I see the question asked, sometimes, you know? And I’ve thought about the answer at great length. I have, at this point, stumbled ass-backwards into a kind of, sort of, if you squint, successful-ish career as a person who Writes About Japanese Cartoons For A Living. (It’s only able to be such because of additional support from my beloved girlfriend and our mutual flatmate, but, a living-of-sorts it remains.) So I’ve thought a fair bit about the question of, you know, why this?
The practical answer is that I like doing it and am good at it, but that’s unsatisfactory. Not the least of which because it applies too specifically to just me. No, I think a better approach is to zoom out a bit. Why do I like anime anyway? No no, farther. Why does anyone like any art? Well, now we’ve got a big question on our hands. People have written about this subject at length, of course, and my response is just one part of what we must imagine is in truth a larger answer that we as a species are still figuring out.
but all that said
I think the simplest answer is that we like things that resonate with us somehow. And that’s kind of a funny word, resonate. But I think it’s apt. People don’t look to art for any one specific feeling or theme or aesthetic, what they look to it for in the broadest sense possible is something that speaks to them in some way. Things they can relate to, or they see themselves in, or things that inspire them. In some fashion, even if it’s not that straightforward a lot of the time.
And I think in my case, I have a tendency to hunt for resonance in places where many people in my position would not think to look for it. Let’s put anime aside for a second. My first love, as an artform, was actually hip-hop music. That’s kind of silly on the surface. A deeply closeted white transgirl from a rapidly-collapsing old-money Pennsylvania Dutch family has no business finding anything to relate to in, say, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
….and yet I did. Not to the specifics of a rough upbringing in New York, of course, but to the broadest, most general sentiments. To again use 36 Chambers specifically as an example, to the deep melancholy of the Wendy Rene sample on “Tearz”, to the “put it on if you need to feel invincible” vibes of “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit'”, the basics-of-capitalism breakdown of “C.R.E.A.M.” I was also entranced with the actual text of the record–the style, if you will. The wordplay, the way the rhymes were actually constructed, the timbre of each member’s voice, Rza’s dusty, gritty production. I risk spending too much time on an example, but you get the idea. Even in a piece of art that had, essentially, nothing at all to do with my life experience, I found something that connected with me.
I don’t know if the specific experience of listening to 36 Chambers had anything to do with it directly, but as I got older I found myself seeking that kind of experience out more and more. Being interested in the broadest, most universal and elemental building blocks of the human experience. I would never deign to call myself someone with truly eclectic tastes–I’ve well fallen in to personal habits by now–but I think a big part of why I connected with anime specifically is that despite the cultural differences and a very obvious language barrier, I still find that I get that very simple joy of knowing other people out there experience the same feelings I do even if our experiences, upbringings, and so on are vastly different.
I couldn’t put a name to the feeling at the time, but Serial Experiments Lain, one of my first anime where I really “knew” it was an anime, felt like it was speaking to me–a young girl who, like Lain, was largely growing up on the internet instead of in the physical world, with all the up- and downsides that that entails.
I can draw from dozens more specific examples. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya spoke to the adventure-filled high school life I wished I was having while Azumanga Daioh reminded me of my interactions with the real friends I did have. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was the first time I felt like I was on the same wavelength as older anime fans who loved pure, hot-blooded action. Code Geass and Death Note, well, had smart protagonists and made me feel smart for liking them. Listen, I never said all of these reasons I resonated with things were good reasons.
On the style side I was starting to feel myself out too: sci-fi, giant robots, “high school” settings where it feels like anything can happen, roguish protagonists who aren’t quite necessarily “good guys”, etc. Some of these tastes have changed over time and some have stayed the same, but I find the process of thinking about why I like these things to, itself, be incredibly interesting. I think many people enjoy, maybe even need, this kind of self-reflection even if they aren’t necessarily cognizant of it.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed expanding my horizons and finding when I have similar feelings as other anime fans and when I don’t. Straight-ahead mainstream action-shonen? Still kind of frosty on that most of the time (although Tower of God is perhaps changing that). Dark magical girl-adjacent fantasy stuff? Madoka Magica has rapidly become one of my favorite anime of all time both because of its aesthetics and its surges of deep, black emotions, and it’s taken me all of about three months to become a hardcore Rebellion apologist, so, yeah, I think there’s some real merit in that (now rapidly waning) subgenre.
But those are still all just examples. The point I am attempting to make is that I love seeing art, and, specifically, anime, push those emotional buttons. I’m not yet an experienced enough critic to say I have a concrete philosophy on what makes art “good or bad” (to be frank I sort of consider the question uninteresting), but I think what makes art important is what it reflects of us. Of who made it, of who engages with it, all of us.
Perhaps that’s a cheesy answer. Perhaps in ten years I will look back on this post and find myself wondering how I ever thought it was that simple. What I do not think will change is that when I make myself strip away the extraneous things people associate with critics: The idea of being a voice of authority, of having some kind of “sway” over public opinion, of having “the most” knowledge about your chosen medium, all things I think most critics on some level at least aspire to a little bit (it’s the inherent mild pretense required to even become a critic in the first place).
I find myself thinking that what I write for is ultimately for the joy of watching. Through all the possible barriers, any time I can imagine the sheer strength of feeling from every director, animator, storyboarder, voice actor, script-writer, et cetera, reaching certainly not just me, but any viewer, I remember that that, right there, is what I am writing for. That connection.
That is why I blog about anime.