PART 1: Introduction
I love cartoons. Pretty much all of my favorite shows are cartoons, or animated series if you prefer, most of them admittedly meant for children. If you enjoy cartoons, then you cannot escape the phenomenon of anime. This is especially true as an adult fan of cartoons, since anime is particularly good at marketing itself toward adults and the industry is invested in making more adult-oriented media (as well as adult media, so to speak, but I will not tackle that here).
As most readers will no doubt know, anime is a style of animation that has its origins in Japan. Indeed, I have heard it argued that all anime is Japanese, and that anything made outside of Japan does not qualify even if the artistic style is identical. Personally, I think the word describes more of a style than a country of origin, and thus South Korean anime and American anime and so forth are allowed to be called anime, and they probably are called anime by most fans of the genre, and they certainly are categorized that way by Netflix and other platforms that host these series. However, it is difficult to escape the essential Japanese character of the vast majority of anime. We will return to that shortly. Anyone who likes cartoons needs to address the issue of anime’s existence because it has been extremely influential even in animated series that are not explicitly anime. One only needs to look at the monumentally successful Teen Titans (2003) or the more recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2017) to see the influence of anime even in American comic book superhero cartoons. Even if you don’t like anime and don’t watch it, it is already here, and its influence and appeal is reflected in the shows that North American animators are creating today—animators who, no doubt, are probably mostly fans of anime themselves.
First, I want to describe what I like about anime. In short, I like the animation. Anime is a victim of budgeting just like any other kind of animated work, and it is obvious that some are not at the artistic quality of others. Nevertheless, anime, in general, is quite well-animated. As the younger folks are saying, it is very “AESTHETIC”, for lack of another, equally succinct explanation. If every frame was a painting in Kubric’s films, then some high budget anime productions seem to have taken that notion literally. Anime can be gorgeously drawn. I’m not a huge fan of the characteristic way in which human faces are drawn in anime style, but I can understand what makes it compelling to fans in the same way that I can understand why characters in classic Disney films were drawn in the characteristically Disney way of animating them (e.g., “Disney eyes”, etc.). As I understand it, this style is influenced by kawaii culture, the Japanese fascination with a certain kind of cuteness. Most anime characters are, first and foremost, drawn to be cute and youthful. How much more beautiful can animation be, then, when a gorgeous aesthetic of landscapes and settings and carefully drawn scenery and objects are mixed with a cast of cute, youthful, beautiful characters with surreal and exaggerated eyes (and ubiquitous bangs, since, apparently, anime characters ALWAYS have bangs/fringes as if foreheads are anathema to anime aesthetic)? I think the character animation is an acquired taste, but they are almost always dressed well with nary a hair out of place, just like any Disney princess or prince.
Where I think anime fails is in its narrative execution, not in its visual aesthetics. Anime seems to suffer from a collection of eccentric tropes that are unceremoniously wedged into nearly every production. This alone isn’t contemptuous, for surely this can be found in plenty of media. For example, if you have seen one American 80s action film, you just may have seen them all. Police procedurals are mostly the same as well except for an occasional gimmick to add an interesting twist (e.g., the medical examiner is a zombie!, or the Devil himself is the detective’s partner!, etc.). What makes anime unique is that these tropes do not seem to be genre-specific, being found in equal number and emphasis in a cyberpunk epic as in a romantic drama or a high school comedy. What’s worse still is that many of these tropes are not just “problematic”, but can actually be quite disturbing. (Well, to me, at least.) I find that anime plots, narratives, and characters tend to suffer greatly under the weight of these ubiquitous tropes, and the creators of anime seem to be quite willing to throw out an otherwise great aesthetic experience in service to these quirky characterizations and arcs. Indeed, it seems that most anime is only enjoyable to a person who would enjoy these idiosyncrasies, as if the anime industry itself is devoted to a very specific kind of fan service to the detriment of creating better, more compelling, more interesting art.
To that last point, I suspect that most within the anime community are also aware of this phenomenon, and some may even celebrate it. Anime seems to be a slave to otaku culture, the community of die-hard anime fans that seem to particularly enjoy these tropes and reward their inclusion in anime-styled media with their financial support and praise. Again, I do not think this is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Anime is not the only genre that is heavily invested in fan service. However, most successful media try to find a medium between fan service and mass appeal. Art under capitalism is, after all, out to make a buck, and the greater appeal, the better. Anime seems to have an opposite goal in mind: to make the audience comfortable with its small bag of tricks. Rather than changing itself to reach a greater audience, it expects the audience to become familiar with its tropes and come to acquire a taste for them. Perhaps the strategy isn’t a terrible one given the success of anime both within Japan and outside of it.
In the following section, I am going to dissect a specific anime that I tried very hard to enjoy recently and put into context just what these tropes are, why I think they are unsuccessful (unless you have just come to appreciate them for their own sake), and why I think they are even somewhat pernicious to the point that appreciation of anime makes the otaku community suspect in my eyes (and thus turns me off from the style as a whole). I believe it is a good example of what’s “wrong” with anime and why I, speaking for myself, find it difficult to enjoy.
PART 2: The Anatomy of Violet Evergarden
Violet Evergarden is the titular character of an anime produced this past year in Japan for Netflix. Needless to say, there will be spoilers, but I also want to confess that I never managed to finish the series’ thirteen-episode run. I made it to the fifth episode, a little more than a third of the way through the show, and it is at that point that I stopped to write this review/critique. This is one of those shows that reveals the past of the characters as the narrative drives forward, so I am still left to speculate on some things at this point. Feel free to criticize me for not even bothering to finish the show I’m criticizing, but at the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe I’ve seen enough to get my point across concerning what I find unappealing about the show, and about anime more broadly.
First, the pros about the show. As I have come to expect from anime, it’s beautifully drawn and the universe it creates it fairly compelling. The show takes place in the fictional Germanic kingdom (or colony) of Leidenschaftlich and a fictional era from about the early 20th century from the looks of it. Automobiles seem like a new invention, as are typewriters, and the wardrobe is a steampunkesque/WWI era mix of Victorian frills and bustles and petticoats. The setting evokes simultaneously a western European (mountains, woods, and fields), Japanese (rice paddies), and tropical (palm trees) landscape, making itself nowhere in particular, but able to feel nostalgic to just about anyone. Details about Violet are vague, but she has mechanized prosthetic arms after losing them fighting in a war. What we learn about her by episode 5 is that she was apparently kidnapped by an army officer’s brother and given to him to use as a weapon. Why she is treated with such inhumanity when she is ostensibly a teenage girl is not explained by episode 5, nor why she seems to lack any sense of emotion, nor why she seems to be utterly obedient to her master, so to speak. Why would she be considered a weapon at all? Is she a supernatural being? Is she an immortal fairy? Is this why she looks 15 years old and everyone thinks she’s a child? Is this why her commanding officer treated her “like a dog” and “like a tool” as it is said? Whatever the case, her commanding officer/master dies and she is left to carry on in a post-war world that is reconstructing itself. She lands a job at the company of her dead master’s friend. It is a company that specializes in writing letters for clients using auto memories dolls: women who put to paper the true thoughts and feelings of the client, taking dictation but also adding their own insight into what the client truly means to express. All of these auto memories dolls are young women, they all wear unique uniforms (which, if I may nitpick, means that they aren’t uniforms) to look presentable—or sexy?—to the clients. Violet, being unable to feel emotions and whose personality is uncompromisingly candid and matter-of-fact, predictably finds this task particularly challenging. She takes everyone at their word and has little understanding of their emotional states because she is—as I assume we are led to believe—some kind of quasi-supernatural 15-year-old blonde killing machine who feels nothing but loyalty to her master for reasons never explained. She takes the job because she wants to understand what her master meant when he said that he loved her just before he died. The other characters are mostly understood in relation to Violet, each of them having their own little moments of appreciating her quirks, and finding that her forthright nature and courageous (or robotic) honesty actually helps them with their problems. They also seem to admire her for her persistence and loyalty and sense of duty.
The tropes we’re dealing with in this one underline a serious problem I find in anime: sexism and specifically the sexualization of young women. Anime seems broadly interested in this artistic goal with many of their tropes to the point that in the past I have stated, perhaps unfairly, that I suspect most hardcore anime fans of having a paraphilia for young girls. (Some anime fans do by their own admission, and so it is not totally unfair for me to say that anime tends to cater to them, even if I may adopt a graciously charitable position and say that producers of anime don’t intend to appeal to hebephiles or pedophiles or whatever you wish to call them.) Violet is literally a mindless slave from the beginning who is the property of an older man, barring of course any later reveal that she’s a 900 year old elf girl or something. (I don’t say that glibly either, for in anime this is a believable plot twist that one might encounter.) She is dressed by her new boss as a porcelain doll, a fact that is stated explicitly by several of the characters, and of course her job title is that she is an auto memories doll, a very doll by name. To say that she is objectified would not be contentious or some kind of feminist talking point: she literally is objectified as a doll after being objectified as a toy soldier/slave. The other young female characters face a similar treatment, but I don’t even need to discuss them to get the point across.
There are a lot of tropes in anime that are part of a Japanese cultural milieu. Some of these are strange only in that they are unfamiliar. For example, I find the Japanese concept of romance very foreign: the stilted, awkward way characters tend to undermine their own affections for the sake of their public image. No doubt this resonates better with Japanese audiences and their own idealizations of love and romance and courtship. Those Western audiences that have come to accept these idealizations may also appreciate it. However, Violet Evergarden and its sexualization and objectification of young girls is beyond a cultural misunderstanding for me. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of idealizing youthfulness and cuteness in anime character design, but it is a feature of anime that I find difficult to look beyond. One moment you’re enjoying the aesthetic experience, forgiving the awkward dialogue and the other eccentric, silly tropes (like girls with cat ears) that abound in anime, but then you hit that part that makes your skin crawl. You ask yourself, “Am I supposed to find this romantic that this girl, this child, has the subtext of being a seen as a sex doll to the men around her?” Or perhaps you see one of the many schoolgirls that find their way into anime and think, “Why do teenagers in miniskirts and bikinis need to be surrounded by perverted older men in situations that are meant to be comical? What is funny about men predating upon high school students? Why does the audience need multiple scenes shown through the ‘male gaze’ with bikini shots and upskirt shots and closeups of unrealistically bouncing breasts on teenage girls with enormous eyes?”
As for Violet Evergarden herself, her story is pure schmaltz even when you can ignore, for the moment, the fact that she went from being a dehumanized slavegirl to a slightly less dehumanized “auto memories doll” in a set of scenes that emphasized the various curves of her body and the wind lifting her skirts to reveal more of her legs to the adult men around her while she meekly did their bidding without complaint. Instead of finding her a tragic victim, we are meant to be moved at how much this treatment of her touches the people around her. Isn’t she marvelous, this double amputee slavegirl who seems to be devoid of emotion, because she told me a truth I didn’t want to hear? Her character only seems human and compelling if we are meant to be horrified by the way people around her are treating her and read her lack of emotion as some kind of post-traumatic coping mechanism, or if she responded to her own treatment appropriately instead of displaying a grotesque kind of Stockholm Syndrome for which is impossible to suspend disbelief. How can anyone find Violet admirable unless they think that this is somehow appropriate? Are young women best when they are property with no real thoughts or feelings of their own who are put on display for the enjoyment of, and in service to, the people around her? The fact that her master claims to have loved her and that the characters around her find her charming because her honesty and obedience is supposed to resonate with me? Thanks, I hate it.
Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m supposed to be horrified. Maybe this is a witty parody, a cogent social commentary, a reflection of anime culture that is meant to mock it somehow. But I doubt that. It’s a male otaku fantasy. Violet Evergarden is the doll they wish to possess, a presumably underage girl who barely eats (this is indeed a plot point for her, I am not assuming this), obeys every command, has no thoughts and feelings of her own other than a pathetic devotion to a man who literally owned her as his property and got her arms blown off to protect himself in battle and whom she seems to love not just in spite of this, but because of this, and one who will listen to your every emotional diatribe without adding any of her own, since she has none to offer. To top it off, she’s dressed like a Victorian serving wench just for your enjoyment along with the other girls of the show, and she’ll never talk back to you with sarcasm or laugh at your failings. When you tell her to jump, she will say, “How high, sir?” Does anyone consider this a compelling character beyond those who would pine for her as the girl of their perverse, emotionally stunted dreams?
After five episodes, there is no growth. True to her role of being an object, the characters around Violet show growth, but she shows none. Dolls do not grow, after all. They remain the same. If Violet had an arc of her own, then the otaku fantasy would be crushed. She would be a real person, and that would be unforgivable to the trope. The only thing compelling about Violet Evergarden to me is the case study in how appealing to what can only be a patriarchal, pseudo-pedophilic male fantasy results in a failed narrative, a failed heroine, and a bad taste in one’s mouth despite the gorgeous animation. As a bunch of still images with no dialogue or plot, Violet Evergarden would be an aesthetic masterpiece. So why should it be used to service such unappealing and frankly disturbing tropes that can’t even be charitably said to offer an interesting plot? It can do so much better, and I am left both disappointed and disheartened by the prevalence of these chilling themes I have found in so much anime. When I try to give anime a chance, I get more of the same, and sometimes even worse than I could have expected.
PART 3: Conclusion
Anime can be rehabilitated, and anime masterpieces have been made that do not service otaku fantasies nor remain culturally insular to the essence of Japan. Inasmuch as anime-inspired cartoons in the West can be what I call “anime-adjacent” or anime in their own right, anime can be made to be international and universal. The problem with anime is, in my opinion, the problem of its fandom and the commitment to fan service and tired tropes. Why does Lucy from Elfen Lied need to have cat ear-like appendages coming out of her head when it doesn’t serve the plot, and why does she have to have an alternate personality that shows her as cute and innocent? It ruined the series for me, and it was hard to look past it, and the series would have been better without this obvious fan service to every otaku who drools over mindlessly cute catgirls to imagine them as their literal dehumanized pets. Why did Kagome from Inu Yasha have to wander around medieval Japan in the miniskirt and top of a Japanese middle school girl’s uniform? It didn’t make sense other than to make her look different from the cookie-cutter faces of the other anime girls around her, for which I suppose I am grateful, but all it did was offer fodder for jokes about perverted men ogling her legs and backside (and sometimes even groping her). If Violet Evergarden had to be some kind of tragic slave-doll who is the victim of her circumstances in her own story, why can’t that have been explored in a way that humanizes her instead of continuing her dehumanization in the narrative to serve an otaku male fantasy? There have been so many anime series that I almost enjoyed were it not for the tired tropes that work toward a consistent sexualization of cute, underage anime girls, and that isn’t even counting the other seemingly pointless tropes that may have Japanese cultural significance that I just will never understand.
One might argue that anime isn’t obligated to appeal to me, but if that’s the case, then I conclude with this: why do we accept that it has to appeal to them, then? Should anime be the refuge of the perverted and predatory, and should its producers be committed to feeding them a steady diet of this, or are we allowed to offer a criticism that encourages them to look beyond the otaku masses and toward the vast audiences awaiting the anime aesthetic experience? I think they can do better. I hope they do better. I want to enjoy anime someday.