We’ve all heard it at some point. An innocent anime uninitiated that tells us “oh yeah, the Japanese cartoons?” or “isn’t it for kids?”… It drives some of us crazy. Not the questions themselves but the implications. The undertone isn’t always there, however once in a while you do get the feeling that people think of it as a “lesser” form of entertainment. Simple or just silly little stories. Something to watch with your brain turned off and laugh at the pretty colours. Occasionally something akin to pornography, you don’t have to feel too embarrassed or bad about since it’s dissociated from real people. In short, there was and possibly persists, a bias that “serious” or “important” topics can’t be tackled or explored through anime.

shield hero annoyed
I know how it makes me feel

I feel a little sorry for people that can’t get over that preconception. Personally, one of the elements that attracts me to anime is its surprising willingness to take on some very difficult issues or mix in profound moral dilemmas in seemingly lighthearted silly little shows. Take something like Zombieland Saga and all that was hinted at and explored. It’s the type of stories we see all the time in anime but that I rarely come across elsewhere. And the questions are often open ended, demanding that the audience does its own thinking and comes to its own conclusions, rather than having the answer spoon fed by the narrative.

But there is a question to ask, does the fact that the message is presented in bright colours and beautiful animation, often surrounded by a wacky plot populated by eccentric characters, lessen its impact? Will part of the audience not take the time to think about the underlying elements because it’s just anime?

The answer is generally yeah… I think this VICE article summarizes fairly well the broad lines of why we take animated entertainment in differently and is a little less dry than a research paper :https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/d7e9xa/therapists-explain-how-cartoons-affect-your-mental-health

anime sreaming at tv
some of us do take animation very seriously

The very very short of it: our brains know that drawings aren’t and will react differently to them on a neurochemical level than they would to pictures of actual people or places (i.e. live action). So serious or difficult topics are processed in a different usually lighter way and will have less of a visceral impact.

One of the major issues is that no matter how well we relate to a character and how much we care for them and share their pain, very few people can empathize on a base level the same way they would if it were a real person. The example given was: “If a character in live action runs into a wall, we wince. If a cartoon does it, we laugh at the slapstick humour.

Because of this a lot of people engage in sorties told through live action more. They take them personally. They put themselves more readily in those situations and therefore will be more likely to think about them in a personal context. What would they do if?… What are the parallels with their own experience? Do these problems exist in the real world and what should we do about them? They’re also more likely to think about them longer. The more something is directly related to us to more we tend to remember it. Generally speaking.

This bias is why for a long time, story tellers (writers, directors etc…) would shy away from animation when they really wanted their stories to make an “impact”. It’s also why, traditionally, cartoons tend to be less affected by censorship than other forms of entertainment. As such they would attract satirists and dissidents that had no other way of getting their views to the public.

you know maybe we *should* overthrow the gouvernment

This is slowly changing. I would like to argue that the inherent separation we have from animated characters is in a way an advantage to making an intellectual impact on the audience. If one can convince people to take the story seriously, through good writing or character development. Even through masterful animation craftsmanship. The fact that our brain inherently knows that the story is “not real” means that it will then treat it within it’s on context and allows a person to better see a situation from an outside perspective.

In theory, this would help someone to arrive at ideas they would not normally think of and expand their point of view more quickly than otherwise. It also forces your brain to basically reconstruct the reality in which the story takes place. To consider things that we usually take for granted because it’s just how things are. Up to a certain point, any work of fiction or fantasy can do that, but it becomes even more basic when the work is inherently not consistent with every single aspect of a person’s default reality.

Granted a lot of this is pop psychology. There have been studies that show that information from animated sources lights up different areas in the brain but how this actually translates to practical analysis is still a little vague. As far as I know. Which isn’t that far really.

But the simple fact that there is a difference at all is interesting. A particularly talented writer could even take advantage of that.

In conclusion, this is why we anime watchers are more open minded and likely to grapple with questions common mortals cannot even fathom! Yes, that’s clearly the only logical interpretation here!

Megane Rini
glasses means I’m right

28 thoughts

  1. I don’t know why this is, but I respond much more viscerally to an animated show than to anything live action. I do enjoy a lot of live action TV (Doctor Who and Stranger Things are some of my favorites), but I don’t feel like I can identify with any of the characters in those series as strongly as I do with, say, Evangelion or A Place Further Than The Universe. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I’m just weird >_<

    I do think that the people who say animation is just for kids, or that cartoons can’t be artistic and have a deep meaning, generally don’t know of any animated media beyond Disney or South Park. I’m sure if they watched a great anime series or a Studio Ghibli Classic they would change their minds!

  2. The medium is irrelevant it is the story that matters. One can be engrossed, moved or effected whether it is the written word, live-action, animation or audio. Look at the amount of people who still cite Bambi’s mother being shot as one of the most traumatic experiences they’ve seen on film and that was almost 80 years ago!!

    With regard to anime, I’ve seen episodes of One Piece that are as emotionally powerful as Grave Of The Fireflies yet are aesthetically worlds apart. Sometimes you need the goofy looking characters to get you invested before being hit with the heavy drama, that way you’ll feel it more.

    If people need to equate high artistic design with a strong story they are missing point or blind to their own ignorance.

  3. Irina, your timing is absolutely impeccable. I’ve been needing to choose a topic for a research paper and this inspired me.

    At base, it would’ve been about the adoption of sex role stereotyped behavior in media. However, now I think I’ll focus more on anime’s influence (possibly less or opposite) comparative to its live action contemporaries.

    Jeez, I can’t believe I’m taking your lead so much in the short time I’ve read your blog… Kudos! If you ever come down to NYC, I’ll have to buy you a drink at this rate.

  4. “If a character in live action runs into a wall, we wince. If a cartoon does it, we laugh at the slapstick humour.”

    My first impression upon reading this: nonsense science reporting. Then I went to actually read the article and: the journalist is interviewing clinical psychologists who talk about therapy, but none of them say anything specifically about animated vs. live action footage. So to get the answer she wants she asks a “professional animator and comedian” (who may or may not have, at one point in his life, read something about psychology).

    So I wince at Laurel/Hardy but laugh at episode 10 of Made in Abyss? (I can cherrypick examples, too.)

    And finally anime is an audio-visual medium, not just a visual one. One shouldn’t underestimate soundeffects, voice-acting and musical score. I’d wager that bouncing off a wall with a comical soundeffect will come across pretty similarly in live-action and animation (given comparable cinematography).

    And then I’ve been known to wince while reading books – with no visual input (other than the letters on a page) at all. When would visuals enhace, when mitigate the effect? Is there a difference between live action and animation? What are the influential factors (and which are shared)? For example, both in animation and live action you sometimes wince at stuff that happens off-screen.

    Imagine the same scene in live action and animation (maybe more than once at various detail levels). There’d need to be the same cinematography and ideally the same soundeffects and voice acting. What if you draw over the photos? It’d be a rather expensive study – prejudice is cheaper and you might luck out and hit the truth.

    I can’t say I find an obvious difference in my own reception of live action or animation, though there could definitely be something unconscious going on in the background. And there is stuff that’s easier to pull off in either medium (for example: sudden chibis would look… weird in live action – though if you’d do it often enough it would become part of our culture’s visual language). I’m now thinking of the Adam West Batman series with all those sound-effects written out in bold big letters. Heh. Holy lack of animation Batman!

  5. I’m thinking here about an earlier discussion we had on this blog about whether we identify with certain anime characters. I rarely see characters I specifically identify with – yet I still get very involved in their stories. I have exactly the same issue with live action shows. So in my case I think when a story has a deep theme, I’m as likely to feel it just as deeply in anime form as in live action form. Granted I’m deeply empathic, so it’s easy for me to put myself into someone else’s shoes (or hoofs or paws or…) and feel what (I think) they would feel. It is an interesting difference to think about. Overall I think this is one of those things in the universe that is so highly sensitive to each individuals’ own perception that any generalization is likely – as generalizations are by definition – to be incorrect or at least inapplicable to much of the population. And one more little thing – to come back at the “it isn’t real” to the mind – much research has been done to show that VR and even visualization is so much taken as “real” by your mind that it has been known to improve performance in athletic events. So, again, we have research that shows the mind says it isn’t real, and research showing that the mind behaves as though it is real. So which is true? Both. Subject to individual differences.

    That’s my non-definative, inconclusive argument of the day. LOL.

      1. I learned from a master. My DH argues just to argue and is infamous for arguing the opposite side until I agree with him – then switching sides…

  6. Great point! We are exposed to more issues in anime and also presented with more sides to an issue and how characters feel about it. In other mediums you get people who boycott a tv show/movie if it deals in heavy issues.
    I think it being anime makes it ignored by the population that would try and get rid of it… They see it as a cartoon and that may just give it the freedom it needs to keep hitting on the deeper issues. Their ignorance… Our gain.

  7. This was a great read. I know quite a few people (including my parents) who are of the mindset that anime can’t be deep or intellectual or compelling. I, on the other hand, have watched over a thousand episodes combined and know that’s not true. Thanks for sharing this post!

  8. Personally to me anime is highly capable of conveying serious messages, take a look at koe no katachi (a silent voice) the message on fixing past mistakes, forgiveness, betrayal, anti bullying, and depression. The emotions you feel while watching will strike you to the core, everyone makes mistakes they want to take back and if you try hard enough you can, anime has been so much more than something funny to watch for me, watching anime movies like koe no katachi or any anime honestly has given me hope instead of being stuck in my depression every day.

  9. The animated medium is probably the only reason why I developed any interest in being retrospective of my life as a teenager. Being socially introverted, I pretty much “learned” from anime. Obviously, that’s not a perfect solution, but anime + real life experience evens the kinks out. I can say without a doubt that anime has pushed me to at least try things I never would have. Even better than that, I think having that gap of reality,like you said, makes it easier to digest just how badly I’m doing.

    Not an anime, but Bojack Horseman is a great example of a sobering show. I may not be a celebrity horse, but I do struggle with anxiety, depression, and self-deprecating humor.

  10. It’s funny how some people dismiss any kind of animation just because of the medium, no matter how good the story or characters are, while praising some live-action movies that try to be big and profound but fail because their stories are unbelievable and their characters may as well be cardboard cutouts. I get it; I grew up feeling like I was into lesser kinds of entertainment like anime and video games because that’s what I was told — even that they didn’t count as “art”, whatever that means. But I agree that you can tell great stories through animation, some of which you probably never could in live action.

    1. Pfffth anime just has more forms of art woven into it. I’m not even going to get into the 3d narrative structure of games… It’s uber art

  11. As .. elitist as your last comment kinda sounds I sort of have to agree.
    Geeks in general are way more open minded about things oftenly.. at least in concept. More socially akward about it as well.

    I have a few very good friends on discord I only know trough our virtual identity and I have no trouble at all seing them as real friends, all my geek friends agree. While my normy friends think my online friends do not count as friends.
    It’s the same concept basicly. We can learn as much from a fictional character as from a real person but it’s all from our point of view.
    Which is quite hypocrite.. because the characters in 13 reasons why are just as fake as the one’s in our favorite anime.

    To me anime characters can convey a lesson better because you can enlarge these qualities you want to convey. Vegeta having to set away his pride to be a better warrior, would have to tone that pride down in live action. Light’s inner workings in death note had to be simplified for live action (they kind of overshot there) but the general public can dismiss when it’s not being tangible.

    From a philosphy standpoint though ? Does it really lose it’s message? I dont think so..
    The message in anime is meant for people with that open mind it’s not meant for disbelievers to see.. (Gurren Lagann for example asks you to open your mind) if you can not belief this product is not for you. If I put “out of milk’ in my group discord, one of them will bring milk the rest will ignore it. The message is essientialy not for those who dont want to help. But for those who I actualy aim for it gets processed by 100% .
    So is a message really missed if it was never meant for you?

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