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.
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
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.
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!