This is a recent Ask John post that caught my attention. John points out that there is indeed a difference between what Japanese fans like about anime and what American fans like about it…
John’s basic argument for Japanese fans is that they “perceive the immersive content of anime as an alternate world.” It seems that most Japanese anime fans like to think of anime as alternate worlds, worlds that they can imagine as existing parallel to reality. This is obviously why so much anime within the fantasy and sci-fi genres have such detailed and complex background information, history, and numerous made-up vocabularies to define their attributes. Anyone who’s familiar with the complicated politics and historical events in mecha anime like Code Geass and Gundam 00, or the staggering amount of fictional terms and fantastical characteristics in fantasy anime like Naruto and Bleach, knows that this idea of anime being alternate reality rather than total fiction might hold some merit. Precisely because anime worlds are given their own history, politics, and/or fantastical attributes, the anime seems very realistic, and thus fans are more able to perceive the anime as an alternate reality instead of fantasy. As relentlessflame, one of the commenters on the post, pointed out, this idea of anime as an alternative to reality is also why so many anime have ambiguous endings that focus more on reaffirming the status quo instead of completely wrapping up the story and subplots. Because of this lack of total completion in the endings of anime, or even the infamous “reset endings,” the alternate world of the anime can remain intact within the minds of the fans and they can then continue to be immersed in it. This also makes it easier for the creators to make sequels or additional merchandise for the anime.
Even when it comes to non-fantasy anime such as slice-of-life series that take place in a realistic representation of Japan, without anything extraordinary happening, Japanese fans are still able to perceive them as alternatives to the Japan in reality. This very much ties in to what John has stated before on another post that “American cartoons place characters in situations; anime places situations around characters.” Basically it comes down to the now fairly common observation that anime, with some exceptions, is more about the characters than the story/plot. Even if there is nothing alternative about the world of slice-of-life anime, these shows offer characters that fans can empathize with and who have traits that are more easily appealing than perhaps those of real people. Even in fantasy anime, so much focus is put on the designs of the characters, their distinct personalities, and even their background histories, that again, they are made to seem more like alternatives to real people rather than just fictional characters. Because of this, slice-of-life anime like Clannad, True Tears, and Nana are able to be successful by showcasing characters with likable personalities, sympathetic relationships, and appealing designs, even if “nothing happens” for most of the series.
On the other side of the argument, John believes that unlike the “alternate reality” view of Japanese fans, American anime fans “typically perceive anime as an escapist world.” Just like other TV shows and movies, books, and video games, American fans perceive anime as an escape from reality rather than an alternate form of reality. This is probably why so much action/fantasy anime like Full Metal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Bleach, and Inuyasha have become so successful in America, even with people who are not anime fans. Because American fans want to escape from reality within anime, they want their anime to contain lots of engrossing action, complex plots, and fantasy elements. This is also the reason why slice-of-life anime is such a niche genre in America. Americans typically care more about the story/plot of their entertainment rather than the appealing personalities and designs of the characters. Therefore slow-paced, character-driven anime with ambiguous plots are usually not as successful with American fans and are almost never mainstreamed. Also, as relentlessflame states, “reset endings” or endings that reaffirm the status quo are unpopular with American fans because these fans emphasize story/plot instead of maintaining the alternate world and characters like Japanese fans. If the story is reset or if the status quo goes back to how it was at the beginning of the series, American fans tend to feel like the entire journey and storyline was wasted.
So if Americans want to escape in their entertainment, then why are sitcoms, which feature little action, fantasy, or plot development, so popular? As John points out in the post, sitcoms are all about humor, parody, and slapsticks, which are other traits that Americans love in their entertainment. There are lots of sitcom-like anime comedies such as Lucky Star, but even though these shows feature comedy, ultimately the main focus is the characters. Consequently, a lot of the humor is thus derived from the characters themselves and their personalities and relationships, which forces the viewer to form some kind of bond with the characters in order to appreciate the humor. American sitcoms don’t usually have this kind of restrained, subtle, character-driven humor. This basically goes back to the fact that most Americans care more about “what” their entertainment is about as opposed to “who” it is about, which is also another reason why anime is still a relatively unknown genre in America. Of course, American fans can like anime characters, but as John states they typically “love characters as an extension of the manga or anime that they hail from, because they represent and reflect the source they came from.”
Well, to sum things up, while I believe that John’s argument holds fairly true, even he admits that there are obviously many exceptions on both sides; American fans who hold more of a Japanese perception of anime and vice versa. I, as well as many other fans I know, like anime for the same reasons as Japanese fans despite being American. And I also know of some people who seem to like anime with reasons stemming from both perceptions. But I thought John’s observation was pretty interesting and I believe it all comes down to the cultural differences between Japan and America. Of course, neither perception is right or wrong, it just depends on what you’re looking for in your anime =)