Today I have a blog from a fellow Booktrope author Cain S. Latrani. He’s a fellow anime nerd, and another fantasy writer (although he writes for big kids, and I write for the young ones). Plus, he writes a lot. So no short post today. It’s worth stopping by, I promise.
Daijoubu, It’s Just Anime
With the advent of the internet age, most people have at some point encountered the term anime, even if they aren’t sure just what it is, or what makes it different from regular animation. For fans of the style, however, the distinction is obvious, and for writers who are also regular viewers of an anime, it can be an inspiration.
Before we get too much into that, a very brief history of anime is in order. Don’t worry, it’ll be short. Mostly. Probably. Maybe it’s best if I don’t make promises here.
The most important thing that sets anime apart from the every day cartoon is that it has been, until recently, a uniquely Japanese animation style. It first arrived on the scene back in 1917, with the birth of film, serving as a cheap means of producing movies, and was designed to mimic early animation efforts showing up in France, Germany, the United States and Russia. While these bear only a passing resemblance to the anime of today, they continue to influence the industry even now.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that what is commonly seen as anime really took hold, as animator Osamu Tezuka, seeing the financial success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, developed a new style of animation that was cheaper and quicker to produce, by limiting the number of frames used. While the effort was intended only as a shortcut at the time, it ended up being a cultural revolution.
By the 1970’s, the success of anime, using the style and practices Osamu Tezuka started, had filtered into Japanese produced comic books (manga), and created a booming industry there, as graphic novels took bookstores by storm. By the 80’s, it was mainstream, becoming almost as common on television and film as live action, and even beginning to filter over into western countries.
The 90’s where were it all really took off, however, as computer animation began to be experimented with, and English dubbing companies started popping up in the United States, Britain, and Australia, with more in other countries importing to their native languages. You could almost say that by the millennium, anime was one of the largest exports in Japan.
The effect this had was undeniable, with other countries looking to mimic not just the animation style, but the more important aspect that had really made anime such a world wide hit, the writing. Popular American kids network Nickelodeon even got in on the action with the anime influenced series, Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2005, and follow up series, The Legend of Korra in 2012
Thanks to FUNimation, Viz Media, and streaming sites like Crunchyroll, anime is almost as pervasive in in the United States and Canada as it is in Japan. Even manga has recently risen to be one of the top sellers in bookstores across several countries.
While it’s true anime tends to use a very distinctive style, that alone isn’t enough to give it the global appeal it currently enjoys, much less make it memorable, and influential. For that, we really have to pay attention to the stories that are told. It’s there that you find the real difference between Japanese anime, and western animation.
In most countries, the United States being notable, animation is generally considered something that is only for kids. Bugs Bunny, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the like are Saturday morning fare for the little ones to enjoy
with their breakfast cereal. There’s no real plot, and certainly nothing that stretches the boundaries of genre. It’s eye candy, plain and simple.
Anime, on the other hand, can certainly fill that role, but isn’t limited to it. Encompassing every genre, what with it being a style of animation, it is used to tell fun and pointless stories akin to the Bugs Bunny era, as well as tales of sacrifice, love, horror, war, and more.
Back in the 80’s, my first exposure to anime was the Saturday morning series Robotech. Set aboard a reconstructed alien craft that had crashed on Earth, the story was about the crew of the SDF-1 after their accidentally used the fold space engines to get into orbit quickly during an alien attack, but ended up out by Pluto, dragging an entire Pacific island, populated by thousands of civilians, with them. As the ship tried to fight it’s way through the alien armada to return to Earth, the crew did their best to protect the civilians now stuck abroad with them, and understand why the aliens were attacking.
More than an animated series, it was a story about the cost of war, love, loss, and reaching across a seemingly impossible rift to understand fundamentally different people. By the time they returned home, many of the aliens had become not just allies, but friends, with one even marrying a human she had fallen in love with. Likewise, the rise of a pop star aboard the ship swayed many aliens, who fell in love with her voice, touching on the idea that music is a universal language.
While I didn’t know what anime was then, it sparked my interest, and I long sought to find more serialized stories such as Robotech, which played a huge hand in my love of science fiction, and fanned my early Dungeons & Dragons inspired desire to write into flames. It wouldn’t be until the anime boom of the 90’s, though, that I really fell in love.
As the internet was becoming commonplace in the late 90’s, I returned to my love of Robotech, and through it, learned more about anime, leading my girlfriend and I to the early 2001 treat of Fruits Basket. A slow moving anime series revolving around an orphaned high school girl named Tohru, who is invited by a classmate to stay with he and his uncle, only for her to learn they are part of the rich and powerful Souma family. Worse, they are cursed, and turn into animals from the Chinese Zodiac anytime a member of the opposite sex embraces them.
Funny, sad, poignant, and occasionally scary, the anime series, based on a manga by Natsuki Takaya, was the rabbit hole we ended up falling down, into the many and varied offerings of anime. While Fruits Basket was the sort of thing that dares you to go two episodes without crying like baby, it’s greatest offering was the story of hope woven through the character interactions. How the kindness of a single young woman, with so much tragedy in her own life, could move even the most heartless to reconsider their actions, and dare to believe in hope.
As a writer, this was a powerful influence on me. Through the 26 episode series, Tohru is a beacon of kindness, generosity, warmth, and love. She never yells at anyone, there are no fight scenes for her, and
ultimately, the greatest obstacle she must overcome, is done so with understanding, and sympathy. She is, without a doubt, the hero of the story, but was unlike any hero I’d ever seen. Watching her made me step back and re-examine my own protagonists, and see them in a new light, one colored by Tohru’s smile, as I saw new ways to write my characters, and resolve plots.
Two years later, we found ourselves engaged with FullMetal Alchemist, an anime series based on a manga by the great Hiromu Arakawa. Set in an alternate history Earth in the early 20th century, where alchemy is the premier science, the story follows the Elric brothers. After an attempt to resurrect their mother goes wrong, Alphonse, the younger, vanishes, and Edward, the elder, loses a leg. Sacrificing an arm to bind his brothers soul to a suit of armor, they two then set out on a quest to locate the mythical Philosophers Stone so they may undo the damage, and get swept up in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of the government.
Dealing in themes of loss, regret, war, sacrifice, love and devotion, FMA, as it is often called, changed everything in terms of how I write. I admit to being a devoted fan of Hiromu Arakawa, and consider her one of the great writers of our generation, but the legitimate manner in which her work influenced mine is impossible to ignore. Perhaps the best example is my upcoming novel, War Witch: Rise, which seeks to touch on many of the same things her FMA did. For more than anything, Arakawa-sensei made me want to reach higher in terms of plotting, while delving deeper into the motivations of the characters I wrote.
Perhaps the greatest influence on me as a writer, however, was Hiro Mashima’s 2009 anime series Fairy Tail, inspired by his manga of the same name. Dealing in the themes of family, teamwork, trust and faith, I not only fell in love with the extraordinarily well written characters of the series, but the amazing manner in which Mashima-sensei deals with his plot structure.
Just on the character work, growth is something that is not easily achieved, with each member of the extensive cast of characters suffering, crying, and struggling to find their way through the various difficulties they face. Growth in Fairy Tail is earned, not given. Recently, I wrote a three part essay on the character arc of a single member of the Fairy Tail cast, her struggles with suicidal desires, and the long journey she took to move away from them. In Fairy Tail, character flaws aren’t given to make them “realistic” or “diverse”, they are a literal part of the character’s makeup, and often as not, a crucial one.
With Natsu alone, Mashima-sensei has crafted a character who is renowned for being an idiot, yet it is that same lack of higher thinking that allows Natsu to see the world in absolute terms. Stepping on people is wrong. Everyone deserves to be happy. If someone is too weak to defend themselves, then it is the responsibility of the strong to stand up for them. Though Natsu is not an idiot in the traditional sense, he is only capable of seeing the world in the most black and white of terms, and this ends up being not a flaw, but a gift.
On the plot structuring note, in Fairy Tail, nothing is ever really resolved. Early in the first season, a story arc called The Tower Of Heaven took place. From that point on, almost everything that happens, ties back to that event. The Tower casts a long shadow, continuing to influence and effect how everyone from the heroes to the villains think and behave. It was even the major turning point where the most vile villain the show had began the journey to becoming a hero, a path he still travels even now, always seeking to redeem himself, and atone for his deeds.
For years, as I grew up, and my writing evolved, it has been influenced by anime, and the writers behind it. It has given me pause in ways western film and television never could to examine how I wrote my characters, and built my plots. In everything I do now, there is a touch of anime, not because I love it, which I do, but because I respect it, and admire the stories it shares. With the truly great anime shows, I see inspiration that drives me to improve, or learn a new way of writing a character, or find a different perspective to consider in my work.
Take the time, as a writer, to sit back and examine some of the shows I’ve mentioned here. Fruits Basket will give you a new view on how to write your leads. FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood will give you a different perspective on incorporating multiple themes, and tying them together, no matter how different they are. Fairy Tail will give you inspiration in constructing flaws in your characters that can both hold them back, and help them, at the same time, and teach you how to take a long view with plotting that you might not expect.
For that matter, almost any anime series you pick up will almost certainly inspire you in some way, because beyond the animation style, the real key to the success of anime, is in the stories they tell. More than any book by bestselling authors, just paying attention to a really well made anime will teach you more than you could ever believe.
For a couple other things to consider, check out Ore Monogatari for a new look at romance, Gakkaou Garashi for a truly unique zombie thriller, or Akagami no Shirayuki-hime for the best reimainging of a fairy tail you’ll ever see.
Trust me. You’ll thank me later.
Cain S. Latrani is the author up the upcoming fantasy novel, War Witch: Rise, and zombie series, Bunnypocalypse. Between writing novels, he recaps anime series at his blog and shares Dungeons & Dragons photos on Facebook. Like a boss.