Many people seem extremely dismissive of otaku culture and anime in particular, claiming anime is an inferior cultural medium to books, movies, etc. How would you go about refuting this argument?
I wouldn’t, because the argument is silly. We gotta break down our terms a bit for this to be meaningful, though.
First, let’s set aside the otaku culture thing for now, since that’s a whole separate issue.
Second, “inferior cultural medium” is just too vague of a term. What I assume we’re getting at here is “less artistically meaningful/valuable” or something like that. But then of course we have to define artistically meaningful/valuable – so for the sake of this, I’m going to define it as “adhering to the standards of critical artistic merit that have been established over the last several hundred years regarding writing, narrative cohesion, depth of insight and thematics, polish of aesthetic, visual storytelling, etc.”
With that covered, the argument as it is framed is pretty ridiculous. Certain artistic mediums have inherently limited artistic potential, but anime is certainly not one of them – in fact, as a medium that combines narrative storytelling, sound, and utterly limitless visuals, it’s actually one of the most expansive mediums out there, at least potential-wise. It can be used to tell almost any kind of story, the method of telling is only limited by imagination, not budget, and the synthesis of visual design, narrative, and music can create transcendent mixed-media moments that very few other mediums can replicate. As far as potential goes, anime is pretty high up there.
That said, anime’s current canon of artistically vibrant, meaningful, and impressive works (as defined above regarding what is valuable in art) cannot hope to compare to literature or film. Both of those mediums have a long, storied history of great artistic achievements, and both of them have structures and dedicated audiences committed to supporting their most artistically worthy releases. In contrast to this, anime is a relatively new medium and an overwhelmingly commercial one – though many shows have interesting elements and display sparks of creativity or great craftsmanship, there is very little demand or support for mature, challenging, or deeply personal stories. When they do come out, they’re either lauded as the one-in-a-million (Evangelion), or just slip through the cracks unwanted (Shinsekai Yori). When people tell you there are many more impressive films or books, they’re just right – there are many worthy, interesting, compelling anime, but if we’re talking about their relative crop of top-caliber artistic achievements, there is no real comparison. There are certainly a number of impressive anime that tell a story well, create an interesting world, or examine certain characters in a frank and insightful way – but film and literature do this as well, have a history of doing it with more subtlety and artistry, and have a pretty overwhelming back-catalog of it as compared to anime.
All that said, anime’s an awesome medium (my personal favorite), and part of the reason this argument is silly is because we’re comparing a medium that’s still in its relative adolescence to two mature, established mediums. There are many anime being released today that reveal the great ambition and talent of their creators – and we’re talking about a very specific kind of art appreciation here, anyway. We’re also comparing mediums as if one having more of a good thing means it’s the only one worth considering – I personally find the majority of anime pretty terrible, but I’ve still got 100 shows in my Watched list and another 130 waiting in the wings. We’re also talking very specifically about peak artistic achievements, which is a subset of art only relevant to a small percentage of the population – I think the average anime shows a great deal more creator personality than the average American television show, even if there’s no anime The Wire. And I don’t feel the need to spend all my time appreciating only the most flawless artistic works, either – I like anime because I like anime, and I can still find a work with some great ideas and some bad ideas compelling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The mix of aesthetic and overt creator intent and very personal storytelling and eastern-style pacing/framing and music and diversity and etc etc etc is appealing to me, and though we may not yet have a Faulkner or Nabokov or Kurosawa or Kubrick, there are still plenty of shows I find compelling and worthy of discussion.
So yeah. Kinda silly argument.
You mention how anime is a relatively new and commercial medium – which of these two factors do you think is more detrimental to the creation of new ‘mature, challenging, or deeply personal stories?’ And with regards to commercial works, do you think the studios and creators are more at fault, or the audience is?
Let me take these one at a time…
Newness of medium or commercial nature of it.
The commercial nature, but that itself is partially a reflection of the newness. The “newness” of anime is somewhat unique, in that it’s relatively new as far as infrastructure and societal awareness are concerned, but it’s not really a “new medium” in the same way film or the formal novel ever were – anime film obeys the same narrative rules as regular film, anime shows obey the same narrative rules as television shows. And this is kind of reflected in the relative artistry of each – we’re still at the point where regular television is treated without a great deal of respect, and up until only a couple decades ago, television was basically treated as pure entertainment – maybe containing some snappy writing or important cultural moments, but certainly not a medium suited to the serious long-form storytelling we’re seeing with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. Similarly, while many directors of anime films are given free reign to express their artistic intent, most anime series directors are making products for mass sale.
In light of this, I don’t think anime series are actually doing that poorly – but I do think the need to make a product that sells is by far the greatest obstacle in the way of more artistically powerful anime series. The tools are there – film and television have already demonstrated a large part of the medium’s potential. There just needs to be a way to make that profitable, or at least sustainable, and that’s where the one real issue of newness emerges – anime hasn’t developed enough of a critical community to support high-quality works.
Studios and creators or audience
My gut reaction is the goddamn audience, but it’s a bit of a cyclical thing. Anime is designed to please the audience that will buy it. Because of this, few people outside of the anime community are drawn in. Because of this, studios have to double down on appealing to the people who still buy their shows. Because of this, there is very little incentive for extremely talented and driven writers and directors to enter the industry and tell their stories through anime. Because of this, fewer creative works emerge, and most anime is instead designed only to please the audience that will buy it. Etc.
The studios can only really afford to respond to the market; most successful and artistically interesting works manage to achieve that by appealing superficially to standard anime fans while still maintaining a core of artistic creativity or integrity – I think Monogatari and Madoka are both good examples of this. This is a crappy state of affairs, and it damages a lot of works – many otherwise great shows have to make pretty tragic, self-sabotaging concessions to keep those sales numbers up. I think the only thing we can really do is hope the audience grows in the right direction – but there is definitely hope regarding that. The number of shows specifically geared towards adult audiences has significantly increased over the past couple decades, and though this admittedly includes a pretty high number of artistically bankrupt shows, desire for compelling entertainment only goes in one direction. As the tastes of the embedded audience change and mature, the maturity of works studios can “get away with” will increase as well, and any successes on that front will naturally bring in more interested talent. The fear, of course, is that anime is just too niche of an art form to support the internal niche of anime fans who also demand compelling artistry… I guess we’re just gonna have to wait and see if that continues to be true.