Last month, I wrote about how my anime journey began. My point then was to show how anime is a conscious choice of visual entertainment for me, rather than a product of childhood association, as with the case with others, anime hence forming a part of self-identity or a nostalgic sanctuary of dreams and innocence. Today, I attempt to evaluate the general stance of anime as an objectively more attractive choice among all story-telling mediums through a cross-cultural comparison across different types of TV series and dramas (excluding written fiction and movies, story-telling mediums that share lesser similarities with anime.) Through this, I hope to highlight how different anime is from its contemporaries, but also explain why and how anime may not be for everybody.
*Disclaimer: This post is mostly based on 80% personal experience and opinion, and 20% research. What is written is, to the best of my ability, knowledge, and experience, objectively representative of their respective genres. Please be aware that there may be exceptions.*
The Western vs Asian TV Debate – Comparing Genres
It can be rather difficult to pin down the exact differences between Western and Asian TV series without over-generalising. However, it is probably unanimous that the most striking differences in terms of content derive foremost from cultural differences, which shape our perceptions of what is entertaining and what is not. After all, TV is hugely catered to consumption tastes and preferences, targeting the weakest forms of the human emotional and intellectual psyche and any other subconscious forms of human needs, desires and wants for an extended time. Evidently, these would differ across cultural chasms of the East versus the West.
Having said that, it is imperative to first acknowledge that there are commonalities between Western and Asian TV. Both sides of the world can be largely seen to graze similar genres, from an obsession with targeted professions or groups of individuals who lead relatively more interesting lives together, with other fictional genres like fantasy, romance, comedy (family, neighbourhood, or just about a group of friends), historical settings, or some combination of these. In terms of the range of content offered, it appears that globally, TV tends to gravitate towards the same genres, or would fall under similar conceptions of these genres.
However, even if they can be categorised loosely under the same genre, there are intrinsic differences in its cultural content that point towards a need for further sub-classification or stratification. Naturally, the historical genre would spell divergences along nationalistic lines, as it is impossible to compare the Japanese ‘Shogun’ era to Chinese imperial dynasties or European medieval and Renaissance eras, for instance. Ideas of ‘fantasy’ also deviate due to similar historical and cultural dissimilarities, where American’s obsession with the supernatural is merely one sub-genre within Japanese TV, and is substantively different from the Chinese’ wuxia genre and its ideas of gods and spirits in celestial-earth interactions, or the Japanese’ expansive interpretation and development of alternate worlds to produce vibrantly imaginative pseudo-realities.
Yet, the above-mentioned differences barely graze the fundamental peculiarities of these forms of entertainment, which affect what we ultimately gain from it, other than the basic characteristic of TV to engage our brains in a story other than our own. This has some bearing, or may very well be ultimately determinative of what form(s) of entertainment we choose to stick with.
The Western vs Asian TV Debate – The Differences that Matter
Undeniably, Western TV series span a wide range of content. One apparent targeted focus is on the lives of interesting professionals like politicians, lawyers, medical professionals, research scientists and crime investigators. It is in such series where the quality of its intellectual rigour tends to stands out the most among other dramas that utilise similar concepts. Infused with relevant professional knowledge that its audience can seldom find fault with, the veracity of any scientific or technical information about the profession that is showcased is guaranteed. Even though this can be influenced by how dramatic the series aims to be, one can at least be sure to be rid of some of the informational inconsistencies that plague some, though not all, of Asian ‘professional’ dramas (which really is a reflection of the respective TV drama industries’ dearth of good scriptwriters – a product of them being lesser-paid jobs). Of course, one cannot simply waltz into a series blindly believing that all knowledge contained is true and accurate. However, Western series are generally better at least in impressing the audience with its aura of professionalism in content deliverance and inducing a sense of self-satisfaction at the consumption of a rather show that ‘imparts real-world knowledge’.
The popularity of Western TV generally also lies with in its supernatural fantasy genres (or the ‘superhero’ genre), those with gritty realities, and its teenage-targeted shows. However, even with such available range, there is an emptiness associated with exclusive consumption of these shows. The lack of emotional sensitivity and time for self-reflection that comes with rationality, its fast-paced nature, and drama created on high-tension points and resolved through some external outburst or action, tend to forcefully drive home a prescriptive ideal of the person – one with a self – confident, self-assured demeanour. One’s problems are seen mostly as external ones and the only conflict or stress management tactic seems either to be resorting to vices without any sense of remorse or physically manifested outwards. Even shows that supposedly portray certain less dominant stereotypes like geeks and outcasts ooze an ultimate sense of self-assurance in the self without showing any form of thought process or psychological progress or growth which leads to that newfound sense of confidence, hence indirectly creating a form of emotional disconnect with the audience, making them harder to empathise with.
Relatedly, one of the other most common complaints about Western TV series is its tendency to side-step or completely disregard any form of emotional nuance in its portrayals of romantic relationships. Relationships tend to be portrayed with a large emphasis on aspects of sexual intimacy, enlarging the importance of physical attraction and hammering home the ultimate transition into sex. At the same time, it overlooks the equally essential, if not more important in the long-term, aspects of a healthy relationship, such as emotional connection.
The greatest contrast with Asian TV arguably lies here, as relationship progression in the latter focuses on more relatively nuanced character interaction with a slow buildup of drama revolving around clashes of values due to societal or familial constraints. Acts of physical intimacy are tinted with romanticism, especially with the predominant construction of ‘perfect’ male characters that pander to female imaginations of the ideal romantic partner. These elicit the female viewer’s desire to put themselves into the shoes of the main character. It is probably no surprise that the majority of Asian drama’s audience consist predominantly of the female demographic. Vastly growing in popularity in Western countries, where the other main alternative of fictional romance portrayal does not pander to their needs as much as Asian dramas do, these dramas provide the breath of fresh air much needed.
However, even so, there are definitely more subliminal differences between different Asian countries’ TV series that speak to different needs of modern entertainment.
Subcategories of Asian TV
What are now known as the almost exclusive ‘romance-centered’ Asian dramas actually originated from the earlier part of the ‘trendy drama’ era of Japanese live action television in the 1990s, which targeted women in their 20s. Prior to the 1990s, Japanese dramas either targeted housewives in their 40s and 50s and centered on the home, or were merely mediums of self-expression for scriptwriters and directors. which in turn mostly took their material from then shoujo manga or published fictional novels.
The first of one of the known classics was Tokyo Love Story. Aired in 1991, it was a live-action adaptation of a manga of written by Saimon Fumi, which was a melodramatic, tearjerking coming-of-age drama which featured a group of childhood friends, whose obstacles are mainly internal struggles. According to an interview with Ota Toru in 2001, its producer among other iconic titles in the early 1990s (101st Marriage Proposal and Under One Roof), it still retained its cult popularity even more than 10 years later due to its novel introduction of the ‘tearjerking factor’ and its ability to enable the audience to be emotionally absorbed (termed hanmaru) in the character’s plight. Then, unrequited romances and tragic ends were identified as the surefire formula for successful TV ratings due to the grounded realities of women’s place in the household which led to their preference of characters suffer more tragic plights in ways they could relate to.
However, after the economic bubble deflated, the direction of Japanese doramas gradually infused more elements of social commentary and introduced darker themes, such as Kou Kou Kyoushi, a heartbreaking taboo romance between a high school teacher diagnosed with cancer and a high school girl, where the focus was really more on the darker sides of humanity and issues of rape, parental neglect, loneliness, and loss of self-identity than romance. However, as more Western notions of entertainment became known, modern Japanese doramas have developed a diversity in themes – some still targeting young women, but most focusing on newly emerged societal phenomenon like the unmarried, high-salaried and fashionable femme fatale (Watashi Kekkon, Spring 2016). With the proliferation of manga and anime adaptations, dorama genres also expanded in parallel with anime genres like urban fantasy and high school drama. These genres even go as far as to encompass series which do not involve romance, that manage to enjoy widely nationally acclaimed success like Hanzawa Naoki (exclusively focusing on the banking industry) and The Great White Tower (hospital politics and human nature), a far throw from the ‘winning formula’ employed in the early 1990s.
Korean drama series are the most recognised ambassadors and forerunners of the arguably most successful examples of cultural exportation to date, alongside with K-pop. Part of this has to do with the widespread availability of its entertainment on various legal online platforms such as YouTube as a clever marketing ploy (as compared to Japan’s more obstinate inward focus on its domestic market). The other part is how Korean dramas appeal to the Western female demographic by filling the gaps left by Western TV series.
As shown by the overwhelming focus on romance, Korean dramas are famous for their portrayal of love as a slower, transitional process of courtship, and the ability of love to transcend overcome all odds, which include obstacles such as class differences and/or familial objections. With fairytale depictions of romance and the notion of love as an ultimate end in itself, K-dramas are fodder for romanticised ideals and perfect for females eager to escape from the dreary realities of relationships and vicissitudes of everyday life into a dream. The dramatic complications of its plots also mostly center around romance – whether it is the second male lead losing the race to get the girl, or losing his memory, or being involved in a car accident at the most opportune moment – and are usually dealt with by emotional outbursts of crying, ‘lover-quarrels’, walking away and running. Emotions are displayed blatantly, showing love-induced emotional weakness melodramatically, a stark contrast from Western depictions.
Yet, the majority of such qualities are not new, given that the Japanese were already critically acclaimed in Asian circles to be producing dramas of such characteristics a decade and a half earlier. The early Korean dramas like Winter Sonata and Autumn of my Heart were more blatant in mirroring the Japanese early formula, but ultimately reverted to idealistic notions of romance while retaining the construction of character formulas in shoujo manga. Most of all, Korean dramas mainly appeal to those looking for ideal, dreamier versions of romance and romantic partners.
Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong dramas
While less known in the international arena, these sub categories of dramas are popular choices among Asian forms of entertainment due to their cultural and contextual similarities to one another. Taiwanese idol dramas gained popularity with their adaptations of shoujo manga (like Hana Kimi, and Hana Yori Dango) and using it a base formula for subsequent shows. Their casting of up-and-coming pop idols (who are more known for their better looking faces and in the musical scene rather than established actors and actresses) in the early 2000s ensured their place among tweens and teenagers. However, this was mostly overtaken by the K-wave with their strategy of spending on stylistic packaging, fashion choices and beautiful stage settings, while also taking a leaf out of Taiwan’s book by using selecting good-looking faces to create visual allure.
In comparison, Hong Kong dramas generally adopted genre ranges that were similar to Western TV series, combining dramas exclusively focused on surgeons, lawyers, crime investigation, gang wars together with the Asian family favourite of family-focused dramas that espoused communal values of familial ties and/or inheritance disputes in sprawling families of deceased (or about to be deceased) rich tycoons.
Meanwhile, Chinese dramas were a fledgling smidgen on the global radar until the adaptations of time-travelling novels, where female protagonists traveled to the past and fell in love with princes, future emperors of Imperial Dynasties. Such themes were relatively novel (and still are) due to its interwoven nature with the Chinese’s extensively documented rich cultural heritage, and tend to place equal focus on both historical political intrigue at the time and romance development. However, the quality of scriptwriting and production mostly still cannot compare to its regional peers, except its pre-1911 historical series that mainly reproduce the history of the peak of military strategy employment prior to and in subsequent imperial China.
Where Anime Fits … Or Doesn’t
After looking at almost all other TV series, the question that follows is where anime fits into this sprawling network of veins – is it merely a more holistic version of entertainment that we know, or does it address a totally different spectrum of needs when it comes to entertainment? Starting from a broad comparison of genres, while it is clear that content that anime has touched on and is known to encompass is indeed wide-ranging, it is, stripped down to its core, a relatively niche industry as compared to conventional norms and their evolutional pathways in live-action television.
Similarities with Western television would be mainly superficial in terms of their forays into fantasy, high school drama, and the feature of romance, which overlaps with some of modern anime’s favourite story settings. This surface-level overlap is compounded by the larger than life cultural differentiation that result in an almost 180 degree difference in the way human relations are portrayed. If a Venn diagram were to be drawn in comparison, there would only be minimal overlaps of anime with live action TV series of both Western and Asian culture, with the possible exception of Japanese doramas. In fact, I would go as far as to state that any similarity would only be the ability to weave tightly constructed narratives, well written plots and dialogue, which really is not any characteristic specific to either medium, and is only true for the best titles of each. Meanwhile, only shoujo anime share commonalities with the majority of most prolific Asian TV series, with the exception of Hong Kong dramas (which catered to a more unisex target audience centered on social practicalities) and Japanese doramas. Even so, the sheer lack of number of shoujo anime titles make it a relatively poor representation of their original source (shoujo manga), and hence a relatively poorer contender in this area as compared to the now established Korean dramas, that make use of and expand upon the surrealism of shoujo tropes.
Anime’s uniqueness firstly lies in its ability as a story-telling medium to transcend the circumscribed boundaries of 3D live action series and to introduce made-up, fantastical worlds without seeming out of place. Its inherent characteristic of being hand-drawn and animated removes the need to bear any realistic resemblance to real life visual experiences, and hence is a more effective candidate of providing the much needed ‘escape valve from reality’ which us anime fans mostly rely on than 3D live action. Through this, it is also easier to fall head over heels in love with characters because in live action, a division between the actor and the character subconsciously exists even as we consume the story, a barrier that is less likely to be overcome unless all reins to commonsense are thrown away. Since the character only exists in the context of the story, it is up to the viewer’s imagination to combine, contort, distort or extend their interpretations of the characters in any way they want within the ‘logic and reason’ of their own interpretation of directorial and authorial intent. This in turn reinforces one’s attachment to the animated story and its characters as a whole.
The Japanese tendency to focus on the human psyche and to foreshadow social realities in its post-apocalpytic scenarios of world destruction that feature largely in anime’s plot material also acts to an introspective dimension of self-reflection on humanity’s destructive role and a gradual realisation that is built into the story’s development, and emotional connection that is unparalleled in most other media. (Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Parasyte, Attack on Titan are just few of the various e.g.s). In this sense, it provides the increased layer of depth to these scenarios, tying it back to the individual’s behaviour and its more indirect consequences. Though seemingly negative, this is used as a plot device to make any blissful, happy, and positive moments all the more tender and precious. Admittedly, such hidden social commentary and use of symbolism to bring such messages across is not unique to anime but is often used in Japanese doramas as well, though the latter contemplates more grounded societal problems. Meanwhile, anime tends to choose to question more abstract problems, sense of self-identity, the meaning of life, social problems related to hikkomori and otaku, and the larger problems that plague humanity. This is only natural due to anime’s target audience of teenagers and young adults.
Such focus on the self not only shows through such macro themes, but are seen to surface in any anime series of ‘shallower romance’ genres that provide a more serious, albeit negative and melancholic outlook. Examples of these can range from josei anime like NANA to controversial ones like Koi Kaze. The frequent use of tying romances or teases thereof to larger scales of ‘the fate of the world’ like Tsubaki Reservoir Chronicle, Munto TV, Zetsuen no Tempest also strikingly contrasts most other common notions of romance portrayed in TV as an affair only between the two individuals involved, but rather something that demonstrates a community and societal based outlook, where ‘your life is not merely your own.’
The other more outstanding aspect of anime is that it truly demonstrates diversity in content, though not in approach. What is meant by the former is summarised, for example, by the emergence of the love for moe characters and the burgeoning boom of unique subgenres like yaoi and yuri – all these address (or arguably, create) subconscious needs that are close to non-existence in any other forms of media, making it a very niche market. It is, however, also due to the specificity of its cultural references that creates a very divisive reception among newcomers to the genre. Those who find comfort in the cultural familiarity of their primary source of entertainment, be it Western TV or Asian romance ‘soap operas’, may be turned off by how different the cultural ‘rules’ are in anime. (One common misgiving cited for romance lovers is how the romance in shoujo is never resolved satisfactorily with one big fat bow and a happy ending – this has only very recently started to show signs of change.) Those who are drawn to it, however, do so due to the fascinating idea of ‘fanservice in cartoons’, or to its hot-blooded shounen fights revolving around friendship where sometimes, winning happens on a reasonable basis (‘reason’ being defined by the rules of the world the story takes place in). Those who however, choose to stay as fans in the long term – are not just drawn in by the novelty of anime’s approach. They tend to be more appreciative of anime’s subtlety and introspection, its alternating use of silence and noise – silence in introspection, in internal struggle, in lack of self-consciousness; noise in fanfare, its comedy and its theatrics which produces a sense of beauty and balance that simply is not achieved elsewhere.
However, what is meant by a lack of diversity in approach is the fact that anime, while recreating one’s self-assurance in taking time to reflect, creates a bubble of its own that is removed from the real world – where it revolves around similar ideas and themes. This may not be very obvious unless parallels are drawn to other options for visual entertainment. In other live action TV, there is a stronger presence of social realities. In the Asian context for example, this is more obviously shown in Japanese doramas and Hong Kong dramas. No matter the content, its dialogues and character backgrounds frequently draw reference to how bills are to be paid, how one’s parents can actually provide strong opposition of one’s chosen partners in Asian societies, how people need to earn as much as possible to be able to keep up with egregiously increasing standards of living. Anime, while staying true to its main purpose as an ‘escape option’, naturally sweeps these issues under the carpet. The corollary of the fact that anime appeals to those who are still struggling to find themselves or like to contemplate the larger meaning of humanity’s existence also means that it simply does not appeal very much those who simply do not think of such issues or accord much importance to them in their lives.
So who are these people? They tend to be those who subscribe to traditional notions of success and happiness – good grades, a high-paying job, a large social network, meaningful relationships with family, friends, and loved ones and seeing the world with one’s two feet. (These people are unlikely to become long-term fans of anime, and are also more likely to say things like ‘I grew out of anime. Yes, anime, not just Naruto and bleach, but anime in general.’) Bluntly speaking, these are the logical, rational, sensible people who do not have the time to dream, and are content in reaching out to familiar, albeit seemingly more vacuous choices of entertainment, rather than merely choosing to not watch anime simply because they have no time to. While not necessarily unintelligent people, their idea of entertainment, however, is to watch something brainless and laugh throughout it, then forgetting about it after the length of the show. Some of these people include those that were past anime fans, and include those that do not necessarily quit anime entirely because they may merely reduce their consumption of it, but as the daunting realities of life surround them, any previous love and feelings for anime inevitably change in substance. By recognising that they either no longer ponder about abstract questions or struggle to find themselves, and instead throw themselves into the overwhelming rhythm of everyday life, they became ‘adults’, and they left their childhood behind.
But before we as an anime fanbase jump on this and lambaste these people for reasons like poor taste, people who don’t live their lives as it should be, it must be acknowledged, that such worldviews are not inherently wrong. Our conflicts only arise because of differences and failure to reach a mutual understanding – but this can be remedied by simply acknowledging that there are people who have different worldviews. Perhaps these people are afraid to question or lose themselves again entirely when they think they know their way, or perhaps they just genuinely dislike any story that takes them too far away from the ground they feel beneath their feet. But who are we to question such worldviews, especially when feeling the ground beneath their feet includes responsibilities that come with age – as a parent, as a child (then again, more for Asian societies), as a spouse, or as an adult?
Looking from a macro perspective, there are plenty of choices for TV entertainment that are available, arguably addressing all possible consumer tastes and preferences there are in existence. This is especially true for dwellers in Asian countries like my own, where there is a literally a vast choice out there. Each form of medium adopts some of their own stylistic identities and can provide vastly different consumption experiences for all. Therefore it can only depend, essentially, on what one seeks in their source of entertainment.
While anime may hold one of the most diverse ranges of content in all television, it is also the innate nature of anime that ultimately circumscribes the boundaries of its appeal even, and especially to, rational, conventional thinkers. Such sentiments may be more prevalent and may be occur more speedily for viewers whose other choices include the aforementioned other Asian TV choices, but in reality, one thing for sure is that material things in life and the ability to procure them loom larger, and this struggle only increases with age. Ultimately, what sort of balance do you seek to strike? Does watching anime make you truly happy, or is it a mere stand-in for living vicariously through the lives of its characters because it makes you feel emotions that have long dried up in dealing with real-life, its people and its situations? I personally venture the idea that one’s long-term relationship with anime would be possible only with a genuine, timeless appreciation and love of the culture that it represents – but then again, its not something we would necessarily know now. This is why, it is still a generalisation to state that anime is for everybody – or at the very least, anime still has some way to go to reach that ideal state of unanimous appeal and appreciation.
I thank all the people who have patiently read through this without wanting to bite my head off. Even if you are, whether you are merely brimming with anger or just sheer impatience at the length of this post, I would like to reiterate that this is merely an carefully thought through opinion which I have attempted to substantiate, and I humbly welcome any enlightening comment that serves to educate me on how similarly or differently you think. However, due to the nature of this post, I will strictly enforce a zero-tolerance policy for any personal attacks, obscenities, or hate-speech. Thank you 🙂
Ota Toru, “Producing ‘Post-Trendy’ Japanese TV Dramas”, Feeling Asian Modernities: Transnational Consumption of Japanese TV Dramas (Hong Kong University Press, 2004)
Yukiko Tanaka, Contemporary Portraits of Japanese Women (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995)
“South Korea’s Soft Power: Soap, Sparkle and Pop” (Aug 9th 2014), The Economist