One thing I think all of us anime fans can agree on is that this medium stimulates our imagination like few others we have encountered. The idea that we see what we want to see in the anime that we watch, for better or worse, has a lot to do with the particular “lens” we bring along when we watch — which naturally differs widely among anime fans.
Lately, however, I’ve come across the idea of “headcanon.” I take this word to mean the individual fan’s ideas of back story, or character qualities or experiences that we never actually see “on camera.” The word seems to stand opposite to “canon,” which as we all know refers to things explicitly seen or stated “on camera,” or included in the authentic back story to the show in question.
Now surely the development of headcanon is nothing new. I was not around when the original Star Trek series aired, but I would hardly be surprised to learn that the personal history and back story for every character from Capt. Kirk to Uhura, from Spock to Dr. McCoy, were entirely worked out — if not by the original authors, then by the fans. And I would likewise be certain that there were heated and impassioned conversations about the characters’ personal histories, likes, and dislikes among Star Trek fans of the 1960s, just as there are for Naruto fans today.
The idea of headcanon took on an entirely new level of applicability once I joined the Vocaloid fandom a couple of years ago. I have been involved in synthesized or digital music as a hobby for some 25 years, which means only that I approach the Vocaloids as primarily a hobbyist and a programmer. I see them as musical instruments. But of course this is only half of the interest in Vocaloids to the fandom, or perhaps only a quarter of the interest. In addition to the songs themselves and the voice banks that are used to make the songs, there are also the anime-character-like manifestations of each Vocaloid, most of which derive from the original box art. And where such box art was lacking (as with VY2) or mostly lacking (as with the new ZOLA voice banks), fans quickly stepped in and made their own art to express what they thought their favorite imaginary pop singers looked like.
Of course, we cannot get to know the Vocaloids through any anime series — only through their songs, and through what other fans say about their songs. While this idea is not original with me, I’m fond of saying that Vocaloids are very much like actual living pop stars. For example, like Justin Bieber, Kagamine Len has a discography, as well as a worldwide network of producers that write songs for him, and an even larger worldwide network of fans. Perhaps the most important difference between Kagamine Len and Justin Bieber is that Kagamine Len doesn’t actually exist.
We Vocaloid fans are unable to resist plunging into the realm of headcanon, it would seem, by making up our own stories about our favorite Vocaloids. I experienced this recently with particular strength when my copy of the ZOLA Project arrived in the mail. Almost before I had them installed on my computer, I had worked out part-time jobs for them, as well as ages that differed from canon but made more sense to me. I was just about to decide which of the three was married when I had to make myself stop.
We anime fans all too often take the same kind of plunge with anime, even though we are given a much larger amount of authentic material to work with. And as with the Vocaloids, your ideas about the characters’ histories and extra-canonical experiences in a particular show may differ from mine, or be more or less developed than mine. But if one thing is clear, it is that we cannot help ourselves. Whether for Vocaloids, Harry Potter, anime, or you name it, we will develop headcanon.
Since I first began to question myself several years ago about why anime had me so deeply in its grip, I have always been fascinated about the effect anime has on my imagination, and apparently not on mine only. I wish I were able to come up with smarter-sounding reasons as to why these things we call anime characters draw us in, to the point that we make fanart, write fanfiction, and of course develop headcanon. So far the best answers I can come up with are Because we love these characters and Because we find it enjoyable to imagine such things, but I am certain that people better educated in psychology and literature can come up with better answers, if not truer ones.
Perhaps the development of personal headcanon is our way as fans to put our own seal on our experience of anime. Whether or not we can explain it, I would suggest that we continue to enjoy it. I am not sure, but I have a suspicion that this too is something uniquely human that we all share, and by which as anime fans we can understand each other, at least to some extent.