(Originally published at Ganriki, I thought the crew here would enjoy it!)
And while we’re at it, is light a particle or a wave? That one, we already have (sort of) an answer for: it depends on how it’s constrained. The same, I think, applies to anime too: it’s a genre and a medium, depending on which way the pie is being sliced, and who’s doing the slicing, and who’s doing the serving of the slices.
To me, the main distinction is in which eyes are doing the beholding. If you’re a fan, it’s easier to think of anime as a medium, because odds are you’ve spent enough time up close and personal with it to see how it manifests in too many different ways to be a genre. If you’re a non-fan, looking in from the outside, many aspects of it tend to blur together to present to an outsider the trappings of a genre.
Some of this, I suspect, comes from the way anime — more these days than before — is contrived to serve a certain self-selecting audience that expects to see certain things. Hence the endless parade of harem and moé shows — not that those things are automatically bad, more that what we get is designed more to fit a certain set of preconceptions than it is to tell a story or even be all that entertaining. (I’m glad the worst of those two trends appears to be over, but I’m not confident it’s being replaced with anything markedly better.) A non-fan looks at such things and sees a whole slew of traits that s/he can bundle together into a genre — making it all the easier to identify it on sight and, most likely, consign it to perdition.
Fans on the inside, though, see genres within anime, but they don’t automatically regard anime as a whole as a “genre”. They know that it’s a container, though, one which can enclose any number of different sorts of experiences. Nobody with enough experience thinks the works of Satoshi Kon, Clannad, the various Gundams, or the various Monogataris are coming from remotely the same places. Odds are no two of those things even have the same fanbases within anime fandom — but again, to an outsider, it’s all one big undifferentiated lump of Weird Japan. Labeling it as a genre makes it easier to not have to think about the possibility that it might in fact be not all that undifferentiated.
Understand something: I’m not blaming anyone for taking that approach. Most anyone outside of any highly trafficked fandom is going to feel baffled. But few people that I’ve run into think of Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, and Sherlock in the same “genre” of British Stuff I Couldn’t Be Bothered With. I suspect that’s because the main mode of delivery for those things didn’t necessarily start with its national origin, but with a concept. Anime is set apart first and foremost by the fact that it comes from Japan. If the West put one big label on it to begin with as a way to allow “us” to wrap “our” heads around it, is it really such a surprise that so many of those not deep in the thick of it are able to put it all in a box and sit on the lid?
I suspect the same goes for all those who can’t get into Hong Kong action pictures, or Bollywood musicals. And, while we’re at it, what about all those abroad who might well have the same shelve-it-and-shove-it approach to Hollywood tentpole productions (which might well all be a “genre”, given how formulaic they are), or the Marvel/DC axis of comic books? If people can call anime a “genre”, it’s not because of anything anime alone has done; it’s because of the way many of the mass-market entertainments created by any culture tend to breed in a good deal of uniformity that only falls away once you come closer.
What I’m saying here, then, is that the whole question of whether anime is a genre or a medium doesn’t just depend on who you ask. The very fact that such a question exists is a symptom of how any of us looks at another culture’s cultural products, and maybe even our own as well. (Many Japanese novelists, for instance, give anime and especially manga the same lump-it-together-and-forget-it treatment as Western non-fans.) We have a hard time not looking at such things without needing a label or a box of some kind, in big part because such things are consumption instructions. If we know something is comic-book-ish, we have some idea of how to process the material. If we know something is anime-ish, likewise.
But those instructions are not absolute. They don’t come down from the mountain on stone tablets, as it were; they come from the whole history of viewership for those things. They don’t have to be taken on face value, and most of the history of anime advocacy between fans and from fans to non-fans revolves around this. It’s not just a cartoon, we say to the wholly uninitiated. And to the initiated who already has some territory staked out, we tell them it’s not just a love story or a fight show. We would scarcely need to do this kind of advocacy if the existing labels — harem comedy, shōnen action show, shōjō romance — didn’t already carry such weight.
What’s more, neither mode — genre and medium — exists entirely apart from the other, certainly not as long as either viewpoint exists at all. Some anime embody anime-as-a-genre far more specifically than others, and ask to be looked at in that light; some embody it far more as a medium than others, and so that approach works best for the items in question. The genre tells us what kind of story to expect, and how it will be fulfilled. This medium is a way to look at something that empowers it in certain ways, that gives it a certain automatic suspension of disbelief that some stories need to embody as effortlessly as they can.
Knowing that we have these reactions puts us one step closer towards being able to approach these things entirely on their own terms, without needing to figure out first what part of the shelf to put them on. In the end, we don’t need a label of “genre” or even “medium” to justify anything; it’s the labels that need us to justify themselves. Would that we can see so.
Here is a conversation I find myself having way too often for my own good. A discussion of anime X comes up, which is itself an adaptation of source material X(1). I cite a number of things wrong with X, only to be told, “Well, all that stuff was in X(1) to begin with.” Meaning the adaptation was faithful enough to preserve a piece of source material that was redolent with flaws — something the creator in me rebels against on principle. Shouldn’t the point of an adaptation be to do the best possible justice to the spirit of the material, without being the wrong kind of faithful?
I love certain things, enough to want them adapted to other media for the sake of gaining a broader audience , but not so much that I want to see them adapted with no attention paid to how the original might well need to be rethought in the light of the new medium. Much of my writing in Let’s Film This revolves around that problem, where I look at the problems of adapting anime to live action and sometimes feel it’s only slightly less tricky than getting an elephant to parallel park. The endless array of issues posed by a live-action AKIRA will serve as a great example: you can’t film that material in the West without gutting it of so much of what made it what it is in the first place.
But I shouldn’t ignore the much larger, far more prevalent, and often far thornier issue of the way manga, light novels, and other common source material are adapted to anime — and how, the vast majority of the time, they’re often preserved a little too perfectly in the process.
Much of what I mean by this I hinted at in the opening paragraph, where something inexplicable or clearly flawed about a given show can be traced back to the source material being a certain way. You don’t dare tinker with the source material too much, because then you’ll be alienating the very fanbase that exists for the material.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom about such things.
One of the reasons why things are adapted across various media in Japan in the first place is because of something Ed Chavez of Vertical, Inc. once pointed out during a discussion of the light novel scene: the reason things are adapted to or from light novels (and, one could assume, any other medium) is to expand the existing demographic base for those things, because those demographics are often completely tapped out. Think of it as a Venn diagram with circles representing manga readers, light-novel readers, anime watchers, etc., with only the slighest of overlap between any two circles and barely any overlap between all of them at once. Hence adaptations, which increase the overall audience for your average franchise sometimes by a couple orders of magnitude.
So if that’s the case, why do some adaptations end up being slavishly faithful to a fault, even when they don’t need to be? This part I’m not as certain about, but I suspect it has to do with the sense — one not limited to Japan — that the creator knows best. Good or bad, s/he created the work a certain way for certain reasons, and we who have not created it but are simply adapting it need to respect that for better or worse.
I respect this thinking, while at the same time feeling it’s the wrong kind of fidelity. Yes, it’s good to honor the intentions and the work of the original creator, and not distort what they’ve done; what you end up with won’t deserve the original name. But you also can’t forget that any adapation is a chance to take a good long look at the source material and remember it’s just that: a source.
Some of these issues were exposed, ironically enough, by director Jaume Collet-Serra when discussing his proposed AKIRA live-action film. He ended up saying something I agreed with in principle — that the original comic wasn’t much of a human story — but he said in such a derogatory, unthinkingly offensive way that people rejected it. I don’t blame them: if someone told you “We’re going to adapt one of the seminal works of your subculture, even though it kind of sucks,” you’d have trouble not being offended, wouldn’t you? It’s hard not to see this as only one step removed, and maybe not even that much, from the kind of gratuitous Hollywood tinkering that gave us Dragonball: Evolution.
The other side of this, and the one which looms all the larger the more I think about it, is how anything we could call a flaw won’t always be thought of as such by the people who fall in love with a given work, whether long-time fans or newcomers. My feeling about AKIRA is that I love it because of its flaws — that the things that can be called flaws are at least as much also expressions of the uniquneness of the project. I don’t love the fact that the story manifests contempt for the human race, but I love the totality of its vision and its willingness to see its ideas through to the bitter end. Where my love for such things ends is where, I feel, the creativity of others ought to pick up — that they should see such things as one part of a dialogue, and be encouraged to continue that dialogue on their own terms.
Flaws may not be flaws to the fans. They may be what makes something worth watching in the first place. The problem is that we often have no way of telling in advance; it’s not as if there’s a rulebook we can consult that will put us in the clear as to when something — some absurd plot element, some eye-rolling twist — needs to be ripped out for the good of the whole.
Maybe, in the end, it’s best to be faithful to the flaws, too, and let the work as a whole stand or fall on its own. But that doesn’t mean a prospective adaptation should leave all revisionism off the table — especially if it means revisionism of approach.
Still, that has to be balanced against what you gain from the changes. Many people decried the way Flowers of Evil looked nothing like its source material; why tinker with a perfectly good thing? I saw it as a failed experiment, but an interesting one nonetheless, one well worth being exposed to if only to indicate how it might be better used in another production. On the other hand, I thought the remake of Berserk actually suffered somewhat from having higher production values, by giving us a convenient level of remove from the blood-soaked, horrific, passionate core of the story. Both experiences provided lessons that were valuable, even if they came at the cost of the work itself.
The reason a work has an audience at all is because of what it is in its entirety, not because of any one thing. If a work is changed in adaptation, it should only be because the new whole that is produced will be at least as good, or better. And who can guarantee such a thing? No one, but then again creativity of any stripe has never been about guarantees.