One of the hardest times I cried during a movie was when I first watched Makoto Shinkai 5 centimeters per second. My laptop’s screen wasn’t big enough or its speakers deft enough for me to fully appreciate the film’s sultry surroundings, all the quivering flowering branches and the hissing whisper of the swirling wind. But like a plaintive ballad played as two characters come together almost for the first time in years, whatever combination of sights and sounds my machine could emit was enough to open an emotional trapdoor beneath my body, and I welcomed the fall.
When the movie was released in 2007, the only people I knew who had seen it were my mates on an anime graphic design forum. Nine years later, my first watch still tapped into a cult cultural vein. “Manga” (usually Japanese comics) and “anime” (usually anime adaptations of these comics) remained catch-all terms for girls with Manic Panic hair and dilated saucer eyes, or men shaped like Doritos screaming as they punched each other. with fists and/or various elemental powers, or whatever else you might remember from Cartoon Network Toonami. In the Western imagination, “anime” was shorthand for all Japanese animation, the same way people use “YA fiction” or “beach read” to compress wildly disparate titles into a stylized genre.
Anime is ascendant in culture, otherwise the ascending art form of our time.
I’ll use this iteration of “anime” to make an assertion: anime is bottom-up in culture, otherwise the ascending art form of our times. I say this as someone who cultivates their literary art in the garden of anime influence. But when I pitch my first novel, baby beating heart, for librarians and teachers, one of the things that grabs their attention is the fact that anime is central to both its inspiration and content. Among Gen Z and the generations after them, anime is as much a fabric of their cultural consumption as “Netflix Originals” are for Millennials.
The most obvious reason for anime’s growing popularity is that in an oversaturated information culture where a clear and obvious distinction between “true” and “false” no longer exists, anime is impossible. To be clear, all animation is impossible: it is an artistic medium in which nothing real should exist, even if its creation requires considerable manpower and material. But while Western animation has its own dominant aesthetic (e.g. the Disney/Pixar style, where character and infrastructure designs are consistently rounded, as if a potter is constantly throwing them on their wheel), anime has a unique sensory language of its own.
Perhaps the most striking example of anime’s Japanese origins is its use of the natural world to complement emotional moments, an impact of the country’s broad Shinto religious influences. All anime fans know these seasonal sensory cues: cherry blossoms for spring, endlessly buzzing cicadas and tanabata ribbons for summer, red maple leaves for fall, snow and the distant howls of dogs for winter.
Perhaps the most striking example of anime’s Japanese origins is its use of the natural world to complement emotional moments, an impact of the country’s broad Shinto religious influences.
Almost a decade after its release 5 centimeters per secondShinkai released their 2016 hit your name, which draws directly from Shinto traditions and expresses its now iconic celestial imagery. He is poised to become the anime director most likely to inherit the overseas influence of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, as his films are steeped in beautiful “moments” of life: the same way Whether netizens are salivating over the food of the Ghibli films, viewers now also obsess over the details of rain hitting the sidewalk or light streaming through train windows or shimmering objects streaking across Shinkai’s immersion-dyed sky.
The anime’s hyperstylization paradoxically heightens its underlying human spirit. When I started to build the frame of baby beating heart, I immediately looked to anime for inspiration, focusing on a hyper-emotionality that blends and builds with the characters and their environments. And as I fleshed out my characters, I realized that I had to include an aspect of anime that was particularly personal to me: an exploration of gender and sexuality as something more fluid, malleable core aesthetic that places gender ambiguity in a more neutral space than “representation.”
To be clear, East Asian culture is still largely patriarchal and heteronormative, and anime reflects that. Most of the time, when characters’ genders are mislabeled or misinterpreted, it’s in the service of comedy, whether mildly off-putting or deeply offensive. And yet, the medium flourishes with gender-ambiguous characters like Haku in narutothe jewels of Land of the Shiningcrona in soul eaterand Ed of cowboy bebopwho inhabit their respective series as features rather than bugs, illuminating viewer self-conceptions of gender readability and perhaps desire without forcing moral judgment or obvious self-identification.
Think of those Sailor Moon Proportions – “even” the bodies of cisgender characters can be exaggerated or obscured beyond the most trailing IRL transformations. Gender elisions are often part of a fantasy story mechanic, such as in the series Ranma ½and this greater tolerance for genre play has led some on the right to blame anime for MTF transition trigger. But the transition increasingly becomes a character detail or an arc on its own merits.
As I fleshed out my characters, I realized that I needed to include an aspect of anime that was particularly personal to me: an exploration of gender and sexuality as something more fluid.
I watched Satoshi Kon’s movie from 2003 Tokyo Godfathers a decade after its release and still considered it a pioneering portrayal of gender-neutral trans characters. Since then, I’ve encountered a (usually) thoughtful treatment of trans and gender-nonconforming characters in shows like Paradise Kiss, Our dusk to dawn, Blue periodand Wonder Egg Priority. Although the most popular anime series always do their part to humorously codify heteronormative gender roles, the iconic juggernauts Hunter X Hunter and A play innovated by introducing trans characters in key roles. Relationships and identities that were once subtext can now enjoy the full breadth and depth of anime’s aesthetic freedom.
But despite the growing prominence of “marginalized” identities in the media, any cultural observer can understand that the boundaries of art seem to contract as an increasingly reactionary chorus demands a static definition of gender and identity. identify. While anime is not immune to this conservatism, its existence as an art form that pushes the boundaries of credibility makes it a unique weapon in the multi-generational struggle between the “true” present and the imaginary future.
Anime isn’t the only arrow in my quiver as I aim for the forces that would rather erase me and people like me. But it’s the one that just might fly the furthest, arriving at a story that seeks to expand our perceivable universe, where emotions spill off the page like meteor showers and characters don’t act as they should, but as they would, in a world somewhat freed from the cellulo of reality. Carrying my solitary melody like a bag of seeds, a golden record for distant gardens, to become new songs far from home.
baby beating heart by Lio Min is available at Flatiron