On the Nature of Enjoyment (feat. Ange Ushiromiya)

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.

10 Responses to “On the Nature of Enjoyment (feat. Ange Ushiromiya)”

  1. 1 digitalboy 29 August 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I totally get what you are saying here. It can be hard to look at two shows like Eureka Seven and Lucky Star, both among my alltime favorite anime, and go ‘which one if my favorite?’ when they are loved for such completely different reasons. LS is for the fun of watching, the characters, the culture around it, etc, while ES is about the amazing storytelling and emotional impact.

    I, however, have spent years developing a system based around my own interests in what I like more or less so that I can grade everything on one giant definable scale of favorites. It’s very important to me that I can do this.


    >>The Princess Bride
    >>for being the Dread Word “Entertaining”.

    I c wut u did thar

    • 2 OGT 29 August 2009 at 9:23 pm

      I don’t believe too much in setting a “defined” scale of favorites, but that might just be the inner librarian “I have to understand why something is to be liked than liking something myself” notion I frequently have. I know my taste well enough to know when I like or do not like something; further gradation beyond that is largely superfluous and almost entirely arbitrary.

      Also I know what I did there, and it was totally Freudian and unintentional. I just happened to glance at my copy of The Princess Bride while agonizingly revising. So that actually went in later, for different reasons, but I’m sure Freud would talk about fixations and neuroses and the nature of the unconscious (I think id is more Jungian but I could be wrong here).

  2. 3 gaguri 29 August 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Personally I would further divide the works into intellectual, emotional and sensual. I think art/entertainment connects us via these three packets. Concepts, affects and percepts. By being thought-provoking, emotionally moving, and stimulating to our senses. Some anime might be more intellectual, some might be more emotional, some might be more sensual, and some anime might mix bit of each, etc.

    Good example of intellectual is, as you say, Legend of Galactic Heroes. As for Sky Crawlers, I think it has a fair amount of sensual dimension to it.

    As for emotional, I think it’s just about every show that I care for…though Crest of the Stars I think is fairy intellectual as well.

    Sensual anime are mostly those experimental anime shorts, or any other titles that stimulates our senses. Don’t need any stories, characters, just purely working with colours, movements, sounds. And just sensing them with our eyes and ears and delighting in it.

    Of course, I think the best titles try to use all three to great effect.

    *something I remember from Deleuze’s book, not sure if this was exactly what he was trying to say x_X, but I still liked his view when I was reading it at that time.

    • 4 OGT 29 August 2009 at 9:36 pm

      Sensual is probably be a good word to describe visual/textual impact. The only difference between the two is that a visual medium presents you the mise en scene visually; something that is purely verbal has to use language just so in order to have the desired mise en scene. Taking all three, I know the one thing that I have the most issue with (which stems from my narrative-focused mind) is the sensual: experimental, stylistic, and artistic items are perfectly fine in their own right and I can like them, but it’s often a hollow one without one of the other two pillars to support me through it. The first counter-example I can think of offhand is Norton Juster and Chuck Jones’s The Dot and the Line, but that might be cheating because I find it amusing (and therefore gets points on the “emotional” scale, perhaps). But that’s visual, and I have terrible visual reasoning; I think as far as extremes of “sensual” go, I’m more inclined to music; a lot of music I like can (or could have been) described as experimental, inventive, or playful, and often bypasses any linguistic processing for a purely musical experience.

      And, yes, all two (or three) scales are sliding and not mutually exclusive; enjoyment does not obey the laws of thermodynamics. In the post in general, and in the list specifically, I was talking less about the potential appeals any given series could have and more about the nature of the enjoyment I derived from it. Crest of the Stars has a lot of things going for its intellectual side, but when I think of it I tend to melt into a pile of goo for the relationship between Jinto and Lafiel. I might like something for an intellectual reason (Cyteen) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have some major gut-wrenching moments reading it (and the entire book is more or less a long extended gut-wrenching moment).

  3. 5 animekritik 30 August 2009 at 2:19 am

    This sort of stuff comes up in my musings too often enough. I remember a long time ago getting into a discussion on the relative value of hendrix vs mozart… Interestingly, I haven’t seen any of the shows or read any of the books you listed there. It’d be a good idea to set up an anime watchers university with a nice curriculum. there’s tons of “required watching” i haven’t done yet…

    • 6 OGT 30 August 2009 at 1:12 pm

      Some of what I listed there isn’t really what I’d call “required watching” per se but that’s not to say that watching them is not a good idea. Also, the relative merits of Mozart vs. Jimi Hendrix sounds like an awesome discussion; my view is that all the importance and quality that Mozart can muster in no way diminishes the importance and quality of Jimi Hendrix (and vice versa), but one generally will tend to prefer one over the other. Which isn’t bad, really.

      I’ve not thought of “anime university” (that kind of amazingness is decades away at best), but I have given some serious thought into the concept of a sort of reader’s advisory site for anime and manga–sort of like MAL’s recommendation feature, but with more authority control, limited authorship, and with more of an eye to the qualities than the quality.

  4. 7 ETERNAL 30 August 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Good post. I don’t have much to add, but I can relate in precisely the opposite sense: I started watching anime in elementary school as a sort of counter-culture thing, but I only started consuming “normal” media like books and movies after I started blogging. Since I haven’t studied literature academically, even the intellectual books I read sometimes feel more emotional, but I see what you mean about the general cultural differences. Maybe this is somehow connected to the fact that I [i]always[/i] prefer Japanese romance fiction over Western, but I’m more interested in Philip K. Dick and the first Matrix movie than most non-psychological sci-fi anime. Or maybe that’s another issue entirely.

    • 8 OGT 30 August 2009 at 1:44 pm

      I think I kind of actually did both: I read a lot of books prior to getting into anime at age 18, but after getting into anime the two developed in tandem and I know that my taste in anime has impacted my taste in novels and vice versa (I love you overused Latin phrase). Rather amusingly, a couple years ago I was kind of irked with Western fiction (or maybe more accurately Western fiction readers) and wasn’t reading as much (this came at the same time that my school workload started to pile up which no doubt exacerbated the effect), but anime and running this blog actually made me a better reader in general (take that, proponents of the “TV rots your brain” notion!), and I’ve read way more this year than I have the previous two years combined. I still have a long way to go with books (see cuchlann and IKnight’s Goodreads lists), but that’s where I invoke the Mma Ramotswe quote on the impossibility of reading every book, no matter how smart you are (or think you are): you get to the end, and so much more has come out that you then have to start all over again.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “non-psychological sci-fi anime,” but anime tends to handle science fiction more often as a setting for a story than the way science fiction novels in the West tend to work–which invariably, in the end, seem more about science than humans, due to how the form developed. If Western SF novels tend to be accused of forgetting about having good characters (the “fiction” part), then anime could just as easily be accused of forgetting about the future speculation and “hard” scientific accuracy (the “science” part). I dunno if you’ve ever read Asimov’s Foundation series but those are an extreme example of forgetting about “fiction” in the name of “science” (or using “fiction” to elaborate on the “science”; Aria, on the other hand, seems to blithely ignore “science” in favor of “fiction” (or using “science” to augment the “fiction”).

  5. 9 akuyume 9 September 2009 at 10:10 pm

    This whole bit of dividing between works which appeal to intellect and those that appeal to emotion could be used to separate modes of comparison. Both an intellectual mode of comparison when things are similar, and an emotional mode of comparison when they are dissimilar.

    Its much easier to compare things which are very similar in an intellectual manner because they are structurally similar. With structural similarity it much easier to reduce the emotional effects of the works to intellectual difference. The less structural similarity between two works, the more we must rely on the emotional differences. Since emotions come in a wide variety of flavors and each with their own range of values, making a solid comparison is difficult. Emotions are nearly impossible to define in a clean-and-cut manner, thus the difficulty of picking a favorite between two dissimilar works.

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I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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August 2009

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