Anime is in an odd place right now, caught in a whirlwind of trope-tastic character definitions and a tenuous business model heavily reliant on long tail sales. Animation is not cheap. Just like in Hollywood, that expense acts as a certain risk factor to production innovation. You can make something totally new…but what if it completely flops? How many millions are you willing to bet on a complete unknown?
This is a problem for all media, and its one reason why the current crop of indie youtube channels are the driving force of media right now. Cheap content online can get around these barriers.
But back to anime. In America, anime has become quite popular, and its adopted its own fusion culture. In Japan, however, most anime is seen as the domain of the otaku. In Japan, “otaku” is not a cool word for use with your friends. Its closer to “neckbeard” or “creep” – derogatory, unclean. Content production companies in Japan, by and large, are aiming for this audience the same way a commission artist aims at furries – good money to deal with dirty people.
(If you don’t think furries are dirty, visit Fur Affinity without the filters on. Go on. I’ll wait.)
These influences all come together to explain why the characters in anime are all so fucking stupid. Why the plots are so fucking stupid. Why for every Princess Mononoke we have two dozen bland high school students with six women after them at once. Wish fulfillment.
Yes, yes, i’m well aware Americans do wish fulfillment too. We’re looking at the KIND of wish fulfillment.
For a generation of youth who go to school under crushing expectations and lectures so boring they make your eyes water, there is the wish fulfillment of adventure. For a culture where touching is sharply restricted and gender lines cut like a knife, you have the wish fulfillment of “accidental” gropes that fulfill the fantasy without the guilt and you have the perfect traps who can dance through male and female all they want. For a society that hoards its power in the oldest, where the guaranteed walks of life are dissolving under economic pressure, you have the wish fulfillment of internalized power, only waiting to awaken.
There is some overlap with American wish fulfillment. We all dream of getting up in the middle of class and going “Fuck this!” and doing a Superman through the roof.
That this will never happen is the cruelty of imagination, but everything comes with a price.
When you look at the Japanese animation and you see these nonsensical plots of “ganbatte!” and “genki!” and “tsundere”, don’t bother looking for internal cohesion. The answers are perfunctory and shallow, quick appeals to visceral fantasy. Why does this bland, so-average-its-painful boy have world altering power in his blood? Because he’s you. Why can’t this girl express her feelings in any sane manner, instead spending years on passive-aggressive crushing? Because she wants you, and her antics are foreplay.
Characters need to be sharp and distinctive so that they’re instantly recognizable for their figurines – an arms race of hair color and accessories in a style of drawing which gives us precious little information about the subtleties of facial features. Girls need to appeal to sexual desire so they’ll sell more pillows and more posters. Men need to be bland and quiet and self-effacing, a shell easily obtained by an audience assumed to border on social anxiety if not fall completely into NEET. Everything must serve the machinery of conventions and 2-episodes-per-DVD sales, because the margin is razor thin.
They cannot be human. They must have quirks for amusement, trips for ecchi shots, grades that are either perfect or abyssmal. They must be the reflections of an ideal, drawn through a code grown through 30 years of market research and sales data. We cannot ask questions about how to maintain a relationship with another human being, difficult questions that sully pristine self-insert “waifu” relationships. We cannot look past the moment of power’s awakening to see the all too troublesome way that reality would soon eat any magic we throw out and make it normal.
Like sexual fantasies, we must retread the same dances, punctuated and discarded.
We cannot dare.