One for All – Anime’s Underlying Instinct to Favour the Many

Sort of an ironic gif for my point…

I was recently speaking to someone about my love of anime. Incidentally this happens more and more lately. Talking to real life people about anime I mean. For the most part they nod and smile politely or they ask tons of questions so they can impress some guy they like. Still it’s progress. I realize how oddly sexist that last sentence sounded. Let me fix that, so they can impress soe person they like. Better!

yuru yuri.jpg

the dream!

And this brings us back to the subject at hand. Only you don’t know that because I haven’t gotten around to explaining it! I was trying to lay out what I like about anime and I said something to the effect that it’s often just as much (if not more) about the system as about the individual. This may have been a Friday after I watched the new Psycho Pass, which explains my use of “system”.

But what does that even mean? Anime has tons of singular “chosen one” stories, just like any medium. Except it presents them differently and there’s a different feel to it. Or I’m crazy. One doesn’t invalidate the other. When I watch Naruto or Deku strive towards their “destiny” there’s always this sense that they are in fact one among many. That the story happens to be following them around but it could go on without them if need be. If Deku is outright killed tomorrow, the fans may never get over it but narratively My Hero Academia could go on fairly easily. And that’s a litteral hero’s journey. I don’t think I could have said the same about Harry Potter for instance. I’m not watching Deku because he’s unique, he’s unique because it’s his story.

Anime has a much healthier representation of the everyman. Characters are rarely chosen, they have to earn their place and sometimes they fail. Narratives will openly admit that the main character isn’t that special, sometimes not even the most important in their own story.

When trying to figure out whether what I was saying was actually true or only reflective of my experience, My mind went to magical girls for instance. After all, if anyone is going to be a magical chosen one, it would be a magical girl. It holds somewhat true for classics like Sakura and Sailor Moon (mind you the latter is part of a fairly strong ensemble cast.) But more more modern takes usually tend to be, well, much grimmer, and the magical girls end up just as often victims of cruel fate as blessed by it. Of course Madoka is the prime example there and arguably the story was more concerned with Homura’s desperate and ill fated quest to save a friend rather than Madoka herself. So Madoka was both not chosen, not blessed and not necessarily the main character…

Mahou.Shoujo.Madoka☆Magica

ok, it may have been a bad example (by Kawamura Raichi)

I don’t think I ve really explained it yet. How about this, I can’t really think of an anime that hinges on a single character because there is something only they can do. Maybe they’re the best option but not the only one. And more often than not they got in that position through practice and experience. It’s very easy to imagine that someone else could have done the same. What’s more, their goals are often shard. If it’s glory, it’s glory for their whole team, if it’s adventure, they have a party to look out for and people to help. Shared goals means that even if you remove the individual, the motive remains. Someone else will take up the mantle.

There are exceptions but those are exactly that, exceptions. Which makes them more special. In an odd way, I find individual anime characters more replaceable from a story perspective which is what makes them infinitely more special to me.

Maybe it’s because I just don’t relate to someone who is born to a fate. It might also be that it takes a truly talented writer to avoid having these types of characters warp your narrative and inject cintrivences to maintain their chosen status.

I’m not talking in absolutes here. There are definitely individualistic protagonists in anime just as there are communal protagonists in western fiction. It’s just that in my personal experience, I often take in western media as the sorry of a specific character or groups of characters, whereas I watch anime with the marked impression that I’m watching characters that just happen to be part of a story.

anime-cityscape-landscape-scenery-5k-r6

it’s a big wide world out there!

The distiction is very subtle. And this is not at all the same as a character driven vs plot driven narrative. You could say most slice of life is clearly character driven but also features almost exclusively unexceptional characters. Yes yes you are watching these schoolgirls in their club activities because they are the bestest, sweetest, cutest ever and no one could possibly take their place! But as a story, technically any school girl *could* have joined the club and had similar adventures. 

Last attempt. Mob Psycho 100 is a show I discovered lately and promptly fell in love with. It is text book chosen one stuff. Young man born with incredible powers which allow him to do things no one else could even dream of. And yet Mob dedicates himself to doing normal things the way everyone else does them (and not as well half the time). And although the show does take advantage of his singular status to place him in extraordinary circumstances, it still emphasize and really values Mob’s mundane victories. As a viewer I came away not thinking Mob’s mid air high speed psychic showdown complete with throwing skyscrapers around was his biggest victory but the fact that he managed to talk to a girl and make an actual friend. And that’s the bit I tell people about. 

I really wonder if I managed to explain myself here. The more I tried, the more the point sort of got away from me. Did you get it? If so do you feel it too?

Confused Rini

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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9 Responses

  1. Merlin says:

    It’s a Japanese cultural thing. When we watched Throne of Blood in a college class, the teacher commented specifically on how they think about entire groups of people acting together as one, such as when the villain’s army turns on him at the climax of the story, and it fits entirely with how we’ve been seeing their perspective represented throughout the film. In the West, we tend towards the hero defeating the villain alone, but in Japan, it’s not uncommon for entire armies to do that instead, even if the hero stands out especially in some way.

    • Irina says:

      That’s interesting. It seems to indicate that they have different storytelling traditions than Ancient Greek mythology that influences so much of the world or even African folk tails that are also extremely individualistic. I mean that makes sense but it’s still fascinating to me

  2. I get exactly what you mean, and I think anime is just expressing the collectivist nature of Japan. I mean they have a saying that the raised nail gets hammered down, as there culture tends to favor the group more than the individual so it comes as no surprise to see that represented in their media and especially anime.

    • Irina says:

      Yeah. There’s definitely a drive to societal inclusion that’s extremely present in the culture. That’s part of it

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    I think I know what you mean, but it’s terribly hard to explain. There’s actually a personal discovery in my anime-watching past that puts a name onto the concept: “enishi”.

    Here’s a pretty good description of the concept. In summary, it’s about fated encounters, but its nothing as grand as waiting around for your knight in shining armour, or your soulmate. It’s more about the idea that the bonds you forge are full of opportunities, and even if bad stuff seems to stand out to you, you might lose things when you get rid of them completely. And it’s a network. There might be second degree “enishi”: they may not mean anything to you, but they mean something to someone who means a lot to you. “Enishi” is fate that can be wasted.

    So where did I first encounter this word, and why did I find myself interested in what it means?

    When I first discovered anime streaming, one of the shows I was watching was a romance called Ai Yori Aoshi, and it’s so very unlike anything I’m used from western media, that the plot stood out to me.

    Our male protagonist is college student. He has been born the illegitimate son into a Zaibatsu family. With the death of his father, his non-married mother was kicked out of the family, and he was raised strictly (and physically abused) by his grandfather in the family, without being allowed contact with his mother. After the death of his mother, he had enough and left the family.

    The complication that leads to our plot? He was engaged to the daughter of another Zaibatsu family – an arranged marriage. And this girl, raised as the perfect Yamato Nadeshiko, has not forgotten him. The show starts with her basically running away from home to seek him out and ask him to return to his family so that their promised marriage (officially already cancelled, mind you) can take place.

    This is, by itself, a weird set-up for a plot, if you’re trained on western romances, where mostly strangers have a fated meeting and overcome obstacles (sometimes in the form of themselves) to get together. Here we have an odd set-up: an arranged marriage that has been cancelled, but is actively fought to keep alive by the kids themselves.

    Of course, the show goes through comedic complications and there are harem members and such, but then there’s the solution, and once it again it bucks the trend: the expected solution, elopement, is on the table, but explicitly rejected by the male main character – the one person who has the least motivation to engage with the world of Zaibatsu again. So they go and the confront the girl’s family with the situation in all honesty – by asking for the family blessing. This isn’t just the shaking off of a restricitive enviroment and making your own place away from home – that which we’d mostly be getting in western romances. The boy, here, doesn’t want to deprive the girl of her family, because he’d lost his family himself, and even though he’s not happy with the stilted and overly rigid zaibatsu mores, he’ll submit himself to this once again, for her sake. He’s basically facing his past and future, not away from a painful environment, but fully prepared to tackle it, probably for the rest of his life.

    After watching this show, I wasn’t sure what to think of this. The overall situation doesn’t change. The criticism of tradition stands. The couple both submit themselves to the system, and ask for outrageous concessions. It’s a quiet rebellion, but it’s also tacitly taking arranged marriage for granted – neither denouncing it, nor promoting it, but presenting it as an… opportunity? It’s not a relationship you sought out for yourself, and it was arranged long before you actually grasped what such a relationship would entain. This is anethema to western romances. The story here does have consensus, but it’s absent from the context of relationship-forming. But the same time it’s flipped upside down; an arranged marriage that has been cancelled against the will of, at least, one of the participants. I honestly watched the ending of show in utter confusion. I was left with the feeling that something here is going over my head. My moral intuition acted up against arranged marriage, and yet, for all the criticism of the traditionalist stricture of the zaibatsu life-style, that particular topic, central to the show, was never questioned one way nor the other. I was aware that I was out of my league. I think I may have sensed that I should have just taken the arranged-marriage motif for granted, but I didn’t know how to do that.

    And then I discovered there’s a secon season, called Ai Yori Aoishi – Enishi. I watched that, and it was mostly just supportive tissue, but across the runtime of the show they repeated the term “Enishi” so often, that I became curious. My impression was that the term means “bonds”, and that wasn’t all too far off, either, but it was a little too simple. (For details see the above link.)

    It took me a while after that to understand the term, and I’m actually not really sure I fully understand it even now. But this was a learning experience, and knowing about this concept has helped me a lot with understanding odd plot developments (to the extent that sometimes I don’t realise they could be odd until I see other people criticise the ending).

    To be sure, I don’t think “enishi” exhausts the topic, but for me it was a good place to start looking into what it actually is.

  4. foovay says:

    I do think I get what you mean. My first thought as an example is the many slice of life anime where someone becomes a new member of some group and by their presence improves the entire group. I’m not thinking sports anime where one person joins and the team becomes winners (although that works) so much as something like Hanasaku Iroha. She gets shuffled off to her grandmothers hot springs inn by a mother who is more interested in her latest beau. Hana more than makes the best of it and becomes a valued member of the workers at the inn. She softens her grandmothers heart, survives the tsundere girls insults and eventually wins her friendship, supports the shy girl into confidence, and in the process, of course, learns and grows herself. So you have the hero’s journey, yes, where Hana grows up, but she influences the entire group for the better. For that matter, we could say that our beloved Natsume does the same. He is a tortured young boy with powers he, and no one else understands. Shuffled among relatives, at least he finally arrives someplace that wants him. He learns about his powers. But in the process he befriends, and releases yokai. They serve him now out of friendship. He makes the exorcist rethink his relationship with yokai. Madera changes from a hard drinking, hard partying, self centered monster into a friendly, even loving companion and guardian. So there is a difference, but it is so subtle I don’t know if there is any way to pinpoint it in words without giving examples. Of course, then your victim (I mean, listener) may want to watch those examples for themselves… and you’ve made a convert.

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