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.