From time to time, people may ponder: What is anime? Why do I enjoy it so much? I will leave them to their introspection and self-discovery and instead share my insights.
Anime draws its strength from the many elements which it contains. These elements range from artwork, to plot, to character design. However, sometimes the most important characteristic, or the defining factor of anime's greatness, is the element of story. Story is the way a plot is presented to the audience.
Anime is a graphical representation of a story in its truest form. The artwork is the writer's most powerful tool for fleshing out the tale. Anime is not merely the plot set to picture. The artwork gives life to the story. Artwork is a tool that, when used properly, can generate anime that totally out-does most any other form of artistic expression.
The best examples I can give of this are the works of Studio Ghibli: Totoro, Mimi, Omohide Poro Poro, Pon Poko, Nausicaš, Laputa, etc. Each one of these works contains a truly outstanding story which forms the basis for its greatness and its popularity. In Laputa, for example, we have a young girl with her mysterious necklace and history, and we have an ordinary boy that gets caught up in all the chaos surrounding the girl. The story brings them together and to a fantastical city in the sky, Laputa. If this story were to occur in the pages of a book, it would be well worth reading and certainly elicit my praise. But Miyazaki has added to, developed, or enhanced the story with the use of his animation. This animation brings the story to life in vivid detail. The anime is the story, the story is the anime, the two are inseparable, and each are pieces of the whole.
Disney has been attempting to create excellent stories for many years. In my opinion, they are always falling short of that goal. Studio Ghibli's animations have stories that are much more appealing than a beast, a genie, a politically correct John Smith with Pocahontas, etc. Don't get me wrong, Disney has good animated movies, but their stories just are not as incredible to me as Studio Ghibli's stories are.
My concept of the importance of story in anime can be readily extended to some of what we have seen this semester. I'll start with El-Hazard (which was directed by the same person who directed Tenchi Muyo!.) In a nutshell, I liked the series. The plot of Makoto and friends being transported to another world were what I found interesting. Specifically, it was Makoto's interaction with the new world around him that made the series interesting. His attempt to understand why he was brought there, what his role was, why this Ifurita was not the same one that sent him here, and how to reconcile his views with the function of Ifurita were all elements of the story that contributed towards a good anime. The warring between the Bugrom and the Alliance (i.e. the chaos among the perceived utopia of their society) was also an element of realism in the story which is often mirrored in good writing.
If one is to look at El-Hazard as a story in a book, the lesbianism and superhuman abilities, while they were comical devices created to attract people to the animated series, do not contribute in any way to the story the anime had to tell. If this story could have been polished and more developed, and the naked priests, lesbian acquaintances, and superhuman strength removed, El-Hazard could be at the point of greatness in terms of a story and what I look for in a truly outstanding anime. As it stands, El-Hazard is a great series, but if I were to read it in a book, I would not consider it an outstanding story.
Tenchi Muyo in Love (TMiL) is a most interesting example of the importance of story in anime if one is to critique the movie like a book. I liked the movie, as did many other people. The only difference in my evaluation of the movie was that while I liked the movie and thought it was good, I did not think the movie was outstanding, as many people do. The explanation of why I thought TMiL was only a good movie, and not an excellent one, centers on the element of story. The movie opens well and does an excellent job of developing the characters and the scene (i.e. telling a story) and leading to the climax. But just when the pinnacle of the story is about to be reached, just when the tension that has been built up in the audience throughout the story is about to finally break (the climax in the movie being when Tenchi, mother, and evil villain are at the top of Tokyo tower), the story weakens slightly. The audience is left to watch as the movie pulls out technical device after technical device to save the day and propel the story along to its resolution and conclusion. The literary device of doing such a thing can work, especially if the climax centers around the conflict of getting the technical device to work, but I feel it wasn't done quite well enough in the climax of this movie. In this case, the devices were used as an escape out of having to write a well-developed climax rather than being correctly used as a tool that enhanced the climax. Following this view, the story is a good one, but with slight improvement, it becomes an outstanding story, and thus to me it becomes an outstanding movie.
The element of story is often the most powerful element that anime utilizes. With anime's mastery of this tool, it is no wonder that anime is enjoyed by people all over the world.