I don’t know if the expression “existential drift” actually exists. Ha! (Cause existential…never mind…) I think I made it up but I not infrequently think I’ve coined a new term or expression just to realize it’s fairly common and I had probably just picked up on it subconsciously or something.
In any case, I decided to use this particular combination of words to describe a certain trend I’ve been seeing in anime in the past few years. A sort of recurring theme. It’s like a combination of modern isolation mixed with a sort of uneasy technophobia. These recurring idea that the modern world is pulling us away from each other so that we lose connection with one another. Characters that would have been average popular people are suddenly lonely and cut off because our social structure hasn’t yet adjusted to our means.
And this is combined with this vague uncertainty towards self and identity. As more and more people start living increasingly digital lives, are we losing touch with the physical? Are we becoming increasingly intangible? Are we willingly squandering purpose and meaning in favour of entertainment and comfort? Or are these simple growing pains as we try to take a collective next step?
I spelled it out pretty bluntly there. Most Anime have more delicacy and subtlety than I do, thankfully, but these are still general ideas that come up a lot and with some urgency, in contemporary anime. A mild angst, a good dash of imposter syndrome, the inability to form and maintain meaningful relationships. Existential drift, the notion that we are moving slowly away from each other and potentially our humanity.
And it’s not the same as the solitary hero with the tragic background trope that has always been around. It’s updated. My Hero Academia isn’t just about a school for gifted students, it’s about and entire world where the “normal” person has evolved out of existence. Natsume’s Yokai are slowly becoming an endangered species as magic leaks out of the world. Smart phones are becoming a common exposition tool but it’s almost always bad news.
I haven’t been watching much other than anime. Well I’ve gotten through some prime shows like Emerald City and The Colour of Magic. I’m also finishing up the Good Place. But that’s about it. As such I don’t really know if this thematic trend is world wide. These are pretty universal issues after all. Still from my vantage point it does appear that digital estrangement is hitting anime writers particularly hard.
And this lead me down a theoretical rabbit hole I want to share with you all. All of it is pure fancy. I am hoping it could be mildly distracting fancy.
Follow me down. I figure Anime creators are already a little divorced from reality since so much of their lives are dedicated to the creation of fictional worlds. They are already less tied down to the mundane world than those of us who do not happen to be loved by muses. Combine that with the unreasonable working hours imposed by the industry which makes social lives and just generally keeping in touch with the “real” world somewhat challenging and pile on top of that the fact that modern conveniences have made direct interactions more or less completely optional and you are left with the looming possibility of actually being able to exist in universes of your own creation. Something that we never truly possible from a practical standpoint until fairly recently.
This also means that one could gradually and unintentionally fall out of step with their fellow peoples. You know? Just wake up one morning and find out you no longer have anything in common with the average person. To the point where communication can even become difficult since reference points no longer match up. Even someone fairly sociable and popular could inadvertently find themselves an outcast. Not in a aggressive way. Not because they are actively being rejected by society for some reason. But simply because society is no longer something they know and understand in the 3d world. Without realizing it, a person could lose their “fit”.
Of course this is an extreme. Not something that’s likely to happen to anyone tomorrow. But it’s an extreme that’s becoming increasingly possible and I can see how that would be a frightening concept.
However, the real terror is when we expand that beyond the individual. What if the world evolves in such a way that community is no longer a necessity? A lot of fiction theorizes that online interactions will replace physical ones. Stories like Ready Player One or even the Matrix, in a way most isekais could fall into that category as well, basically float the idea of virtual worlds overtaking the one we know. People’s existence moving into a digital or virtual realm. But they still resemble the social structures we know. Those virtual worlds are still shared experiences and digital interactions are still interaction.
But what if we all suddenly end up deciding that people are the worst and we are not going to deal with them anymore in any way. What if our technology gets us to the point where that’s a realistic option. We all have our own personal universes and we no longer need to share them with anyone else if we don’t want to. What then?
I think this is a question that a lot of anime (and possibly manga) are trying to answer in a roundabout way. And I love it. It’s fascinating and scary and sad and full of potential. It’s a question we have never had to answer before. Something genuinely novel…. And for anime, that can be old fashioned in some ways, dealing with classical dilemmas and offering up traditional solutions, to be all over this question, is unexpected an exciting to me. We may be standing on the edge of tomorrow but anime is sending out scouting parties ahead!
I found this little thought experiment inspiring. Even if I’m missreading the symbolism, it still speaks to me. So that’s why I wanted to make a new expression for it. Existential drift. I hope it doesn’t already exist. I’m a little scared to look it up.
Have you also noticed this trend in anime? Or have you noticed any other trends that have you excited about what the medium has chosen to explore?
16 thoughts on “Existential Drift in Anime”
I absolutely love this.
“Anime creators are already a little divorced from reality since so much of their lives are dedicated to the creation of fictional worlds.”
As such could easily apply to writers, to anyone who fantasises more than lives, and especially people like myself who worships tv and had believed that movies or indeed anime are demonstrations of an ideal real life. How could our screens portray anything deeper than surface level? I don’t believe so, Yet this surface is so dangerously alluring.
And this term: existential drift. I will be using it in every conversation I have as of this day. The notion we are moving slowly away from each other and potentially our humanity. You have summed up the feeling that has been gnawing on me for so painfully long. Thank you for this. I hope we can get in contact and you can enlighten me further hahah
A kindred spirit! This comment really made my day. Thank you
I have never fit in. The closest I ever come is in communities of misfits – meaning by definition that no one in them quite fits (even in the misfit community). Left entirely to myself, I’d be one of those “desert rats” common in New Mexico who live out in the desert and come into town once a month or so to purchase what they can’t grow. Thank the hubby for dragging me kicking and screaming into the world of computers, but even with that said, I can make a case for solar power and satellite internet and STILL living alone in the desert. But other human presence (with one notable exception) makes me actively nervous and uncomfortable. I was raised by wolves. 😛
So would I go for an entirely cyber life like Sword Art Online? My love of animals and nature is such that I doubt it. But that’s me. I can totally see other people leaping happily into that life, but the thing is that one of the reasons they would do so is that in those lives they DO have social contacts they lack in RL.
Although it is possible to isolate yourself in a game world (Kirito was a lone player when SAO began – remember?) in the anime I’ve watched and the books I’ve read (there’s a whole cool genre of sucked into the game books now) the protagonist – however isolationist they might be – gets absorbed into a community. Community is something most humans need on a near biological basis – they just want to find the community where they feel they belong, where they are comfortable.
So, do I see people in general drifting off and apart? No. There will always be some of us who are actually happier alone, who will drift off – but we would have anyway one way or another. And there is also now this marvelous community called the Internet where many of us who maybe don’t fit into our local community or family, will be able to find a community where we DO fit in. Be it in games, social media, blogs, whatever.
After all, even if i eventually become a desert rat – I’ll probably take my phone. Not for calls, but so I can read Irina’s blog posts and watch anime 😉
I don’t think we are becoming isolationist at all. Perhaps we no longer celebrate the holidays with a big party at someone’s house, but we are finding community online or through games. And for some of us, this is more comfortable. In a way, technology is actually widening community.
As always I agree with you Foovay. Honestly, it’s getting a little creepy how much we tend to think alike
Is there meaning in biological life, in pleasure and pain and how one feels them? How easily can one adapt to accepting as real sensory inputs from artificial sources that merely look real? Once adapted, would there be any purpose for messy “natural” experience when virtual stimulation can be fine-tuned to what you need?
The New Pork Times declared, “God is Dead” in 1966. Is “meaning” in any objective sense also dead?
That’s where virtual reality is taking us. It isn’t there yet. We don’t have the equivalent of a holodeck yet but we do have some fairly good simulations. If reality is unhappy or dangerous there are already plenty of ways to immerse ourselves in artificial reality. The closer it feels to the real thing, the greater the number of people willing to accept it instead of the real thing. We already have people who lock themselves away with games and anime and virtual novels and social media, “otaku” taken to an extreme. We have people who relate sexually only thru their smartphones.
As long as “real” reality still matters for life support, there is a limit to how far this can go. The anime video “Me! Me! Me!” touches upon how virtual reality obession can destroy a person. But we edge ever closer to not needing human interaction to survive…
Even 40 years ago, some people got so absorbed in their D&D that it became more important than real life. That was an early form of virtual reality. I knew some of them, mostly people for whom the world was too painful. But D&D didn’t have much to offer in the realm of the physical senses so I didn’t go too far down that rabbit hole. OTOH, I was very much into hallucinogens which produce a different kind of virtual reality. (Naked and tripping go VERY well together.)
As resolution gets better, as the virtual world seems more real, ever greater numbers of people will opt for it over messy IRL reality.
There exist devices to transmit the sense of touch. So far they are fairly crude but I could easily see them evolving into full-body sensory simulators. Combine it with a hi-res 3d display and audio inputs. You could even have an odor generator. Attach computer regulated resistance bands throughout to simulate the feel of movement. Such a virtual reality suit could convincingly simulate everything from being a rock star performing on stage, to combat on the Eastern Front in 1943, to a walk on the beach on the most perfect day imaginable, to the most mind-blowing sex a human could have.
Depending on the level of demand, I give it 30 years. We are working on ever more realistic gaming/entertainmnt tech and that will be the impetus.
From there, the next step is direct stimulation of the brain, directly perceiving a virtual world and reacting to it with an external CPU and memory augmenting your own. Anime is full of this including “Sword Art Online”, “Do You Like My Mother…?”, “Ghost in the Shell” and “Shelter”. I explored this theme a little in my OWLS Fantasy blog.
I remember. Those are all shows that stress the importance of real world connections as well. Illustrating exactly that underlying fear. You picked up on it better than I managed to
I’ve always felt out of step with the rest of society, so this theme you bring up here has always interested me. In fact, far from being afraid of it, that possible future in which we all have our own private virtual worlds is one I hope for and look forward to. I can’t live in a way that fits with my character or my feelings today, and I almost certainly will never be able to. That’s true for a lot of other people as well. So I’m not going to be too broken up if social relations end up decaying or breaking apart because of improving technology and luxury. No big loss; not to me, anyway.
Come here! We have very few social conventions as long as you’re not a jerk
“Are we willingly squandering purpose and meaning in favour of entertainment and comfort? ”
That may be the way the online world is evolving (entertainment and comfort), but it doesn’t have to. It can be a lot more than that, and I think’s the challenge of our age. How do we reassert a level of freedom and humanity to a world increasingly dominated by factors currently controlling the “old” world?
“We all have our own personal universes and we no longer need to share them with anyone else if we don’t want to. What then?”
Have you ever read Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun? The planet named Solaria sounds a lot like what you came up with here. Great minds think alike!
I’ve read a lot of Asimov but that doesn’t ring a bell. I should pick it up
Hm, I’m not sure what you’re talking about here. It’s fairly understandable in the abstract, but if I were to do a memory check on anime in recent memory, I suddenly don’t know what in particular I’m looking for. When, approximately, did the trend become noticable? Is there a before/after example you can give, like a topic that would be treated differently under the current trend than… earlier?
An example: When you say that “Smart phones are becoming a common exposition tool but it’s almost always bad news,” I can’t easily find an example. The most common use of smart phones is Line-like social networks, and that’s usually treated as an opportunity for indirect communication. It’s a bonding in tool in shows like Tsuki ga Kirei, bridging both busy schedules and shyness to an extent. There are shows that use phones as a “cursed tool”, like Ousama Game or Persona 5 – but that’s not all that different from shows like Future Diary. Basically, I’m not making the connection you are making, but that’s not to say I disagree with you. I may just look in the wrong direction?
Oh the connectipn could all be in my head. Aside from the obvious Sarazanmai I was thinking of titles like Shirobako, Your Name, That time…slime, .hack, shin sekai yori, zombiland saga….
I think I was just thinking on the wrong scale. I mean, if it’s .hack//sign then that’s <2010; I thought it was a recent trend as opposed to what came before. I mean if I view it like that I could probably go back all the way to Eva (and probably beyond, but my ani-knolwedge becomes much more spotty).
Hmm, you bring up a fantastic point, Irina. I don’t think it’s just limited to anime, either. I’m seeing it more and more in pop culture, and it’s a little disturbing.