I think I might have nailed down one of the big reasons that Japanese games and anime appeal to me quite so much. It’s actually a relatively obvious conclusion, now that I think about it, but watching several different types of anime and playing several different types of Japanese game recently has pretty much confirmed what I suspected.
The thing I find most appealing about these forms of media is that they consciously and obviously divorce themselves from reality while retaining just enough that is relatable to make it still feel “relevant” to the viewer. I’m not just talking about the obviously outlandish storylines of titles like JRPGs and My Girlfriend is the President here, I’m talking about the heavily stylised way in which characters are represented, emotions are depicted visually and how character traits are often exaggerated to make individual cast members obviously distinctive from one another.
As I gradually get deeper in to the world of anime in particular, a lot of conventions are starting to make themselves apparent. One of the most obvious breaks from reality is the use of “emoticons” to depict how characters are feeling. (There may be a proper name for them, but I’m not sure what it is, if so.) Things like the throbbing red “vein” when someone’s angry; the physically-impossible shadow being cast over someone’s face when they’re disappointed or scared; characters who literally catch fire or become engulfed in dark mists when they’re feeling particularly strongly about something; the fact that anyone having pervy thoughts immediately gets a nosebleed. They’re crazy and completely physically implausible, of course, but they create a handy visual shorthand for emotional reactions that might be otherwise difficult to depict in the relatively simplistic imagery of animation. For as much as anime characters (particularly of the moe variety) are designed to elicit emotional responses from the viewer, there’s only so much you can do when you’re not working with a real person who doesn’t have all those muscles in their face to work with.
Actually, that’s not true at all — when you’re dealing with a drawing of someone, you can do absolutely anything with them, even things that are physically impossible. What you can’t really do quite so easily, though, is show subtle nuances of emotion, which may account for the fact that an awful lot of anime features not only heavily-exaggerated characters, but also strongly-exaggerated emotional responses to situations too. Everything from the embarrassed “arm-flap” of a teenage girl having her crush revealed to a heroic protagonist running towards his rival engulfed in flames — these exaggerated, symbolic responses make it abundantly clear to the viewer what these characters are thinking and feeling.
At the same time, as I said at the start, they divorce the work from reality. They make a statement — this is not real — and encourage the viewer to suspend their disbelief. And that, for me, is one of the more appealing things about this type of media. I indulge in video games and watching anime as a means of escaping from the doldrums of everyday life which is, let’s face it, rather tedious and dull at the best of times. At the same time, though, I like to maintain a connection to something relatable — usually characters — and I’ve found that anime and Japanese games have often provided a good balance between those two considerations for my tastes.
Obviously I don’t expect everyone to agree with me — it’d be easy to see anime’s exaggerated reactions as overly-comic, silly or childish, for example, sometimes making light of serious situations — but it works for me. Perhaps I just like having emotional responses clearly telegraphed to me rather than being expected to read the often-inscrutable faces of real human beings.
As a vaguely-related contrast to this, we went to see the Lion King stage show last night in Bristol. I did not enjoy it that much, and while I was sitting there a bit bored I found myself wondering exactly why I could suspend my disbelief for an anime about schoolgirls who have perverted fantasies about their classmates (and subsequent nosebleeds) every time they take their glasses off, but not for a bunch of people dressed as savannah animals leaping and cavorting around on stage. I found this a particularly interesting question to ponder given that I normally have a lot of patience for musicals.
The conclusion I came to is somewhat difficult to describe, but it’s largely the fact that I found The Lion King difficult to relate to. I enjoyed the original Disney movie, but the stage show focused, for me, far too much on visual spectacle rather than making the characters relatable in any way. I didn’t give a toss about young Simba (who was not portrayed particularly well by the child actor, which didn’t help) and was painfully aware that these were just people wearing masks and weird costumes throughout. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and think of them as their characters. It went too far off the edge of reality and deep into the realm of “this is pretentious arty wank” for me, not helped by the amount of frankly unnecessary prancing around from certain members of the cast.
I was somewhat in the minority, though, as the show got a standing ovation at the end. Oh well. This certainly isn’t the first time something with mainstream popularity has left me somewhat cold, as this blog will attest on a number of occasions!