Is Anime an Inferior Medium?

Question:

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?

Bobduh:

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.

Question:

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?

Bobduh:

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.

18 thoughts on “Is Anime an Inferior Medium?

  1. Interesting defence. The last anime I watched was on the big screen – 009 Re: Cyborg. I enjoyed it, although like many animes (and perhaps this is because the target audience is teenage) it suffered from a tendency to melodrama. As you say, there are lamentably few ‘mature’ animes out there with which masterpieces from other mediums could be compared.

  2. Great article, really well thought-out.

    Personally, I don’t think focus on a product that sells necessarily decreases the ability of a work to be good from a critical/long-term perspective. It just changes how people make things, putting more pressure on works like Tatami Galaxy to be great and pave the way for other, similar works later. Or, as you said, the Monogatari series can just do both.

    I think the bigger problem is for the lower-rung studios that don’t have the financial leeway for a high-budget failure. I’m still ok with the lower-tier sex appeal anime, though, as Hoods Entertainment needed the profits from Seikon no Qwaser to make the way-more-experimental Mysterious Girlfriend X, a show with some definite merit (if still really weird). Same deal with studio GoHands and Princess Lover’s success funding the Mardock Scramble movies.

    • Yeah, the “one for you, one for me” approach seems like it’s becoming more common with anime studios, or at least I’m noticing it more. Brain’s Base seem to be funding their quirky, convention-skewing shows with guaranteed-sale otome adaptations, and A-1 followed up the guaranteed-seller Sword Art Online with the ambitious and financially risky Shinsekai Yori. And then there’s a studio like Kyoto Animation, who seem to actually just make or adapt whatever they want (I still find it hard to believe Hyouka exists), but have the talent, infrastructure, and reserve funding to ensure each show is as high-quality as it can be.

      • I’m curious, would you mind doing a write-up on Hyouka at some point, if you get the opportunity to on reddit? I feel like you’d have some interesting things to say about it.

        • Possibly. I’d have to watch the series again to feel informed on it, but I probably am going to do that at some point, and I’ll definitely be taking notes. The side projects tend to take a while, though.

      • Actually, Brains Base is a unique example, as their biggest profits from 2009-2012 come from Durarara, the Natsume Yuujinchou sequels, and Penguindrum (which all sold more than double the 3000 copies per volume needed to break even). It’s even more confusing; I’d be inclined to say that it was a case of their A and B teams being involved in different things.

        • Huh, that’s very interesting. It’d be interesting to know more about their own structure and how they choose projects – I haven’t really been following their directors’ trajectory the way I have for KyoAni or someone like Shinbo, since shows like OreGairu triumph more on their series composition and base material than direction anyway.

          • Takahiro Omori is their main director (guy who did Baccano/Natsume/Hell Girl/Koi Kaze), and is responsible for all of their big hits save Penguindrum (which is Utena’s Kunihiko). I’d say he probably plays a big role in determining what gets made under him.

            Changing the subject for a second. When you say direction, do you mean animation quality? That’s not all there is to direction.

          • Aha. I didn’t know they had a central director like that. Regarding directing, I’m referring to what I assume are the general duties of directors – deciding on shots/transitions/pacing/general visual storytelling, and overseeing the whole production and show priorities. Is that correct?

          • That’s my understanding of it as well. I just asked because I breathe fire and spit poison whenever people make the “direction=only animation quality” misunderstanding (something that has more to do with the production’s overall budget level). Goodness knows some shows stand out more for the script, but anime fans really tend to undervalue directors who don’t work for high-budget productions or have incredibly distinctive styles. Even though setting up a good low-budget down-to-earth drama takes a lot of finesse. I’m watching a show now (Arata Kangatari) where the script is definitely more of a standout than the direction, but I generally tend to value great direction over great script when I rate things.

          • Oh yeah, plenty of people use pretty much all production positions interchangeably, when as you say there are a number of positions that dictate various qualities, and of course the budget will dictate things as well.

            I definitely value script extremely highly, though I think many shows also live or die off the strength of the series composer. I think excellent series composition turned OreGairu from a good series into a fantastic one (they cropped many unnecessary side-stories and gave the show a strong central character arc), and I think conservative, too-reverential and commercially-minded composition turned Hataraku Maou-sama! from a solid series into a mediocre one (they adapted a series of independent stories and didn’t bother giving them a central point).

          • That’s pretty much how I felt about Hataraku Maou-sama; good characters, but not enough to tie it together. It lacked both a central theme of the show and the forward-moving direction I’ve come to expect from character-based anime and manga. OreGairu/SNAFU I saw one episode of and didn’t like, so I can’t speak to that one. I hear it gets pretty good, but it’s my policy to wait for a little historical/time-delayed perspective and put my time into finishing the classic older anime in my backlog (Kodocha and Touch right now) if current ones fail a first pass.

            Anyway, my view is that series composition can turn decent source material into great stuff by cutting the imperfections off the diamond, but good direction really just makes a show exceptional. Kare Kano is a show I loved that I feel I definitely would not have if not for the direction – it’s a romance show that goes for depicting some complicated emotions and really needs every bit of the nonverbals and calculated background shots that show had. Direction’s also why I love Astro Fighter Sunred as much as I do; the interludes and gaudy visual style in the title cards do a great job contrasting with humor that’s already funny to make it stand out more.

            I feel like emotional connections are things best made through a combination of writing, visuals, and sound, and I personally value visuals the most because my own experience leans towards direction being the least replaceable element of those three.

  3. Let’s also not forget that anime is not technically a medium, it’s a classification of works by nationality. Anime simply means it’s a cartoon from Japan, nothing more. If you go to the cinema and watch The Avengers, you’re watching something making use of the exact same mediums as something like the newest Naruto feature film. That is, video, audio, text, etc. etc.

    The correct answer to whether anime is an inferior medium to films, is that anime isn’t even a medium, and the media animes employ is exactly that of film. I think the correct question one wants to ask here is this: “Is anime a narratively inferior method of employing audivisual media?” or “Is audiovisual media inferior to literature?”. In which case every point you made still stands, with the back-logs and history and whatnot.

    • I’d say animation is a different medium from film (and so is television, for that matter), but as far as western animation versus anime, yeah, same medium there.

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  6. “…even if there’s no anime The Wire.” The closest any television anime has ever gotten to something like The Wire is Texhnolyze. It is most definitely the most aesthetically accomplished anime—television or film—ever made, and yet you almost never hear people talking about it. Other mature works, such as Mouryou no Hako and Hyouge Mono are also hardly appreciated. Simply put, it’s the audience to be blamed, and nothing else.

  7. Although,I agree with your essay in general,I think there are anime out there that transcend their meidum’s nature as you describe it in your article and can be characterized as masterpieces.You don’t see stuff like Evangelion or Texhnolyze (you really have to watch this if you haven’t done so yet) coming out everyday in any medium.

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