Ask John: How Will the Future Interpret Anime?

Question:
What might historians 100 years from now conclude if they were to watch anime produced in our time? On a less hypothetical note, are there any serious efforts to preserve anime for future generations? I’ve heard of a manga museum, but nothing for anime.


Answer:
Theorizing the assumptions future scholars may draw from contemporary anime is a difficult but intriguing thought, especially for a non-Japanese commentator. Some direction for speculation may be gleaned from considering the content of current anime, and also from considering how the cartoons of the 1800s are viewed today.

I guess that researchers a century from now examining anime with minimal surround context would perceive late 20th century and early 21st century Japan as a country discretely internally conflicted. Countless anime introduce a theme of distrust of adults, not necessarily authority or government, but pure adulthood, as though maturity itself petrifies innocence, free-spiritedness, passion, creativity, and compassion. Examiners may also conclude that the Japan of today is attempting to ignore or escape from its national problems. While the cartoons and comic strips of the 1800s were frequently political observation, and much of Japan’s early attempts at animation either subtly or overtly politicized, the anime of the late 20th century is largely fantasy. Even the anime which do recognize actual Japanese political or social concerns – Gasaraki, Final Approach, Rizelmine, Sanctuary, Narutaru, Zipang, to name a few – don’t revolve around solving the problems; instead, they revolve around satirizing the problem, or transmogrifying the problem into fantasy. Scholars may conclude that anime was conscious of national and social problems but tried to escape from them or dismiss them as insignificant. Of course, such conclusions are not entirely accurate. Although modern Japan does have some degree of age conflict, the contrast of youth and age in anime is pronounced because anime is targeted at a young demographic. Anime periodically addresses serious national & political concerns but doesn’t attempt to offer solutions because the function of anime is to provide catharsis, relief from the pressures of these pressing problems.

At the same time scholars may perceive an opposition to age, they will also likely perceive an obsession with youth, vitality, principle, beauty, and cuteness. Anime characters are frequently young, and they’re frequently active. Anime characters go out; they socialize with friends; they participate in school clubs and extracurricular activities. In obvious exaggeration, they pilot robots and fight monsters. They stand up to defend justice and good against evil. Characters that aren’t outgoing, that are strictly studious or introverted are less common and are more frequently supporting characters. Scholars may conclude that Japan was a country that, at the time, encouraged its young people to experience life and be outspoken. Ironically, such an attitude is largely an idealism limited to anime and not actually a reflection of real Japanese society. More accurate to real life would be anime’s revelation that 20th century Japan was obsessed with cute and popular things. Anime characters are typically cute or handsome. Anime is filled with angels, kemonomimi, maids, idol singers, magical girls, mascot animals and characters. Scholars may interpret this fascination with cuteness as a reinforcement of a social willful ignorance of serious pressing national problems. But scholars may also simultaneously recognize this prevalent anime trend as evidence of 20th century Japan’s honesty with itself. If the country was, during the era, ignoring certain social perils, then it did so cheerfully by embracing cute, encouraging, pretty distractions. Unlike most countries that appear to reject or compartmentalize adoration of cute things, 20th century Japan unabashedly relished that fascination, signifying a very unique culture that was, at least on one respect, very honest with itself.

Of course, the pop culture entertainment of every era and nation is idealized, stylized, and exaggerated. So any future scholars would certainly realize that any and all trends and revelations inferred from anime can’t be literally extended to characterize the society from which they came.

Regarding the historical preservation of anime, regrettably, to a large degree, little effort has been made to preserve anime as a modern art form. The vast majority of the original hand-drawn and hand-painted art used to create anime no longer exists, as most of it was discarded or destroyed following production. Most completed anime productions still exist, at least as commercial copies, but archival master tapes for many older anime seem to be lost or presently slowly degrading. The Japanese government sponsors only one anime museum, the Suginami Animation Museum. Plans to construct a national anime museum and learning center in Tokyo were voted down in 2009 with the project criticized as superfluous and costly. Due to the commercial nature and popularity of anime and its relative youth – modern anime is only about sixty years old compared to live-action film, which is now over 100 – very few modern anime seem to be entirely lost, but even with today’s greater Japanese national recognition and valuation of anime, anime is still primarily considered a product of the day – a means to an end rather than a legitimate contemporary art form deserving of or necessitating preservation. In fact, that very absence of preservation may be one of unconscious factors that motivate private anime to archive their own, personal collections of anime – to ensure that copies remain even when corporate or governmental agencies don’t.

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