I first published this post years ago but I thought I would give it another chance to get read.

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.

sonia nevermind
I’m on a bad pun roll!

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. This 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 an 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. Smartphones are becoming a common exposition tool but it’s almost always bad news.

cellphone
I know, right!?!

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 worldwide. 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 leads 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 an 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”.

bad cg
something’s off…

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 interactions.

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?

hoshiai-no-sora
I really want to see another season of this anime

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 and 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 misreading 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?

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9 thoughts

  1. I think the entire cyberpunk genre (going back to William Gibson and even the likes of Phillip K Dick) was founded on the question of what happens when technology divorces us from our humanity and thus from one another. And I think anime as a medium has explored it powerfully in series like “Psycho-Pass” and, of course, “Ghost In The Shell”.

    I think magical realism as a genre also explores this powerfully at times, especially in the works of Haruki Murakami and the sense of both isolation and unreality which many of his characters experience. That, of course, is not necessarily as a result of technology – but that same sense of drifting apart from others (and even oneself) is there. Certainly, anyone who has experienced a “mid life crisis” understands the associated feelings of unreality and apartness from others that come with it.

    And I must admit, I think I am experiencing some “existential drift” with relation to anime. I have become bored with so much of it, and there is now a mountain of unwatched and uncompleted series/movies on my playlist. I feel like I am waiting around for the next “Akira” or “Cowboy Bebop”…or maybe just something with adults in it instead of angsty teenagers, like “Wotakoi” or “The Great Passage”.

    “Existential drift”…I like it! A bit like continental drift, only for people. Which is kinda hopeful, inasmuch as it implies that the very mechanism by which we drift apart may one day also bring us together again…

  2. I don’t know about “existential drift.” I think you have invented an important term.

    Lately I have found myself “existentially adrift.” Not quite as bad as existential despair, but in the same general direction. Why bother? What’s the point? It shows in my lack of writing lately.

    I try to stay very closely connected to the natural world, more so than most. Lately even that starts to seem purposeless. I think an important problem is that I’ve been confined to the house for weeks now. We have an unending series of extreme heat warnings where the temperatures hit 40+C every day for weeks on end. I do believe I am feeling what a lot of people felt during the COVID lockdowns.

    Before that, there were months of being limited in activities by a knee injury. They are going to try an experimental therapy called Platelet Rich Plasma injection to see if they can get my cartilage to start healing again.

    Instead of doing what I normally did, I find myself endlessly browsing youtube videos. Living life through a computer monitor instead of living life for real. I’ve come to the conclusion that internet “addiction” is really the result of not having a life. Maybe life is no longer interesting or maybe life is too scary. Ordinarily, life gives you constant dopamine pings. When you don’t have a real life, the pings don’t happen. The internet can substitute.

    I saw some research the other day. Teenage sexual activity is way down. OTOH, sexting is way up. Of course, the authors of the research concluded that this meant we needed greater efforts to censor sexually explicit activity on the internet. I come to the conclusion that this is a dangerous sign that humans have decided that it is better to masturbate to a picture on a smartphone than it is to actually have live relationships with living breathing people.

    Given the crashing fertility rates in the world, something like Asimov’s Solarians become a real possibility.

    1. For now humans are still reproducing much faster than they are dying or that we have resources to sustain them for more than a handful of generations so on a practical basis I’m a bit relived about that research you mention. Although it really is quite sad.

      40+ weather sounds horrible. I’m not going to go on a environmentalist rant but it really amazes me that trying to limit climate change is such a contemptuous debate.

      1. Contemptuous is putting it mildly.

        Still, the population of China and Russia will be halved well before the end of the century. (Both countries have been caught juicing their census numbers to look like they had more children than they do.) Most of Europe isn’t far behind. US, France, and India are expected to shrink a little but not a lot.

        Some countries like S.Korea and Taiwan may evaporate. You know you’re in trouble if you have fewer 0-4 year olds than 70-74 year olds. The number of children that can be produced twenty years from today is limited by how many there are right now. Same thing applies to how many workers… how many soldiers… etc.

        OTOH the big growth will all be in Africa but it is impossible for them to sustain their current fertility rates.

        Check out population pyramids for various countries. They are really interesting

  3. What you’ve described reminds me of Asimov’s Solarians from his Foundation series.

    You’ve raised an interesting question. I’m guessing for extroverts who aren’t evil, they’d still want to interact with people in a way that seems physical. Some might care if it’s VR, some might not. The interaction is key. Of course, evil extroverts will only be happy if they are dominating others.

    I wonder if we can just shove them into VR without them noticing? Something like Pink Floyd’s Fletcher Memorial Home (for “colonial wasters of life and limb”).

    Introverts? Well, speaking for myself, I don’t want to not interact with real humans on occasion. But working from home proved something: I can do it happily for extended periods of time! I still talked to my family, of course. I wouldn’t necessarily want that to be virtual, because as the parent, my kids still need my help from time to time. But if they were in VR, I could help them there.

    Maybe my decision would be tied as much to human interaction as achievement. There are things I want to achieve, and I’d want those things to be real. On the other hand, if I write a novel in a VR world and publish it there, and if people in that VR world read it, how is that different from them reading an ebook in real life?

    The more I think about the question, the more complex it gets!

  4. As someone who exists barely on the edge of socialization, and often finds himself detached and different from the people around him since his childhood, I don’t think I would think much before abandoning my humanity. What is there to gain if I keep it?

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