“Hey, you watch anime, right? What’s a good recommendation?”
It felt like some kind of trap. Having just returned from a 10-hour stint in the laboratory, I wasn’t prepared to answer that sort of question. If anything, it felt like an ambush after having opened the door to the game room in a humble effort to see if anyone was around. True enough, there they were: two of my flatmates — one sociologist, the other a philosopher — sitting in the middle of the room, listening to the strained screams of a desperate Kirito slaying a wolf in the open fields of Aincrad as the closing act of the first episode of Sword Art Online was flashing across a 52-inch television screen.
“Yeah, I’ve never watched much anime before, and this was what he suggested I watch.“
As if searching for a response, the philosopher seemingly scanned my expression, which was a mix between exasperation and confusion. On the one hand, there was the desire to throw out a random title and retreat out of sheer exhaustion from the toils of the day that was — a well-earned pint of Guinness and a soft pillow was a tempting prospect at that point — but at the same time, I was pondering why on earth anyone would recommend Sword Art Online as an introductory title to someone so obviously uninitiated to anime in the first place.
Allow me to explain.
The choice, itself, isn’t the problem. It’s the person who’ll be watching it — the Philosopher. His only exposure to anime was Dragon Ball Z and the countless online memes that highlight some of the more adult-sided humor that is implied by the medium. That’s not to say he’s totally clueless, but Sword Art Online derives much of its appeal from an understanding of what is known as the isekai genre, and how this ties in with MMORPGs and the concept of a Battle Royale. And indeed, he could resonate with some of these ideas, especially the latter with Western titles like The Hunger Games, but I knew for a fact that there’s something about the production of Sword Art Online that wouldn’t really appeal to people like him; which is not to say that there’s a sort of stereotypical group of people that won’t appreciate titles like that — rather, I know him well enough to suspect that he won’t be as engaged in it as I think he would. And true enough, he started showing signs of exhaustion well into episode 3. And to his credit, he admitted that the story was intriguing, but it wasn’t enough to make him want to continue watching. The concept was fine; the presentation was acceptable; but it didn’t have the drive to make him want to continue it.
And I’m not surprised.
When it comes to making suggestions of anime to the uninitiated, I tend to avoid titles like Sword Art Online that rely on, as I said, industry tropes that imply a deeper understanding of the interplay between MMORPGs and the greater ecosystem of anime and video games. That’s not to say, of course, that people can’t appreciate it or eventually learn about these things as they watch the series — but that in itself means that as a genre, it’s relatively esoteric to the general viewer. But many times, it goes beyond the tropes that fuel anime and make it “anime”, so to speak. For one, even visual presentation can be a hindrance to immediate acceptance by some. I ran into an interesting conversation with a friend several years back when I asked why she preferred the live-action version of Nodame Cantabile over the anime version, and her answer ran along the lines of “they look weird: like, people don’t look like that.”
Of course, I wanted to counter by pointing out that Naoto Takenaka playing Franz von Stresemann was the farthest thing from anything “natural”, but at the same time I understood her point. Some of the visual flourishes of Nodame Cantabile and the use of on-screen text as comedic signals meant that the show hinged on a viewer’s familiarity with Japanese Manga sensibilities. And this includes facial distortion and character deformations that create a different “feel” that you wouldn’t see in live-action depictions. Now it may seem like we’re comparing apples and oranges at this point, but that’s precisely what you’re running into when you try to present anime to an uninitiated soul without trying to understand where they’re coming from.
And most of the time, they’re coming from a Western perspective of dramatic presentation. Often, people may consider this a “mainstream” approach — and true enough, quite a number of the popular anime titles that are well-watched, even by non-regular anime viewers, tend to be shows like Full Metal Alchemist and Death Note, which are in and of themselves “mainstream” through and through. And perhaps on the one hand, this is due to the fact that these titles don’t necessarily rely on any preconceived notions that heighten its own appeal. Still, Full Metal Alchemist presents itself as a mature title, but sprinkled with enough comedic banter to earn it a cult “cartoon” status in the West — a classification that will be met with strong criticisms by many an anime-phile no doubt. Death Note, however, is that one title that is deliberately mature, but identifies itself with the tried and tested hard-boiled genre of detective stories that is nuanced with a touch of the occult. It’s a daring combination, but works insomuch as it delivers in a way that is immediately accessible in terms of genre reach, but at the same time refreshingly different.
But I did not recommend Death Note, partly because I’m not a fan of Tetsurou Araki but more importantly, because I felt that it wasn’t the kind of show my philosopher friend was looking for. We had always talked about the extent to which popular media can serve as an enriching experience beyond the passing whims of entertainment, and so I felt that he would appreciate something more than that which Tetsuro Araki could offer. Now that’s not to say that you can’t learn anything from Death Note, but Araki’s style lacks an honesty beyond the brute depiction of violence and spectacle, making for shallow attempts at interviewing the deeper motivations of characters like Light or, heck, even “N”. But I digress.
The point is, it would seem that the show I was looking to suggest was something very “un-anime-like”. It was a show that would not rely on established industry tropes, would not utilize visual depictions that could pass it off as a cartoon, and was deep enough to portray content above and beyond what is considerably “mainstream”, but is “mainstream” enough to be familiar.
I showed him PSYCHO-PASS.
Suffice it to say, he was hooked. My philosopher friend couldn’t stop watching and was constantly impressed at how insane the show was; he claims it literally “blew his mind” with regard to the themes anime could express, and the sort of introspection into human psychology that was possible from what are essentially “cartoons”. At this point, I knew Gen Urobochi works would be to his liking, so I followed it up with Fate/ZERO. Now of course, this is a show that requires some initiation to the whole franchise, and might be easily dismissed as a show that banks on industry tropes and the familiarity with elements from RPGs — but that didn’t stop my philosopher friend from wanting to learn more about it. He was sold on the story, he asked questions about what the different classes were — he was finally initiated into the world of anime, and was more than ready to embrace the learning curve necessary in order to reap the benefits of a great watch.
He’s now watching Terror in Resonance, and after some poking, I’ve convinced him to try and watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and we recently just finished watching Patema Inverted. He even showed interest in Made in Abyss. My budding anime-lover is truly a sight for sore eyes.
So in the end, I guess the point here is that suggesting anime for the uninitiated is more than just picking out shows that are your own personal favorites, or shows that you know have done well with a greater audience. Instead, truly suggesting a show for the uninitiated means knowing what kind of person you’re talking to and tempering your stance towards looking for something that might stick with them. Part of it means understanding that the title needs to be as “un-anime” as possible — relying on established industry tropes, assuming the appearance of a cartoon, or appearing excessively “mainstream” — if only to avoid scaring away an unassuming future anime-lover. But once that barrier has been overcome, you may as well have done that person a favor by sharing with them what makes anime so irresistibly enjoyable.