Have you ever watched an anime with someone who is completely unfamiliar with the medium, let alone the different genre conventions therein? Therein… look at me! It can be a bit of an adventure, for all involved. That’s because it’s easy to forget that even though anime is just an audio-visual medium, like live-action movies or stop-motion animation, it’s also something more than that. For lack of a better word, anime has its own context.
At a very basic level, there are tropes, lotsa and lotsa tropes that are almost unique to anime. By now it’s become popular enough that some tropes have seeped into other media or are at least understood by all, but you know… there’s lotsa them. And if you sit down and pose an episode every time a seemingly random trope is used in order to explain the whole background and significance of it, well you’re at the very least going to ruin the pacing. Most likely though, that 23-minute episode is going to last a little over 2 hours after you’re done.
But there’s more to it than just that. There are cultural and historical differences that set the tone for certain interactions. After a while, you don’t notice it anymore but the first time around, it can be alienating to an audience unfamiliar with the social norms.
Translation has introduced peculiar wording and sentence structures that anime fans instantly recognize but can take a minute to parse when you see it for the first time.
Heck, even the visual cues, designs, and colours often stem from a rich history of references and precedence.
It can make anime seem a little impenetrable or at the very least intimidating at first. I mean it did for me. Just a little.
Naturally, this isn’t what anyone would call a big deal. Just what a couple of shows and you’ll pick it up. Millions of anime fans have done it across the world, there’s no reason anyone would fail. Except I’m not so sure about it.
See the thing about context is that it tends to evolve with time. Sure there were always tropes in anime (in every form of storytelling really) and in the days when translation quality control was an afterthought, understanding an entire scene of dialogue was a real win! But when I started watching anime, there was so much less of it. There weren’t that many shows to reference, there weren’t quite soooo many tropes and so many really weird ones at that. Studios didn’t have the same tools or resources at their disposal, and this limited what they could do with the actual images on the screen. You got to learn the anime shorthand and context gradually. A little at the time. You had a trope or two in an episode, maybe a cool visual effect somewhere in the series that you might recognize again later on when you see it in something else. As for the dialogue…well that was never for the faint of heart but most of us just got comfortable with understanding 30% of it and filling in the blanks. (I’m exaggerating, but barely).
But now, when I sit down to watch an episode with a new fan, every scene seems to be packed with images, expressions, and little eccentricities that are distinctly anime and I see the glaze of gentle if well-meaning confusion wash over them. Being an anime fan now requires so much context.
Arguably, this is just true of the age we live in. I’m going to call it the fandom era for funsies. In this era, you’re not just someone that enjoys something, you’re a stan, you have a bias, and you’re part of a fandom. And like any club, it has secret handshakes, passwords, hidden histories. Pretty much any hobby or media you can think of comes with a backstory these days and if you want to really engage with it on every level, you have to learn about that backstory.
It’s just that with anime, there is a ton of it. Not just the stuff that comes from the fandom, the culture (let me get back to this), and the memes it has generated, but all the rich and long-standing history of the medium itself. There’s a lot of homework.
And just to touch on culture a bit. Anime culture is far from a monolith and can mean many things. I have heard a lot of anime fans spout about the differences and peculiarities of “Japanese culture” and how you have to properly understand and respect it to appreciate some anime. And I certainly do encourage anyone to learn more about Japanese culture or indeed any culture. It’s usually pretty interesting. I would just be a bit wary about getting my information on the subject from Twitter or something like that. A lot of anime fans have very limited and sometimes pretty skewed views on said culture.
Moreover, Japanese culture is simply no longer the only culture at play here. Anime has been an international product for a long time now and that has certainly had an influence. Heck, just look at all the obvious nods to British, French, and German culture in classical anime.
What I’m saying here is that anime fans can get tunnel vision and t might lead you to make some short-sighted assumptions about Japan. Also, you don’t actually need to be an expert on the subject to appreciate anime. It’s fine to just go with what you like!
So why am I talking about all this at this point? It’s because II have come to realize that the uninitiated can occasionally get a little intimidated or overwhelmed by anime as a general concept at this point just because of how much there seems to be around anime itself. And well, despite everything I might have said so far, the message I want to get across is don’t be….
I realize that writing this post is a fairly futile exercise. If you are at the point where you’re reading obscure anime blogs, you are not exactly new to anime anymore and nothing I say here applies to you. But I guess I could say, some people around us may find anime difficult to tackle and that’s not just silly. It can seem like this huge thing from the outside and if you didn’t get on the bandwagon at the station it’s just too late to hop on now. It’s going too fast.
But that’s not the case. You can strip away all the extra stuff from anime and you are still left with some occasionally fantastic stories and beautiful art. Anyone can appreciate that. There is no right way to enjoy anime and no correct show to be a fan of. With such a huge library of content and diversity of genres, I think anyone can find something they like, unless of course, you happen to hate pretty drawings. Then you might have a bit of a harder time but even then. Art styles vary greatly!
As for us, hardened anime fans. I think it’s great when we make an effort to give someone all the information they might be lacking about particular tropes or references but we just have to remember that it’s not always necessary. You don’t have to get every single inside joke to still laugh at the outside jokes. And showering someone with all that information might actually make watching anime not as fun.
Ok, so maybe this post is just for me. I like anime a lot and when I’m watching it with someone who is less familiar with it, I find it very difficult not to pause every few minutes to tell them about a reference I spotted (or think I spotted) or go into a long-winded tangent about how a character reminds me of a completely different character from a completely different show or some haphazardly sourced anecdote about the origins of a particular trope. My friends are deeply patient and kind people who put up with me but I know it ruins the vibe sometimes. And it absolutely breaks the momentum of whatever we’re watching.
At the end of the day, anime is a medium that has a lot of context, and understanding that context can add to the experience of watching it. But it’s not necessary.