The Anime Effect: A Writers Musing

I’m still sort of trying to figure out what Friday’s are here now, since I’ve stopped scrounging the depths of Youtube, looking for openings, and endings, that are either really great, or really terrible. Turns out, when you do a thing for well over a year, replacing it is easier said than done.

Still, there is something I think I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while now. It isn’t anything of great depth, or meaning, but it still something that I think is important in a lot of ways. Or rather, has importance that I don’t know always gets noticed.

First off, let me say, for the record, that I’m an American. I’m also Irish, mostly, with a bit of Scottish thrown in, just to make things crazy. I’m also originally from Texas, so yeah, it’s really kind of a wonder I’m not a raging alcoholic. Not entirely sure how I dodged that bullet, actually, but here we are.

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Who knows?

Point being, I’m not Japanese, and I’ve never even been to Japan. It looks lovely, though, and I have developed something of a fascination with the culture, but I’m not what I would consider any sort of an expert on anime, much less the culture that gave rise to the industry.

I’m just a guy, who rambles his opinions out onto the internet, in the vague hope somebody thinks I say something that inspires them to think about buying his writing, so I don’t have to hold down a regular job anymore. Cause, honestly, getting paid to play make believe is like the only thing I’m actually going be successful at, if I am to be successful at anything.

The reason I mention all this is so you can keep that context in mind from this point on. What I want to talk about here has to do with anime, yes, but also how it filters through my particular cultural lens, as well as my personal viewpoint, both as a product of my culture, and as an individual who loves the craft of writing.

Let me take you back in time, to the 80’s, for all of this. My apologies, ladies, for the return of the big bangs, and the shoulder pads. It’ll be brief, so try to endure. Guys, please, I’m begging, don’t play with the parachute pants. Seriously. Just, don’t.

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Let them go to Heaven, where they belong.

My love of anime began with Robotech, which I know wasn’t a proper anime in most people’s minds, but was my first real introduction to the concept of Japanese made cartoons. Prior to that, most of what I knew was Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, and the like. The idea of a serialized story was completely new to me, and every Saturday morning, I hung on every frame, desperate to know what happened next.

It wasn’t that I only watched Saturday morning cartoons, either. It was that back then, any sort of tv series being presented in a long form manner was almost unheard of. Reruns were big business for tv back in the day, so telling a large, overarching plot, that was just madness.

Yet, here was this little Saturday morning cartoon, not just doing it, but also dealing in some fairly heavy subject matter. Love, relationship problems, death, grief, war, and how cultural clashes affect two very different groups of people was all there. It was, to be blunt, entrancing.

It also stayed with me in a way every few things ever did. A few years later, when I got into D&D, which fired my imagination to go literally anywhere it wanted, the ideas that Robotech had planted in my brain slowly began to marry with the open world nature of the game, prompting me to begin exploring long form storytelling in the game sessions with my friends.

The culture around me was very slow to catch up, however, and it wouldn’t be until the very late 90’s that American television really began to seriously flirt with the idea of long form narratives. There are, of course, any number of outliers you can point to that say they were more than flirting with it, but I mean as a general thing. Something that wasn’t happening just here or there.

01-01
Whatcha watchin?

It was the early 2000’s though, that allowed me to get into anime again. The arrival and widespread use of the internet, as well as a growing appreciation for anime in the States, made it easily accessible, and so back in I dove, looking to rediscover what it was that had so inspired me as a child.

Spoiler, it was the writing.

Okay, to be fair, we can make all kinds of arguments about the art style, or themes, or anything else, but really, when I get down to it, what holds me to anime, and makes me love it, is the writing. Even a really bad show, like School Days, or Queens Blade, is amazingly well written, when you stop and think about it.

Here’s how it is. Anime writers usually have 12 to 24 or so episodes to tell the story they want to tell. Long running shows like Bleach, or Naruto, are a rarity. Most anime lives and breaths in those 12 to 24 episodes. 6 to 12 hours, in which they have to set up a world, a plot, and characters, then execute the story. They don’t get five or ten seasons. They don’t get twenty plus episodes a season. They don’t even get an hour each episode.

They get less than thirty minutes, typically over the course of twelve episodes, to do everything they need to do, then, they are done.

Even shows that bungle it all, that are just dreadful, or insipid, or make no sense at all, like say, Handshakers, are still doing one hell of an incredible job in the writing department, just by producing what they do, and fitting it into that insane schedule. I mean, I can barely get one chapter a week written for the stuff I post on here. Not to mention the ridiculously slow rate at which I’m getting the second War Witch novel done.

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“I’m working on it,” he says. Whatever.

These guys are putting out content at a stunning pace, and having it be, on the whole, pretty well executed. That’s nuts.

Of course, some times it works better than other times. No argument there. Some shows just can’t quit land the premise they are going for, or just don’t come together the way the writers probably envisioned. That’s just part of writing in general Not every idea works out.

To me, however, it remains amazing that the writing can be what it is at all. Maybe it’s because of my cultural viewpoint, where we give shows an absurd amount of time to waste in going nowhere, and really, doing nothing. Or the very commercial attitude towards them, where as long as a show is getting watched, we keep it alive until the whole thing has become a pale shadow of its former self.

I’m looking at you, Supernatural.

With anime, there’s a set story to tell, and it gets told. Shows like FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or Cowboy Bebop, that set out to relate a story, and then, just do that. When it’s done, it’s done. A property might be highly successful, but the story is told, and that’s that.

Anime is, in a real way, presented like very visual novels. We sit down, we enjoy the story, then we are finished, and move to another. Again, because my own cultural viewpoint, this is utterly amazing. It’s one of my favorite things about anime. The idea that, at some point, the story is going to end, and not with some damn cliffhanger that never gets resolved, or worse.

Fuck you, Lost. I loved you, and look what you did to me.

Yeah, American television is kind of a love hate relationship.

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Occasionally, just hate. So much hate.

As a writer myself, who was at any early age influenced by anime, I’ve always felt a bit at odds with the plodding, frequently directionless nature of American television. There’s some great stuff that comes out of it, mind you, but for a very long time, as a general rule, it was just a money making arrangement that production studios had with the American people.

Look, don’t think to hard, and give us money.

I don’t know how else to explain The Big Bang Theory, after all.

By contrast, here was anime, doing something with a medium that, in America, we always considered for children. Animation was Disney, or Scooby Doo. It wasn’t deep, thought provoking, or meaningful. It certainly wasn’t violent, or graphic. It definitely wasn’t art.

Most of all, though, it wasn’t a means to explore a story, as a whole thing. Characters, themes, concepts, and all the rest that goes into telling a story, just wasn’t the kind of thing you could do with animation. At least, that was the mentality, but I remembered Robotech, and never was able to shake the idea, that somehow, out there, was something that was missing from how we think about fiction, not just in the medium in came in, but as a concept.

So, when Storm and I got into anime, me again, her for the first time, with the original FullMetal series, Hell Girl, and Paranoia Agent, thanks to Adult Swim, and a few other late night networks experimenting with importing anime to American audiences, it all hit me. The thing I had been trying to figure out for years. Not just as a writer, but as DM, and in general, as someone who grew up before the internet.

Writing can be so much more. So very much more, than even I had thought. Watching shows like those altered how I thought. Not because of what they did, but in how they did it. In how they were written.

Look at FMA: Brotherhood. That is one of the most tightly written tv series I’ve ever seen. The plot is relentlessly paced, but never at the expense of the character arcs, which are also relentlessly paced, but always feel like they happen naturally. While much of the credit goes to Hiromu Arikawa for crafting such an amazing manga, the writers for the anime knew what had to be done, what they had to cut, what they had to embellish, and did so perfectly.

The whole thing is, while a really great show, an exceptional piece of writing.

09-07
Awww, we sucked next to that.

Which, I guess, is what I’m really trying to say here. Anime has been doing long form narratives for years. Lots of years. More than I’ve been around, actually, which is saying something, since I’ve gotten pretty damn old now. They’ve gotten staggeringly good at it, and while we’re starting to catch on here in the States, we are still a long ways from being able to produce the kind of quality storytelling you find in anime.

Netflix just proved that with their live action Deathnote adaptation. Jesus, that thing sucked harder… well… anything sort of a black hole.

Back when I first submitted War Witch, and it got accepted, my new editor and I had a conversation about the length of the book, which in excess of 600 pages. She told me we needed to cut it down, and I let her know I had already removed everything I felt the story could stand to loose, without compromising the narrative.

I’m a writer, and she’s an editor, though, so when she said she was going to be taking her red pen to it, I accepted that my personal bias was possibly at play, and got ready for what was coming. Six months later, the final novel was almost entirely unaltered from what I submitted. She found that cutting things was not as easy as she had thought, and that what she had presumed was possibly lengthy rambles on my part, actually weren’t.

When she asked me how I had done this, how I had written something so large, with so little excess, so little unnecessary, I simply answered, “I watch a lot of anime.”

Over the years, as anime has become a major part of my life, it has affected how I write. I take a lot of cues from what is done there, even in shows that most people are quick to dismiss. Because always, in any show, the writing has to be tight, focused, and the narrative has to keep on a solid track. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, especially when compared with shows that do it far better, any anime has put a lot of thought into the writing.

The story is all that matters, even if it’s a crap story. They only have six to twelve hours to tell the story, and they do it far better than pretty much anyone else in the world.

The writing. That’s what keeps me coming back. That’s what makes anime such an amazing, unique, thing, to me. The writing is just so far out there, so superb, so well done, that I am constantly in awe of it.

And constantly learning from it. Even at my age, it educates, and inspires me, as a writer, to keep getting better.

I can’t say that about pretty much anything else.

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Which is pretty damn awesome, really.
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2 thoughts on “The Anime Effect: A Writers Musing

  1. Indeed! That is a major flaw, I think, in Western television. We can get some pretty amazing things out of it, mind you, but the fact is that we create television shows, and the point is to make profit, not tell a story and be done with it. I mean, it’s the same thing with all the movie remakes and sequels and prequels and spin-offs. The point isn’t to tell the story, it’s to produce and profit. So, while I do appreciate, say, the latest Star Wars movie (personal preference), and I think Supernatural has made a comeback these last two or three seasons (again, personal preference), it’s more like getting lucky after an extended show of sheer, unrelenting tenacity. We don’t want the show to end, and the people making it want to keep their jobs, and the networks distributing it want to keep their profitable shows, so the story gets lost. But anime, while often telling extended stories, simple tells the story and then it’s done, with some rare exceptions, and we move on to the next one.

    Like

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