Now, Why am I Watching This Again?

Just what am I doing with my life?

During the past days, I’ve been having some fairly intricate conversations with my partners in crime (mostly whilst waiting in line for goods at Comiket.) One of our more interesting conversations dealt with the root purpose of anime, which my friend claims is escapism. He posited one simple question to me: If I am living a fulfilled life, why do I still watch anime?

This is an interesting question, because it forces us to consider why we sit down and spend so much time on anime. It’s a question that I’m not fully equipped to answer, and not one that I spend a whole lot of time pondering about. Perhaps watching anime is, in a way, a way for me to take a break from being me. But is that all there is to it?

Perhaps. Anime is most definitely a form of escapism. Whether or not escaping reality constitutes its only purpose is up to debate, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that anime, or entertainment in general, does not serve an escapist function. When we watch anime to simply “kill time”, it is a form of escapism— while it isn’t as extreme as transporting ourselves into the mind and world of the show’s characters, it still constitutes a departure from our daily routine.

On a deeper (and more sociopathic) level, anime can serve as a literal escape from our everyday lives. We imagine ourselves to be the protagonist, to be living his life instead. This sort of escapism takes on a much more bleak and sinister character. Anime is no longer an intermission from our daily routine, but salvation, to save ourselves from the pain of being ourselves. Naturally, most people do not take escapism to this sort of extreme, but I have definitely found myself thinking on more than one occasion, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I had his life instead…?” (Usually while watching an eroge adaptation, of course.)

But back to my friend’s original question. If I live a fulfilled life (I do), then why do I watch anime? He believes that I watch anime because my life isn’t as fulfilling as I’d want it to be. I’d like to argue that I watch anime because it’s part of how I derive pleasure in my life. Anime is part of what fulfills me. The lack thereof would make me less fulfilled. At the same time, I do enjoy experiencing the lives of others through anime. It’s not because my own life is unfulfilling, but simply because anime allows me to see into a different life, which does not necessarily have to be more or less interesting than my own. Plus, the constraints of reality are relaxed in the world of two dimensions, which allow for some interesting things to happen.

Let’s talk about moe for a second. I used to be of the opinion that one’s tastes in real life translated directly to one’s taste in 2D women. I’m not so sure of that anymore, but the elaboration of this point is a topic for another article. What’s relevant for us here is that anime allows us to experience courtship with other women— without any of the strings of real-life relationships attached. Naturally, what we are experiencing when we lust after and objectify anime women is nothing close to real-life affection. But because anime romances are not real, we are free to go outside of our zone of comfort and feel attraction or affection to women whom we would never have the chance of even meeting in real life (most likely because women like most anime girls simply don’t exist.)

Let’s say, however, that you do not buy any of that. You think you’re too good for 2D women. You don’t care about living someone else’s life. You want to watch anime because you wish to learn something about the human condition. Can this happen?

As a whole, anime tends to be unreflective. The entire market may not be asinine, but the vast majority of shows are not mature enough to warrant being called social critique. This is unsurprising. After all, these are shows aimed at older teenagers or young adults, most of whom have no interest in debating hot-button issues or critiquing the dominant social order. In addition, Japanese culturally-imposed ideology of self-censorship further frustrates any sort of attempt at cultural critique. The audiences aren’t interested in it, and studios tread very lightly whenever controversial issues are raised. (Senkou no Night Raid, anyone?) Even Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, a series which provides satirical critique on all facets of modern living, falls short of true critique. It is about as political as, say, Auto-Tune the News (to put it in the words of another friend of mine.) In other words, it criticizes the current social order without offering much in the way of solutions. It is useful only as a means to make absurd our current condition, but is useless in helping us progress.

Ultimately, the argument here is not that anime does not have the power to critique society. In its current state, the industry as a whole refuses to frame itself as an arbiter of social change or an agent of subversion. Ultimately, what we have available to us are fluffy school life stories or fantastical tales of heroism. In its current state, anime attempts to free viewers from the drudgery of their daily lives. It paints a world of possibilities, sometimes drastically different from our own. Perhaps, for most shows on the market nowadays, the search for deeper meaning or social critique is futile. Just sit back, relax, and hopefully enjoy.

NOTES:

1. I use “ideology” in this article to denote something almost intangible— ideologies are unexamined, reflexive ways in which we approach the world. To the Japanese, the function of entertainment as escapism may be an ideology. It may seem strange to our Western minds because we are accustomed to the idea of art as criticism, as subversion. This is probably also why we (some of us, at least, not me) find slice-of-life anime horribly boring and hate heartful endings or shows filled with sentimental fluff. To the Japanese mind, these things are essential— it may even be that their enjoyment of anime would be decreased if anime were modified to suit western tastes. At the same time, I believe that this difference between Western and Eastern ideologies is what makes watching and examining anime so fascinating.

2. The issue of 2D attraction, as well as that of ideology, will be elaborated in further detail later on.

3. Personally, I watch anime in order to interact with the community. I care little about the shows— I care much more about the people who discuss them. This is also why I gave School Days an 8, perhaps unjustifiably so. It was, by far, the most enjoyable anime watching experience in my life. Life is nothing without friends, and the same goes for watching anime.

4. I must be getting optimistic and complacent. Come stage an intervention at irc.rizon.net/#nhrv or follow me @Akirascuro on Twitter.

14 Responses to “Now, Why am I Watching This Again?”

  1. it criticizes the current social order without offering much in the way of solutions.

    I’ve said this before on someone elses post, but Eden of the East makes a fair old stab at this, presented in a semi-realistic fashion as well. People got so caught up in how the movies were disappointing compared to the TV series they seemed to miss how the second movie made some really strong points in the second half

  2. In other words, it criticizes the current social order without offering much in the way of solutions.

    But isn’t this true of the majority of satire? Look at Western satire which is put on a pedestal: The Simpsons and South Park as far as animation goes, and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for television. They love to expound on the absurdity of their topics, but usually ring fairly empty as far as solutions go, except in their most perceptive moments. Granted, anime generally isn’t very good at satire. And while Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei isn’t quite as good as the show’s I’ve listed, I see it as an exception.

    I also want to contest your statement that the search for deeper meaning or social critique is futile in a lot of anime, because I think it’s a cop out. Yes, many anime lack meaning. But I still believe that the least amount of respect owed to any anime is to check to at least make sure whether it’s there or not.

    @Scamp
    I actually watched Paradise Lost just last night (although, admittedly, wasn’t in the best frame of mind to do so). I’d correct your statement by saying it almost made some really good points. As one example, I liked the fact the way it went about questioning consumerism… but on further reflection I found its proposed solution to be incredibly naive.

  3. I used to be of the opinion that one’s tastes in real life translated directly to one’s taste in 2D women. I’m not so sure of that anymore, but the elaboration of this point is a topic for another article. What’s relevant for us here is that anime allows us to experience courtship with other women— without any of the strings of real-life relationships attached.

    I just don’t understand why liking a character=you would want to sleep with them. What about when they are not even of the same gender you are into in real life, or when you are asexual altogether?

  4. I just don’t understand why liking a character=you would want to sleep with them. What about when they are not even of the same gender you are into in real life, or when you are asexual altogether?

    All relationships in one form or another relate to the issue of procreation and / or survival. So even if you have nothing sexual in mind, you’re still in it to provide a survival of the species.

  5. You points aren’t exclusive to anime and can be levied against fiction as a whole. Why do you read a book? Why do you watch movies? Why make a cartoon or serial drama when real debate is more straight-forward and likely more effective in creating a solution?

    What the great works of fiction do well is make us empathize with people outside of our experience. To scheme a revolution with the exiled prince against his family and country; to sympathize with the immortal god in love with a mortal merchant; to understand why an emotionally stunted teen can’t just be happy with piloting giant robots and saving the world. I can be entertained, but am also challenged to see the world through eyes different from my own, without the messy real world implications of actually knowing these people in reality.

    I like animation because it affords the creator a nearly unbounded canvass for his imagination, and the audience a world where physical laws and limitations need not apply.

    I’m not very interested in the average, everyday anime, and I don’t need to be, just like a film critic need not be interested in every film released every month. But I do love the rare exception that can excite my passions and engage my intellect, and I am willing to actively look for it rather than wait around for other to tell me about it. That it how I would answer that question, “Why do I watch anime?”.

  6. I watch anime simply to be entertained. I could watch reruns of Wheel of Fortune, search for porn or simply take a nice stroll around my neighborhood, but anime gives me exactly 0.013 more utils of utility…

    Okay in all seriousness, I usually treat each anime series as its own indvidual product and decide whether I want to watch it or not based on how much I respond to it emotionally (including how much it entertains me) and whether I believe the series has something it can teach me.

    In other words, it criticizes the current social order without offering much in the way of solutions.

    This reminds me of what my economics/history teacher once said: “If you want to know about how the economy really worked in early Western world, read Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto. Hitler and Marx made extremely accurate diagnoses of the problems of their era. However, their solutions didn’t pan out.”

    … And you expect Japanese cartoons to have answers?

  7. A lot of what I wanted to say was already said above, so I’ll just copy and paste some comments:

    I like animation because it affords the creator a nearly unbounded canvass for his imagination, and the audience a world where physical laws and limitations need not apply.

    This is most definitely true for me. Animation as a medium is far more whimsical than any other, mostly in terms of just what the creator can do with how he wants to present the world in correspondence with his views. It’s pretty much painting in motion, which can produce awesome results like Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei or Paprika.

    You points aren’t exclusive to anime and can be levied against fiction as a whole. Why do you read a book? Why do you watch movies? Why make a cartoon or serial drama when real debate is more straight-forward and likely more effective in creating a solution?

    I’d also agree with this criticism levied against your post. I wrote a post months back that tried to get at the heart of why we specifically watch anime, and the answer that I came to was that we watch anime because we want a specific sort of escapism, mostly relating back to our childhood. Whether that’s right or not was rather debated, but the biggest point I kept on seeing brought up was the “it’s just entertainment!” argument, though even that is, in itself, unsatisfactory. Why do you watch anime specifically? I didn’t really get a proper answer to this question, and I’m not sure that you provide a proper answer to it either.

    But I think the point that really does stand out in comparison to others in your post is the idea that we might watch anime because we live an unfulfilled life. I’d disagree in whole with that, because it does imply that anime isn’t a course to happiness, and by extension, no escapist activity is a course to happiness. Of course then we have to ask: what does lead to a fulfilling life? Well I dunno then. If you’re talking about social interactions, hell anime gives us that too. We’re engaging in it right now. We can meet up at cons (if we’re lucky enough to be near one, which I actually think a lot of people are). So what’s the problem with anime specifically? I just don’t see it.

  8. I think this question is most relevant for people who have a strong preference for anime over other entertainment media, i.e. why do you prefer anime over American television?

    Personally, I don’t have that strong of a preference toward anime (I only watch maybe two shows per season). However, I can point out two things that do draw me, which are (1) short seasons and (2) artistic freedom associated with the animated format. You look at animated television in America and it’s not nearly as serious as some of the stuff coming out of Japan. American shows also have a tendency to be long-running, which pretty much inevitably results in degeneration in quality.

  9. Can’t we just watch because we enjoy it? That’s why I’m in it. It makes me happy.

  10. Thanks for all of your responses.

    @Scamp:
    Haven’t seen East of Eden yet, but perhaps I really should…

    @SK:
    It’s true that most satire simply attempts to expose problems instead of fix them, but I don’t think that should be the case. My observation that anime is hollow and devoid of critique does not apply to every series out there; it would be rather foolish to speak of an overarching “generic anime”; that would be similar to creating a generic “television” show and the evaluating the merits of TV off of it. I try my best to avoid such generalizations here; perhaps my language isn’t strongly defined enough.

    @Shigaraki/TIF:
    There is almost no basis other than physical for attraction to 2D characters. Moe, inherently, is an exploitative. Now, I believe that what Shigaraki here is outlining is valid, it just happens to be the minority case when talking about attraction to 2D women. I don’t agree with TIF’s assertion that all relationships relate to the issue of survival, but I can definitely see where he’s coming from. I think the attraction to 2D women plays off of not pressures to procreate, but rather, cultural pressures which may have idealized the female form into something like the girls we see in Yozuka no Sora.

    @Kadian:
    I was thinking about this point as I was constructing this article. My argument here is that most anime that we see being produced today lack a higher moral dimension, which is present in works of great fiction. Naturally, you can counter this by saying that there’s plenty of trash books printed every year, which is also true. I am not making a claim that anime is uniquely devoid of meaning, however. One can definitely argue that all literature is escapist in purpose.

    @Shadowmage:
    I don’t expect Japanese cartoons to have answers, as facetious as your question was— I expect them to at least attempt a solution. The difference between Marx and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is that Marx, while incorrect, at least attempted a solution instead of simply making fun of the problem.

    @Mystlord: Much of what I said to Kadian can be cross-applied to your criticism. I also don’t believe in the “anime as a path to happiness” thesis, at least, not for me personally. I feel that it is certainly true for a specific segment of society, but whether or not anime is designed for those people is up for huge debate.

    @DrIdiot:
    That’s an interesting way to frame the question, and I think that it’s probably more relevant than the generic “Why do you watch anime” question which I posed. That’s an interesting viewpoint, and I’ll look into it more in the future.

    @AS:
    Absolutely. Why not?

  11. @Akira: I’m still unsure then as to what “happiness” is then. Because clearly for you, anime and thus escapism isn’t a path to happiness. Then what function does watching anime serve? We obviously don’t willingly do things that make us unhappy, and we tend to not do things that make us “meh”. Clearly with the time that we spend on anime, we could be doing things that do make us happy. Then why don’t we do THOSE things instead of watching anime?

  12. I just don’t consider anime (or any type of fiction) to be escapism. The ability of fiction to critique and reference real life settings through symbolism makes it fully connected to the real world despite existing in an alternate realm of fictional non-referentiality.

    In fact, I think that most people who consume fiction (including anime) take it into their own reality and use the influences they receive from the media to change their own way of thinking. This means they take work into themselves, rather than taking themselves into the work.

  13. @Mystlord, I have to agree with this. I know that anime is fun to watch release stress, sometimes make you think and portrayed in most of the cases values and good things about life. But, at the same time that time is usually wasted, because most of the anime fans are not going to apply those teaching into their lives or most of us are not improving just for watch anime.

    I was wondering the same thing a few months back, I’m 26 years and I spend at least 8 hours of my week in anime/manga. So, why am I waisting my time, some people might think or even me. I don’t know for sure the answer, and I could say to other a really good answer and maybe most of them could believe it, but the issue here should be; Do I believe what I say to others about anime? Or I am just saying that just for trying to change my own mind and denying the real truth.

  14. What art medium, by its very natures, is an arbiter of progress or social change? None. Art that reasonably aims for this is very rare, and art that actually accomplishes it is rarer still. So this is a useless distinction.

    It’s a very bleak and boring opinion of art that a work is not reflective of the human condition (an awfully vague quality) if it is not specifically instructive on how to correct flaws or live better. However, I agree that anime, in general, is not valuable beyond entertainment. I still believe that entertainment is a valuable thing and is absolutely not necessarily an escape from an unfulfilled life; but I’m on board that anime is almost entirely entertainment. The issue here is that, again, that’s the case for almost all art. The works that enlighten are scarce in effectively every medium and genre.

    So, all you’ve done is produce an opinion on media in general. Surprise, television shows fit this pattern!

    The real issue behind “Why anime?” is, “What makes anime different from other media?” Or, possibly, “What CAN make anime different from other media?” Answering that will probably reveal a lot more about your tastes, values, and how your brain works than realizing that anime is just like everything else under the sun.

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