The Aesthetic of Anime: A New Video Essay Explores a Rich Tradition of Japanese Animation

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 Evan­ge­lionSer­i­al 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Cow­boy Bebop, the Cult Japan­ese Ani­me Series, Explored in a Thought­ful Video Essay

The Ani­ma­tions That Changed Cin­e­ma: The Ground­break­ing Lega­cies of Prince Achmed, Aki­ra, The Iron Giant & More

The Phi­los­o­phy, Sto­ry­telling & Visu­al Cre­ativ­i­ty of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Ani­me Film, Explained in Video Essays

How Mas­ter Japan­ese Ani­ma­tor Satoshi Kon Pushed the Bound­aries of Mak­ing Ani­me: A Video Essay

The Phi­los­o­phy of Hayao Miyaza­ki: A Video Essay on How the Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Reli­gion Shin­to Suf­fus­es Miyazaki’s Films

The Ori­gins of Ani­me: Watch Free Online 64 Ani­ma­tions That Launched the Japan­ese Ani­me Tra­di­tion

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.

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