What makes Japanese cartoons “anime”?

What is anime? All animation from Japan? All animation of a certain style? Then what about Japanese animation outside of that style? What about the international productions?  An old debate, that is surprisingly common in more ad-hoc anime viewer groups; youtube comments, gamer forum threads, and personal discussions,  and rarer in the blogosphare, on anime-themed sites, and in other groups self-identifying as the “academic” opinion leaders of otaku culture.

Maybe it’s because the latter doesn’t want to deal with something that is seen as the petty whining of obsessive-compulsive categorizers. Or maybe because after a certain amount of anime watched, the borderline cases will start to appear more and more clearly fitting into one group anyways.

It’s easy to believe that Avatar or Teen Titans are exactly like anime, when all the “other anime” that you have watched, is limited to Death Note, Naruto, and Elfen Lied. Then as your MAL is growing several hundred titles long, you will start to detect hundreds of little differences between them that you might not even consciously notice or at least you couldn’t describe, like the different emphasis on lip-synching, the details of background scenery or in shadow effects, and the exact way faces are drawn. (beyond just “small noses and big eyes” (Because seriously,that’s about the most generic description you could give for pretty much every cartoon ever)).

And then the plot starts, and it’s even more obvious that there are plenty of fundamental differences between how a western and a Japanese writer would think about storytelling. Even when they are actively trying to imitate each other.

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Rape season!

So it has come to this. From this new season, we already have two shows that brought in major rape themes, and one other  that had a throwaway rape comment causing a major shitstorm. In case you missed one of them:

  •   The first episode of Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun had a scene, where the socially clueless and sometimes unpredictably silly male protagonist suddenly grabbed the heroine, covered her mouth, dragged her to an alley, and said “if you make one sound I will rape you”. Then she nodded, and they had amusing random adventures together.
  •    The first episode of Psycho-Pass demonstrated the police team’s job, and the sci-fi setting’s functioning, with the case of a psychotic madman on the run, who kidnapped and raped one passerby woman during the episode. The same psycho-pass meters that first warned the police that the man is about to go crazy, now also marked the rape victim as unstable. After even more traumatic experiences, she was so screwed up that she almost had to be put down (according to the same psycho-pass system), but then the newbie protagonist policewoman managed to calm her down and merely institutionalize her.
  •    The second episode of Btooom! presented the backstory of the heroine Himiko, as the following: she got involved with a band of obviously dangerous-looking boys, and introduced her girlfriends to them. Later they invited the girls to their apartment. Himiko got there last, and found two of the girls raped and unconscious, while the third one was crying to her for help. She ignored the cries, escaped and called the police, who arrested the rapists.  The three girls were transferred to another town and the friend she abandoned now hates her for it. Then Himiko got to the video game island where there are no rules. There she almost got raped by a fat smelly loser, and felt that this is her punishment for her crimes, but then activated a bomb, choosing to kill both of themselves rather than getting raped. The fat loser saw that and tried to  run away, so she threw the bomb after him.
  •    Oh, and there were two other shoujo shows, with lots of nonconsensual kissing, and bishies pinning girls against walls in that typical bishie pose, and generally acting shoujo-ish.

So, yeah. Rape has been discussed in the aniblogosphere a lot recently. First of all, let’s clarify my own stance: I don’t think, that rape should be held to any different standard than other kinds of violence. Explicit glamorization of rape porn is not different from explicit glamorization of violence. Black comedy gags about rape are not different from any other black comedy gags. And gratuitous Rape as Backstory isn’t more offensive than any other badly executed gratuitous tragedy.

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The Genre Ghetto

In TVTropes slang, “ghetto” stands for the attitude that a certain content type should stay limited to the narrowly defined pigeonholes that it’s critics made up. For example, the common western attitude that all animation should be made for kids, is the Animation Age Ghetto, or the common expectation that female-targeted shows are strictly for women only, is the Girl Show Ghetto.

These ghettos can even manifest themselves literally as closed-off areas where these stereotypically “inferior” stories can be rounded up and separated from “proper” entertainment, such as libraries sending all manga down to the children’s library, or separating everything all speculative fiction on a sci-fi/fantasy bookshelf, outside of everything else’s alphabetic order.

That latter one, the sci-fi ghetto, gets some of the most interestingly illogical reactions. While by now there are so many mainstream, popular, and even artistically acknowledged sci-fi stories, that you would expect it’s critics to just give up, that’s where prejudice shows it’s stubbornness: Instead of just admitting that, say, 1984 is an intelligent sci-fi novel, therefore sci-fi can be intelligent, the truly prejudiced can still think like this:

“Oh, sci-fi is that silly Star Trek-thing where spaceships shoot lasers at each other, and men wear pajamas, so if 1984 has none of that, it’s not really sci-fi, it’s Proper Literature”

And that’s not even an exaggeration. Critics, and even authors, have really argued that their works are not really fantasy or sci-fi, if they don’t fit into the crudest stereotypes of these genres. Just how arrogant you have to be, to redefine an entire genre according to your own admittedly limited familiarity with it, while dismissing the established definition made by it’s actual audience?  As anime fans, you might be directly familiar with that kind of attitude. While most of the above preconceptions are limited to the hilariously ignorant and old-fashioned mainstream, in case of anime, even our fellow fandoms and nerds and enthusiasts, who are protesting the same prejudices themselves, might think and speak like this:

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Sexist or not?

The past weeks in the gaming community have been all about sexism. First the new Tomb Raider, then the Tropes vs. Women kickstarter, then Lollipop Chainsaw… pretty much all opinion leaders wrote their posts about women in gaming, or about something like rape in video games.

That latest part, the reactions to Lollipop Chainsaw, was the most interesting to me as an anime fan, because it is a really intreresting example of how baffling anime clichés are to everyone else. Lollipop Chainsaw is, basically, an ecchi anime in video game format. Complete with panty shots, falling into boobies face-first, a loser male lead being tossed around by the heroine, and with sexy battle sequences. In that context, this analysis sounds almost like a joke review, as it is calling it the game’s “underlying brilliance” that “Nick is frequently idealized and assessed by female characters who have little to no regard for how their words make him feel.” and that by turning table on objectification and victim blaming, “and placing a male figure into those situations, it goes some way toward making a character that’s easier for men to identify with”.

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The culture that made anime into what it is

In many ways, anime is fundamentally different from all western media. Not just as the result of current business models, or recent trends, but also due to some deeply rooted traits of Japanese mentality.

Japan is pretty unique that way, with it’s mass media that is comparable to ours in it’s scope, but still very foreign in it’s execution. Most other countries that are similarly foreign to us, are either too poor, or too oppressed to have large media, while the sufficiently wealthy and free countries are being assimilated into the monlithic, globalized “western culture” that makes them almost identical to us. But for various reasons that I will not discuss here, Japan managed to both reach modern lifestyle, and to maintain exceptional amounts of it’s foreignness.

Trying to understand these cultural differences between Japan and the West, can be useful not just for making detached philosophical observations about art, (like realizing that values that we considered normal are just our arbitary local customs), but also for understanding the daily events of the anime industry. Why did this show tank at the sales? Why did that show get a second season?

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Blogger’s creed

I decided that as a belated introduction post, I should write a list of things that I believe about art, about the anime industry, and about my personal standing on some hot button issues. Some of these were already adressed in earlier posts, others will be in the future, and some are too self-evident or mundane to waste a whole post on them.

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Seen It A Million Times

Random anime picture, to demonstrate that this will end up being an anime post

A few years ago, when I already knew enough english to start participating in real discussions with native speakers, I started to notice an interesting quirk of the language: people using the phrase “literally” in front of figures of speech. After double-checking my dictionary to make sure that it really means what I think it means,  I concluded that it must be a really difficult word to remember, and smugly congratulated to myself for noticing it even in spite of that, and for having a better grasp of english vocabulary than many native speakers.

Except that soon after that, I started to notice that people around me, myself included, are kind of doing the same in my own native Hungarian, with our own figures of speech. For example, I say  “[the words literally froze into me]” when I am so shocked that I couldn’t say anything, or “[these pigeons are literally getting more eyeless from day to day]”, where “eyeless” is an idiom for “bold”, “brash”, or “cheeky”.

It looks like people aren’t really having a problem with remembering what “literally” means. When someone says that their large-scale movie is “literally a blockbuster”, they truly mean to say that it’s not just an exaggerated praise for a medium scale movie, but it’s a real large scale movie. They just fail to remember that “blockbuster” is supposed to be more than a synonym of that, it’s also a figure of speech comparing movies to bombs. To me, it is easier, because I learned to meaning of “block” and “buster”  long before first hearing “blockbuster” being used about movies. On the other hand, saying that bold pigeons are “[eyeless]”, is the most normal thing to me, it’s the primary usage of the phrase in Hungarian, and I have to think hard to even remember that it originally had something to do with actual eyes.   And it’s the other way around with you. You might find “blockbuster” to be a word that  means “big movie” by default, and it’s old meaning is only an obscure etymological trivia, while calling something [eyeless] would instantly give you a very grotesque mental image.

Strangely, it looks like someone who only heard a word a few times, for example a foreigner, can be more reflective about finding idiom’s original building blocks, than an experienced speaker who instantly jumps to thinking about the intended message of the phrase, and doesn’t need to stop thinking about the smaller elements.

So,  you ask why am I talking about Hungarian idioms, and about linguistic theories, on an anime blog?

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