Dragon Ball Super: Dubious and Lacking Heart

Dragonball Z is perhaps the most iconic Shonen anime.  So, when Toei Animation announced a new Dragonball series helmed by the legendary Akira Toriyama, fans were no doubt excited.  I’m a little late to the part myself where Dragonball Z is concerned.  As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with DBZ and didn’t really get into it until I saw DBZ Abridged on Youtube.  I was not a fan of the original cut of Dragonball Z, which was bloated with filler to the point of being un-watchable.

When I finally got around to watching DBZ Kai, I was blown away.  The battles were tight and fierce, and every episode left you wanting more.  The pacing was spot on: seriousness was balanced with comedy, and action was balanced with periods of relative peace where the plot developed.  But what really made the show was the characters.  We saw Piccolo move from a villain to a hero, becoming more human along the way and learning about his own heritage.  Vegeta, too, moves from a world-blasting baddy to a father who is willing to sacrifice for his family.  Gohan moves from a frightened child to a warrior to a young man trying to balance his odd place as a half human warrior and his mother’s wish that he be a productive member of society.  And, of course, we have Goku, who is defined by his desire to constantly transcend himself but who also is a man who stands up for what is right and is willing to fight to defend his family and home.

There were some problems with the series, of course.  The Majin Buu arc was uneven at best, and the way that the power was scaled in the series got really over the top fast, undermining the plot points of previous arcs, along with the “scare factor” of previous villains.  Some of the battles got repetitive, even if they were pretty good overall.  Transformations became overused, moving from something of a surprise to something extremely predictable.  Overall, though, the good parts of the series outweighed the bad.

Given how good DBZ was, I had high expectations for Dragonball Super.  I’m about 30 episodes in, and I have to say that I’m disappointed.  On the surface, it looks like Dragonball Z.  There are epic battles and new enemies for Goku to face, and the Dragonball universe has been expanded quite a bit with all sorts of interesting new characters.  The art style has also been updated, and the series looks as good as ever.

The problem I have with Super is not with the surface elements but with the heart of the show.  It lacks the soul of DBZ Kai.  There are many reasons why, but the core of this issue is twofold.  The first part has to do with the power levels involved in the show.  The big new characters in Super are the God of Destruction, Beerus, and his martial arts teacher and caretaker, Whis.  To put it mildly, they are absurdly powerful.  Beerus at one point flicked Super Saiyan 3 level Goku in the head and sent him flying, and on more than one occasion Whis steps in to stop Beerus from going overboard, demonstrating that he is clearly the more powerful of the two.  This in and of itself is not necessarily bad, but what throws off the show is that, after their original battle, Goku becomes friends with the pair.

This is problematic in more ways than one.  For one, it sucks the dramatic tension out of the series.  At one point, Frieza returns and comes to Earth to get revenge on Goku.  At one point in the battle, Whis and Beerus come as spectators.  They do not directly intervene in the fight, but their presence still robs much of the tension because either one could destroy the antagonist with the flick of a wrist.  This is the same problem that DBZ had, but it is far more pronounced.  Nothing in the DBZ universe can compare with Beerus, which would be fine if he were looming over events as an adversary to be conquered, rather than a dubious ally who is so overpowered he takes the winds out of everyone else’s sails.  Even if the power scales were off in the old series, at least it was somewhat exciting to see the upper limits of each new villain and how Goku and his allies will overcome that limit.  Here, the upper limit is already defined by a character so absurdly powerful that he and Goku almost destroy the universe just by fighting in their initial battle.  And there’s a character already in the show who out classes even this monster!

This is closely tied to the second reason Super lacks the heart of DBZ.  There is no doubt that Beerus is a monster, who has committed genocide thousands of times over.  His disregard for life is casual and somewhat played for laughs, but no amount of yucking it up can override the fact that he is basically a force for evil who destroys on a mere whim.  Now on the other hand we have Goku, who has his own morality but is generally kind-hearted to a fault and concerned for the well-being of others.  He fought world-busting baddies and yes, many times it began as a way to test himself in battle but he also became righteously angry at the needless taking of life.  Goku fighting then befriending an enemy is a cliché of the show, but this doesn’t always hold true.  Frieza, for example, is portrayed as incredibly evil, and remains Goku’s greatest enemy, but in reality, his crimes pale in comparison to those of Beerus.  So, to my mind Goku being buddies with the God of Destruction, even if it is in line with the sportsmanlike part of his character, clashes uncomfortably with the part of his character that is generally good.  The show seems to lack the sense of morality inherent in DBZ, where even if Goku mostly wanted to test himself in combat, he still stood up for what he thought was right and fought for those who couldn’t protect themselves.  Instead, he has befriended the worst villain in the universe and trains with his teacher, who is complicit in his crimes by simply being indifferent to them and making no attempt to stop him.

Now, the argument can be made that Beerus is a God of Destruction, and his function is to balance out the creative propensity of the universe.  This is pretty much struck down in the beginning of the season by something the Elder Kai said, where he more or less refuted the Grand Kai who argued the same thing.  That isn’t the point anyway.  The point is that DBZ made a point to show how evil Vegeta was for destroying planets and committing genocide to sell planets to the highest bidder.  It depicted Frieza as an evil ruler grinding a large chunk of the universe under his proverbial boot heel and showed how cruel he was by destroying the Saiyan home world.  Cell was evil for taking hundreds of thousands of lives to make himself stronger and for wanting to destroy Earth as well.  Then there’s Maijin Buu, who destroyed planets wholesale and killed gods.  They were clearly marked as being evil, but Beerus for some reason gets a pass due to the fact he’s a god.  It clashes with the spirit of the original series, this sense of good struggling mightily to triumph over evil, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

A third aspect of Super doesn’t sit well with me.  Comedy of varying quality was always part of Dragonball Z, but generally the original is serious in tone.  Super feels like it is going out of its way to be a comedy.  Goku comes across as a buffoon, and Vegeta is almost disgustingly servile toward Beerus.  The balance between comedy and dramatic tension that generally held up well in DBZ is completely off in Super.

So, what is my verdict on Super, overall?  It might sound like I despise it, but that isn’t the case.  DBZ Is great, while Super is merely ok.  It lacks much of the dramatic tension that made the original such a joy to watch, while also lacking the heart that made DBZ touch so many people.  It relies too much on dubious comedy, while repeating tropes of the series that were old when DBZ was young.  All in all, my impression 30 episodes in is that it’s interesting in terms of world-building, but mediocre in terms of plot and story.  I’ll watch it, but it’s probably not going to be one I’ll watch over again like DBZ Kai.


Your Lie in April. The Impact We have on Others.

Most of us struggle with feelings of meaninglessness. Life feels like a grind to gain money. Then we die. We lose touch with why we live, and we fill our time with escapism like anime and manga and video games. Depression’s claws cut deep and hold on. Yet despite this malaise of despair, some souls shine.

They inspire and pull people out of despair. These people have their own problems and wrestle with depression, but they truck on. What’s more, these people are unseen. And guess what, you are one of them. You just may not know it. Enemies and friends can inspire us to be more and do more. Enemies can push us to try harder and break out of the daily grind. Friends provide support and push us to face our enemies. Enemies can be people, pianos, a difficult game, or anything that challenges us. Friends help us remember the importance of small moments.

Amidst the feeling of meaninglessness small moments shine. They break through our mistaken view of life and the feeling of meaninglessness comes from this mistaken view. The anime Your Lie in April touches on the idea of friends and enemies breaking depression.

Your Lie focuses on how loss can make even things we love feel meaningless. Kosei Arima losses his mother and his interest in playing the piano at the same time. Without music, he becomes a shadow of himself. All of that changed when he meets Kaori Miyazono, a female violinist that forces him to return to the piano. After she pushes him, Kosei encounters two competitors who wish to beat him as pianists. Kosei’s ability to play as a child inspired his two rivals to take up the instrument.

At the core of the story is Kosei’s mistaken perception. He begins to place all of his focus on Kaori. He uses her as a crutch to avoid his feelings of meaninglessness, guilt, and sorrow for his mother. This isn’t fair to her, nor does it work. Mistaken perception is rooted in skewed expectations. The ideas we have of life — much like Kosei’s ideas about music–cannot match reality. Reality cannot compare to the expectations we form. Reality is messy, and basing perception on what we think should be creates issues. Kosei doesn’t want a world where his mother withered and died, but death is a part of reality. I agree that no one should have to die, but everyone must die. You must. I must. This reality can make us feel as if life is meaningless. After all, everything we strive for will mean nothing. Money and fame mean nothing to us after death.

Such thinking is mistaken. It comes from expectations that what we do lasts. It comes from the mistaken idea that money and fame matter. In Your Lie, Kaori’s focus is to make music that will touch people. She wanted to live on in the hearts of those around her. The influence we have on those around us is what gives life meaning. Fame and money and similar things are just distractions. Reality is harsh. Our physical selves must die, but the music we make while we are alive, the melody we leave in the hearts of those we touch, continues. As people continue to influence each other, we continue to be passed on.

The meaning of life is simple. Too simple for our expectations to grasp. After all, expectations enjoy grand things. But the meaning of life is to live. How we live creates music, for good or ill. As a Christian, serving God is a part of that music. While I cannot make actual music like Kaori and Kosei–I am terrible at anything like that–I try to make spiritual music that helps those around me. We all want to reach someone. Touch someone’s soul. We only lose our way sometimes. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul writes:

…speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

While most Christians use this verse to support the practice of singing in worship, the verse goes deeper than this. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs can be sung through actions, not just words. Singing and making melody in the heart doesn’t involve the lips. It involves how we view the world around us. It involves how we reach out to people and resonate within them. The verse demands Christians have a singing heart for the world around us. It is beautiful, after all. Beautiful because of its flaws and struggles, not despite them. The verse calls on Christians to share that singing heart with other Christians and with God.

Kaori and Kosei likewise share their singing hearts: the bittersweet pain of love and loss, the pain of coming to terms with reality. Singing within cannot always be joyful, but it is always beautiful. Singing hearts often feel isolated. We cannot know if others are listening. We can only have faith that they are. We can only have faith that the messages our lives express are heard.

This idea of faith is found throughout Your Lie. Kaori and Kosei make music with the belief that someone, anyone, might hear and feel touched by the soul producing that music. So too Christians have faith that our actions, our silent psalms. are heard by those around us. We cannot see the impact we have on others, but it is there. Have you been to a funeral where dozens of people file in, people you never knew, to pay respects to the deceased? Sometimes death is the only way to see what lives have been touched by a person. In life, we can be unaware of our impact. In Your Lie, Kaori wasn’t fully aware of her impact upon the characters around her.

A life cannot be lived in isolation. We affect those around us and are affected by them in turn. Even when we are unaware of it, our words and actions matter. Each of us needs to decide what songs we play, what feelings we leave behind. Our audience listens.


Are You Addicted to Anime?

Most articles about anime addiction tend to be comedic lists about how everything has to be in Japanese and how you lack money because of all the merchandise you bought. Let’s have a serious discussion instead. We toss around the word addiction in ways that belittle the term. Liking something and enjoying something isn’t addiction. In order to be addicted, your interest has be be destructive to your health, social life, or ability to function (Alter, 2017).  For a long time, addicts were considered weak-minded people who can’t control themselves. Most of the time, addiction is associated with substances like heroin, meth, and other drugs. However, behaviors are addictive too. In fact, some researcher believe even substance addictions are behavioral addictions at their core (Alter, 2017).

The Nature of Addiction

Addictions build off of our natural reward systems–systems that everyone has. Substances hijack those systems, and behaviors short circuit the triggers within the brain. Dopamine, the chemical that makes you feel pleasure and happiness, sits at the center of addiction. Anything that encourages the brain to secrete it can be addictive. Even love can be an addiction, which is why some people jump from one toxic relationship to another like a heroin addict looking for another hit.

Addiction is, essentially, “an extreme dysfunctional attachment to an experience that is acutely harmful to a person, but that is an essential part of the person’s ecology and that the person cannot relinquish (Alter, 2017)”.  The experience component of addiction is the key. Addictions have a strong association with environment and memory. Environment triggers memory, which triggers the addiction. Lee Robins studied returning heroin addictions from the Vietnam War. Around 19% of veterans admitted to having a heroin addiction. Normally, heroin addicts relapse at a rate of 95%. These veterans had a relapse rate of only 5%. Robins, along with other addiction researchers, discovered the relationship between environment, memory, and addiction. To break an addiction, a person must leave the environment–the people, places, and memories–where they practiced their addiction. Few veterans returned to Vietnam, so their addiction didn’t return (Alter, 2017):

Addicts aren’t simply weaker specimens than non-addicts; they aren’t morally corrupt where non-addicts are virtuous. Instead, many, if not most, of them are unlucky. Location isn’t the only factor that influences your chances of becoming an addict, but it plays a much bigger role than scientists thought.

Addictions often center around negative coping methods, ways of handling pain, regret, loneliness, and other negative emotions. Any behavior that triggers dopamine and eases emotional pain can become an addiction, including Internet use and anime. I wasn’t able to find any studies that dealt directly with anime addiction. However, studies on Internet addiction provides us with useful parallels.

Internet Addiction

Even Dracula has his addictions.

Internet Addiction is one of those umbrella terms thats shades a variety of problems, from social media addiction to MMORPG addiction and online gambling. Anime would fall into the category too. Otakuism has a strong online component–anime is watched online. Otakus share fanfiction online, discuss anime online, blog, and enjoy other online activities. Internet Addiction is seen as a preoccupation with the Internet that causes impairment or distress (Stavropoulos, 2017).  Internet Addiction, or IA, links to health problems, academic failure, emotional problems, and behavioral problems (Zhou, 2017). Addictive behaviors in your teen years carry into adulthood, mainly because they become coping methods.

People use the Internet to avoid negative feelings–think about your last Tumblr binge and how you were feeling. Teens who use emotion-focused coping methods instead of problem-focused coping methods have a greater risk of IA (Zhou, 2017). IA appears to feed existing addictions; it provides easy access to rewarding and pleasurable activities. Remember dopamine’s role in addiction? Online activities make your brain squirt the feel-good chemical.

Most game addicts are men, for example; most social networking addicts are women. Interestingly, research suggest people with Internet Addiction keep to certain activities instead of bouncing between various addictions. A gaming addict usually isn’t addicted to Facebook (Starcevic, 2017).

Online gaming and social networks feature all the elements that create addiction: inconsistent rewards–which excites the brain more than regular rewards–and notifications of new content, which makes the brain release dopamine. Think about that happy feeling you have when someone likes a Facebook or Tumblr post (Hormes, 2014). Think about that feeling of pleasure when you plunk off someone with a headshot. That’s what the research is talking about. Research also suggests those who use the Internet heavily, particularly social networks, show signs of impulse control disorders and lack of emotional self control. I’ve seen gamers rage at the smallest things, and I’ve done it myself.

Addicted to drama…and potato chips.

Online video games and social media were designed to be addictive. MMORPGs have a particularly addictive design. They boast immediate gratification and satisfaction from conquering gradually increasing skill level of challenge. They trigger high emotional involvement too because of the social ties they forge, increasing the need to spend even more time online. They help players feel as if they are fulfilling their talents and potential, a feeling reality often lacks (Stavropoulos, 2017).

Online game addiction is something I know well. I was an addict in my high school and college years. It was consuming. World of Warcraft was something I avoided because games like Diablo II hooked me bad enough. Even now, I have to be careful, or I will fall into my old patterns of behavior. Remember how research spoke of memory being a trigger for addiction? PC gaming triggers my addictive memories. Luckily, gaming no longer offers me feelings of self-actualization which helps blunt my risk of relapse. I now tightly regulate my gaming. My last all-day binged was scheduled–the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but I digress.

Traits of Internet Addiction

Beyond impulsive behavior like obsessive-compulsive disorder–constantly checking your Tumblr or Twitter feed, for example–or feeling anxious when you can’t read the latest fanfiction or play a deathmatch online, IA associates with other personality traits.  It’s unknown if the Internet stimulates these traits, but people with certain personality disorders may be drawn to the Internet because of what they feel they lack in real life. IA is most common among college students.  Males with IA showed higher rates of narcissism; females showed higher rates of narcissism and avoidant behaviors than those without IA.  Women show a higher need for assurance and less autonomy (Wu, 2016) . Both men and women turn to the Internet for validation. This sense of fulfillment the Internet offers takes us to the relationship between anime and addiction.

Anime and Addiction

Okay, let’s recap. Behaviors can be addictive; Internet Addiction centers around online behaviors that give us a hit of dopamine, eases anxiety, and provides a feeling of fulfillment. Anime addiction lacks clear research, but using the research into Internet Addiction, and the nature of behavioral addictions can help us understand anime addiction. Yes, you can become addicted to anime just as you can become addicted to gambling, sex, love, online gaming, texting, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and anything else that fills an emotional need.

Anime can become a coping technique, a way to escape, which is fine until it becomes destructive. When anime watching damages your relationships, consumes your thinking, consumes your money, and becomes a craving, you may well be addicted. However, we have to be careful not to blindly fling the word addiction at anime fans. Otakuism appears to be an addiction to outsiders because it is an alternative culture (Azuma, 2009):

The otaku choose fiction over social reality not because they cannot distinguish between them but rather as a result of having considered which is the more effective for their human relations, the value standards of social reality or those of fiction. For example, they choose fiction because it is more effective for smoothing out the process of  communication between friends, reading the Asahi Newspaper and then going to vote, or lining up with anime magazines in hand for an exhibition. And, to that extent, it is they who may be said to be socially engaged and realistic in Japan today, by virtue of not choosing the “social reality.” Otaku shut themselves into the hobby community not because they deny sociality but rather because, as social values and standards are already  dysfunctional, they feel a pressing need to construct alternative values and standards.

Otakuism provides an alternative to the social culture of mainstream society. It allows people to connect to each other in a different way that feels more affirming, but therein lies the danger. Drug culture often has similar trappings. Think about the New Age movements during the 1960s and the wanton use of substances and sex many of the movement had–LSD, heroin, and other drugs. Now, the otaku community uses anime, manga, and other consumer-culture products as their “mind-altering” substances. I know, I look to be stretching a bit but stay with me. Otaku behaviors, particularly the social behaviors like conventions, collecting, and discussing, are the addictive substances. Of themselves they are good, but when taken to extremes–that is, they become damaging and consuming–they become addictions. Anime conventions for otakus are the equivalent to Woodstock for hippies, only smaller and more frequent.

Woodstock was a music festival that attracted over 400,000 people and became a symbol of the counter-culture of the time.

Of course, watching anime can be a compulsive addiction. It’s similar to compulsive gambling, Tumblr reading, and other compulsive behaviors. Anime may ease your anxiety, but the association, if you aren’t careful, can create anxiety. Your mind begins to crave the escape anime offers, making you feel anxious when you don’t get a hit. It’s similar to nicotine addiction. Contrary to popular belief, smoking doesn’t ease stress. Rather, it adds the stress of physical cravings on top of your already present stress. The feeling of relief smokers feel when they take a hit is the easing of that physical craving and the comfort of the behavior, but neither has much impact on the baseline stress level. Behavioral addictions add stress to the baseline rather than reduce it. Meditation, mindfulness, moderate exercise, and other healthy behaviors–anime watching can be healthy–reduce baseline stress.

Otaku culture tends to attract certain personality types, some of which may be in danger of addiction. However, the culture isn’t any worse than other cultures. For example, sports can also create addicts. Think of the super-fan–I like to call them sportaku–that drops out of family life during their sport’s season. Their identity revolves around the identity of their team or favorite sport. For that matter, think of the neighborhood cat-lady or cat-man, or dog-lady and dog-man. Their lives center on their animals to the point where they live in a dangerous, unhealthy situation that precludes anything else. See what researchers mean when they say any behavior can become an addition? You also see addicted runners, crafters, and other apparently healthy hobbies.

Behavioral addictions are tough to see because they often appear healthy. After all, who would argue running or walking isn’t a healthy habit? But when that habit becomes destructive to your health and social life, it becomes an addiction. Enjoying anime and manga is healthy….until it becomes disruptive and destructive. Likewise using Tumblr, Facebeook, Twitter, fanfiction can be healthy, until it becomes consuming and anxiety inducing.

Besides the problem of seeing a behavioral addiction like anime is the fact you can’t avoid the addiction. There is a behavioral addiction known as the empty inbox. People feel anxious if their inbox isn’t empty (I sometimes catch myself feeling that way), but we all know that’s an almost-impossible ideal. It’s not like we can avoid using email. It’s a central part of modern life, yet its similar to expecting someone with a drug addiction to return to their environment and not become addicted again.

Breaking an addiction requires mindfulness. You have to be aware that a behavior like anime binging creates anxiety when you can’t do it. In the articles I’ve read, behavioral addictions have a detox period similar to substance addiction (Alter, 2017).  You also have to change your environment. For an anime addict, that means reducing or avoid conventions if that’s your trouble spot. That also means changing your binge environment and habits.

Are you addicted to anime and the otaku life?  How can you tell? I’ve repeated the criteria several times, but the distinction is important enough for me to repeat one last time: addictions come down to disruption and destructiveness. If your anime watching and involvement in otaku life disrupts your ability to live, that is, work and socialize, you may have an addiction. If you don’t have any hobbies outside of anime and otaku-related hobbies, like cosplay, you may have an addiction.

Behavioral addictions rewire the brain in ways similar to drugs. It takes time to undo this wiring, and even then the memory–and the behavior–remains. Enjoying anime and otaku life isn’t the same as being addicted. The word addiction is tossed about too easily. Let’s save it for when the word actually applies: when somethings becomes all consuming. When you are “addicted” to an anime, say something like “This anime has hijacked my life.” It had an element of temporariness to it that addiction lacks, but it still has the hyperbole people today like to use. Addictions are serious, life disrupting problems. Let’s not belittle them with poor word choices.

If you or someone you know struggles with anime, video game, or other online addictions, the reSTART addiction center can help.

References

Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press.

Azuma, H. (2009). Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press.

Hormes, J., Kearns, B., Timko, A. (2014) Craving Facebook? Behavioral addiction to online social networking and its association with emotion regulation deficits. Addiction 109: 2079-2088.

Starcevic, V. & Billieux, J. (2017). Does the construct of Internet addiction relect a single entity or a spectrum of disorders? Clinical Neuropsychiatry. 14 5-10

Stavropoulos, V. & others (2017) MMORPG gaming and hostility predict Internet Addiction symptoms in adolescents: An empirical multilevel longitudinal study. Addictive Behaviors. 64 294-300.

Wu, Jo Yung-Wei, Ko, Huei-Chen, Lane, Hsien-Yuan (2016) Personality Disorders in Female and Male College Students with Internet Addiction. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 204 (3) 221-226.

Zhou, Yueyue and others (2017) Big fiver personality and adolescent Internet addiction: The mediating role of coping style. Addictive Behavriors.  64. 42-48.


What Makes Anime Superior to Hollywood Movies?

We all know anime is better than Hollywood movies (okay, okay. some movies are good), but why is anime better? Actually, in all seriousness anime has advantages over the typical Hollywood movie.Let’s take a look at some of these advantages. I’ve touched on them before in various articles, but they are worth taking another look. Let’s start with Hollywood’s fetish for sequels.

Lately, we’ve been buried in sequels of sequels to the point where it seems as if Hollywood doesn’t have original ideas. Some of this is because of the high cost of marketing. Sequels are easier to market. Brands and characters are well known. Aside from marketing, sequels have a built-in audience, and this makes them less of a risk. After all, movies are expensive to make, and as a business, studios have to carefully balance profitability and storytelling. Not all stories will create profit. Anime shares these same concerns, and anime also suffers from sequelitis. However, anime still tends to take more risks than Hollywood films. That is why we often see off-the-wall stories like Dagashi Kashi with its focus on Japanese junk food. It helps that anime is generally less expensive to produce than Hollywood films. The lower cost allows studios to experiment more often because the bar for profitability is lower. Beyond cost, anime taps into manga as source material, and manga offers a diverse range of stories to pick from. Hollywood may be tapping into comic books for stories, but American comic books lack the diversity manga enjoys.

And sometimes CGI can do what animation cannot. Gollum was amazing in the Lord of the Rings series.

Tapping into comic books for stories helps and hurts. It helps because movies can tie into each other, but it hurts because story arcs lack definitive endings. Movies and television tend to milk stories until they shamble along as zombified shells of themselves. They lack definitive endings. While anime can do the same–ehem One Piece–most anime stories have definitive endings. They have a story to tell in a certain number of episodes and that’s it. Hollywood has used the same mechanism in the past. For example, the Lord of the Rings movie series set out to cover each book within a single movie. They had 3 movies to tell the story. Recent superhero films, however, reboot and stutter over the same story threads. Look at how many times Batman has been rebooted. Anime has more in common with Lord of the Rings than Batman’s constant reboots. Most anime never sees a reboot. Most anime ends after a certain number of episodes, even if that number happens to be in the 300s. When the story ends, it ends.

These set lengths and definitive endings allow some anime stories to be superior to Hollywood and television stories. Knowing you only have 52 episodes to tell a story keeps writers from padding. Yes, Bleach and Dragonball Z, and other anime are stuffed with filler, but that actually supports my argument. It is better to have a set number of movies or episodes. This gives writers a goal to aim toward when adapting a manga series, which gives the series better cohesion and pacing. Padding and filler kills tension. Sometimes. an anime benefits from reordering a manga series as well–which can only be done with set episodes. Manga and anime have the nasty habit of killing tension and suspense with an ill-timed flashback, something Hollywood rarely does nowadays.

That isn’t to say anime doesn’t use CGI too. It can be just as jarring as live-action if not done right, but it is a bit easier to blend CGI into animation.

I spoke about the expense of movies keeping Hollywood from taking risks. Much of that expense come from CGI. Live action has limitations that only CGI can get around. Animation, on the other hand, doesn’t have real-world limitations. You can draw and animate anything you want. Animation allows the audience to believe in things like giant robots more readily than live-action. And this is why CGI budgets drive up the cost of movie-making. The suspension of disbelief is harder for CGI to achieve because we know what real-world objects look like, so CGI must look perfect; otherwise, we can be jarred out of our film experience. Because of this, animation is better suited for some types of stories more than others. Sadly, American audiences still equate animation with children or with comedy. So it will be a while before American animation studios tackle the same adult themes and stories anime has tackled for decades.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are good examples of Hollywood’s golden age.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy movies. I relish settling in for an evening of classic films from Hollywood’s golden era. But sadly that era has passed. While Hollywood occasionally cranks out a movie in the same pedigree as Raisin in the Sun or San Francisco (I adore movies from the 1930s-1950s)these are rarer than they should be. I also don’t wear blinders when it comes to anime. Anime struggles with drivel as much as American television. Perhaps even more so with all the harem stories and fan-service ladened garbage out there. However, anime retains the strengths the golden age of Hollywood enjoyed: bold, experimental stories, set length series, and a reliance on storytelling rather than special effects. In fact, special effects could be one of the chief factors behind Hollywood’s decline in storytelling. Audiences want to be wowed and stimulated rather than lost in dialogue and personalities. Movies try to fit in more explosions and increasingly intense action sequences to keep a jaded audience interested. And this makes budgets balloon. On the other hand, anime can ratchet up the action with less of a hit to the budget and without hurting storytelling as much. Animation lets your take liberties live-action simply can’t–such as pausing an explosion for some expository dialogue. Live-action movies that use CGI to do this come off as jarring and unrealistic. Although, I have to say anime really shouldn’t do that; the point is, it can.

In the end, it comes down to profit. Hollywood will make movies people want to see. Anime studios do the same. The best way to change trends we dislike is to vote with our wallets. Tired of superhero movies? Stop going to see them in theaters and buying their DVDs. Tired of high-school anime? Stop watching them and buying their DVDs. Instead, use your money to vote for stories you want to see. Go out and watch the rare original Hollywood film. Buy that set of Moribito DVDs. In the end, we consumers decide. Hollywood’s weaknesses are our decision. Likewise we decide Hollywood’s –and anime’s–strengths.

 


What is a Meme?

We see them all over social media and across websites: memes. They come in all flavors, from sarcastic and funny to downright painful. Some are stills. Others are animated scenes like the one above; however, many people don’t consider these memes. I will explain why they are in a bit. But what exactly are memes?

The word meme comes from the Greek word mimeme, which means to imitate (Meme, 2016).

Richard Dawkins, a biologist, coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene. He used the word as a way to counter the focus on genes in evolutionary theory. Memes helped place evolution as a product of culture as well as biology:

“For Dawkins, the meme served as a catalyst for cultural jumps in human evolution, much like a gene served to further biological evolution. Memes are the mediators of cultural evolution.”

According to Dawkins, a meme was an idea that tried to replicate itself so it could survive. It did this by spreading, or infecting, people’s minds. Think of slogans like Nike’s “Just do it.” Fashion and learned skills are also memes. Over time, genes and memes combined into a single concept because of their shared roles in evolution (Wiggins, 2015).

Dawkins comments on Internet memes (Wiggins, 2015):

[T]he very idea of the meme, has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction. An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance, before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed—not random—with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating.

Memes come from our ability to participate online. We don’t just consume websites, movies, books, and videos. We also create them. They derive from copying a previous version. Animated gifs copy other, related gifs. The rain gif at the start of this article is as copy of another scene with rain, which was yet another copy. Each differ in small ways, or in other words, mutate, but the basic concept is the same. Fanfiction provides another example. It takes a story and creates different versions that generally keep the same basic idea of the original. Many different fanfiction authors can take the same storyline and characters and create their own mutations. In each case, people mutate the original with the full knowledge of what they are doing. Memes are also defined as an expression that has cultural meaning and spread from person to person (Meme, 2016). The cultural aspect of memes proves important. Otaku subculture has its own set of memes that people outside the culture may not fully understand. Memes capture concerns and spread the otaku subculture’s inside jokes. They spread through imitation. We’ve seen “me too” variations of memes throughout social media. This is a natural result of memes becoming a genre.

A genre is an activity that guides and changes the dynamics of human culture (Wiggins, 2015). It’s silly to say anime photos with funny captions change human culture, but they represent a shift in thinking– interactive creativity. The same photo can have different meaning associated with it over time. They reflect current concerns, insecurities, and humor and reinforces them. Different subcultures may use the same photo for different purposes; sometimes they also poke fun at an antagonizing subculture, such as when people make fun of anime culture by using anime memes.  The messages we consume impact how we view the world as well.  Japanese media has shifted Western fans’ perspective. Westerners became aware of some aspects of Japanese culture (such as the difficulty of translating Japanese) and poke fun. Memes speak about awkward translations and conventions found in anime.

The Dos Equis memes provide another example. The Dos Equis memes make similar comments about modern society. The 0ver-the-top contradictions about the “Most Interesting Man in the World” allows us to laugh at the ridiculousness of experience consumption and Facebook culture. Facebook culture focuses on the appearance of activity and living an adventurous, even glamorous, life. People took this commercial message and played on it using everyday aspects of modern society, such as using Google to spell check, or suggest the prevalence of commercial branding. Of course, this isn’t always intentional. That’s the thing about memes, they grow out of the subconscious’s absorption of cultural messages.

Memes need to have a vehicle, a way to transmit between people. We think of the Internet as the main means, but books, fashion, speech, and even schools transfer memes. The definition of meme extends beyond photos with funny captions to any idea that spreads and shapes culture. Virility of a memes–that is, how fast they spread–depends on their relevancy. After all, obscure ideas don’t spread as fast as ideas that resonate. Silly images reveal ideas that matter to groups of people at a specific time.

Favorite Anime Memes

I couldn’t discuss memes without tossing in some of my favorite anime memes. I’m fond of Star Trek: The Next Generation memes too. Memes may be segmented between mainstream like the Dos Equis memes and fandoms. Whenever I come across research or even speak with people, we have a habit of boxing ourselves into certain labels: liberal, conservative, American, Latino, Dolphin Fan, Browns Fan, teen. The label otaku, for example, boxes people into a certain subculture, but few of us exist in a single box. People belong to many subcultures. Because of this, most people don’t consume only the messages of a simple group. That’s why you’ll see subcultures bleed into each other within memes. In any case, here’s a collection of some of my favorite memes.

References

Holdcroft, D. & Harry Lewis (2000) Memes, Minds, and Evolution. Royal Institute of Philosophy. 75 (292) 161-182

Meme. (2016). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 1p. 1.

Wiggins, B. & G. Bret Bowers (2015) Memes as a genre: A structurational analysis of the memes2cape. New media and society. 17 (11) 1886-1906.


What is a Myth?

Susanoo

Myth is a word that gets thrown around a lot in media, and it is almost always used wrong. For many, myth is a synonym for lie. We say something is a myth in order to avoid the harsher word lie. Some of this comes from our Western Judaeo-Christian perspective. Creation stories from other religions, such as Japan’s Kojiki, are labeled as myths. That is, they are considered lies compared to Judaeo-Christian truth. This perspective is just as easily flipped. The story of Genesis is equally a myth from the perspective of Shinto and other religions.

If you are a devoted Christian, your hackles are probably raising. The Story of Adam and Eve is a myth, just as the story of Amaterasu is a myth.

But the word myth is actually a good word.

Despite the misuse of the word, myth actually has more in common with the word truth. Part of the confusion comes from the postmodern view of morality and reality. Postmodernism and its close cousin Relativism do not believe in an objective truth, an objective set of morals and views of reality. Postmodernism believes some views are superior to others, but they are not universally true. Relativism believes all views are equally correct. On the other hand, myths come from a perspective that reality is governed by an objective, universal truth. Myths are stories that point to these truths.

Understanding the true meaning of the word myth is necessary to understand folklore and mythology. Myths are not concerned with facts. Our modern view equates facts with truth, but they are quite different. Facts are information without moral elements. They cannot be true or false. They can merely be correct or incorrect. We revise facts regularly as we learn more about how the physical world works. People used to believe the world was flat. This wasn’t a lie. It was merely the understanding people had based on the information available. The world is round isn’t a truth. It is a fact based on the information we have available.

Truth concerns itself with observing human nature and the nature of reality. Myths are stories that point toward truth. People may believe myths are factual, such as Genesis, but factuality isn’t as important as the truth myths reveal. People who view these as “merely” stories can still come away with Truth after reading them. Myth concerns itself with the human condition. They reveal whys behind human behavior and help explain why we view reality as we do. They explain suffering and why we suffer. Myths explain how behaviors create consequences. Trying to treat myths as literal history blinds us to the stories’ deeper messages.

Myths and folklore and closely related. Mythology deals with provincial, top-down views of reality. Folklore deals with everyday, bottom-up experiences. Mythology starts with the elite and works down. Folklore starts with the peasant and works up. Both contain observations and lessons about reality. Sometimes folklore clashes with mythology. Folklore subverts the top-down narratives of the elite classes by poking fun at them or having simple farmers one-up some high-minded noble. Mythology seeks to establish a reason for the way society is structured, a justification for why elite classes can rule over the other social classes. The boundaries between the two types of stories are porous. Folklore can become myth.

For example, the Japanese fox, Kitsune, began as a folk story that tweaked the noses of the elite classes of Japan. The fox was a create of farm fields and rural forests. Over time, the fox transformed into the avatar of Amaterasu, one of the most important Shinto goddesses. Eventually, the nine-tail fox avatars became the true form of the goddess. Amaterasu appears in the Kojiki as human, but after the folklore of kitsune became popular, she began to be portrayed as a type of fox. The fox avatar gave way to becoming the true form of the goddess.

Most myths began as folk stories. Each region had their own version, and each version contributed to the official myth as the stories merged. Kitsune was said to fertilize fields with her tail. Amaterasu gained this ability and became the Goddess of Rice. Kitsune stories were found throughout ancient and feudal Japan. Their popularity provided the groundwork for Amaterasu to become the most popular and most important god of Shinto. Yet, throughout this process the observations of these stories–what aspects of the human experience the fox symbolized–remained the same: the reality of raising food, the concerns about providing for your family, and other human concerns.

Creation of Eve, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-12, Michelangelo

In our own time, the misunderstanding of the word myth fuels tension. The creation story in Genesis is seen as a ‘myth’ by those who do not believe it is a historical fact. Those who believe in the story’s factuality take offense to this. Both groups are missing the point. The story of Genesis concerns itself more with the nature of reality and human’s role within it than sketching a historical origin to creation. Genesis speaks about our responsibility as the gardener species. It points to how we can use our intellect selfishly in a way that damages the world, ourselves, and our loved ones (eating of the Tree of Knowledge) or in a way that benefits creation as God intended. It also speaks about the negative consequences of greed and impulsive action. Finally, it touches on the danger of words. Even a single shift in wording can change the meaning of a statement with long-lasting consequences. The story’s messages are far more important than its factual accuracy.

The debate about Genesis and other modern myths centers around our misunderstanding about facts and truth. Facts can lie. Truth can exist without fact. We know Aesop’s fables are fiction, but they contain truth.

The Lion, the Fox and the Ass entered into an agreement to assist each other in the chase. Having secured a large booty, the Lion on their return from the forest asked the Ass to allot his due portion to each of the three partners in the treaty. The Ass carefully divided the spoil into three equal shares and modestly requested the two others to make the first choice. The Lion, bursting out into a great rage, devoured the Ass. Then he requested the Fox to do him the favor to make a division. The Fox accumulated all that they had killed into one large heap and left to himself the smallest possible morsel. The Lion said, “Who has taught you, my very excellent fellow, the art of division? You are perfect to a fraction.” He replied, “I learned it from the Ass, by witnessing his fate.”

Be careful not to use the word myth when you mean to say lie or misconception. The creation story of Genesis is a myth. The Kojiki is a myth. Calling a misconception a myth slanders the truthfulness of these stories and other stories.