From Up On Poppy Hill, Ghibli Studios, 2011
I have recently visited my brother abroad, in a beautiful country renowned for its strong flavorsome beers, cozy pubs and vivid nightlife. During my week or so of my stay we travelled around the countryside and had a great time together, however, we did not go out a single night. What other, pray tell, did we do instead in this beer-blessed land? Well, we stayed at home and watched anime in front of the fireplace, each with a wine glass in hand. We both work full-time and tired after our long work-hours this was the perfect holiday relaxation. Geeks, I hear? Now, now, let’s think about that.
Whether you are new to anime or a keen fan, you probably have some idea of what this Japanese cult is, but let me remind you anyway to make things straightforward. Anime is often a very stylized type of Japanese animation – think cartoon characters with huge eyes and vivid mimicry in an unusually bright coloured environment. Anime, as we know it today, originates in the early 20th century together with early origin of filmmaking. Its paper predecessor, manga, has been with us since long before with the oldest ‘manga scrolls’ dating back to as far as 12th century. The scale of genres that anime covers is countless, embracing everything from cartoons aimed at toddler audience through the darkest dramas and mysteries to hardcore fetish porn (yes, when I said all genres, I meant all of them).
There is a common shared idea amongst those not particularly intrigued by anime that it is a very self-contained culture accessible only to hardcore geeks. On first sight this seems rather understandable: anime can be, briefly said, a bit weird, which makes it slightly daunting to approach. The sole fact that we are talking about unnaturally-large-eyed animation easily branches it out and places it into a separate rainbow coloured box labeled ‘immature, for children.’ This labelling, although not entirely true, admittedly has some colourful relevance to it, but there are reasons why it does not quite exactly tick the box.
I am sure that by a hardcore anime otaku (Japanese term for an obsessive anime fan) I would be, at best, described as an amateur, occasional and unfaithful genre switching anime traitor. Truth be told, I do not watch anime very often nor am I uncritically devouring every new anime piece. Yet some of my all-time favourite television shows and films fall amongst anime ranks. Naturally, not all animes are good and many of them are utterly rubbish. Following my previous statement that some of the best films I have seen are animes, some of the worst ones I had the dubious pleasure of watching are from the very same category.
I have several reasons why I tend to take refuge in watching anime. As I already mentioned above, the variety of genres, topics and different, mostly breathtaking graphics and illustration styles is limitless. No matter what age group you belong to or what mood you are in, there is something different to choose from. Being a keen and passionate reader, I have always had high demands of book adaptations taken to film screen. Real acted films somehow nearly never reach the qualities of the original pure story, however skilled the film crew and the director are. There are exceptions, indeed, but personally I could count these on one paw of a three-fingered sloth. Anime can consider itself lucky in this sense as it does not have to concern itself with being entirely truthful to the manga or novel it adapts. One of the main characteristics of anime is its rich imaginative world filled with fantastic ideas and this being a generally understood consensus, gives a lot of space for improvisation and for diversion from traditional story-telling paths.
Anime is entitled to be strange yet I am always taken aback at the level of creativity and of breathtaking crazy whims that jump out at you from behind every corner and out of each rabbit hole. Some animes are just plain weird – they are so weird you will actually start to question your own sanity or become nostalgic for both your own and the rest of the world’s (that is, outside anime’s deranged world) limited imagination.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ghibli Studios, 1989
What actually induced me to write this article was a relatively old anime film by Ghibli studio that I watched a couple of days back, Kiki’s Delivery Service. It was far from being one of the ‘good days’ for me and I was convinced nothing could possibly improve that. Well, it did. Kiki’s Deliver Service is an utterly nice film. Here nice is not being the word that is in excess applied to anything and everyone plus magnified by hundred, but nice springing out of the heart and soul that have been put into this film. It touched me with its simplicity, beautiful animation and atmosphere breathing out sea breeze mixed with magic. This film made me smile, with its adorable main character, Kiki the little witch who is trying to kick off her flying delivery service, and with its uncomplicated yet absorbing narrative set in a world where people help each other and – yes, even smile at one another.
Too often today we forget to smile for simple things: because it can be hard to smile. Smiling at someone or something unnecessarily has become a luxury that strains muscles and wastes one’s time. When was the last time you smiled at a stranger in the street or on the underground? This leads me to my last and also the simplest reason for my watching anime. I seek kindness. Because I miss it around me – and also inside me and inside other people. I miss empathy, selflessness, curiosity, spontaneity. I miss compassion and understanding. I miss all this, which seemed to be everywhere when I looked at the world through children’s eyes decades ago and then it somehow evaporated as I got to so-call understand the world better.
Imitating the real world, film and television seem to have taken a long vacation away from simple kind notes. In order to amuse ourselves today we need drama, murder, abuse and real-life stories to feel a bit better about our own lives; to see that, yes, some people are still worse off than we are. – Rejoice humanity! The facts stand that kindness is not enoughtoday. Kindness is weak, it’s inefficient and it does not pay off the business. Kind equals stupid. John Steinbeck hit the nail on the head in his short story Cannery Row (which, anime aside, is another great story to reach for):
‘’It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.‘‘
If this was an ultimate truth about our reality, it would be a sad, twisted world we would have the pleasure of living in. Yes, Steinbeck is right in how diligent and effective we are when it comes to submitting our moral standards and values to the money-driven survival game most of us are forced to play. And yes, we have been happily pacing towards our own heartless doom, but things are not lost yet. There are many small ways to work on our lives to incorporate kindness* into them and, yes, to even throw the occasional purposeless smile here and there.
*I would gladly give you, the reader, my Top Ten Advice On Introducing Kindness Into Your Life but, alas, I do not feel quite entitled to do so. Try your own way.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki is not always a happy little witch. Through most of the story she struggles, makes mistakes. She even gets grumpy and depressed, which results in her losing some of her magic abilities.Yet despite this, all the time Kiki has good intentions on her mind and kind attitude towards other people. She helps selflessly, accompanied by her talking cat and flying broom.
Imaginative stories of anime films, bearing strong resemblance to traditional fairy tales, gently point out some basic ethical values that we so much lack in the real life. Such stories have power over us that we do not realize: to teach, to move, to inspire, to make us laugh and to show kindness to each other. Indeed, even in anime, kindness often does not pay off and not everyone is kind. But there is an ever-present element of the fantastic: that of pure free imagination and child-like carefreeness. Hard work and ideals are not laughed upon and magic is possible; evil will be punished, and kindness rewarded. You can live a happy life and not be ashamed of yourself. You can be kind and not regret it. I could go on and on.
And so what, if this gives us a wrong, false image of the oh-so-real world where you, a hotel owner, throw your guest in the streets when they do not pay in time and where business wins over your principles and money over your heart. Is it not more important to show our children that kindness is something possible in the first place and to remind ourselves of it over and over again, as it is not children who are most prone to forgetting it?
In itself, anime of course does not present any tangible solution to the current state of our accustomed-to-be-coldhearted society. But, together with fairytales, myths and fables and all other stories brimming with imagination, it can serve as a reminder of what we can loose and how much we can still gain. Even if kindness is not a good enough reason for you to watch anime, you can still consider giving it a chance next time you have a day off for all the other reasons that make it an incredible genre: its diversity, lucid imagination, beautiful artistry of illustration and well developed stories.