Surrealism and Magical Realism in Anime

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!

hibike-eupho victory

we did it!

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?

anime question

agreed

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”.

kyousougiga

there’s a lot going on here, I’ll tell you all about it, maybe I already have!

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.

Interviews with Monster Girls

Google mad eme put this super missleading image here. Also I love Demi-chan

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!

Posuka image

by the amazing Demizu Posuka

Irina

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

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14 Responses

  1. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    Demi-chan! (But I wonder if drinking the blood of a snow woman will help cool a vampire down?)

  2. David says:

    Hello…my name is David P.! How is it you are more handsome the will to…..

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    Ooh, Kyousougiga. I probably don’t need to tell you anymore how much I love this series.

    I really do like the disorientation that comes with surrealism, but the more I watch the less I perceive things as weird. Especially concepts that are very weird on paper, but are presented as a variation on a formula and thus normalise very quickly. For example, Pinkie mentions FLCL and Akikan. Akikan is weird on paper, but it’s really just a harem. Meanwhile FLCL is genuinely weird (and yet I didn’t watch more than 1 episode so far; I tried twice but something in there turns me off).

    Sometimes the origin is a pun. In Midori Days, for example, the main character is rejected by yet another girl who’s afraid of him (because he’s a “delinquent”), and so he thinks, dejected, that his only lover is going to be his right hand. Next day he wakes up, the only girl who’s admiring him from afar… is his right hand. This is a very weird set-up, but you get used to it so quickly, that in the end it’s really just cute romance.

    Shows like Kyousougiga layer different styles of weird on top of each other so that you never quite get used to any one thing – and in the end it all boils down to characters. I’d say, though I don’t like it nearly as much, Punchline falls into that category – a show full of disjointed weirdness that actually adds up to something coherent in the end.

    And then there’s the episodic weirdness, where it’s really the perspective that’s weird, and the shows don’t rely on any one single element, and more on a… sort of… distortion mirror effect? I’m thinking of the fairies in Humanity Has Declined.

    A lot of weird stuff is comedy. It’s often free-association style without punchlines – just weird until it ends (e.g. most of Popteam Epic). A lot of the really off-the-wall stuff is actually based on puns, which I only years later. And sometimes it’s context permutations that I don’t get because I don’t know what’s being alluded to (e.g. Joshiraku, which was awesome anyway).

    I love surreal stuff. It’s just my thing.

    • Irina says:

      I have a sinking feeling I’m missing out on a lot for lack of proper social context. Oh well, that’s what the interne is here for I guess

  4. Anonymous says:

    I really like the surreal stuff in anime and i have seen some pretty strange stuff in my time. It really shows how creative and unique the people behind it from the writers,animators and directors really are when it comes to their projects.
    Dead Leaves is one of the most weirdest anime movies i’ve seen and it was also directed by the same guy who did Kill La Kill.
    Serial Experiments Lain was the most thought provoking anime series and the computer theme of the show went itself well with the philosophical nature of the story exploring the relationships between communication,media and technology between humans. And its written by Chiaki J Konaka.
    The stuff CLAMP makes as well too like X/1999 and XXXholic they are pretty interesting as well too and they have a whole universe thats has all kinds of trippy stories.
    -K (Rogueotakugamer)

    • Irina says:

      I enjoyed all those shows as well. Although that’s not exactly what I associate with surrealism , maybe allegorical. Also something I enjoy quite a bit mind you

    • Anonymous says:

      In terms of story themes yes i do see your point and thats something i find very enjoyable as well too.

  5. Scott says:

    You know me, Irina. I love surrealism. I’ve been getting into more slice of life things recently and things like Vinland Saga are amazing in what they do, but watching something like Eizouken reminds me that I love dipping into realms unknown and untold to bring more imagination into my mind.

    I feel like one of my projects this year is to find more stranger things to watch, what l watch what other people have been talking about for a while, and get into Masaki Yuasa films I haven’t watched yet.

  6. I love anime being full of weirdos, both the audience and creators. While not everything is my cup of tea, it is at the very least always interesting to watch surrealist anime because it’s more about watching “emotions” rather than actual scenes. Kickheart is a good example of a REALLY off the wall anime that I am still not 100% sure if I liked, but I can safely say was a visual rollercoaster. Despite being over-the-top, it really got the energy and flashiness of lucha libre down.

  7. Pinkie says:

    Juxtapose and saccharine, Senpai you teach me new words every day.
    Mostly the latter I really like. Partially because I think it fits my style quite a bit.

    I love surrealismn in anime, if you saw my favorite Isekai thingy and read anything about my general likes and dislikes I think I heavily gravititate towards it.

    As far as magical realsimn goes, I do like it..but kind of more the other way around? Like how science is being applied to how magic works. Like how a fire mage makes a blue flame because it is more perfect sience wise or when someone super heats the air with magic .. just to cool it down creating storms, or stuff like that. I really enjoy it when the sum of both magic and realismn is bigger than their parts but kinda dislike it if magic is simply used to bypass a limit. .. you know.. . the “my item has limitations and that causes a problem..but now it’s magic so problem’s gone kinda stuff”

    Weird.. how I am more okay with a girl pulling robots out of a guys head or a guy dating his can of melon soda than I am with a a guy who’d enchant his shoes to be better in gym class…

    • Irina says:

      Realist magic? In any case I also like when they try to science magic. It’s fun! And I get the shoe thing, I’m just not sure why I get it…

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