Anime, Literature and the New Aesthetic Imagination ‹ Literary Center

One of the worst times I’ve ever cried during a movie was when I first saw Makoto Shinkais 5 centimeters per second. My laptop screen wasn’t big enough or its speakers nifty enough to fully appreciate the film’s sensual surroundings, all the flowering branches and the whistling susurrus of the swirling wind. But as a plaintive ballad played the moment two characters almost met for the first time in years, every combination of sight and sound my machine could send out was enough to open an emotional trapdoor beneath my body, and I welcomed the fall.

When the film originally released in 2007, the only people I knew who had seen it were my colleagues on an anime graphic design forum. Nine years later, my first watch still tapped into a cult-cultural vein. “Manga” (generally Japanese comics) and “anime” (generally the animated adaptations of those comics) remained catch-all terms for girls with Manic Panic hair and wide, googly eyes, or Doritos-shaped men who scream while beating each other with fists and/or various elemental powers or whatever else you may have remembered from Cartoon Network toonami. In the Western imagination, “anime” was an abbreviation for all Japanese animation, just as people use “YA Fiction” or “Beach Read” to condense disparate titles into a stylized genre.

Anime is rising in culture if not the emerging art form of our time.

I’m going to use this iteration of “anime” to make a claim: anime is culture-rising, if not the emerging art form of our time. I say this admittedly as someone who grows his literary arts in the garden of anime influence. But if I propose my debut novel, heart palpitations baby, For librarians and teachers, one of the things that catches their attention is the fact that anime is a central component of both its inspiration and its content. For Gen Z and generations beyond, anime is as much a material of their cultural consumption as “Netflix Originals” are for millennials.

The most obvious reason for anime’s growing popularity is that anime is impossible in an information-saturated culture where there is no longer a clear and obvious distinction between “real” and “fake”. To be clear, all animation is impossible: it is an artistic medium in which nothing real is allowed to exist, although it does require considerable manpower and hardware to create. But while Western animation has its own dominant aesthetic (e.g., the Disney/Pixar style where character and infrastructure designs are systematically rounded out, as if a potter were constantly throwing them onto their wheel), anime has a unique sensory language for itself.

Perhaps the most striking example of anime’s Japanese origins is its use of the natural world to complement emotional moments, a reflection of the country’s broad Shinto religious influences. Every anime fan knows these seasonal sensory cues: cherry blossoms for spring, perpetually humming cicadas and tanabata ribbons for summer, red maple leaves for fall, snow and distant howling dogs for winter.

Perhaps the most striking example of anime’s Japanese origins is its use of the natural world to complement emotional moments, a reflection of the country’s broad Shinto religious influences.

Almost a decade after his release 5 centimeters per secondShinkai released his 2016 hit Your Name, which drew directly on Shinto traditions and expressed its now characteristic celestial imagery. He’s poised to become the anime director most likely to inherit the influence of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli overseas because his films are saturated with great life “moments”: just like people on the internet are about food drooling in Ghibli films, viewers now also engage in the details of rain hitting the pavement, or light filtering through train windows, or shimmering objects streaking through Shinkai’s dip-dyed sky.

Paradoxically, anime’s hyperstylization amplifies the underlying human spirit. When I started building the frame for heart palpitations baby, I immediately turned to anime for inspiration, focusing on a hyper-emotionality that blends and builds with the character and their surroundings. And as I fleshed out my characters, I realized I needed to incorporate an aspect of anime that was particularly personal to me: an exploration of gender and sexuality as something more fluid, an underlying aesthetic malleability that transposed gender ambiguity into a more neutral one Space represents as “representation.”

To be clear, East Asian culture is still largely patriarchal and heteronormative, and anime reflects that very strongly. More often than not, when characters’ genders are mislabeled or misinterpreted, it’s in the service of comedy, whether mildly off-putting or deeply offensive. And yet the medium thrives with gender-biased characters like Haku Narutothe gems inside Land of the ShiningCrona in soul eaterand Ed out Cowboy Bebopinhabiting their respective series as traits rather than beetles, illuminating the viewer’s self-conceptions of gender legibility and perhaps desire without forcing moral judgment or overt self-identification.

Think of these Sailor Moon Proportions – “even” Cis characters’ bodies can be exaggerated or veiled beyond the most sluggish IRL transformations. Gender omissions are often part of fantastic story mechanics, as in the series Ranma ½and this greater consideration of gender play has led some right-wingers to blame anime for it Triggering the MTF transition. But the transition is increasingly becoming a character detail or arc in itself.

As I fleshed out my characters, I realized I needed to include an aspect of anime that was particularly personal to me: an exploration of gender and sexuality as something more fluid.

I saw the 2003 film by Satoshi Kon Tokyo godfather a decade after its release and still considered it a groundbreaking neutral-affirmative portrayal of trans characters. Since then, I’ve encountered (in general) a thoughtful approach to trans and gender-nonconforming characters in shows like paradise kiss, Our twilight at dawn, blue periodand Wonder Egg priority. Though the most popular anime series are still doing their part in codifying heteronormative gender roles, iconic juggernauts are Hunter X Hunter and One piece have broken new ground in introducing trans characters in key roles. Relationships and identities that were once subtext can now enjoy the full breadth and depth of anime’s aesthetic freedom.

But despite the increasing prominence of “marginalized” identities in the media, any cultural observer can note that the boundaries of art seem to be narrowing as an increasingly reactionary chorus demands a static definition of gender and identity. While anime is not immune to this conservatism, its existence as an art form that pushes the limits of believability makes it a unique weapon in the generational struggle between the “real” present and the imagined future.

Anime isn’t the only arrow in my quiver when aiming at the forces that would rather wipe out me and people like me. But it’s perhaps the one that flies the farthest, arriving at a story that attempts to expand our perceptible universe, where emotion pours off the page like meteor showers and characters act not as they should, but as they do would do a world just a little detached from reality. I carry my lonely tune like a bag of seeds, a gold record for gardens far away, to grow new songs far from home.


heart palpitations baby by Lio Min is available from Flatiron

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