One thing that I’ve noticed as I read a lot of Western fiction and watch a lot of Japanese animation is that occasionally I have to pause and think about the nature of how I enjoy something. This frequently leads to bewilderment and confusion in both myself and others as I try to figure out whether or not liking something in a different way than I like something else means that I like it less (or more). It’s fairly meaningless for me to say something like “Simoun is a better fantasy than William Goldman’s The Princess Bride” when there’s almost zero grounds for any sort of comparison. It might be slightly more meaningful, depending on the context, for me to say “I like Simoun better than The Princess Bride” but then that’s akin to saying “I like celery more than I like bananas”. And sometimes I really want bananas. But right now, what I want is a whole-wheat cracker.
It’s something I feel whenever I think about the differences in the nature and form of enjoyment I take from the Western novel and the anime (or manga, or even what little Actual Japanese Literature™ I’ve read), but can’t quite put in words. And, no, it’s not quite a visual appeal issue, so I can’t solve it by saying “anime has cute girls therefore it’s better/worse [please circle the best choice] case closed.” The closest I can come is placing things into a strange matrix of enjoyment derived from intellectual and emotional means. This is not to say that one is inherently better than the other–it’s best, after all, when both are present in similar amounts–but the method of approach, the ever-mutable intellectual and emotional expectations brought into and taken from a work, seem to alter the nature of the enjoyment I derive.
When I think of a Western (the vague and ill-defined global concept, not Louis L’Amour) novel, for instance, I think of intelligence; this is regardless of whether or not I like the novel under question, or whether said novel is intelligent or not. The novel is praised for being intelligent, for being clever, for doing anything that appeals to intellect; the novel is detested for failing to appeal to the intellect, for being sloppy or sentimental or schlocky, for being the Dread Word “Entertaining”. The observation of this perception is hardly news as it’s been going on for roughly two centuries (give or take some decades), but there’s more to it than Sturgeonesque bitterness towards the intellectual elite. Consider the fact that most defences of entertainment, of genre, of actually enjoying what you read are intellectually adroit, understandable given how they are generally addressed addressed to an intellectual audience that may or may not like to enjoy itself. The fight to enjoy something, to defend something against being deemed “escapist” or otherwise “unintelligent” is to insist on the unconventional intelligence of the works under contention.
I’m not trying to upturn my nose here–I’m as guilty as the next person at wanting and enjoying intelligent entertainment (in all of that phrase’s gloriously fuzzy meaning), and, in all honesty, treating entertainment of any kind as though it were unintelligent by default is damaging to everyone. I read books that I enjoy, and I enjoy books that I read. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, more often than not I find a novel to be more intellectually appealing than emotionally–no matter how affectionate I am of the novel or how emotionally appealing I found it. Again, this is not bad, but merely an expression of a particular form of enjoyment.
Conversely, when I think of anime (and of Japanese literature in general, to which anime and manga belong, however reluctantly) I find myself thinking far more of emotions. This, again, is hardly surprising: the history of Japanese literature places more emphasis on the emotional side of a story than its logical side. In other words, the emotions and internal workings of the characters play a stronger role than how “real” (or “realistic”) the characters are. I find this notion easy to detect in anime: whether it be Kabuto Kouji full of burning passion to defeat Baron Ashura and Dr. Hell, Akari Mizunashi full of curiosity and delight in the small things, or the complex characters of Macross Plus, emotions–both those of the characters and/or those engendered in the viewer–play a key role in the series and its appeal to its fanbase, no matter how simplistic or complex they might be.
Just as how Western novels blend intellectual and emotional appeal, however, so too does Japan (more so now, with an increase in Westernized attitudes). The Tale of Genji, the first and most significant work of Japanese prose literature, is extremely internally consistent despite its vast cast of characters rarely referred to by name and with shifting titles; the few inconsistencies tend to appear in chapters where Murasaki Shikibu’s authorship is potentially in doubt. There is also anime that offers much to the intellectually-oriented audience–the films of Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon strike my mind first here, but that may more be due to their larger penetration into the Western market. Even Miyazaki has a strong intellectual appeal, one that may be causing the divide on Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. And there’s the reverse, with more emotional than intellectual appeal, where I think of Key and their ability to take fairly thin characters and still engender strong emotional reactions in their readers and viewers; ef seems to follow in this tradition, if a bit more spectacularly.
In fact, what attracted me to anime in the first place (as I’ve no doubt regaled people with countless times) was the profound emotional effect it had on me; hitherto that point I’d mostly been interested in comedies and was convinced I didn’t like drama at all. The effect of this flip-flopped my attitude not just towards anime and manga but also towards novels and literature; here were emotions I’d not had, or didn’t think I’d like. The result seems to be that I began to understand and explore that which emotionally appealed more to me over that which appealed more to my intellect, and (slowly but surely) move closer to integrating the two. I’ll probably always tend more towards that which stirs the emotions than that which purely stimulates the intellect; but as these two concepts are not diametrically opposed but instead exist on a Cartesian coordinate plane, I can certainly hope to have it both ways (or at least adjust myself as I deem it necessary).
I’ve divided the spectrum between West and East (or West and Japan) and between textual and visual mostly unintentionally, as my initial goal was to muse upon (for my benefit and potential sanity at least) the odd, contrasting natures of how I liked both Western fiction and anime in what generally appears to me to be completely contrasting and contradictory ways (leading to maddening questions like “Do I really like books? Do I really like anime? Do I really like anything? Do I really have too much free time these days? Do I really need to go take a really long walk and just wipe myself out?”). Nothing mentioned here is strictly bounded by borders of nation, genre, or medium, real or imagined.
I think, in some sort of conclusion (have I actually reached one?), it’s worth pointing out that nothing, as the aforementioned Sturgeon said, is ever absolutely so, and examples and counter-examples clearly exist to everything here, and, furthermore, those examples and counter-examples are going to differ depending on the person giving them. But whether it’s just me who thinks this way, or everyone, or if I’m even dead wrong on my (hilariously subjective) assessment of the matter, I think it best to at least keep in mind that there are at least two tandem approaches to deriving enjoyment from any given narrative: one from the intellect and one from emotion. Each manifests itself differently in everyone and people naturally tend towards one more than the other for some narratives and vice versa for others; some will even be able to swap between the approaches at will. And it’s likely that as time passes that the preferences will change as well.
I think I best list some examples so, at the very least, my subjective assessment of all this nonsense will be known, so that perhaps thought processes can maybe be assimilated into some kind of coherent whole by someone who is not me. Oddly enough this also somewhat serves as a “recommended reading/watching” list in a very odd and somewhat haphazardly slapped together at the last minute way.
- Primarily intellectual:
Novels: Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, feed by M.T. Anderson, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Anime: Legend of Galactic Heroes, Macross Plus, The Sky Crawlers
- Primarily emotional:
Novels: The Six Duchies nonalogy by Robin Hobb, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl
Anime: Kamichu!, Crest of the Stars, Whisper of the Heart
- Primarily both:
Novels: Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Anime: Revolutionary Girl Utena, Planetes, Toki o Kakeru Shoujo
If this post makes no sense, it is entirely my fault for not being sensible. I’m going to go not think for a while. It might do me some good, and prepare me mentally to think way too hard about information management.