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.
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.
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”.
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?
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?