You Are What You Watch: Which Five Anime Shaped Your Life?
Whenever I’m asked about my favorite books, movies, anime, or video games, I hesitate to answer. For me, comparing my love of Haruki Murakami to J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, is like comparing apples to oranges or choosing between chocolate and vanilla. Murakami and Tolkien, apples and oranges, and chocolate and vanilla are all remarkable in and of themselves and not in comparison to one another.
This is especially true for anime. “What are your top five favorite anime of all time?” I can never seem to answer this question. Top five anime? Top five anime by genre, perhaps? I might be able to name my top five favorite shoujo anime or my top five favorite fantasy anime. But I can’t really compare and contrast my love of the shoujo anime Fruits Basket with my love of the fantasy-action anime Claymore. They are just too different from one another!
I think that’s why I really liked Scholastic’s “You Are What You Read” or “Which Five Books Shaped Your Life?” campaign back in 2010, in which readers were asked to name the five books that left an “indelible mark on our lives, shaping who we are and who we’ve become.” As of today, my fiction “bookprint” would include His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
After being asked to make a top five anime list by one of WWAC’s lovely editors Claire, I decided to approach this question through the Scholastic-lens. What are my five favorite anime that left an “indelible mark on [my] life, shaping who [I] am and who [I’ve] become?” What would I consider my “animeprint?” What five anime shaped my life? Let’s jump into my list of the five most influential anime in my life by starting with number five.
5. From the New World (新世界より) (2012-2013) based on the novel by Yusuke Kishi
Anime are often based on manga, light novels, video games, or sometimes unique stories written entirely for anime; however, there are not that many anime series that are adapted from novels. Of course, there are some anime that are loosely based on or inspired by literature, like Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo and Romeo × Juliet. The 1986 series Animated Classics of Japanese Literature featured twenty-six different classic Japanese stories told in thirty-two episodes, and more recently, in 2009, Aoi Bungaku Series presented six classic Japanese stories in twelve episodes. But even so, most anime are not full adaptations of novels and especially not Japanese novels.
From the New World is unique in that respect. It is an adaptation of the Japanese novel of the same title by Yusuke Kishi. Kishi is known for his horror and crime stories, two very popular genres in Japan, and in 2008, he won the Nihon SF Taishō Award for From the New World, an honor comparable to winning the Nebula Award. I was very excited when the adaptation of From the New World was released in 2012, partially due to its literary origins. I am a huge Japanese literature autodidact. I initially became enthralled with so-called world literature in undergraduate school after reading the short story “Death Constant Beyond Love” by Gabriel García Márquez, and my love of Japanese literature began when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. After graduating from university, I went on a really serious Japanese literature kick during which I read everything from contemporary Japanese authors, like Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshiomoto, and Natsuo Kirino, to early modern literature, by writers like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, and Osamu Dazai, to classical works, like The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. Basically, I read every novel or short story that was written by a Japanese author, that was translated into English, and that I could get my hands on.
Unfortunately, there is no English translation of From the New World, and it is highly unlikely that it will be translated anytime soon. The only novel by Kishi that has been translated into English is The Crimson Labyrinth, which I have not had a chance to read yet. So, although I’m clearly the type of person who likes to read the book before I see the on-screen adaptation, the anime From the New World does not disappoint. It is set one thousand years in the future in Japan. On the outside, society appears to have backtracked to a simpler time, consisting of small traditional villages; however, in reality, humankind has evolved and developed extrasensory psychic abilities, which manifest during adolescence and can be both very helpful and extremely deadly. The series is a coming of age story during which the main character Saki comes to terms with growing up, her changing relationships with her friends, and the harsh realities of their dystopian society.
Without giving anything away, especially the twist ending, the story definitely makes one question what it means to be human, to what lengths people might go to maintain the status quo, and if maintaining certain societal structures is truly necessary for peace and stability. The characters are complex and do not necessarily follow many of the classic tropes found in some popular anime. For example, it could be argued that Mamoru, one of the main characters, falls into the bishōnen (美少年) or “beautiful boy” character trope due to his reserved disposition and his character design, which is rendered in a way that could be perceived as more “feminine” than the other male characters Satoru or Shun. However, I think that this trope, which is often highly explicit in some anime, is not used in a stereotypical way in From the New World. Instead, Mamoru and the other characters are written and presented in a way that makes them feel fairly real and not clichéd, which is presumably due to the fact that the anime was originally a novel.
The narration and dialogue are well-written as well. There is no opening sequence, which helps to create this feeling of cohesion between episodes, and the twenty-five episodes flow together like one long movie with one overall dramatic arc. The music by Shigeo Komori is forbidding yet appropriate, and the animation is beautiful. In a couple of episodes, however, the animators were either working on a decreased budget or decided to take some artistic license and depicted the characters and backgrounds more chaotically, which may put off some viewers.
Overall, the anime deviates from the norm. From the New World reminds me of The Walking Dead and perhaps even Game of Thrones in the sense that it’s an anime that could change how television creators present stories. These television shows aren’t afraid to present the reality of the situation, including killing off beloved characters or showing the brutality that often comes with certain social structures or theoretical situations. Perhaps From the New World will inspire future creators to continue breaking the barriers, so to speak, and to develop more shows like it in the future. I sure hope so! I’m always on the lookout for new anime that are well-written, innovative, and thought-provoking, and I would love to see more Japanese novels adapted for anime.
4. The Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン) franchise
I think most people who’ve watched Evangelion would agree that many fans have a love-hate relationship with this anime. Love: You only need to perform a quick Google search to discover how many people have analyzed this anime from top to bottom. From graduate theses to published articles in social science journals to entire books on the series, Evangelion is incredibly popular both in Japan and within the international anime community. I can’t find the exact numbers, but I’m fairly certain that Evangelion is one of the top grossing anime of all time in Japan with merchandise sales exceeding $400 million in the first two years of the show’s release. And Asuka and Rei are definitely some of the most popular figures to collect. Hate: Again, you only have to do a quick Google search to realize that there is just as much hate and toxicity within the fandom as there is love. As most fans know, Evangelion director Hideaki Anno received death threats after the original series finished airing due to its fairly ambiguous ending. These death threats can be seen flashed—sometimes at an alarming rate—in The End of Evangelion, a film created to provide an alternate ending to the original series.
If this were a top twenty or even top fifty list of my favorite anime and not a list about anime that have shaped my life, I would definitely include the other anime listed here, but I might not include Evangelion. I would include anime like Samurai Champloo and all-things Shinichirō Watanabe, Summer Wars and other films directed by Mamoru Hosoda, and Steins;Gate and Nitroplus’ Science Adventure series. I think that Eden of the East, Durarara!!, and many others would definitely make the cut, but perhaps not Evangelion.
Why? I also have a love-hate relationship with Evangelion. I was introduced to the series in university by my best friend, who was the treasurer of the anime club and epitomizes what you might think of when you think of an anime geek. I first watched the series in bits and pieces on Toonami between 2005 and 2006, but eventually, my best friend bought the entire series on DVD, including the two film remakes Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, and he and my partner watched all of the episodes and films in their entirety in 2006 and 2007.
I remember having deep and confusing conversations with my friends long into the night in which we analyzed and ripped apart the franchise in an attempt to understand all of its nuances, including the religious symbolism, the motivations of the characters, and ultimately what happened at the end. Even so, I can’t say that I really liked the show. The characters are realistic, yet infuriating—Shinji Ikari is one of the most hated anime characters ever created. The story and symbolism are confusing—although the thought-provoking nature of the show, especially its questioning of identity and selfhood, is what appeals to me the most. And the fandom can be a little daunting—let’s just say that I was one of the few women who waited in a very long line at an anime con in 2012 to watch Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance.
Now, this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous, but sometime after university, in 2008 or 2009, my partner and I decided to return to the series one more time in a last-ditch effort to understand the ending before the release of the Rebuild of Evangelion film series. For some reason or another, we decided to watch all twenty-six episodes and two films in one sitting! That’s about 12 hours of binge-watching of a show that I love to analyze, but that also gives me so much grief! Most people binge-watch The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars for fun, not Evangelion!
Suffice to say, at the end of our weekend binge, which included lots of food and drinks to get us through, my partner and I swore we understood the entire series. *Spoiler alert* We theorized that the original twenty-six episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion ended with a “happy ending” in which Shinji Ikari willingly joined the so-called Human Instrumentality Project after causing Third Impact and merged with humanity’s collective consciousness, all of which was represented by the other characters from the series applauding him at the very end for making the decision to merge with them. In Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, Shinji Ikari makes the opposite decision, stops Third Impact halfway through the process, does not merge with humanity’s collective consciousness—which is represented by the red ocean of LCL covering Earth—and is left on the shores of the red ocean alive in his human form with Asuka.
Finally, with the release of the four-part Rebuild of Evangelion films, my partner and I speculate that there’s some kind of time loop occurring; however, not your traditional Groundhog Day time loop, but a cyclical time loop like in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. We think that the original twenty-six episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1), Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End of Evangelion (2), and Rebuild of Evangelion (3) all represent three different kalpa-s or aeons in our universe’s history with each kalpa being a new period of creation and destruction in the universe. Let me put it this way: So the Big Bang happens, the universe expands, Earth is created, and the events of the original Evangelion series occur. Eventually, at the end of the series, the Earth is destroyed and a new kalpa starts in Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. The same things occur again, although slightly differently, with Shinji choosing not joining in the collective consciousness, until we get to a third kalpa in Rebuild of Evangelion. It’s not entirely clear what choices Shinji will make this time around, but I’m hoping that fans will get some kind of closure or explanation, so that we won’t have to go through the entire series again for a fourth time. *End of Eva…I mean spoilers*
Well, as you can see, Evangelion has definitely played any important role in my life. It was introduced to me by a friend when I was still fairly new to anime, and he and I continue to enjoy the new installments in the series together. It has caused me much anguish, pain, and annoyance at times, but it has also induced one great thought experiment that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the years.
3. The Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊) franchise
I was introduced to the Ghost in the Shell franchise around the same time I first encountered Evangelion. I saw Mamoru Oshii’s movie adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s graphic novel for the first time while visiting some friends who were part of my university’s anime club. I remember feeling a bit lost and not really understanding exactly what was happening in the movie, but I was also intrigued by the overall setting, especially the idea of cyberbrains, cybernetic bodies, and the interconnectedness of the Internet.
For those who may not be familiar, the main character in Ghost in the Shell, Motoko Kusanagi, is a full cyborg. The only biological organs she retains from her original human body are her brain and brainstem. In addition, Kusanagi, her team at Section 9, and many of the characters they encounter during Section 9’s investigations can also connect or “dive” into computer networks and the global Internet system through their cyberbrains in order to communicate with one another, conduct research, and even do daily tasks like we do on the Internet today, including banking or even gaming to name only a few. The interconnectedness of biology with technology at times causes many of the characters in Ghost in the Shell to question what it means to be human. Since I was taking a “Science and Religion” course when I first saw the Ghost in the Shell movie, the question, “What does it mean to be human in our ever-increasingly technological world,” featured prominently in my mind, especially since our discussions in class and our required readings, like the book Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau, asked this question frequently.
Luckily, similar to Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell has a very large fanbase that has analyzed it from all perspectives, which was helpful when I started watching the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex on Toonami. Eventually, I watched both seasons of the anime from the beginning to the end after my best friend who bought Evangelion on DVD also purchased Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG. He let me borrow the DVDs, and I remember being hooked on the show for a couple of weeks, watching episode after episode alone at night after classes and work were over for the day. I found myself captivated by the unique world Shirow had created in Ghost in the Shell and yearning to get to the end of the series to find out what happens to Kusanagi and her team.
Kusanagi has since become an important figure to me; she ranks up there with some of my other favorite fictional uniformed women, including Commander Shepard in Mass Effect and Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Kusanagi has been celebrated for being a feminist icon—she’s a so-called “strong female character”—while also criticized for being overly sexualized and the product of “the male gaze.” I’m not going to discuss my own thoughts related to sex, gender, and sexuality in the Ghost in the Shell franchise here, especially since there’s already an excellent soon to be nine-part essay (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) on Ghost in the Shell and Kusanagi’s body on WWAC by Claire; however, as I’ve already stated, these questions, especially regarding identity and selfhood and what it means to be a human, are one of the main reasons why this series is so important to me.
Kusanagi’s cyborg body prompts a multitude of questions. Do distinctive human personalities arise solely from our material mind, our brain? How does the outside world shape who we are? Do humans possess a soul? The title of the series, Ghost in the Shell, hints as what Shirow thought about these questions as he wrote the original manga. Shirow’s title, which was originally published under the name Kōkaku Kidōtai (攻殻機動隊) or Mobile Armored Riot Police in Japan, is a homage to the Arthur Koestler’s essay The Ghost in the Machine, which critiques the idea of mind-body dualism and asserts that humans do not possess an intrinsic, non-material, unchanging nature, but are dependent upon our bodies and the outside world to shape who we are. I’m a very introspective person, so I like to contemplate and analyze topics like this regularly. And I’m constantly rethinking and reworking my ideas about the world, so, at a later date, I may not believe the ideas I believe in now. But, at the moment, I’ve come to a similar conclusion that people’s personalities arise from a combination of biological development and outside social influences and are neither solely biologically determined nor solely socially determined.
As William S. Waldron, professor of religion at Middlebury College, wrote in his essay “A Buddhist Critique of Cartesian Dualism in the Cognitive Sciences: Naturalizing Mind and Qualia” published in the book Brain Science and Kokoro: Asian Perspectives on Science and Religion, I believe that “…mind or consciousness, like any other phenomena, is better understood as part of an integrated pattern of causal interaction rather than an essential entity existing in solipsistic isolation.” As he states in “The Co-arising of Self and Object, World, and Society: Buddhist and Scientific Approaches” published in Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, “…awareness arises in dependence upon an ultimately indefinite range of causes and conditions and is therefore a function neither of the subject by itself nor of the world alone.” Kusanagi makes similar statements throughout the original Ghost in the Shell film:
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”
Recently, I watched the four-part OVA Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Sadly, it’s nothing like the original anime film or television series. I feel as though Kusanagi’s character has been trivialized to cater to a broader audience, but at least the show got me thinking again about identity and what it means to be human.
2. Sailor Moon (美少女戦士セーラームーン) (1992-1997)
Sailor Moon is an important show for me, because it was my “gateway” to the world of anime. I stumbled upon the series at some point in late elementary school or early middle school. I must’ve started watching the first run of the series in 1995, because I remember getting up really early in the morning—at around five or six—and sneaking downstairs after my dad left for work to watch it on FOX. And I distinctly remember really getting into the show and watching most of Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R on the staticky USA Network in 1997.
As an adult, sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember why I was so fascinated by Sailor Moon. Nevertheless, it had a profound affect on my imagination throughout my childhood, but also in university when I finally watched the entire uncut series in Japanese. When I first started watching the show in 1995, I didn’t know what anime was. I remember thinking that the style of the animation seemed different from most shows on television. I remember thinking that the setting seemed different somehow from my hometown—initially, I did not know that Serena lived in Tokyo, and I remember wishing that I could wander around my town like Serena, visiting jewelry stores, cake shops, or Crown. I also remember wondering why all the girls wore sailor suits. And I remember really wanting Serena’s black cross-strap Mary Jane shoes and her black satchel school bag, except that I could never find them at the mall.
Luckily, I had Internet at home, and as I became more interested in the series, I began reading more about the anime and manga online. Soon, I understood why Sailor Moon was so different from other children’s shows and animations I watched on television: it was not from the U.S. at all; it was made in Japan. I learned that shows, like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and films, like The Last Unicorn, had similar styles because they were either made in Japan or had Japanese creators involved. I learned that anime was Japanese animation, and manga were Japanese comic books. I know now that this was not a profound realization, but it was important to me at the time. It marked the beginning of my exploration of stories and ideas that originated from outside of the so-called “West” and the realization that there are many different people and perspectives in the world.
I soon became a part of the Sailor Moon fandom before I even knew what fandoms were. I learned that Sailor Moon was first a manga written and drawn by a woman—Naoko Takeuchi—and that the original story contained many themes that you would never see in 1990s American animated shows—themes of sexuality and gender identity which are important to adolescents, yet often ignored by most media. Most important for me, the main characters were women, and not only were they women, they were independent young women who were not afraid to be true to themselves. They were not the sidekick to a male main character, and they did not have to be saved by Tuxedo Mask in order to succeed. Most of the time, they were doing the saving! They were young women dealing with the same issues and questions that young women, such as myself, were dealing with on a daily basis.
Even though the version of Sailor Moon I watched in the late 1990s was highly censored and “Americanized,” it was still a very important show that introduced me to the world of anime. I ended up watching other 1990s English dubs on television after Sailor Moon, including The Vision of Escaflowne, Cardcaptor Sakura, Monster Rancher, Fighting Foodons (all I can remember from this series is “Fried Ricer!”), and of course Pokémon and Digimon. But Sailor Moon was my first real experience with anime. In high school, I stopped watching anime, but when I went to university, I was reintroduced to it again with Princess Mononoke, Samurai Champloo, and late nights watching Toonami.
1. Studio Ghibli (株式会社スタジオジブリ) and Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) (1997)
And last, but certainly not least, we’ve reached my number one most influential anime: Studio Ghibli. I know, it’s not an anime specifically, but the famous animation studio, especially their award-winning film Princess Mononoke, has definitely left the most “indelible mark” on my life of all the anime I’ve listed. I’m a bit of a latecomer to Ghibli films. I have friends who watched My Neighbor Totoro as children; they must’ve watched the first English dub of the movie called My Friend Totoro, which was released in the US in 1993. I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time during my freshmen year of university. I remember buying a heap of snacks and watching it with my roommate and another floormate in one of our dorm rooms on a weekend. At the time, I was so confused by all the blobby goo demons or bakemono (化け物) and clacking white tree spirits or kodama (木霊) that I didn’t really appreciate the film, although my confusion and discomfort would be nothing compared to the next weekend when we watched Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. Even so, I eventually got really into the story and found myself researching all aspects of the movie, from the Muromachi period (1336–1573)—a time in Japanese history in which interest in Shinto reemerged and the time period the film takes place—to the Ainu or Emishi people—an indigenous people from northern Japan and the group of people from which the main character Ashitaka hails.
Like Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, Ghibli has a huge fanbase who have analyzed its films from top to bottom in both mainstream media and academia. Hayao Miyazaki has been praised for his environmentalism, his antiwar stance, and for being a feminist. Toshio Suzuki, the former president of Studio Ghibli, has said in “Birth of Studio Ghibli” on the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind DVD that, “Miyazaki is a feminist, actually. He has this conviction that to be successful, companies have to make it possible for their female employees to succeed too. You can see this attitude in Princess Mononoke. All characters working the bellows in the iron works are women. Then there’s Porco Rosso. Porco’s plane is rebuilt entirely by women.” Most Ghibli films, but especially Miyazaki’s, address one social issue or another. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in her introduction to the 2010 Ace Premium edition reprint of The Left Hand of Darkness, “All fiction is metaphor.” For me, fiction more often than not must include at least a smattering of metaphor and allegory of present day events and issues that affect humanity in order for it to be enjoyable fiction, and Ghibli and Miyazaki definitely deliver in this arena.
There’s something so magical about Ghibli films. They’re beautifully animated—almost all Ghibli films are animated traditionally by painting every frame by hand. Miyazaki has been quoted as saying, “I think hand drawing on paper is the fundamental of animation.” The stories are heartwarming and heartbreaking—I’ve definitely shed tears while watching most Ghibli films. They are surreal, whimsical, and even nostalgic—My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away especially come to mind when discussing the surreal elements of Ghibli films, but The Wind Rises and many others also include magical realist elements. And the characters are believable and inspiring—I’m deeply attached to many of Ghibli’s characters, but especially San and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.
I might even go as far as saying that Ghibli films often embody the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware (物の哀れ), which is one reason why they are so appealing to me. According to the Japanese online dictionary Denshi Jisho, mono no aware means “strong aesthetic sense,” “appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty,” and, literally, “pathos of things.” It is that almost indescribable feeling you get when you encounter and realize the transient and impermanent nature of life. This feeling is epitomized in classic Japanese literature, like The Tale of Genji, in films by some of my favorite Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, and, I believe, even in novels by Haruki Murakami. From Umi carefully making bento lunches in From Up on Poppy Hill, to the contentment with which Tatsuo (Satsuki and Mei’s father) performs his work in My Neighbor Totoro, to Sparrowhawk and Arren’s farm work in Tales from Earthsea—these are all moments of mono no aware.
It may sound cloying, but the character’s ganbarou (頑張ろう) “Let’s do our best!” spirit is also inspiring for me. San and Ashitaka work so hard for what they believe in without falling into existential crises, which I seem to do at the drop of a hat. I think that’s why I re-watch Princess Mononoke when I’m feeling discouraged: it inspires me to keep striving for my dreams and ideals even when things are difficult. Most Ghibli characters have some kind of goal that drives their actions. San wants to save the Forest Spirit at the expense of humankind and Irontown. Ashitaka wants to help both the people of Irontown and the Forest Spirit. And Lady Eboshi wants Irontown to thrive and the Forest Spirit to perish. In the end, none of these characters are static and all three learn the error in their ways and attempt to find new methods to achieve their goals that are less harmful to others, although Ashitaka does seem to remain balanced in his approach and mostly the same throughout the story—he’s a sort of “Middle Way” between San and Lady Eboshi and wishes to “To see with eyes unclouded [by hate].” In any case, they’re perseverance is truly inspiring!