Anime: More than Just Animation
Anime– Japanese animation– offers so much more than action-adventure series, if you just give it a chance. You’ll find that it tells the seemingly insignificant stories of ordinary, everyday people in the most beautiful ways.
“I watch anime.”
This sentence is such a common statement to come out of an Asian American teenager’s mouth that it borders on social cliche.
Just like K-pop, Asian romance dramas, and boba tea, anime is a hallmark to the Asian American identity. What better way to connect with your culture than to watch pixelated cartoon figures dance around or listen to Gangnam Style on a loop?
However, the only Japanese heritage that I may have in me is from my great-great-grandmother’s twice-removed cousin.
I love anime because for me, it is one of the most visceral forms of narrative storytelling. The history behind the field is shaped by the constantly changing, continually evolving cultural norms that exercise enormous influence on both domestic Japanese culture and animation techniques beyond Japan.
Today, nearly all of us are at least somewhat familiar with the likes of Naruto or Attack on Titan, two works of anime that have cemented themselves in niche genres of mainstream American media. Unfortunately, that limited exposure leaves much room for anime to be interpreted as no more than TV episodes of action-adventure story lines for late-night binging sessions.
But if you push past the bright, pixelated world of exciting adventure, you’ll discover a very different version of 90’s anime. One that tells the seemingly insignificant stories of ordinary, everyday people.
In Perfect Blue (1997), complex, context-rich plotlines layered with powerful artistic animation captures the horrors of fandom culture and the struggle for female autonomy in a decade where such issues weren’t explicitly discussed, particularly in entertainment.
In the age of cancel-culture fanaticism and the push for female empowerment, the film perfectly predicted the current cultural landscape while still maintaining the distinct, hand-drawn style that is no longer seen today.
Even without poignant social commentary on fandom culture, 90’s anime brought about genre-melding works of storytelling.
Neo-noir, science-fiction television program Cowboy Bebop (1998) seems like a disappointment- the show has only one lackluster season with essentially no plotline, but through the sheer nature of compelling characters and a well-fitting visual aesthetic, the show brings together stories of loneliness, existential angst, and depression of the once-illuminated lives of young adult characters.
The modern era of animation pushes for a sense of perfection- characters’ faces seem almost real, with plastic smiles of uncanny emotion and photographic-like setting backdrops. No such motivation exists within 90’s anime, with sentimental, almost heartbroken characters, leaning on the railings over tired, worn-out cities. In a way, the imperfections and quirks are what truly separates it from following generations and magnify the authenticity of its stories.
Anime directors generally do a fantastic job of bringing out the humanity in even the most fantastical adventure settings, a practice only exemplified in 90’s anime. Even in the mechanical cyberpunk drama Ghost in a Shell (1995) with a cyborg protagonist Major, we see glimpses of her struggle for identity.
“What’s wrong with running away from reality, if it really sucks?”
This question, asked by Shinji Ikari, in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), is a question many ask themselves, but few dare to answer truly. The struggle for belonging, and the lack of purpose in life are not often depicted in hyper-ambitious lead characters of television dramas, and yet, Japanese animation was able to carve a space for smaller films that beautifully explored questions that still haunt tired, lost generations of youth in an increasingly overwhelming world today.
My mentor, Kylie, encouraged me to write about what I am truly passionate about– and anime was my first thought. I always thought that watching anime was constantly associated with binging children’s cartoons, and so I wanted to express what I felt about anime– the sadness, the grief, and the mundane, relatable stories of characters that I felt I could identify with.
Peggy Chen is a writer, tennis player, and pencil enthusiast from small-town North Carolina. An ace journalist for The Falcon (her school newspaper) and a burgeoning memoir writer, she is passionate about telling stories, taking in different perspectives, and Attack on Titan.