What exactly do Japanese and American otaku like about anime?

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 =)

4 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Very interesting article there Alia. Now I have a better understanding on why the Japanese have such an unhealthy obession with anime characters (i’m not saying all Japanese Otaku are like that though) and why they have so many mascots. Also, a while now I have also been pondering on my the Japanese never have an “off-season” and show reruns during the break for most anime series, like Americans do for their shows, and instead they make numerous filler episodes to keep it going (like with Bleach, and Naruto for examples). At first I thought it was just for profit, but now i’m beginning to think that perhaps this method is also done to maintain the idea of an alternate reality that runs paraell to ours. (Which in the end would generate more money from the Japanese public.)

    As for me, my love for anime is connected to my love for animation. Because with animation, you can create all kinds of worlds that cannot exist in reality. (For example: a dog that talks, acts like a human and can tap dance.) So like most Americans, usually I watch anime as a form of escape. Although, there are cases where I actually enjoy the characters themselves as much as the actual story (ex. FMA, D.Gray-man), and once in a while I find a rare series where I like the characters more-so than the story…if there is one that is (ex. Azumanga Daioh, Kannagi). In fact, it was until recent years where I actually started paying attention to not only the plot, but the characters themselves as well. And yes, in the end it all comes down to what our prefered tastes are when it comes to, not just anime, but with everything that we enjoy.

    And on that note, perhaps I will now go and rethink my ideas i’ve had for my own anime and/or manga series after reading this (which i’m still determind to release to the public one day).

  2. GIRv2.0 says:

    Very insightful. It is obvious, but I never made the whole connection before. None of my friends (well, none of my male friends) will watch the type of anime I prefer. and I never really understood why until now. Every thing you say about plot vs. situation is right on the nose. My god, the “slow-paced, character-driven anime with ambiguous plots” are what I LOVE!

    I’ve always collected comic books. Growing up (ha) didn’t change that. And I’ve always loved animation. Anime left me kind of cold. Except for Akira and Ghost in the Shell, I didn’t take much notice. Liked some stuff well enough, but not enough to be a “fan”.

    Then one day, it all changed. My entire universe changed. My love and obsession began.

    I found Lucky Star.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Cowboy BeBop and Full Metal Alchemist and Bleach etc. Adult Swim, y’know?

    But, in the end, they were just shows. I didn’t get as swept up and involved and fall in love with the characters like I do with Konata and Kagami or Nagi and Jin or Haruhi or Chocco. I am a 37 year old male and when the curtain went up at the end of the final Lucky Star, as the girls all stepped forward into that bright and unknown future, I was crying like a baby. My friends were going away and I realized right then how much I was actually going to miss them. By then I had figured out that Kyoto Animation did Haruhi Suzumiya, so I had to check that out….

    …. well, I’m sure you can guess the rest. I enjoy the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) humor and wordplay. (I am going to enjoy it more if I can make it through the Rosetta Stone course. I’d like to understand firsthand, not get it through a questionable translation.)

    My watch list is huge and growing, and 90% of it is the slice of life, character-driven stories like Genshiken, Planetes, Minami-ke, Tactics. Hayate no Gotoku and K-ON! are a revelation. Kyou No Go No Ni is absolutely delightful.

    So, I guess I do have a more Japanese perception although I am American. I don’t watch anime to escape, I watch it to GO somewhere.

    And it goes way beyond that. I research the things I don’t understand, jokes I don’t get, and in doing so have become fascinated with Japanese culture, history and tradition.

    I hope this passion doesn’t die quickly. It’s quite exciting.

    ~ peace

  3. Jan Suzukawa says:

    OK, I was going to make all kinds of weighty and cogent points about your post and my own thoughts on Japanese and American anime fans, but basically… I’m still drooling over the pic of Kaworu and Shinji. ;) Gotta be careful about the pics you post that might distract us yaoi fangirls…

  4. jardel says:

    Weird, I’m a brazillian who likes j-pop and animes but hardly ever like any american movie (unlike other brazillians) and never understood why until I read this post. But now it seems obvious that most american types of media push the plot all over the characters feelings “smashing them” like they didn’t had any trait, resulting in a story that I always forget in the next following day.

    So yeah, when I read “alternate world” it felt like somebody stole the best word I had to describe my feelings towards animes. And I am really happy to know why I like slice of life so much even though I have never met anyone who liked it before, since everyone else or doesn’t know anime, or likes naruto for the western reasons. But’s still kinda funny to know that most people surrounding me thinks different than I, and to discover that your way of seeing things is more fairly common in the opposite side of the world.

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