Many moons ago, during my high school tenure, a classmate lent me a copy of the anime film Robot Carnival. I knew very little about anime. My entertainment interests up until that point were mostly rooted in books, film, music, and the occasional comic. While others were listening to Nirvana and raving about Toy Story, I sought out the likes of Tori Amos and David Lynch. Yes, I was that person. An outsider among outsiders. The weirdo.
Alas, perhaps it was beneficial that I had no preconceived notions as to what Robot Carnival would offer. Needless to say, I very much enjoyed its eclectic blend of Fantasia inspired shorts. Each short film that comprised Carnivaloffered something unique, largely due to the experimentation of the various animators involved. Many of the individual shorts utilized music in place of dialogue, highlighting each piece’s unique animation style. Thus, I requested another film from the classmate. “I don’t have any others like that one,” he replied, “but you might like Lensman.”
While I enjoyed Lensman and its futuristic space opera themes that harkened back to Star Wars and Flash Gordon, it didn’t exactly capture my imagination in the same way as Robot Carnival.
And so it would be throughout the years. I rented the odd anime movie every so often, with each new effort resulting in a film worse than the previous. What was going on? The anime and manga sections in retail stores were continuously growing. Anime fandom was growing. Was I missing something? What was so great? Was it the style of the art that attracted people? An obsession with Japanese culture? Some sort of secret society understood only by the young? All of the above? It couldn’t be the storytelling … almost everything I attempted to watch was riddled with some combination of wooden dialogue, uneven pacing, and heavy exposition, as presented by characters with huge eyes, tiny hands, and nearly absent noses.
A roommate in college tried to garner my interests with a few manga reading recommendations. He would force this or that book upon me, usually something that sat on my nightstand for several months, unread. “It aggravates me,” he would say, “how so many people talk about anime. Anime is just the Japanese word for animation. It’s animation. That’s all it is. It’s not specific to America and it’s not specific to Japan!” He spoke with such enthusiasm, but I just couldn’t. I’d much rather have watched the latest Gregg Araki film or read the latest Armistead Maupin novel.
Then, as I entered into college, I finally discovered another anime film that I enjoyed, Perfect Blue. Much later, I stumbled across the polar opposite of Perfect Blue … Grave of the Fireflies (still one of the best films, animated or otherwise, that I’ve ever seen). Eventually, the films of Studio Ghibli came along. On a whim, a friend brought me to see Spirited Away at the local movie theatre. I absolutely loved its tone and themes, reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And of course, behold! Characters spoke in a natural way … characters who weren’t wooden, stiff, or visual clones of one another (I’m looking at you, Your Lie in April). With few exceptions, I fell in love with Ghibli. Interestingly, films like Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arrietty, and The Cat Returns, all happen to share one thing in common: Each film is based on well crafted, pre-existing book. Ah … books. Remember those? Books?
Fast forward to my middle-aged self. After all this time, what have I come to realize more than anything? Especially now, as an artist who exhibits at conventions frequented by ardent anime fans?
Regardless of what anyone may say, it all comes down to the story … at least for me. That’s the heart of it. First and foremost, I’m attracted to good stories; stories that are told well. Yes, art is subjective, but I’d argue that it’s subjective to a certain degree. Good pacing, natural dialogue, and limited use of exposition are all things that Studio Ghibli tends to adhere to. Conversely, I’m not attracted to something because it’s anime or whether it’s a particular genre such as science fiction or slice of life, etc… in my playbook, that’s all secondary. Maybe it isn’t that way for some people, but that’s okay too. I know what makes me happy.
Which brings me to my last point. At the end of the day, there are different strokes for different folks. In the same way that one wouldn’t walk into a book store and absolutely love every single book, or love each comic on the shelf, or fall in love with everything on Netflix, it’s no different with anime. I’ll simply let the anime come to me as it always has over the years. After all, they can’t all be gems.
–Don Gaddis, January 25, 2020