If modern art has a single defining characteristic that sets it apart from the efforts of previous epochs, it is that no era of art has so fully, so consciously, and with such studied diversity, embraced consciousness as its subject. The Mona Lisa of the industrial and post-industrial eras has been the psyche; the foreboding and bewitching horizons that stretch across our own minds. More than outer space, psychology is the final frontier of our time and the undiscovered country that art has only just begun to traverse.
But the most fascinating, bleeding-edge meditations on the subject have come from what some might deem an unlikely source: anime.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Japanese animation style is one most commonly associated with such popularly translated, child-targeted fare as Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z, or Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. But the full oeuvre of anime has left me quite starry eyed about the politically revelatory possibilities of psychodrama; from a cyber-morality tale that takes on the excesses of Anonymous-style politics and charts a path to virtual revolution premised on the perfectibility of humanity, to a story that dwells deep in the fissures of neoliberal individuality to painfully explore the deep scars left by peculiarly modern crimes, anime is giving us a unique angle on modern life and quite a lot of fruit for the leftist, humanistic spirit.
Yet its flights of creative majesty pitch into inky miasmas of sexism and puerile gags that have come to define the stereotype of anime: a heaving, fan-service bosom and a palpating young male fan verbing to that noun. This is a dismal state of affairs, not least because many of the best recent anime programs promise salvation from the tepid explorations of even the best top shelf, black label Western cable drama.
Indeed, it might be said of the best anime that it makes a universe of interiority, in the process exploring the terrain on which we build our lives—somewhere in the fissures of peculiarly postmodern neuroses, traumas, and fears.
Cracking the World’s Shell
Kunihiko Ikuhara, the playful director behind the astonishingly queer Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the strikingly less queer Mawaru Penguindrum, exemplifies this tendency.
The first program is a surreal high school psychodrama that details the struggles of its title character, Utena, with the demons that are endemic to a labyrinthine nightmare of self, created by the very environment she inhabits. An athletic student drawn into a world of revolutionary duels with the school elite, Utena finds herself inexorably trying to “crack the world’s shell” and left with no choice but to “revolutionize the world.” This conjures grand images of street battles, barricades, and raised fists bathed in tear gas. Yet what these words actually mean is far more chilling, and far more interesting. What is the world of nightmares that a high schooler might rebel against? The answer is much less, and much more than one expects.
This duality of self and society—making a world of the struggles of self—is a theme repeated in Mawaru Penguindrum, where the principals begin the program in the domestic counterpart of Utena’s high school small world narcissism. How the series develops, however, is indicative of both anime’s promise and the failings that drag it back to earth.
Himari, who suffers from a terminal illness, is brought back from death’s door by a relentlessly adorable penguin hat, which her brothers—Kanba and Shouma—discover is the host of a foulmouthed alien spirit that wants them to find the eponymous “Penguindrum,” with the aid of three equally adorable penguins. The show sprawls out from this premise, like the subways that are its guiding metaphor, into a spider web of warrens.
Penguindrum orbits a peculiarly modern tragedy, allowing it to descend deep spirals into each of its primary characters, who all bear the indelible scars of that trauma, and are all bound by a red thread—to the traumatic “incident” and to each other. From the homey premise the show gives us in its first episode, we free-fall into depravity, sexual violence, mass murder, and the tyranny of childhood in the shadow of neoliberalism’s skyscrapers.
As the show clatters down its tracks, we see revelatory visions of personhood in the modern world—visions of pain and self that ten oceans could not stop us from empathizing with.
At its worst, however, we have one of those cute penguins looking up women’s skirts, stealing their panties, and otherwise sexually harassing them. We have our “alien” dragooning a servant woman into a brief stint in pornography, and we have a litany of abusive misogynist slurs hurled at one of the principal characters—none of this is in service of the pretty picture I painted in the preceding paragraph, they’re all meant as jokey, insignificant asides that “lighten the mood” amidst the chiaroscuro psychologizing.
This is more than a little shameful; Penguindrum moved me to tears with its excellent portrayal of childhood abuse and the terrorism of mothers and fathers; it wove a chilling tapestry of sexual entitlement, rape, and the distending of psyche and spirit occasioned by that abuse. There’s no great artistic work done by turning around and making a joke of the foregoing, especially ones so artless, yet it’s a trap anime stumbles into all too often. Of all people, Ikuhara ought to know better: Utena did not make the same mistakes, but it remained uproariously funny at points, bending surrealism into a ticklish feather-duster that coaxed laughter from the dourest of critics. The humor was dark and uplifiting; in Penguindrum it often felt forced and formulaic, as if the fallback to crudity was indicative of a creative vacuum.
Put bluntly, it got in the way; much as every panty-shot or closeup of unrealistically jiggling breasts (prominent features of the vast majority of anime, irrespective of quality or target-audience) gets in the way.
Ask Not the Sparrow How the Eagle Soars
The 2013-14 hit new series Kill la Kill is a case in point. At its loftiest points, this is a magnificent combat-drama about two strong-willed young women (of high school age, naturally); the unstoppable force investigating her father’s death, and the immovable object dictatorially lording over a school of her own design like a majestically fallen Valkyrie. What dominates the series, however, and kept me looking away in scene after scene was the abject absurdity of the combat-suits each woman wears that define so much of the show’s visual theme, and the pornographic contortions of each transformation scene.
It’s a mite tough to explain in a sentence—but Kill la Kill is a show where the meaning of clothing, in a number of ways, is its guiding metaphor. Yet the chosen idiom for this lofty consideration is pornography. Scene after scene shows otherwise mighty women splayed like a four course meal for men’s visual consumption and nothing more–it occasionally remarks on this, but with a handwave rather than profundity.
Worse, however, is the sexual assault to which one of the characters is subjected—and in a way that smacks of sheer exploitation rather than critical commentary, which invariably makes the viewer complicit in the violation for how the scene is meant to arouse them.
The visual language strokes your inner thigh even as it whispers a rape scene; it titillates as it defiles, repeating an all too familiar pattern in mass media.
In short, for all their virtues, Kill la Kill, Penguindrum, and other anime merely reiterate and reproduce sexism rather than thoughtfully comment on it. These shows make a subject of psychology, but the realm of sexism remains a childish joke rather than a subject for serious analysis. But Penguindrum’s lurid flirtations are, at least, mere static that leaves the full picture less sharp, if still clear. Kill la Kill’s repeated nods and winks about rape and objectification leave one’s enjoyment of the show in ruins, by contrast.
Rebooting the World of Anime
Gatchaman Crowds is a hopeful, very recent example of anime that breaks new ground without conceding much to the demands of “fan service,” and gets more of its message out, unfiltered, in the process. Putatively a show about power-suit wearing superheroes, it blossoms into a majestic treatise on collective action, cyber-politics, and the role of emotion in changing society. The interior world of Rui, a tech genius and transgender woman whose social network, GalaX, forms the spine of the series, is rich, lavish, and heartbreaking; without that crimson-struck inner-self, her revolutionary ethic and dramatic intervention in Japan’s sclerotic politics would make little sense.
Or consider another rather good recent entry: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a show that parses as a superlatively darker Sailor Moon. Its title character, Madoka, and a cadre of “magical girls” do battle with malevolent witches in grotesquely nonsensical “labyrinths.” Like Utena and Penguindrum, the series’ plot is a fractal that blooms outwards like an ink stain from its basic premise, using its core elements as frighteningly elaborate set pieces for understanding the bonds between women in a world governed by calculations redolent of icily rational corporations. How do these young women survive in a nightmare imposed on them for “the greater good”?
Many of these shows play merrily with that dyad of self and society, and say something far grander than Breaking Bad or House of Cards in the process. The best contemporary US and UK dramas usually limit themselves to explorations of individual character. Anime, on the other hand, seems to effortlessly reunite personal troubles with the grand political problems of our age. It’s a surprisingly powerful antidote to neoliberalism’s individualizing gestures.
One never loses sight of the mighty world of that ineluctable Fate–call it social structure, call it oppression—that governs the lives of these show’s traumatized individuals. For all the interiority of these shows, the universe they present us with reminds one of that old Howard Zinn lesson: you can’t remain neutral on a moving train.
And it’s a model too good to be weighed down by sexist, adolescent antics.