Monday, February 23, 2009

Anime and Manga Themes and Premises

Akemi's Post No. 1
(my comment in the ComBox, below)

I'd like to thank you for writing this book. I bought it awhile ago on amazon, along with only two other books I could fine for figuring out theme and emotions.

I felt that i can write a story (plot wise) but I don't quite have the hang of getting people to care.

Since the books about this subject matter were so sparse, I did and still do a lot of analyzation of theme on my own. This analysis is mostly directed towards Japanese anime and manga.

Underneath all the flash and bright colours most anime and manga have themes and stories that hit me on a gut level. I laugh and cry from one moment to the next. 99% of the movies I try and watch in the theaters don't compell me to have this gut level emotion.

I wrote a piece on character themes on my BLOG "Myth and Manga"... if you are interested in looking at it.

That's actually an interesting question i want to ask you. How do Character themes and Story themes correlate? The anime Naruto I was doesn't have a story theme. Just individual character themes that focus of acknowledgment of the individual by the society.

Signed: Akemi Art


Stan Williams said...

Akemi. Thank you for your interesting post. I admit I am not familiar with anime and manga story structure. But I suggest that stories of any culture that connect emotionally with their audience must have at their core one or more true moral premises, upon which the various stories and sub-stories (plots) reside.

I have read some of your character analysis. Let me make some cursory observations, and you can tell me if they make sense.

A. The character traits you are finding in the manga characters are the elements of a moral premises. E.g. of Naruto you quote this line:

Ch 98 11 – I may appear strong to you but that’s because I act though because I’m so frustrated of always failing. – Naruto to Hinata

While I am not familiar with the story, could it be that the moral premise of this episode or series is: "Frustration and inaction leads to weakness and failure; but decisiveness and action leads to strength and success." (?)

The other characters seem to be based in moral premises (although different) as well.

B. In longer form works, like a major novel, you'll find several themes or moral premises at work, upon which various storylines are based. As several readers of my book have pointed out in other places on this blog, some genre's of films have more than one moral premise, but each premise reinforces the others. So, with multiple episodes of a manga series you may well have multiple moral premises that help audiences connect emotionally with character and their stories.

C. Moral Premises, when they are true, are critical to connecting characters and audiences emotionally. A good moral premise will be about something primal (so says my friend Blake Snyder in his book SAVE THE CAT). If the primal concern (death, survival, sex, God ... good Woody Allen themes) in the story is structured around a true worldview, the audience understands and empathizes with the characters.

Akemi said...

If you watch some anime, try to watch the subtitled version as I find that the dubbed versions seem to lose something in the translation.

I guess what I'm having trouble with is this. You say in your book that "movies create emotional journeys and cathartic endings, not by presenting new moral perspectives or truth, but by putting the characters through archetypical experiences that are psychologically identically to the audiences own."

I understand this, and I feel this is what anime/manga does. However let's take a movie's moral premise that you mentioned in your book, American Beauty, "all the character's are seeking to find a beauty that eludes them."

My question is, how can I identify with that? Sure the characters follow this moral premise as well, but it's like i'm watching someone else's life. I cannot get involved in their lives to identify it to my own no matter how beautifully it was done.

I feel that there's a disconnect in terms of characters in movies, because the character's lives don't touch my life at all.

For example, Naruto is trying to be a great ninja, which is something outside of my experience, but I can understand the utter frustration and hardwork it takes to reach a goal. Therefore, I root for him every step of the way.

Stan Williams said...


To restate what you have already said, it seems that you are trying to figure out why you can identify with anime and manga characters but not with live-action characters, such as those in American Beauty. Let’s try to figure that out. There are likely several reasons. Not in any order let me suggestion three.

a. Few people can identify with the outward or external lives of characters in any movie. You mentioned that you’ve never tried to be a great ninja (outward goal), but that you do identify with taking on a goal that is frustrating and hard (inward goal). The moral premise suggests that it is the universal, inward values to which audiences are attracted and learn from. No one has ever known someone who traveled to an approaching Asteroid to blow it up before it hit earth (ARMAGEDDON with Bruce Willis). But we know plenty of folks where the father learns how to sacrifice for the good of others, especially his daughter… which is what that movie is really about.)

b. You suggest that I mentioned the moral premise of AMERICAN BEAUTY in my book, but I do not. I use AMERICAN BEAUTY as an example of how theme and moral premise are dealt with by all the characters, but in different ways (pg 35). Actually, I’ve never figured out the moral premise to American Beauty. That would be a good exercise. I don’t like admitting that I’ve used an example in my book, but never fully analyzed it, but that’s what I did. That true beauty alludes the characters, a beauty that is somehow attached to a perverted perspective of the “American Dream” – is part of the moral premise. It’s been a while since I saw the film, but from what I recall Lester finally figures out that he needs to love the beauty of what’s around him naturally, and stop trying to get “more” or something “greater” or “better.” Such lust for things that are not ours will destroy an individual. It may be lustful ambition, or a thirst for power, prestige, or money. Usually such cravings are the result of a perverted idea that the American Dream is having anything I want, whenever I want it, regardless of whether it’s good for the greater community. Rather than wanting, wanting, wanting what we can’t have, we need to stop and totally appreciate the beauty and life we’ve been given, even something so small as paper being blown by the wind. There is enough beauty in what we already have, and we don’t need more.

If that’s a good analysis of the story’s psychological premise, then we might articulate the moral premise like this:

“Craving or lusting for what is not naturally ours leads to depression and death; but
Appreciating the beauty for what is naturally ours leads so happiness and life.”

Now, while I could never physically or explicitly identify with any of the characters in AMERICAN BEAUTY, I can, in retrospect, appreciate the maddening cravings I have for things that aren’t naturally ever going to be part of my life. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness " is one of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence. Many, many,…too many Americans think this says “Life, liberty, and the guarantee of happiness” and that’s its written into the Constitution. That misreading of the American Dream is why the U.S. is in the current economic mess. There’s too much greed, thinking that having what is not rightfully mine will make me happy. NOT only that, the phrase is NOT in the Constitution, it’s in a Declaration of Independence. A declaration that indicates we have the right to self-determination and opportunity… not the right to be rich, nor the right to determine the outcome of another’s life.

So, you probably can identify with some of those psychological themes, but not with the physical characters. Right?

c. A third observation about why you may be able to identify emotionally with anime and manga but not live-action characters, is because of the mythic ways in which anime and manga characters are drawn…and animated, especially their faces and eyes. They are VERY expressive, and much more than any real actor could do; thus, you can see into the mind of anime and manga’s character’s much easier. Accompanying this is another reason animation is favored by some over real actors. Animation stands in much easier for “everyman” or “any person” visually. We know they are fictional and they appear more vulnerable, and so we transport our soul’s into them, and root for them, more fully and allow them to take on our attributes, and us theirs.. But when we look at a “real” person our identification is much more difficult, because they are obviously “some one else” … and they are NOT us.

So, think about those ideas and see if they bring you answers. Let me know.

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

Dear Dr. Williams

Wouldn't American Beauty have more of an "Amoral Premise" or "Immoral Premise"?

Stan Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stan Williams said...

Matheus, Actually, no. Read my book and you'll understand. I don't define "moral" in the way you suggest. Tragedies involving imperfect characters can be about true things. AMERICAN BEAUTY, I think, is one such story. On the other hand, you can have a false moral premise.

Matheus said...

Thanks Dr. Williams

I understand that the adjective moral doesn't always imply value judgment. I made the observation because American Beauty struck me as particularly mean-spirited. But, like you, I've seen it a long time ago (and, frankly, don't intend to see it ever again).
I think that Little Childern tolds basically the same story, but with a much stronger moral center (despite having even more objectionable sexual content).
Regarding the book, I will definitely read it, but for now I have Hollywood Party waiting to be read...

Stan Williams said...

Matheus: I have not seen Little Children but put it on my Netflix list along with American Beauty, again. I liked Todd Field's IN THE BEDROOM, as you'll see in my book -- a tragedy with a true moral premise.

Stan Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matheus said...

Thanks. I wasn't anything important. I had just written that for the record, I decided to go see Little Children after reading this great review by Barbara Nicolosi; and that I think Todd Field is one of the best directors in activity now, and that I wish he discovers your book, too.

Akemi said...

Hi, sorry for not responding for so long. I was sick with the flu.

You bring up an interesting point of my easier identification with the characters because they are animated and there for more everyman. That's true in part, however.

I was trying to figure out how many live action japanese movies I've watched and if I've felt that same identification. I realized that I haven't, only live japanese tv series based on the manga. Which I do feel that same identification with.

After thinking more about the moral premise you give in your comments for american beauty, I realised it's not that I don't identify with it psychologically, my problem is with how it's expressed.

I feel like i'm busting a gut trying to 'emotionally feel' what the characters or movie is trying to express. While I simply have a gut reaction in anime/manga.

I feel like after the movie is over, i'm thinking to hard. Oh! this movie is about so and so..and that's why it was great. Instead of that emotional understanding at that primal, mythic level.

Truthfully, I can see the theme or moral premise the writers are trying to express in most movies...I don't think movies fail in not having a moral premise. I think they fail with.

1) either clobbering you over the head with it or
2) making it so abtruse that after the movie i'm thinking well, that was supposed to be 'deep' and it's going to win an academy award, but I really wish i'd spent my money on something more worthwhile.