I am very inconsistent with my opening paragraphs. I sort of switch between a personal introduction to ease readers into the post and just jumping right in without any warning. I haven’t really decided which approach suits me best yet and my readers have been too polite to point it out.
This is a brand new approach. Talk about something totally unrelated for a paragraph then just abandon it. Neat! What can I say, I’m prone to non-sequiture just like most surrealists! Oh yeah, tied it all together!
Generally I tend to have rather varied anime tastes but there are a few elements I gravitate towards like most people. One of the hardest to really pin down is this sense of surrealism. Well I call it that. I use it as a tag and genre label as well. But the term may not be the best one.
At its core, the surrealist movement is an artistic philosophy. The point was to juxtapose unrelated elements and or themes in order to allow the unconscious to be expressed, essentially melding dreams and reality into a “super reality” or surreality. Visually it can mean depicting every day objects in a photorealistic way but putting them together to create a new and fantastic image, or having them in conditions that are extraordinary. In writing, this often meant non sequitur and overlapping metaphors and themes which are occasionally contradictory. It’s a chaotic style to say the least but an oddly controlled and single minded chaos.
The thing is, anime is already kinda out there. It’s often a jumble of various tropes collected over decades, influence from every place and every era brought together in unexpected ways. One of the nice things about anime is that you never really know what to expect. Every season I’ve been floored by how unusually some narrative evolved and I’ve been watching this stuff for a while. So what would a surreal narrative even be in those circumstances and is that really what I love?
A somewhat related style that I also really like is magical realism. This one is way easier to explain. It’s peppering magical elements into an otherwise mundane and realistic setting/story. You know, like Natsume’s Book of Friends. All urban fantasy tends to be this but not all magical realism is urban fantasy, since it doesn’t have to be urban….or fantasy really… Well this went about as well as any of my explanations.
While both of these styles superimpose the increadable over the ordinary, surrealism tends to be more abstract and up for interpretation. The narratives are often loaded with allegories and symbolism. I think that’s part of what I like about it. Boundless potential excites my imagination and tends to stick with me way longer than a well written but more straightforward narrative.
I was thinking about all this because I recently started watching Kyousougiga (recently from writing, not sure when this will publish). Within 10 minutes I thought to myself ohhhhh this is going to be just for me! After the first episode I turned to a different show. I needed a break. My mind was too full with possibilities of it. My feelings were doing weird things and my brain needed to catch up. I thought “I love how surreal it is”.
It’s a reaction I’m familiar with. I had the same with Sarazanmai and eventually with Utena as well. Occasionally with the Eccentric Family, Tsuritama, Zvezda… I can go on but I’m sure you get it. These are stories that aren’t exactly about what’s happening. But that’s not to say they are nonsense or completely random. They exist within universes that have their own consistent rules and internal integrity. Without that, it gets hard to care about the characters much. But they also exist beyond and around the string of events we get to see.
Ok this is making less sense with each passing word. Surrealism is about collapsing the boundaries of reality. It’s a style that can get confusing or annoying but can also be fascinating. And it’s perfect for anime. It’s well suited for animation generally but I think even moreso for anime specifically.
An animated medium already gets rid of the visual and physical limitations of live action. It also layers visual medium, sound design and narrative giving even more possibilities for these different art forms to interact in unusual ways and add more surreal touches. But traditional surrealism is considered to be a little unnerving. It’s supposed to leave the viewer unsettled. And for that the medium has to have a bit of bite to it.
For me, western animation is still associated with a more saccharine and for all ages style. Not to say there aren’t some hard hitting western animations or that those family friendly offerings can’t be both smart and thoroughly enjoyable. But for me, a surreal interlude in a Pixar movie is just a fun fantasy sequence to entertain the kids. This is entirely on me, but I simply don’t take it in, in the same way.
On the other hand I have been watching anime for long enough and have watched enough different genres of it, that it’s no longer a purely light hearted entertainment medium. Anime constantly make me cry, I have found some hard to watch, I have been horrified and repulsed at times. All of these are important to create the proper context for a good surreal story.
And there’s the fact that visuals and designs are also more often specifically created with an older audience in mind which on a viceral level makes me take in the impossible moments in an otherwise realistic show differently. Because they look more “serious”.
It’s an aspect that’s very unique to anime in my mind and one that I appreciate.
Do you enjoy surrealism in anime? Do you have any good surreal series to recommend? I’m looking for my next one!