What kind of teacher never asks his students questions? A very strange one, to say the least. (That’s enough giggling, Shiraishi-kun.) So just to change things up, today we’ll pretend we’re in Soviet Russia. Because in Soviet Russia, you do not ask Sensei. Sensei ask you!
One question I’ve always wanted to ask about anime is exactly why we so easily “buy into” anime characters. Granted that there is a multitude of variations on “the anime style,” some of which are significantly more realistic than others, we must still admit that there is more to this black box called “anatomy” than meets the eye. Whether it’s the ten-heads-tall characters of Code Geass that I always said looked like spiders with four of their legs removed, or the dinner plate eyes and dot noses of the characters in Clannad, or the body-distorting superpowers of so many One Piece and Naruto and Bleach characters, one thing seems to hold true. That is the willingness, even the ease with which we as anime fans accept these drawings as if they were flesh-and-blood actors. I wonder why this is?
Of course, a lot of it has to do with the talent (for better or worse) of the voice actors. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that many Japanese seiyuu, with 70 years or more of anime history behind them, are particularly skilled at “entering” these cell-shaded representations and “bringing them to life” as it were. Not only that, but another thing I’m fond of saying is that especially well-loved characters transcend their black enclosure lines and become concepts which lose none of their power over time, in spite of being disembodied.
Then again, this is hardly unique to anime. Could not the same be said of Frodo Baggins, or Oliver Swift? We bought into those characters while they were disembodied from the start, mere words on a page. In a movie, a character such as Arnold Schwarzenegger plays in Total Recall is a different thing from both a book character and an anime character. He is not Arnold himself (for he could exist without Arnold in a book, just like Oliver Swift), but it is especially through Arnold that we get to meet him. Or perhaps I’m contradicting myself? For if you glance at the long and impressive voice-acting resume of a seiyuu such as Morikubo Shoutarou, you will see a lot of characters whom you also know, who certainly exist in a sense apart from Morikubo-san, but who just as well owe a large part of such existence as they have to his considerable talent.
I suppose what I’m asking is what you think might be special about anime characters that, often in spite of their appearance, enables us to buy into them so readily. For extra credit, compare and contrast them to book characters, movie characters, and/or characters in American animation. I particularly wonder what parallels there are, if any, between Naruto and Woody, or Aladdin, or Roger Rabbit. Or even Bugs Bunny for that matter. No need to worry about your grade, because everyone passes this class.
Except perhaps for Shiraishi-kun.
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7 thoughts on “Sensei Ask You: Soviet Russia Edition”
If there’s one thing particular about anime that I think makes it easier to relate to anime characters, I would have to say it’s how animation amplifies characters’ expressiveness. For example, I’d have to say that no other medium does facial expressions better than anime. Something like the iconic >.< face just isn't possible in live-action, and even among other animated mediums it seems to be a distinctively "anime" thing. And then you extend that out to expressions through body movements, add in some good voice acting, and you have this concentrated bundle of expressiveness that feels human even if the looks aren't that "human".
I would say, at least for me, I buy into a character the moment they are relatable. There are tons of anime or such I might watch, in which I don’t care about the characters. I just watch to see what they do. However, shows like Natsume Yuujinchou or especially March Comes in Like a Lion, what attaches and brings these characters to life is the peer into their personality. It’s a hard moment to describe. It isn’t simply knowing they are lonely or going through a hard time. It’s feeling it. March Comes in Like a Lion has brilliant black and white scenes that isolate Rei, and in the process, the world around him shows the difficulty he goes through. The face of confidence he earns throughout the series, progressing from a very curled sad face to a bold determination, marks him with a strong and vibrant personality that one could attach themselves to.
The art in perfect tune framing the character with a blissful silence that speaks straight to the soul is quite literally what makes that character stand out to me as real.
When you start talking about art though, I can’t speak for action protagonists, as I don’t tend to respond with them personally. Moe performing well with most is simple; round, child-like, and innocent designs simply respond to a basic nature in us. Beyond that, it has to be personal taste combined with how a character is framed and executed.
I think I basically agree with the Joshua and Star: I suspect we relate to anime characters’ emotions. Something I found fascinating when I discovered anime was how emotions sound exactly the same in Japanese as in English. I don’t speak a bit of Japanese, but it’s still perfectly obvious to me based on tone of voice whether this character is happy or sad or surprised or angry or confused or smug or…etc. Watching anime with subtitles, I can’t get detailed meanings from the talking I hear (I’ve got to read the subtitles for that), and thus it pushes me to focus more on the emotional tenor of the voices. This goes along with your point about good voice acting, though I think it’s a slightly more narrow point: they aren’t just skilled in general, but skilled specifically when it comes to projecting emotions. And the art backs this up: it may not always be realistic, but it’s usually very expressive. I’d venture that the characters in a decent anime express far more emotion than Aladdin or Bugs Bunny.
What really makes me invested into an anime character is how they react to circumstances or interact with the people around them. It’s difficult for me to related to or invest myself into a character who doesn’t handle normal circumstances like a person would. Everyone on earth handles a situation differently, and there’s a lot of room you can explore with that idea, but a lot of animes or games or movies and tv have characters that react in a way which puts them into the uncanny valley. If a person acts one way and then in a totally different way in the next scene it pulls me out of the show.
Why I get invested in anime is if they can hold the character’s reality and personality steady throughout the show. Bonus points go to the show if the character can change over time based on their interactions without dropping the veil of fiction.
I also personally cannot get into a story where I find the protagonist unlikable for too long without undergoing a moral epiphany and change. I personally couldn’t sit through reading Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the relationship drama in Gundam Seed captivated me enough to sit through both of its seasons.
Oh, thanks for sharing—you did a great job of explaining how I think a lot of us feel about characterization in anime.
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