Surprisingly, my title is actually a serious question. It just sounds kinds stupid. Not a question I know the answer to but one I have been pondering over for a while now.
You should know that by foreign fan here I mean “not Japanese”. Or more precisely not surrounded by and immersed by Japanese culture. Let me try to explain this a bit better.
There are two concepts that have been on my mind lately. Ubiquitous knowledge and intended audience. Both are fairly similar when it comes down to it. When I talk about ubiquitous knowledge or inherent truths, I mean that when communicating with someone, anyone, there’s a certain amount of information that we assume the other person knows. If we’re speaking the same language we often take it for granted that they understand words and their meaning the same way that we do, which often leads to misunderstanding. We assume that they know basic facts of life and survival, like what being hungry or tired is, stuff like that. But we also tend to assume that they exist in a similar social context as we do. That they went to school for example, that they understand moral concepts and therefore if they disagree it’s a difference of morality or if we’re generous of perception rather than understanding.
It’s impractical for someone to explain absolutely everything whenever they have a conversation. And impractical is a huge understatement. It’s probably not possible. This is why most people just assimilate a lot of these truths on a not quite conscious level and don’t really think about them at all when talking with others. They may lead to a lot of frustration when they don’t actually match up to reality but they are part of the mechanisms that make communication possible in the first place.
Intended audience sort of expands on that concept. The idea is that when someone creates a work of fiction they have a general notion of who will watch or read it. Not only in the sense of pre-established notions that they don’t have to explain because there are certain things they assume their audience knows, but also in how certain things will make their audience *feel*. For instance an author can be building up to what is supposed to be a traumatic event..
Actually, let me use a nonsense example here. Let’s say this author lives in an imaginary country where the colour pink is associated with extreme lewdness. Like it’s not socially acceptable to wear this colour in public at all. And they have a character who accidentally throws a red towel in with their white shirts and is then stuck wearing a slightly pink shirt to work. If they explain the entire context it seems like ridiculous hand holding to anyone from that country and sort of lessens the impact of the prose. It makes it childish and way to obvious. Audiences roll their eyes or get bored at getting spoon fed common knowledge. However if they don’t explain it, anyone not aware of the cultural stereotypes might think the character is reacting in a completely random and ridiculous way or, even more likely just have the entire thing go over their head and not know that there were any implications there at all.
This is a pretty obvious example and usually it’s much more subtle details that are subject to such things. But when those little things add up one can end up missing out on major themes and a lot of subtext. Taking in a much impoverished version of the fiction as a result.
This is what I be been thinking about. My background is a cultural hodgepodge and I’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultures in my day but Japan is still a mostly theoretical culture for me. I know a bit about it from research but I have never really lived it. I learned about the culture, maybe even understand it a bit but I don’t feel it. I haven’t internalized it. And let’s be honest, my knowledge is extremely superficial and full of gaps.
All my nostalgia cues, childhood traumas, learned social niceties and and regional morality is bound to be quite different from someone who’s grown up in Japan, even if that someone is from similar economic and educational background as me. No matter how much I explore the subject I’m still not going to internalize it in the same way.
This is why I figure a lot of what anime has to offer must get lost in translation for me. Actually I know that a lot goes over my head because nice readers have to explain details to me in my comments on a regular basis. And although everyone’s experience is unique and there’s a chance of missing out on the details (or Easter eggs) in any piece of fiction, the odds seem particularly stacked against me when it comes to anime.
So why is it that I not only enjoy anime so much, I enjoy it more than European or American media for the most part? Even the games I play are mostly Japanese although the split is more even there, as anime is pretty much the only thing I watch. I could go on about being a weirdo and how that explains it for me but it’s not like I’m that special. I may have hopped on the trend way early but anime is growing exponentially in sales and popularity on the international market. It seems a whole lot of “foreigners” are finding something worth their time in anime and I don’t think it’s all about pretty colours and fanservice. At least a few fans resonate with the stories being told. So why? And is there something specific about “now”?
While trying to answer this question (which I can’t by the way, a shallow theory based entirely on guesswork is the best I have to offer), I came up with two main angles. My first and more solid one is that “intended” experience isn’t necessarily the best experience and certainly not the only experience.
I’ve mentioned before that I tend to lean towards a death of the author interpretation of art. I also believe that there’s a quantum art effect. Where admiring or experiencing a work of art inherently changes it. When I read or watch a piece of fiction I filter it through all my bias, experiences, knowledge, fetishes and so forth. My personal experience with that art is a combination of the work as it was created and every personal inclination that goes into my interpretation. As such the anime I watch is unique. It may be an interpretation with intricacies and implications that the author never even considered and might say are not in fact present. And that’s fine.
This applies for everyone. I think that there are some things that are universal to the human experience but a good work of fiction balances out the rest so that individual members of the audience can then go on and find something for themselves.
Anime tries a lot of things. It’s an amazingly varied medium that still manages to be full of repetition and tropes. I’m not sure how that happens… Sorcery? In any case, it’s rich with ideas and influences so someone willing to explore and pour in a bit of themselves into the experience is bound to find something of interest.
The second theory I have is shaker and has to do with the internet, like most things these days. On a purely practical standpoint the availability and ease of streaming has brought anime to the masses like never before but on a higher level, the internet has made the world so much smaller in the best possible way. I regularly interact with people clear across the world. I share in their concerns and find out about their daily lives. My community has become much more global than it ever was and I think that’s true for most people. The average person has a much better sense of what life is for people in different countries than they’ve ever had before, and in turn this makes the fiction and art of those countries much more accessible. I don’t actually have any proof of this but it sounds plausible.
So where did we land? Can a foreign anime viewer ever truly get the full experience? I guess my answer is yes but that experience may be quite different from what the creator expected… What do you think? Is there always going to be a layer of understanding that’s beyond people that have completely different experiences from the author. Is it more about personal mindset than regional influence? I think this is a truly interesting question even if it might not actually have an answer.