may eventually become intolerable to those who want the medium to do specific things that it doesn’t do enough of; but the fact that I can’t think of a single anime story which has an accurate stylistic parallel to any Western animation besides the ones which are directly taking influence from it, speaks volumes to the level of creativity which the medium has achieved.
The reason that anime is quickly growing in popularity throughout the world, is because anime has given us something that we never would’ve known we wanted. Whereas TV series have typically been so carefully tailored to fit the needs of the broadest possible audience, anime has provided us with a huge variety of very specific art pieces, which are able to communicate with us in ways that we didn’t previously know were possible. Anime represents what I believe to be the rapidly emerging future of film–a far more decentralized approach to the form and function of the medium, which is able to appeal to smaller, more specific groups of people. While the marketing techniques of anime have still yet to adapt well to the modern internet age, I think that Japanese animation is predictive of how art is transforming in the current technological era–and for me personally, that’s exactly what makes it so fascinating.
Thanks again for watching everyone; if you enjoyed this video, then please share it to anyone that you think will appreciate it–and if you want to help me to make more of these videos, then consider supporting me on patreon. If you watched this video because you’re new to anime and you’re trying to understand it better, then I recommend checking out some of these other videos of mine to get started on exploring the medium in greater depth. I’ll see you in the next one.