Japan: Anime, Video Games, and Art

This Blog Is About Art.

When you really get down to it, art is what this blog is about. Art is an expression of culture. Culture is my broader subject, but art is how I can best focus attention on that subject. For its part, art takes many forms, including anime and video games. These, too, express culture.

Recently, Gamespot had a “Why It Matters” feature on storytelling. Gamespot was eager to point out that this is not the same thing as “the plot.” Rather, a story in a video game is told through how the player experiences the game. This is a good observation, and one I wish to build on here.

In anime, the plot is not the entirety of the story. Nor is the script the story itself. Anime, built upon manga roots, is partly a visual medium; it is also heavily reinforced by sound, not only from the veteran-packed domestic voice acting (声優、seiyuu) industry, but by the wide varety of sound effects and music used to dramatize the experience. While sound effects and music are crisper, the experience has changed due to changes in visual technology.

Gundam 00 (double-o) is an excellent example of this. This was the first mecha show to really show us what could be done in full HD, though a great deal of praise must be given to Macross Frontier. While HD is something accomplished with extremely detailed, computer assisted backgrounds, older examples of inserting computer graphics into anime had spotty success, and felt jarring and unnatural much of the time. Comparing Gundam 00 to, let’s say, the original season of Aquarion, would result in amazement at the difference.

Put another way, Gundam 00 seems at home with an extremely high degree of technical wizardry. This is part of the story of the show, and a great deal of the artistic value of the show can be measured by how the story is told visually.

Now, I am well known among my friends for not being a great fan of the writing of Gundam 00, which I found to be far too mechanical for my tastes. Meant to be two seasons from the start, numerous events had to happen as scripted without any meaningful variation or the whole project would have been thrown off. Many characterizations were meant to be pretentious in one way or another. Overall, the whole show suffered from issues with creative genius… at the episode and show scripting levels.

Unlike some of my friends, I did watch the entire show and suffered through its difficult parts to see all the spectacular mecha in action. The mecha were absolutely not lacking in creativity; the designers did a lot of serious thinking, much of which is appreciated by serious fans who do a lot of chatter about the pretend physics details that interest them and draw them in. There’s a large “wouldn’t this be cool?” factor to it.

So, my personal feeling is that what success Gundam 00 has had – and certainly, it is considerable success – is thanks more to the creativity put into the machines portrayed in the show than the sense of grim inevitability of mankind’s sucking dragging down the present and the future which completely pervaded the script.

Put more bluntly, the experience that a great deal of people felt from Gundam 00 was better than the plot that they had to deal with. Therefore, they found Gundam 00 to tell a very compelling story as a whole. Certainly it is an epic story, but ultimately it’s all about touching upon possibilities and the what-ifs of the future, and if humanity can truly become ready for greater things (or will strangle itself to death first).

Well, the result is nine-tenths pessimism and one-tenths hope, which is not the ratio I go for when I watch a show, but that’s how it is.

In video games, many designers work hard to see that the story is told by the experience of the game much more than the plot. Now, let’s be honest here: sometimes designers go overboard and the plot feels thin as a result, too thin. However, let’s also not fault the reason for attempting such lofty goals; the sense of discovery of an unknown world, a world which we do not yet know, is a powerful motivation for playing any immersive game.

Properly accomplished, a video game draws a player into its world and uses interactivity and proactive player behavior to provide an experience that is more compelling, and more treasured, than passive artistic mediums where we are recipients of some kind of broadcast.

In this sense, we don’t play the game; the game plays us.

What I mean by this is, a video game is a structure and a system, but it is only the human element – the player – that makes it into entertainment. The game uses us to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and far greater than a passive experience using the same components could provide. The game provides the player with input, but the player’s reactions, thoughts, and plans are the output that is required for the creation of a real experience.

Of course, we’re the ones who enjoy the result. That is good.

The Persona 4 Case

Now, this is more of an afterthought for me rather than the thrust of my point (the point being that anime and video games are art mediums for providing a vivid experience in their own ways), but the announcement of an anime directly based on the video game Persona 4 resulted in a very ambivalent reaction among Japanese people.

Apparently, it’s not really the issue of “the game has been done already” and the story has already been told; rather, it is that the story was designed to be told at the pace of a video game, with the intensive involvement of the player, creating an experience that cannot be simply replicated by an animated show.

This has little bearing on whether or not the anime will be good on its own. It is simply a natural concern that the comparisons can only be harsh because, as vivid and entertaining as anime can be, there are things that video games are likely to do better.

This simply reflects how powerful video games can be as a medium. This isn’t your old radio -> television -> broadcast style internet. This is true interactivity. It’s a different animal. It is not just art – it is direct transmission of culture.

In the case of Japanese video games, there’s a lot of Japanese culture – or at least cultural ideas and biases – that are overtly and covertly transmitted.

But, enough general talk. Sometime in the future I’ll do posts on far more specific things. I just thought I’d cover the big picture while I had some time. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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