Before reading my post I recommend watching The Pedantic Romantic’s How To Make “Great” Anime (Rakuga Shinjuu & Fune wo Amu) (fair warning: spoilers for both series there but not here). I’ll be responding to this video below.
There’s no question that Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Fune wo Amu are anime that I adore. They were respectively the first and ninth entries on my top anime of 2016 list. Heck, I’d consider Rakugo Shinjuu to be one of the best series of this decade and a future contender for “classic” status. So if I love them so much why is it that I take issue with calling them great anime?
The key word is anime.
In his video on the topic, The Pedantic Romantic makes a compelling case for why Rakugo Shinjuu and Fune wo Amu exemplify great storytelling. I won’t repeat his points as I believe he makes them clearly in the video but suffice to say I cosign the sentiment. The problem is that both of these stories could just as easily exist in another medium (and indeed the novel Fune wo Amu was adapted into a live action film that won the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year in 2013). Yes, both featured stylization made possible through animation and there’s ample argument that Rakugo Shinjuu was elevated by such techniques. However, what makes an anime great as an anime for me is when it uses the medium in ways that play to its strengths.
Perhaps the most relevant example of this is Attack on Titan, a series that excels at being an anime. Its titans look absolutely stupid: they’re naked middle-aged men that lumber around in a stupor. Here’s what they look like in the series for reference:
Attack on Titan’s popularity lead it to be adapted into a live action film. Here’s what the titans looking like in their full CG… glory?
Starting to see the problem?
We only buy into the sheer terror of the titans in animation because there’s a disconnect between our perception of reality and fiction. In live action that line is fundamentally more overt which causes the titans reveal their silliness to the point of comedy. Seriously, try to look at that Steve Buscemi lookalike of a monster with a straight face. You’ve already failed.
You see, real actors are a reflection of ourselves whereas animated characters are a suggestion. We don’t necessarily buy into the people of Attack on Titan as “real,” instead having emotional engagement on a thematic or emotional level. So when they’re sat next to gargantuan streakers we’re able to suspend that disbelief. Thus, Attack on Titan has used the qualities of animation to do something that can’t so easily be replicated in live action. I think this makes it a great anime, even if its storytelling is far from as captivating or masterful as that of Rakugo Shinjuu and Fune wo Amu.
I could go on about anime but I want to shift gears to gaming for a minute. The modern AAA scene has publishers spitting out games made to replicate films. People like David Cage and Hideo Kojima would probably jump at the chance to direct a Hollywood blockbuster if given the opportunity, leaving the games industry in the dust. This doesn’t necessarily make their games lesser but they don’t play to the strengths of interactivity.
Compare this with two indie games that came out in 2013: Papers, Please and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both of these games could exist in no other medium.
Papers, Please has you playing the role of a border patrol agent for the communist state of Arstotzka. It’s as mundane as it sounds: you sift through increasingly complex documents during your day job until it’s time to clock out, hoping to make enough money for your struggling family to scrape by for another day. It’s also stressful: one mistake could let in a terrorist looking to do the country harm, docking your pay which can quickly lead to the death of those family members. It’s the task of going through the motions that sells the experience. It’s not fun, it’s not glorious, it’s just dull and overwhelmingly pressure inducing. You’re going to feel stressed and helpless. And it’s because you’re the one stamping out those documents that you feel this way, not a disconnected character.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is more difficult to discuss without spoiling the whole experience and I suggest skipping the next two paragraphs if you have any intentions of playing it (and I wholeheartedly recommend you do so, it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played). The premise is that it’s a co-op game you play by yourself, controlling each brother with a dedicated joystick as they work in tandem to navigate the world. Near the end of the game your older brother dies and you’re left with only the younger brother who’s wholly been the passive one for the past three hours. Alone and scared, the brother is left to traverse his way home. He’s then met with a great obstacle: a deep body of tumultuous water.
The brother stands at the edge of the water. The usual trigger you’d use to have him interact with the environment doesn’t work; he won’t budge for nothin’. You start frantically hitting buttons on your controller. And then it happens: by pressing the trigger previously denoted to the older brother the younger one gains the strength to wade through the stormy tide. It’s a moment of emotional euphoria where the controls tell the story. That moment simply wouldn’t have had the same impact if we simply saw the older brother’s ghost show up and tell him he has the power to overcome his fears alone.
It’s interesting to note that the game director on Brothers was Josef Fares, a film director dipping his toes into game development for the first time. He chose to bring his story to the medium because he understood how to tailor it to fit its unique qualities, how to make it sing.
Heck, even the oft-derided “walking simulator” Gone Home is an example of interactivity selling the story. Walking through its now-uninhabited house is an exercise in uncovering the story of a broken family through their belongings. You can rummage through their shelves, look at the books they read, the music they listened to, the things they cherished. There were hidden layers that only the most committed players would find, leading to deeper conclusions about who these people were. If you turned this into a movie where a somebody walked around a house picking up objects and silently contemplating them it would be an absolute bore and lose the sense of discovery and isolation of the game.
Now, I’ve rambled about games quite a bit in a piece intended to respond to a video about anime but it’s to the same end: what makes a great entry in a medium is how it plays to its strengths. This could take the form of added suspension of disbelief inherent to animation, the interactivity of gaming, the composition of an album and so on.
This isn’t to say that Rakugo Shinjuu and Fune wo Amu aren’t great in their own right and I don’t mean to say being a “great anime” equates to being a better series. The Pedantic Romantic already made the case for their greatness and they should rightfully be applauded as such. I particularly recommend Fune wo Amu on the basis that it was criminally overlooked last year (thanks a lot, Amazon). But I also think there needs to be a distinction in what makes a great story and what makes a great anime.
Or maybe I’m just hung up on an anal technicality. Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments, I’d love to hear your perspective on the matter.