embracing-anime-storytelling

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 9 minutes

How embracing Japanese anime storytelling in the West, might expand our virtual reality game experiences

As the world becomes more global, we need to expand our concepts of what storytelling is and what it can help us with. And as virtual reality game experiences increase and enter our daily lives, we will need to embrace different forms of narrative to expand the many and varied encounters that we can have.

Eastern storytelling is one of these areas that we need to expand into an embrace. In this piece, we will explore a more refined sub-section of Eastern storytelling; Japanese Anime. The reason for choosing a small sub-section is straightforward: exploring the entirety of Eastern Storytelling is too much in such a small post. Though it is the hope that a glimpse into a smaller sub-section will give you some impetus to explore the uses of a more diversified storytelling ethos.

This piece will use some fairly well-known Japanese Anime to explore the concepts that differ from Western storytelling and those that are similar. As the analysis progresses we will look at how this type of narrative can help expand the tools that we use to create engaging stories within virtual reality.

It is the belief that the very specific aspects that can be found in anime storytelling will allow for a more immersive experience in a world where you the audience member can choose to look and move. But first, off we need to determine what the base differences are between western style storytelling and anime.

Storytelling and archetypes

In the West, the majority of our narratives revolve around the formula that’s outlined in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this Campbell outlines the Hero’s journey that most stories follow, in short is as follows: a hero receives a call to adventure, reluctantly answers it, finds a mentor, quests his/her reason for the adventure then receives an epiphany, succeeds in his/her quest and returns home changed and enlightened.

This is a very shortened outline of the hero’s journey, but the formula holds true for almost any story you may have heard or seen (Star Wars, The Matrix, The Odessy, etc…). Campbell also explores the various Jungian archetypes that inhabit these stories, such as the elderly parental figure/mentor that helps the hero (read: Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Glenda the Good Witch of the North, etc..) or the evil power figure that tries to stop the hero (read: Sauron, The Emperor, Evil Witch of the West, etc…).

These archetypes exist to create a very clear juxtaposition in our minds between what is good and what is evil. In The Wizard of Oz, the evil witches are dark and ugly, the good is light and beautiful, in The Lord of the Rings the good are innocent and white and the evil are tainted and dark. These are very easy to grasp binary concepts.

In Eastern storytelling and specifically Japanese (anime) the archetypes are not as clear-cut as they are in the West. The heroes and the villains are both individuals who have chosen different paths, they are neither the embodiment of good nor the incarnation of evil. Any of the Studio Ghibli films can attest to this; Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke. And many anime shows end with the supposed villain enduring their own epiphany and both sides realizing what the world has become. Such as in Fullmetal Alchemist, whenever the Elric brothers and their friends and allies defeat an evil adversary, the enemy leaves us with an insight into their motives and they are usually not evil, only misguided or misunderstood.

This may also be the reason why many of the protagonists in anime are teenagers, heroes that are coming of age, who still need to understand the complexities of the world. Whose personal journeys often align with an epic quest to save the world/the collective/the community and bring back harmony. The hero is often swept up into a world and sent on an adventure they did not anticipate or want.

In the West, it is often adults who go on an epic journey to change themselves and the world, because the world they know is stagnant and requires change. Their journey is reluctantly accepted, and only through personal perseverance is the story progressed and resolved.

What you must realize from this is that anime storytelling is not better than Western storytelling, but that each style has an aspect that can improve the narrative in an immersive experience. It is a far more engaging story if you are the protagonist and you are required to discover the intricacies of a world, what is good and what isn’t. The world itself is creating the agency for you, and you are there to achieve resolution for yourself.

The concept of resolution also differs between the West and anime. In the West, especially in popular TV culture, the general plot can sometimes take seasons, not episodes, to be resolved. And sometimes not even then. In anime plot resolution is achieved with small milestones in every episode. Be careful though, not to read plot closure instead of a resolution, every series will always have a cliff-hanger to continue to the next episode. The purpose of the resolution, in this case, is to have emotional fulfillment from an episode and to not be left empty that nothing was achieved by any of the characters.

This is an important aspect of Japanese storytelling in anime, the audience needs to feel the story. It is very heavy on direct emotional engagement.

For a virtual experience, where you are able to ‘almost’ choose your destiny, the experience should be focused on the moments, not the end game. The emotional resolutions should be serialized into small bite-sized chunks, requiring you to be challenged and requiring you to work through them. The end for Western tastes should still be epic, but leave you with a sense of serenity and a sense of wanting more. A very difficult combination to achieve.

“The Aesthetic Solution”

Within Anime the sense of serenity and wanting more is achieved through what is termed “the aesthetic solution”. The end is resolved through images of nature, of continuation, of aspects that are enduring and harmonious. In many of the eastern cultures, nature is revered above man, it’s beauty is a necessity, it’s imperfections should be appreciated and the inherent cycle of entropy and rebirth understood. In Japanese culture, this can often be found in the concept of wabi-sabi.

It is this symbolism of harmony and continuation that is at the heart of many of the moral narratives found in anime. It is a battle to change or return the world to a more coherent state. An acceptance of differences and an understanding of the journey. In the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, the heroes and the world are altered forever, they have journeyed extensively, spiritually and physically, and that journey has changed them, we believe and hope for the better. Their enemies have changed as well, again we hope for the better, but we can never be sure of either. We are left with images of continuation, restoration of harmony, for the moment. Despite epic conclusions, their lives and the world they live in continues on without us.

As opposed to many Western stories where the conclusion is final. There is always an event that clearly marks it for you; a wedding, a death, a birth, a conquest or a victory. If you have ever watched The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King movie (and needed the bathroom) you’ll recognize each of these events in the closing moments of the film. One after the other, and once the final victorious moment was finished, you were left with the unquestionable sensation that is was over (and you could finally leave your seat).

Within a virtual world, the experiences should be motivated by the want and need for harmony, every human love’s order, and bringing order is a strong motivator. It is also a strong basis for an epic narrative, and this is something that both cultural traditions share. Though unless you are aiming for replay-ability, the aesthetic solution is probably not one you should pursue as a final act. That said, however, it is one that allows for a more holistic resolution, depicting the world that requires our care. We are not here to conquer the planet and nature, but to coexist with it and to revere its harmony.

Harmony versus victory

It is likely this difference that most sets the two narrative traditions apart, the resolution of victory versus the resolution of harmony.

It is this psychological difference that we need to understand if we wish to create broader and more immersive experiences.

In the West, the journey is about change and disruption, in the East, it is about understanding the journey and the harmony in which the world Should reside.

Fundamentally the difference can be categorized as Western narrative focuses on the micro journey having an effect on the macro, whereas the Eastern narrative focuses on how the macro shapes the journey of the micro.

Within anime, this macro shaping the micro is very clear in the various sub-themes that are often used. They tend to be grand concepts in which the heroes play a part, grow and shape their beings to overcome the disruption caused to/ in the collective. For example, the Mecha genre, where it is often a battle of the use of technology versus humanity, not evil machines trying to kill humans, but how the unwise use of technology can be devastating to humanity and the world. The battle of good versus evil is one of either internal conflict, do the ends define the means or the means define the end. Or one of a collective battle, are these differing ideologies truly different, the challenge of living in a diverse world. These are all far grander questions that define what it means to be an individual in the far larger world.

The characters and heroes in anime storytelling even embody these questions of morality and diversity. In the West, the good characters and heroes will often live on forever. Not in the literal sense of immortality (though this does happen in some stories) but more than their legacy is felt in the fictional world and in the real world.

In eastern anime, simply put, everyone dies, eventually. It is perhaps this sense of pathos that death, entropy is inevitable and this lets concepts and ideas endure far longer than individuals. No one is safe from suffering and we must all rise to the challenge and endure it. Fullmetal Alchemist depicts this with the loss of their bodies for Elric brothers, the death of their friend Maes Hughes and the ever sad moment of the little girl Nina and her dog (if you’re unfamiliar with these references, then watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and have tissues at hand). Another depiction of suffering, acceptance of reality and rising to the challenge to return order is Sword Art Online. Here we see the battle of Kirito to escape the death game and return to the real world. Or the companionship of Asuna and the terminally ill Yuuki, yet again a parable of endurance and acceptance.

These themes are at the heart of ensuring deep emotional engagement with a fictional story. Creating experiences like these would immerse you so intrinsically into the world that you would almost be heartbroken to leave it.

Conclusion

Both narrative traditions have something to offer in creating new and engaging stories. We as storytellers should use the best of both worlds when creating experiences that are meant to be immersive and enjoyable. But I believe it is also our duty to leave the player with a lasting message of accepting others, understanding them and of appreciating that which we are all given on this planet. I feel that Eastern storytelling, through the lens of anime in this perspective, can help us to achieve such a narrative.

I do recommend you watch some anime to get a feel for this perspective, and I would suggest that you ignore western ageist norms around animation. In Japan, anime is created for and accepted by all ages, unlike in the West where it is predominantly seen as for children. And if there are only a few a few that you choose to watch then I suggest that they are (unsurprisingly) Fullmetal Alchemist: BrotherhoodGhost in the Shell and Akira.

Enjoy!

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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