You Are What You Watch. The Effect of Anime on the Mind

samurai champloo anime

You’ve likely heard the saying “you are what you eat.” Well, the stories you consume influence who you are as well. Your body uses the nutrients you put into it to rebuild itself. If you eat poorly, your body will build with poor materials. We build our character in the same way. The messages we consume shape how we view reality. Stories provide the framework into which we fit information. Parents and family lay the foundation for our mental scaffold, but character remains a matter of choice. We choose the type of person we are and how we understand reality. We choose the messages we consume and use.

However, society provides a certain set of building blocks that it desires us to use.You’ve noticed how advertising uses sexy men and women, success, and prestige to sell everything from breath mints to jewelry. Advertisers want us to use dissatisfaction and envy rather than satisfaction and contentment because they want us to purchase their products. They tell stories designed to make us unhappy with our lives and to make us think consumption is a virtue. We need to be cautious about the stories we consume.

american apparel advertisement
This American Apparel advertisement gives a rather blunt example of advertising’s messages. The woman is reduced to an object accompanied with a not-so-subtle sexual innuendo designed to appeal to men. The woman herself shows the society’s ideal female body. The ad reduces women to an object and reduces men (and lesbians) to animalistic drives.

 

As I’ve written before, myths are stories that contain truths about human nature. Throughout history, people shared stories that shaped morality, how to treat others, and how to treat the environment. Each of us have our own internal myths as well. We have a tendency to use broad strokes to define ourselves and others. I’m a good person. I’m an otaku. I’m a Democrat. I’m a Republican. I’m a writer.  This shorthand hides too much and creates artificial boundaries between people. But these labels also generalize how we understand the world. Democrats view the world in one way, and Republicans view the world in another way. Both views come from experiences and internal stories. Otaku, which we are more concerned about, view the world through a mix of Japanese and Western culture.

Okay, let me back up a second. I know this is rather abstract. It’s tough to talk about how we understand ourselves and the world around us without getting a little abstract and even a bit pedantic. When it comes to something like thought, I can only write in generalities and provide personal examples. In any case, let’s get back at it.

While this ad appears unassuming, a few messages lurk. First, is the idea of being left behind by others. The text “Ring in the New Year” points to the future and implies the need to keep up with everyone else. The slogan “Find the right Cruze for you.” implies your uniqueness over others. It’s an appeal to individualism. As car ads go, this one is mild, but it still stokes what I call low-level sections of the mind–pride, envy, and individualism.

 

Anime provides a different set of mental building blocks than Western stories. They come from a culture influenced by Zen and Shinto and Japanese communal values. Of course, they also come from a culture that has just as much push from advertising as the West does. Anime shows Americans another way to live outside of our self-orientation. Helping others appears as a central subtext in most anime I’ve seen. It’s treated as a matter of fact, whereas in American culture it is treated as big deal. This matter-of-factness becomes a useful building block for those who watch anime. As we watch anime, we internalize its messages including those we are not consciously aware of, such as this helpfulness trait. It’s easy to point out how anime encourages protectiveness, loyalty to friends, and perseverance inspires us. While they provide helpful building blocks, the messages we are unaware of often influence us the most.

Okay, let me ground all of this abstract stuff into reality using a few examples. I’m a late comer to anime. I didn’t watch anime until I was in my early 20s, unless you count Pokemon. Over time, I’ve noticed I’ve internalized many of anime’s messages. For example, I’ve noticed I have developed better stick-to-itness with projects. Before I watched anime consistently, I’d flit between projects, starting many but finishing few. Now I see most projects through to the end. Most anime characters feature this stubbornness too. While I can’t pin this character change entirely to anime, it has played a role.

shin chan anime
Now, I’m not saying you can’t consume goofy or racy anime. You just need to be aware of how it can influence you without your knowledge when consumed in large quantities. Advertising poses more of a danger. It’s more likely to work against the goals you have for yourself. It can even undermine you ability to set goals for yourself.

 

Anime has helped me become more aware of problems with American culture. I was unaware of how poisonous American self-orientation has become until I began to study anime and Japanese culture. Anime provides an alternative view that allowed me to see American culture from the outside. At first, the communal focus of anime–how the characters help each other and look out for each other–struck me as odd. I mean, we have that here in the US too, but not to the same level. Collectivism permeates anime. People help each other without seeking anything in return, and its just a matter of course. It wasn’t until I began to study anime and see all of this that I began to realize how too much individualism can be a problem. Now I work to counter individualism in my own life.

Anime teaches the value of minimalism too. The art style uses only enough elements to get an expression across and no more. It has influenced my own art and writing style. It has influenced me to reduce my possessions to just those that I enjoy.

As you can see, anime provides building blocks that let us to build our mental houses in ways we might not know were possible. That is, if we are aware of this process. This post is rather meandering, but if you come away with one idea make it this: the messages we consume shape how we think. We may not be aware of how advertising influences us, but it does. Likewise, the types of movies, TV shows, and anime we consume shapes our thinking. Be careful of what you choose to fill your mind with. If you want to live a certain life, watch anime that reinforces it. For example, if you want to live a helpful, emotionally aware life, watch slice of life anime and other anime that supports this. Of course, this also means anime can influence you in negative ways. Anime has sexism, objectification issues, and other problems that can shift your views.  Self-awareness helps you protect against advertising and other less-savory stories. It allows you to watch stories that counteract the messages you dislike.

So how as anime influenced your life?