Anime: Dissecting a Vibe

A response to iniksbane on what constitutes anime

Anime: Dissecting a Vibe

A response to iniksbane on what constitutes anime

Another blogger, iniksbane, has responded to my piece ‘What is Anime’. Their response is worth reading in full, and I think we are more closely in agreement than that essay makes out. Where I disagree is the characterization that the vibe of anime is merely melodrama. I think that, in trying to trace the mechanisms by which the vibe of anime were created & identify where similar media appear, I have neglected to clearly lay out what I think is shared among most anime, overestimating the degree to which readers have a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘anime’ outside of the context of actual animated material made in Japan for a Japanese audience.

For one thing, although much anime is melodramatic, I think what we are looking at is closer to ‘camp’. Shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, and Texhnolyze are not melodramatic: they do not emphasize the emotional states of characters. They do, however, make the invisible visible through semi-diagetic stylistic decisions. This is what I meant when I said “What defines anime is that it favors semiotic bandwidth over realism: the world of anime is constructed so as to be absolutely saturated with subtextual meaning.” When this subtext is emotional, you get melodrama.

Boogiepop Phantom (left) and Serial Experiments Lain (right) both make use of stylistic elements with a well-understood semiotic load, whose appearance is not intended to be fully diagetic. Time-saving measures do double duty in anime: they are meaningful.

That said, semiotic saturation is common in pulp media of all stripes. Whenever you have a lot to say and limited resources to say it with, you will necessarily lean on stand-ins. Pulp media is, typically, genre media because genre provides both a guaranteed audience and a code with its own history. Anime is eclectic, and an anime from one genre will often borrow conventions from non-anime from completely different genres, but the logic remains.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure delivers a shonen battle experience, but it begins as a mashup of Hammer horror and kung fu movie tropes (Phantom Blood, right) before switching to an Indiana Jones / Morning of the Magicians thing (Battle Tendency, center); eventually it engages in dialogue with Twin Peaks (Diamond is Unbreakable, left)
Vampire Hunter D, a long-running franchise, is also in conversation with Hammer’s very specific form of gothic vampire film; structurally, every Vampire Hunter D book (and movie) is a western. This franchise is also a far-future sci-fi.
1998 was a good year for the ‘space western’ in anime — Trigun (left), Outlaw Starr (center), and Cowboy Bebop (right) all came out that year. However, the ‘space western’ term is misleading! While all three of these movies have western-style episode structures, explicit references to westerns, and high-concept science fiction ideas, they are all very different in tone and style. Trigun combines the episodic morality tales familiar from classic westerns with stock japanese comedy structures and has more in common with Irresponsible Captain Tylor than it does with the rest of these shows. Outlaw Star is mostly in conversation with classic western science fiction from the 50s like The Stars My Destination, but also incorporates harem elements that would make it worth comparing to Tenchi Muyo. Cowboy Bebop does not allow itself to remain in dialogue with a single genre tradition for more than an episode at a stretch, although it owes a great deal to noir, blaxploitation, and yakuza films; despite this, its science fiction is the most grounded of the bunch, and very few episodes contain gag-driven comedy of any stripe.

Every pulp tradition has its own history, wherein tropes get established and explored in an environment of happy creative plaigarism. Every genre in anime has its own set of tropes, but just as anime borrows outside of its own medium, genre anime borrows outside of its own genre.

Direct references to other anime are not limited to gag series like Love Tyrant (right); Revolutionary Girl Utena (left) plays on aesthetics and patterns found in Rose of Versailles (center) and its imitators

That said, anime (especially recently) is mostly in dialogue with the anime media mix. This is in part a side effect of the incestuous anime industry, and in part a side effect of ever-expanding media mix strategies: if a mobile game gets turned into an anime, it will get a manga and a light novel too! The light novel space is at least in part an ascended-fandom space these days, so today’s anime adaptations of 5 year old light novels are reflections of 10 year old trends in anime. Being in dialogue with anime is a big part of what makes things recognizably anime.

Neo-Yoko (right) was written by Americans but produced by a Japanese studio for a western audience; it is in dialogue with anime tropes that were popular between 1999 and 2005, and so is very similar in tone to the fully-Japanese production Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun. To Be Hero (center) is a fully Chinese production that pastiches Japanese henshin-hero tropes, as well as classic Nintendo games; it has a more serious semi-sequel called To Be Heroine. Cheating Craft (left) is another fully-Chinese production, based on a Chinese light novel; it uses the tropes of shonen battle parodies to create a second-order parody — a criticism of the high-pressure culture around Chinese standardized testing.
In 2004, famed anime director Hideaki Anno adapted Go Nagai’s influential manga in a live action film (right); Studio Trigger, whose staff is composed primarily of people who worked with him at Gainax, re-adapted his adaptation into an anime that same year (left). This is not as uncommon as it may seem: not only do manga often get live action adaptations, but there are sometimes live action entries in media-mix franchises build around VNs (such as Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, which has several — one of them a live-action adaptation of an OVA). Anno took stylistic conventions developed in the context of anime with him when he branched out into live action film; editing conventions like complex split screen, unusual or seemingly impossible camera positioning, and heavy use of match cuts on action dominate Cutie Honey 2004 to a greater extent than even earlier Cutie Honey anime adaptations. Anno only began making live action films once cameras became small enough to be positioned in the ways he imagined. His trademarks, seen in anime like Evangelion, would only appear in his live action work with Shin Godzilla: careful blocking of large formations of characters or machines, shot from above.

Here’s my provisional definition of what makes something anime:

  1. in situations where realism conflicts with efficient communication, anime will choose efficient communication
  2. in situations where it is more efficient to invoke a trope than to reinvent it, anime will invoke that trope, unless reinventing the trope is necessary for the subversion it intends to produce
  3. anime is in conversation with other anime, in terms of multiple lineages of tropes
  4. anime is in conversation with non-anime media

In other words:

Anime is a form of animation created by anime fans for an audience of anime fans.