Besides the usual preconception that cartoons can only be kids entertainment or crude adult comedies, I figured there’s gotta be less obvious reasons for why it’s difficult for the average American to get into anime…
After giving it some thought, I think that there are a few anime attributes that play a major role in preventing the typical American audience from relating well to anime. The first, and probably biggest one, is anime’s emphasis on continuity.
What I mean by “continuity” is the fact that most anime series are not episodic, but rather, each episode is a small piece of a whole story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Characters are introduced and developed gradually, subplots crop up, have their effect on the main story, and are resolved (sometimes), foreshadowing abounds, and references to things that happened in early episodes can be vital for understanding something many episodes later. You can’t start watching Code Geass anywhere but the first episode without being lost. Likewise, if you watch episode 1, you’ll still be lost if you try to skip ahead and watch episode 21. Basically, most anime stories rely heavily on the commitment, patience, and just plain decent memory, of their viewers in order to be fully appreciated. In this sense, anime episodes are more like pages of a book – you can’t get nearly as much out of them just by reading random pages as opposed to reading the whole thing from beginning to end in chronological order.
I’ve hardly seen any American TV shows, but my understanding is that the majority of them are not nearly as reliant on continuity as anime stories are. As long as you know a basic synopsis of the story, you can pop in pretty much anywhere and not have much trouble figuring out what’s going on. As we all know, this isn’t the case with most anime, especially for someone who’s not familiar with anime stories to begin with. If the average American wants to check out a certain anime after hearing a little of what it’s about, then puts on episode 11 of said anime because they happen to come across it on TV or online, they’ll probably be lost since it’s part 2 of a two-part arc starting from episode 10, and there’s references in it from something that happened in episode 3, and a new character appears that we got one foreshadowing line of dialogue about in episode 5…well, you get the point I’m trying to make.
Actually, nowadays with anime being mostly available to the general public through online streaming sites rather than TV, it’s easier than ever before for people to make the “continuity commitment” and start anime series from episode 1 until the end in the right order. Unlike TV where, if they missed the airing of the first few episodes, they would have to keep checking the schedule for reruns if they wanted to watch it chronologically, streaming sites have all the episodes available in the right order all the time. The drawback to this is, well, as I’ve discovered from living in this country all my life, Americans are an overall lazy bunch, at least when it comes to recreational activities. It’s much easier to just push a button and turn on the TV than it is to make the effort to look up specific sites for a specific anime and pick the right episode. It’s easy to just pop in a DVD too, but obviously average Americans aren’t going to spend money on anime DVDs unless they’ve already seen the show and like it (Disney and Hollywood movie DVDs are a different story of course). In summary, in order to follow an anime series well, a viewer needs to watch all the episodes in chronological order. Most Americans who aren’t already interested in anime aren’t willing to make that commitment, and if they just check out a random episode, they’ll likely have trouble understanding it. And unfortunately, lack of understanding leads to disinterest.
After the continuity factor, I think anime’s emphasis on series specific terminology is something else that deters Americans. The names of all the pokemon, the names of all the mecha and organizations in Gundam and similar series, the names of all the attacks in Naruto and Bleach, the staggering number of fantasy terms and names in Shakugan no Shana and Index/Railgun…anime series are full of their own made-up terminology which, like continuity, requires a larger amount of investment and memorization on the part of the viewer than typical American shows do. But I don’t think it’s as huge an issue as continuity since it’s mostly shonen and mecha series that have the big terminology lists.
An additional issue that Americans have with both the continuity and terminology aspect of anime is that, memorizing all the terms and following all the continuity makes one seem really passionate about that anime…in a negative sense, “nerdy” about it. I know plenty of Americans who, for the sole reason of caring what others would think of them, would never want to have a hobby that requires them to have a lot of this useless, geeky knowledge. Hobbies that require them to commit their brainpower and memory to fantasy worlds is just not cool for many, especially females.
A lesser, additional deterrent would be the Japanese language-related jokes, expressions, and cultural references in anime. I don’t think they’re quite as major as the aforementioned continuity and terminology, since translators can often work around them (see the dub of Azumanga Daioh) or put translator’s notes if the episode is subtitled. But compared to the English in American TV shows and movies, which is fraught with expressions, idioms, and pop-culture references, the Japanese in anime has relatively little of this. And for things like White Day and the Cultural Festival, it’s not too hard for an American to figure out what these are. For those who can’t stand the Japanese voices and/or reading subtitles, dubs are the solution (though they’re fading with time…) But again, depending on the anime, especially the ones where their setting in Japan is important, cultural references and untranslatable dialogue could become a major issue.
And lastly, the general design of anime has its deterring as well as redeeming qualities. On the plus side, compared to the simple and exaggeratedly cartoony anatomy of American cartoon characters, with few exceptions anime characters are made to look more attractive and realistic. Detailed hair, flashy clothes, a wide range of facial expressions, and gorgeous, anatomically-correct bodies can be appealing to Americans who are only used to American cartoons. The beautifully detailed scenery, as can be seen in anime like 5 Centimeters per Second and the Key titles, as well as other detailed components like the design of the mecha in Gundam series, can all be quite novel and exciting to Americans. Anime’s main drawback in this department however, is having fewer animation frames per minute than American cartoons. The “frozen face with only the mouth moving” can be unappealing to Americans who are used to their fast-moving cartoons. Other things like anime’s stereotypical “big eyes” and the variety of anime-specific iconography could also be deterring, but I don’t think they’re too hard to get used to with a little open-mindedness.
I feel that these are the most common factors that prevent Americans from getting into anime, besides the obvious reason of being ignorant about the possibilities of the animation medium. I know there are others, but I’m just sticking with these big ones for this post. Do you agree that these factors are the issue? Or are there others you think should be mentioned?