Ask John: Where did the Notion that Anime had to be Realistic Come From?

Where did the notion that anime had to be realistic come from? I was watching action and mecha shows when I was younger but not once did I think of anime as being “realistic.” Maybe more realistic than most Western animation, but I never got where the idea that anime was somehow more realistic. I did think anime was more serious when I was younger but realistic and filled with social commentary not at all. A generation of fans who got into anime that was shown through Adult Swim, Satoshi Kon and Studio Ghibli can’t be the answer.

Particularly during the contemporary globalization of anime, realism has become a prominent criteria of anime, largely due to the influence of works like Akira and its soundless orbital satellite destruction scene, the photo-realistic backgrounds of the 1999 You’re Under Arrest movie, and Satoshi Kon’s Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue. However, the concept of “realism” associated with anime is itself a confusion. Fundamentally anime cannot be “realistic.” Traditional anime is two-dimensional and colored in either monochrome or shades of primary colors. No living creature in the history of planet Earth has ever resembled an anime character. The human eye and instinctive intellect immediately recognizes a difference between stylized two-dimensional illustration and real world existence, regardless of how much an observer may consciously try to suppress disbelief. Confusion relating to the concept of “realism” applied to anime arises because of a lack of recognition that the term “realism” is actually not a literal adjective but rather an abbreviation for two distinct characteristics: photo-realism and believability.

Particularly since the 1988 premiere of the Akira motion picture, the increasing technical capacity of Japanese animation has allowed for a startling increase in illustrated photo-realism. Anime from the 1960s through mid 1980s didn’t even try to realistically depict real-world settings. Anime backgrounds were impressionistic, designed to evoke recognition of a particular setting but not necessarily accurately depict every realistic detail of a precise real-world location. However, the photo-realistic settings of the 1999 You’re Under Arrest movie, and later the identifiable backgrounds that appeared in creator/director Makoto Shinkai’s award-winning 2002 independent short film Voices of a Distant Star elevated expectations and informed viewers that anime could, in fact, render settings that were almost passable for stylized photographs. Furthermore, in contrast to American animation that has always stressed a degree of fantasy styling, particularly since the early 1980s Japanese animation frequently took a different approach, aiming for visual believability. At least as far back as 1974, the Space Battleship Yamato TV series aimed to create a spaceship that reasonably looked like an actual historical battleship outfitted for space travel. 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam consciously aimed for giant robots that looked like believable, functioning, possible technology. The 1984 anime film Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer took great care to accurately render its vehicles. The same year, the Macross movie took exceptional care to make its spaceships look believable. At the same time, American cartoons including Muppet Babies and My Little Pony did everything they could to avoid looking realistic. So visual realism became a characteristic exclusively emphasized in Japanese created animation.

The term “realistic” applied to anime is also a shorthand for “believability.” While traditional anime can’t possibly trick the observer into mistaking it for real-world photography, anime does usually incorporate a greater degree of scientific, naturalistic, and humanistic verisimilitude than American animation does. Real-world human concepts including sex and death appear in anime when these elements have traditionally been excluded from American animation. Scientific principles such as the absence of oxygen in outer space, accurate weight to speed and momentum dynamics, firearm accuracy and recoil, and even gravity have been traditionally more respected and treated accurately in anime than in American animation that frequently applies creative license to these principles. Natural human behavior including emotional reactions and rational motivations have traditionally been more believable in anime than in typical American cartoons. For example, the 1969 anime television series Dororo revolved around its protagonist’s quest for revenge against his father. American television animation didn’t use revenge as a central series theme until the 1994 series Gargoyles. As early as 1963’s Astro Boy television series, anime has been regularly drawn and directed with an emphasis on making viewers believe what occurs on screen. Viewers understand and moreover empathize with character motivations. When cars crash in 1967’s Mach Go Go Go television series, viewers recognize and understand that drivers are injured or killed in the wrecks. In American animation from Disney films to The Flintstones and The Jetsons to Johnny Quest to Scooby Doo to Ren & Stimpy, viewers objectively watch the characters but never believe that the characters are anything more than fictional constructs used to illustrate storytelling principles and advance narratives. The reason viewers take anime more seriously, the reason why anime feels more narratively and dramatically substantial, the reason why viewers immerse themselves more deeply into anime than into American cartoons like G.I. Joe or The Simpsons is because of the selective “realism,” the frequent believable details, implemented into anime which are often so subtle that we don’t consciously notice them. These “believable” details are “realistic” elements as simple as natural body movement when characters walk, heads turning at natural speed to react to external stimulus, background details that evoke real-world settings, weather and lighting conditions that evoke real-world environments, voices that sound and speak like actual ordinary human beings instead of sounding like stereotypical comic book characters or talking animals, natural details like running water and erasers or pencils that roll off desks and fall to the floor, settings being filled with random and anonymous background people. Such details as these are so taken for granted and so ordinary in anime that viewers forget that these mundane “realistic” details actually don’t appear remotely as frequently in American animation. It’s these mundane slice-of-life details that make anime unique. In actually, in its inclusion of believable everyday ordinary details that immerse the viewer and allow the viewer to accept the narrative, anime has always been “more realistic” than American cartoons.

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