Giant robots, superpowered schoolgirls, berzerker martial artists: we all know the sort of figures that represent anime. Though clichéd, the widespread nature of these perceptions actually shows how far Japanese animation has come over the past few decades. Not so long ago, the average Westerner didn’t know the meaning of the world anime, let alone its origin. Today, thanks not least to the films of Hayao Miyazaki‘s Studio Ghibli, the average Westerner has likely already been exposed to one or two masterworks of the form. This viewing experience provides a sense of why Japanese animation, far from simply animation that happens to be Japanese, merits a term of its own: any of us, no matter how inexperienced, can sense “The Aesthetic of Anime.”
Taking that concept as the title of their latest video essay, Lewis and Luiza Liz Bond of The Cinema Cartography show us a range of cinematic possibilities that anime has opened up since the 1980s. I recall, long ago, staying up late to tune in to the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Saturday Night Anime” block to catch such classics from that decade as Venus Wars and Project A-Ko.
While Japanese animation in all its forms has gone much more mainstream around the world since then, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of artistic, narrative, and thematic inventiveness. On the contrary, Bond argues: over the past quarter-century, series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, and Death Note have not only pushed the boundaries of anime, but demonstrated a power to “re-signify storytelling conventions that go beyond the anime form itself.”
In the effort to reveal the true nature of “the misunderstood and often disregarded world of anime,” this video essay references and visually quotes dozens of different shows. (It stops short of the also-vast realm of feature films, such as Ghost in the Shell or the work of Satoshi Kon.) Its range includes the “existential meditation on loneliness” that is Cowboy Bebop, subject of another Bond exegesis previously featured here on Open Culture, and “city pop-fueled Superdimensional Fortress Macross,” which did so much back in the 80s to define not just giant-robot anime but anime itself. Trope-heavy, over-the-top, and “unapologetically weird” though it may seem (but usually not, as Bond implies, without self-awareness), anime continues to realize visions not available — nor even conceivable — to any other art form.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.