Watching Anime: A Study in Story

This holiday I managed to find myself with one kid at home. Two of my daughters are up at college – one in her dorm, the other visiting – one is with her grandmothers, and my son is at home. He’s blissfully pretending that he’s an only kid for four days, and for the baby, that’s a big deal. One of the things he asked me to do with him was binge-watch a movie series, which we eventually bargained down to an anime series, because I refuse to admit there are more than three Star Wars movies, and he prefers the newer ones to the one I know and love. So he went through the various anime that are on Netflix, asking me what genre I like, and when I pointed out I will not watch a chick-flick (his words, not mine!) and he’s not allowed to watch an MA rated one, we wound up settling on one that is sort of fantasy but the situation is precipitated in a science fiction way.

Silica, Kirito, Asuna, and Liz

I’ve been finding it… interesting. I’m very aware that the story is targeted more at my 12-yo son than it is at the 40-yo me, much less the me that is also a professional teller of tales. I’m still trying to convince my son that he doesn’t need to pause the show every so often and explain the plotline to me. I don’t know if he thinks I can’t follow it because anime, or if he just wants to show off that he knows it. The storytelling is very broad, which makes sense. You have a whole over-arching story plot, but in each twenty-minute episode there’s a sub-plot. I’m very much not a film geek, so I’m finding it a good exercise in study. The tropes are certainly tropey, and even though it is ostensibly a Japanese anime that has been redubbed in English, there are a lot of American or at very least Western tropes, like Santa Claus appearing in one episode (called Nicholas the Renegade, which amused me a lot and I liked the concept of that). The dubbing is amusing- you have a variety of options, to turn on the audio in Japanese, or English, to turn on closed captions in either of those languages, and most of yesterday we had it on in English with English subtitles running, and I noted that often the dialogue in print was not the same dialogue spoken. Curiously, this actually makes a difference. For instance, there’s a scene where the female character tells the male ‘I think I’m falling in love with you’ out loud in English, but the subtitle reads ‘I like you.’ Translation is tricky, culture is more so, the English dialogue is often much more detailed than the direct translation, like they think we need a bit more words to get the message without the tone of the spoken words in Japanese.

I’m going to bet a bit spoilery, but I don’t think any of my readers will mind. However, if you plan to watch Sword Art Online and haven’t yet you might want to stop reading now. The pilot opens with a long intro bit about this super-popular MMO game that is a virtual reality, and we see a montage of people waiting in line to buy it, and one guy (kid? hard to tell with anime art how old) who was a beta tester alreay going into the game. The game is, as the name implies, centered around the art of the sword. But once these new excited players are in the game, they figure out there is no way to log out, and then the player characters are all told that the game designer booby-trapped the VR helmets so they can’t leave the game, if someone takes off the headset it will microwave their brain and kill them. If they die in the game the headset will microwave their brain and kill them. The only way out is to clear the game.

I have so many questions at this point: how do they know this guy is on the level? If a player leaves the game, there’s no way to know if he’s dead or alive IRL, it could just all be a mindgame. And how is the player’s body being kept alive IRL? How are they going to cope if, after months (yes, the shows I’ve seen so far imply months if not years passing) of becoming a super-swordsman they win the game and come back to a body that has no muscle mass and must re-learn how to walk? Anyway…. this is what suspension of disbelief is for, right? I’ve hung mine pretty high and occasionally hit it with a cudgel to keep it quiet so my son can enjoy watching TV with mom, a rare treat for him.

And the show has it’s moments, don’t get me wrong. The mini-romances are handled sweetly and very lightly, as befitting a juvenile show. The scene I referenced earlier led to a lot of blushing but nothing more. The violence, such as it is, is very computer-graphics and looks like something out of a computer game. There was one scene my son felt he needed to warn me about where a character is shown in bra and panties – you know the bikini sets from about 1950? yeah, they looked a bit like that. It was cute. The whole thing is cute. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to use for my writing, but it’s an interesting study in building a character in thumbnail sketches. The main character starts out a shy loner, and sort of stays that way, but along the path to beat the game we see him do things like diverting the building anger against beta players who the new players are trying to blame for the disaster, by telling a big group that he knew more than the betas, and they should hate him, instead. They stop frothing up a riot against the betas and turn their anger on him, which was his point, taking away the division.

I can’t say I recommend it, exactly. But I do think that there are things we can learn and pull from the visual that can add to the textual of writing, especially if you are writing for a younger crowd that is used to things like anime. 

77 thoughts on “Watching Anime: A Study in Story

  1. I have heard of “Sword Art…” before and it was recommended to me a long time ago (so to speak). One thing I have liked about anime/manga at times are the story they are telling. Some are very well told. Guess you could pull a lot of tips and tricks out of them.

    1. I think if you want to study tropes – which are, despite most people’s disdain, a VERY useful tool when writing – then anime is a great way to go. The episodes are so short they have to use them extensively.

      1. As TVTropes is fond of saying, tropes are not bad, and tropes are not cliches. They’re simply the tools storytellers have used throughout the centuries.

        (Of course, even cliches may have a bit of a bad rap. The reason that they have become cliches is that things like “a dark and stormy night” or “tall, dark, and handsome” are very effective ways of getting a certain mood across).

  2. I love SAO. I’ve seen it all the way through a couple of times. I like it better in Japanese with subtitles, the original voice actors added a lot to the show.

    1. DH & I watch a lot of anime – all of it in Japanese with subtitles. SAO is pretty great. especially for its subgenre (yes, the VRMMO is its own subgenre of anime/manga/webnovels, which I’m usually pretty lukewarm to). And yes, we do discuss interesting storytelling choices made by the writers, when they come up.

      If you must watch in English, beware older series! Voice acting has improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade.

      1. Everyone is getting stuck in them too. from .hack, on to SAO (there’s at least three main series, as well as several incarnations of .hack, but the name of the other big one escapes me.)

        1. Yeah, pretty sure getting stuck in your MMO is a hallmark of the genre… Based in the trailer, I think Ready Player One might fit the subgenre as well. I feel like there’s another one I’ve seen, and recently, but I can’t for the life of me think what it was.

          1. It’s a subgenre, and it’s derived from the old fantasy subgenre of getting sucked into your D&D campaign world or of D&D players going to a fantasy world. And those both derived from the subgenre of sf/f readers ending up in an sf/f situation.

            1. I love those stories too. I used to plan entire campaigns about what to do if I got sucked into another world. All that youthful fantasizing appears not to be wasted, it forms a background fore writing now.

              The Compleate Enchanter, favorite from long ago.

  3. Having not seen it, I can’t say for certain, but I’m wondering if one reason that the English dialog is different from the subtitles is that they’re trying to match the animated lip synching as much as possible. If the Japanese has a lot more syllables than the most direct English translation, it might make sense to try to stretch out the English a bit so it doesn’t look completely stupid.

      1. I’ve always found that I remember the actors speaking the English when I have the subtitles on and the Japanese being spoken.

      2. I rarely just watch TV and have lost the habit of focusing on it. I can focus on something I am reading or composing, or even get lost in Twitter or Facebook, but with TV there is always something else going on, even if it’s just reading something during the commercials. This makes it difficult for me to watch subs, as glancing away from the screen can cause you to miss a critical plot point.

    1. Generally the lip sync is pretty thin in anime. With SAO they anglicized the dialog quite a bit. Really, they did do a good job with the English re-dub, but there’s so much Japanese stuff that falls out in translation. Like the formal honorifics, which are sometimes used as jokes, things like that. Plus, the voice acting is a performance. You miss the Japanese performance without the subtitles. Best bet is to watch it both ways. Because totally have time for that, right? 😀

      1. Ooooh yeah. Definitely. I find Japanese voice acting more emotional than English voice acting. Despite this, I will DEFINITELY recommend Nier: Automata being played in English dub, because the actors did what I call ‘Japanese style voice acting.’ I actually would find myself being surprised that it wasn’t in Japanese. Being that it is a game by Yoko Tarou though, expect that the ending isn’t the end. (For the record, ending E, GOOD LUCK GETTING PAST THE BULLET HELL MINIGAME AT THE CREDITS.)

        I’m getting rather excited for the rumored sequel to Nier: Automata, because I’m told they’re hiring John deLancie.

    2. In that example, Japanese are very unlikely to say they love someone. But when they say they really like someone, that kinda means the same thing. The difference is between denotation and connotation in the language.

        1. Yeah, the word, suki is used for both ‘like’ and ‘love’, and contextually ‘suki’ (to a person) is seen as more sweet, shy and romantic, versus ‘aishiteiru’ – more forward, passionate love (which, story-wise, usually leads to tragedy and disaster.) CLAMP did a whole manga based on ‘suki.’

          Rhys and I were lucky to watch SAO the movie Ordinal Scale with a theatre full of other otaku and it was FUN.

          1. OMG I am -so- jealous. I’ve been trying to find out about it, and the Interwebz have been full of nothing. I just saw the trailer and that looks fantastic! Thanks for the heads up, I will now look for it by its proper name.

            1. My son just BLEW through all of the first Slayers, Slayers NEXT and Slayers TRY, and is sadfacing at me because I don’t know where my music is, or the OAVs, or the movies. The Housemate already had them watch Trigun (a Vash the Stampede figure was one of the presents for birthday / Christmas.)

              I’m actually sad I missed the Rurouni Kenshin live action movie. My brother saw it in the theatres and it’s GOOD.

              1. The live action Kenshins – there are three – are available streaming or for purchase as blue ray from Amazon in dub or sub. And they’re all GOOD.

                Just saying.. Even my husband who hadn’t been listening to the manga/anime fan go on about the story could follow and enjoy. And suggested a second go round of watching. And the action scenes blow Hollywood’s away.

                The Slayers music is on YouTube says my anime fan, who downloaded it all and burned it to a CD. Also disrecommends the other two seasons of the anime.

                  1. Light novels of which series? The manga/naime fan has been reading one (or more, I haven’t been paying attention) Slayers novels. Says the writing/translation is awful but there’s interesting information in it. If that’s what you want, I can get the info, just let me know.

                    If Kenshin, I haven’t a clue about novels. However, sounded like you’d be interested in the movies, and if your brother missed the other two, .. so … The movie titles are: Ruruoni Kenshin: Origins (the Jine arc); RK: Kyoto Inferno; and RK: The Legend Ends, both of which cover the Shishio arc, and take a hard left from the manga, but even my rabid, prefers films to follow the book fan, agrees they couldn’t have fit all the manga events in to the movie. And they followed through on the consequences of the changes they made.

                    1. Slayers. RK was originally manga; no novels. I managed to get my hands on fan translations, but I prefer print, myself.

                      Sword Art Online and Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There are better light novels, in my personal opinion.

                      (muttergrumbles about Log Horizon, there needs to be more of it)

                      Oh yeah, there’s just no way they could have fit all of the manga events into the movie, even if they made a series of movies. Heck, the anime broke off after the Shishio arc simply because the Enishi arc hadn’t been written yet; and I remember watching the subsequent arcs with a sigh (And we had the Filipino-English dubbed Samurai X back then…)

                      I’ll have to see if they have local DVD releases of the movies, thanks for the titles!

                      I remember walking into the basement of a very dedicated manga shop in Paris, which was where they had the Japanese import stuff. There was an entire section (two meter tall bookcase) that was nothing, and I mean NOTHING but different Rurouni Kenshin doujinshi. They were thick too – omnibus tankoubon volumes, each about the size of a telephone directory, and, judging from the covers, all BL doujinshi. Gorgeous art though.

                    2. This is an answer to Shadowdancer below, but WP won’t let me ‘reply’ there.
                      Ok, I grabbed the book I could find on the shelf: SLAYERS 8 King of the City of Ghosts Hajime Kanzaka, isbn 978-1-4278-0505-8. The manga reader has grumbled/commented that it doesn’t tell the same story as the anime, it’s kind of like the LOTR movies vs the book. Same characters, somewhat different events, ending up in more or less the same place.

                      I hope you can find it, and the Kenshin movies in your part of the world, especially the movies – they’re well worth it.

                    3. The Slayers Light Novels deviate further past Volume 8, which is pretty much the corresponding volume to the end of Slayers NEXT. However, in Japan, the novels go all the way to volume 15, and instead of the characters in TRY, you get others, including what had been a minor character in NEXT (the golden dragon, Milgazia) traveling with Lina and Gourry for an extended period of time. They get a couple of other companions as well.

                      There’s other manga as well, Knight of The Aqualord and <Slayers: Light Magic; and I don’t know if they ever made it to the US =/

              1. p.s. YES on Log Horizon. We bought the novels, just to get a bit more. i gather there were money problems with the anime, and the author is now self-publishing the books, so goodness knows when anything intelligible in English will be available.

  4. I really enjoyed “Legend of the Dragon Kings” even though it is considered one of the worst adaptations of the original material, and is so tropy you can sit there with a checklist. I was in grad school and needed something completely mind-free. And it is a good exercise in thinking “OK, what if I took this basic idea, and instead of [going on on screen] I did…”

  5. I’ve been told by fans in the know that the English subtitles are usually done _by_ fans, and are generally more accurate (sometimes a lot more accurate) than the dubs, which are tilted toward “what the Western audience expects” and sometimes come via a game of telephone from another planet.

    I dislike anime visuals to the point that I can’t watch it at all, but a friend writes up condensed versions and yeah, that it does well — story with character.

    1. Fans *think* they are more accurate, but anime fans have also somehow managed to strip out all best-practices from translation, such as translating everything that can be done into English, representing the meaning of the sentence instead of just the words, etc.. I swear, there are many fan translations using Japanese word order and grammar in the English. It is to the point where anime fans demand poor translations as more authentic. (Compare an English version manga to an English version bande dessinee to see the difference) has an interesting look at both fan misconceptions of translations and, yes, the sub-par official translations as well. And this doesn’t even address the 15 years of GRRL POWER!!! and SJW pandering Funimation has been shoehorning into their English dubs.

  6. Since it seems you haven’t finished watching the show yet I won’t give you spoilers, but I’ll tell you this much. All those questions you had about what happens IRL… the show has thought of them, and shows you the answer at some point (and it’s a realistic answer).

  7. I’ve been making the effort to watch some anime in recent years. Saw Cowboy Bebop, which really is as good as they say. Halfway through Vision of Escaflowne (also as good as they say). Finishing the first season of Robotech, which is something of a hybrid. Amazingly, I never saw Robotech when it aired in North America back in the ’80s. None of my local stations carried it, otherwise I definitely would have seen it.

    Also watched the movie Appleseed last week. Good action and designs, but some really clunky dialogue and heavy exposition. Also, there is a character named Edward Uranus.

    Edward Uranus.

    Edward. Uranus.


    1. I always sort of feel bad for the seventh planet from the sun. It’s the butt of every joke about the Solar System.

      1. I guess we’re lucky the minor Roman god Soranus never got a planet named after him.

    2. Sib was one of those who chipped in when someone said, “You know, if we get enough money, we can put the first Robotech on DVD. Anyone willing to help?” But if you grew up on the Americanized version, it’s a little bit of a disconnect at first.

    3. Never got into Robotech when it aired, I was more into Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato), however according to fans of it, it is better to watch the original version called Macross. The fans say Harmony Gold butchered the show pretty badly. I have watched the follow on Macross movies and they were good.

  8. If you want other anime recommendations, I enthusiastically recommend Twelve Kingdoms. Characters from our world wind up pulled into a fantasy world. The protagonist initially has a few character flaws that come back to bite her later on, but the story is of her growing as a person and overcoming her flaws to become someone truly worthy of respect. It’s one of my favorites.

      1. A legitimate source? Sadly, I think not. I did find which has the English-dubbed audio, and at least the first episode has not been muted by Youtube. That doesn’t make it a legitimate upload, but if you want to check out the series then that’s probably a decent way to watch at least the first 5-6 episodes. After that, if you decide you like it, I’d recommend looking for and buying the DVDs so that the show’s creators get paid. It’s the only way they’ll ever consider turning the second half of the book series into anime. (The anime, 45 episodes long, only covers the first half of the light-novel series, and so far nobody has expressed interest in doing the second half. Furthermore, only the first few books have been translated into English. I was able to find a translation of the whole series of books in French, since I speak French, so I could read the whole story, but the anime left me wanting more. It does wrap up to a satisfying conclusion — it doesn’t leave you hanging mid-plotline — but you just know that there’s more to the story when you finish watching the anime.)

        1. I don’t think the Twelve Kingdoms DVDs are even in print. Even in Japan. So yeah, you might find them somewhere but either it’s the very end of the print run, or used.

          1. If it’s out of print, then I don’t feel bad about recommending a less-legitimate source. So: for anyone who wants to watch it in Japanese with subtitles, seems to have the whole show uploaded. This is a fansub release by a group called KickAssAnime that seems to have done a pretty good job.

            Warning: when I did a spot-check on a couple of those videos, the DailyMotion site was recommending a couple of really sketchy-looking videos to me in their “Videos you might also like” section. What I would recommend is getting a video-downloading program like youtube-dl (which I know works on the DailyMotion site), right-clicking each video in that search and then using youtube-dl to download each video in turn before watching it. That way you’ll avoid getting sketchy video recommendations. And maybe make sure Adblock is turned on, just in case. (However, *most* of the video recommendations I was seeing were for other anime series, and were not sketchy other than being probable copyright violations. YMMV.)

    1. I’m old school anime, my fave is Inu Yasha, which I love enough to own and watch over every few years. There’s a reason Rumiko Takahashi is the favorite manga author in Japan – I’m getting her latest manga bit by bit right now, though this one’s more a comedy than overall adventure like Inu Yasha.

      1. I started watching Monogatari a while ago and thought “I’d like this, I’ll save it to share with my friend ____ next time we’re looking for an anime to watch.” Now I’ve moved away from the city where that friend lived, but it’s still on my list to watch with my wife sometime, after we finish Crest of the Stars.

        While we’re talking anime recommendations, have you ever watched Moribito? I found that it evokes some of the same sense of wonder that Twelve Kingdoms evoked in me — and its characters are really smart people, too, which is nice.

  9. I haven’t seen the show, and know next-to-nothing about anime, so what follows cannot possibly considered a spoiler, so don’t fuss at me.
    There is an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ which features a gamer who gets caught up in a lethal virtual world, and it is detached from the timeflow of real life.
    So maybe that’s the way the deal with it.
    And BTW: I am going to be known as Nicholas the Renegade this Christmas. It’s a decision I’ve made.
    Ummm…my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, responded to that announcement by saying I needed to watch more Hallmark movies.
    I’ll let you know how this resolves…

    1. The issue of them being stuck in a video game for extended periods of time _is_ actually addressed in SAO.

  10. I just watched an anime movie called “Your Name”, about a boy in Tokyo and a girl from a small town in the sticks who basically wake up in each other bodies from time to time. It goes from being just kinda silly about how they deal with not screwing up each others lives, to trying to prevent something horrible from happening…. And it’s really neat how they establish that the two are actually connected.

    And compared to an anime TV series, anime movies spend serious bucks on their animation, and it’s amazing.

    1. It’s Makoto Shinkai. All of his work has gorgeous art, it’s a hallmark of his. It boggled to find out that he did almost ALL the work for Voices from a Distant Star To quote:

      Shinkai himself is a real jack-of-all trades filmmaker. For Five Centimeters Per Second, he was responsible for writing, directing, storyboarding, directing the sound, animating, supervising and drawing the backgrounds, cinematographer, and editing. He also wrote the lyrics to the theme song to The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and as mentioned previously, did everything in the creation of Voices Of A Distant Star aside from voice the female lead during the initial run, which was provided by his wife.

  11. Once you finish the first season, you might want to watch SAO Abridged, a parody done by Something Witty Entertainment on You-Tube.

    It’s not as appropriate for a twelve-year-old, so definitely see it yourself before you decide if your son should be able to . . . but it fixes a lot of the issues that the anime has that tend to cause critics to go into frothing rage over the series. (And apparently are present in the original light novels as well.)

    (No, I don’t know how Something Witty plans to handle the incest fanservice in season 2.)

  12. Oooh! I am tempted to let the errands go hang – my favorite anime! (Um, what that may say about my mental age, just glancing at one paragraph…)

    Ah well. Read it when I get back.

      1. Cedar, here’s a reward for having done your duty in writing on this topic.
        Last night, on the way home from church, I was explaining to fam (which at that particular moment consisted of my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, 13 year old Kenneth, and 11 year old Alicia, that I had found my Christmas persona as Nick the Renegade. They were mildly interested.

        However, when I told them that I discovered the character because you wrote about your experience binge watching SAO: the kids FREAKED! They were bouncing around in the Suburban like Mexican jumping beans, and shrieking/chanting unintelligibly!

        Eventually, they lowered the intensity enough to grill me on whether I could actually get in contact with YOU, what with you being esteemed in their sight as a sort of hemi-demi-semigodling. After assuring them that I could (they didn’t believe me at first), they both INSISTED that I contact you RIGHT AWAY and warn you not to watch Season 2. They wouldn’t tell me why.

        I think they want your autograph now. You are a little below Jacob Sartorius, but much more impressive than the Beach Boys, Perry Como, the Beatles, and Alexander Graham Bell, because you are an ARTIST-WRITER-SCIENTIST-MOM who binged watched ANIME with your SON!!! EEEEE!!!! (emphasis present in original conversation). I didn’t tell them about the balloon art or face painting, because it was almost 8 PM when we got home, and I did have to calm them down to go to bed at some point.

        1. LOL. I’ve been an SAO fan for about a year and a half, when some gamer friends of mine hooked me on it. Which then expanded into other anime; and then expanded again into manga after I’d read “Impulse” by Steven Gould where his protagonist is a big fan of Japanese comics and stories.

  13. If you’re still taking recommendations, My Hero Academia is superb (so far).
    And it’s pretty safe for the younguns. (There is a comic relief character that comes close to the line of inappropriate as a standard part of his schtick, And there is a certain amount of female superheroes dressing provocatively. So YMMV.)

    1. Guilty pleasure: I’ll occasionally watch Cromartie High School and giggle madly because some of my students do those kind of things. I can only watch in small doses, though.

  14. With respect to interesting translations,someplace one of my correspondents reports reading the Three-Body Trilogy. The relatives he is reading it with are also reading it in the Chinese original prior to translation. The claim is that the meaning of the title is inverted between the Chinese and English versions of the book.

  15. Unrelated to SAO, but… *flail* I just found out that the manga series I thought had been dropped by scanlation groups turns out to… not be finished yet. Despite being serialized in the 70’s. It’s pretty freaking awesome for characterization and storytelling (and, since it’s a manga about acting, all about characterization and storytelling.)

    Glass Mask

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