Culture is a funny thing. No matter how much we might hate our culture, we can never escape the marks it leaves on us. It seeps into our preferences, world views, and shows up in all kinds of little ways. Anime, as a subculture, often attracts people who are no fans of American mainstream culture. However, our national identity is very prevalent in our tastes, even when we are trying to escape it.
Japan does not create anime for international audiences, it creates it to be watched domestically. That Americans, Canadians, or Britons enjoy their work is incidental and the revenues generated that way are just icing on the cake. This is mostly a good thing. Although it may be frustrating that a show selling well outside Japan won’t influence the decision to make another season. I think most anime fans don’t want to see the medium change to suit the tastes of mainstream adults in the US. Unfortunately, this difference in cultures creates a disconnect between what is being created in Japan and what US anime fans want.
So what do we (the US anime fan) want? I have been flipping (or the internet equivalent) through the reviews of the shows so far this season, and a name I saw being praised over and over again was Death Parade. Death Parade, judging from the first episode, seems to be an episodic macabre anime appealing to fans of dark fiction writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Ambrose Bierce. In the first episode, a newlywed couple who have died (but are not aware of that yet) are told that they will be playing a game of darts. Each hit will cause pain for their opponent. It’s not quite as torture porn as it sounds, but it definitely isn’t cute girls doing cute things. Underlying issues are brought to light and the couple self-destructs. All in all, it was kind of entertaining. It also was tailor-made for American audiences.
What do we want in an anime?
Violence: It’s cliché, but true. Americans love violence. It’s almost its own religion here. We know it’s not good. We know it’s not art, but damn we love to see people in pain. I bet you can name more serial killers than nobel prize winners. We are not a nation of pacifists. We want to see a fight. We prefer our conflict to be physical.
Assholes: We like our heroes bad and our bad guys to be even badder. Caustic, violent, and ruthless, that is what we want from our characters. From Dirty Harry to Walter White, we know that kindness is really weakness. Screw history, we want to see Eliot Ness push one of Al Capone’s lieutenants off a courthouse. Never mind that there are no reports of Ness ever killing anybody. Being a good cop is boring, we need cops that throw people off buildings and make snarky remarks afterwords.
What don’t we want in an anime?
Nice Guys (Harems): If bland harem protagonists had traits, which they obviously don’t, the one that they would have in common is being nice. Helping people out and generally being a good guy is boring. We all know that the real way to get the girl is to throw someone off a building and make snarky remarks afterwords. At the very least we need the snark. Hachiman Hikigaya is one of my favorite harem protags, as well as a lot of other people’s. Because Hiki is a nice guy at heart, but he helps people by being an asshole. No wonder Americans love him.
Fan Service (Boobs): We hate boobs collectively, if not personally (I mean, I’ve never seen a boob in person that I didn’t like). This is a peculiar Anglo-American trait. When I lived in Germany, I was shocked. Not only did their Playboy’s have nipples exposed on the cover (no sealed jackets to hide them either), they were placed at eye height for a four-year old in the train station. Don’t they realize the damage that does to their kids? Boobs are evil man, everyone knows that. Oddly enough, Continental Europe seems to be much more fixated on violence as a problem than the female anatomy. Here in the US there is a popularly held belief that pantsu and oppai can ruin an anime. Americans are too good for that kind of thing. Unless you are kicking the shit out of people in your underwear like Major Kusanagi, we have no time for those shenanigans.
Many reviewers dropped Saekano after the fan service laden episode zero. That’s a pity, because there was nary a pantsu shot in the actual first episode, and no oppai to be seen. It’s too late for many though, fan service has already wrecked the anime in their eyes. The protag is probably one of those boring nice guys anyway.
School Girls (School Settings): We hate animes set in high school. After all, how much drama (or violence) can you really have before you’re even an adult? We don’t like our characters to be innocent, we like them twisted. Japan’s obsession with high schoolers gets on our nerves. This is also because we hate…
Subtlety: We like things clearly defined, like explosions for example. If there has to be confusion, we like things to be so frantic we don’t know what’s going on. Think Kill la Kill, that’s what we like. We want animes that we can substitute for Michael Bay films. We like superhero movies. See that guy in the ridiculous outfit? That’s how we know he’s special, because he dresses like a bat. We don’t like nuance, and Japanese relationships, particularly in high school, are nuanced. We find this very frustrating. Just kiss her dammit! There’s no need to make this “so-called” romance last 12 or, god forbid, 24 episodes. Just get it over with already, so I can watch a show where someone is in pain.
If you notice, I said “we” a lot in this post. Truth is, for the most part, I like or hate these things just like you do, and even if you deny it, you like or hate them too. Your pork pie hat, skinny jeans, and thick framed glasses can’t protect you from American culture. No matter how much you fight it, it’s inside you. What we can do, is remember that this is not our stuff. We are borrowing it from another culture. A pacifist culture, where conflict is a taboo. Where they root for the nice guy and let him finish first, at least in their entertainment media. A culture where they still have public bathing and make their teenage girls wear miniskirts all the time. The Japanese are different from us. We, as anime fans, should try to enjoy that more. What we should try to do less is smugly dismiss the aspects of Japanese culture we don’t like. It’s fine if we don’t like pantsu, bland protags, or cute girls doing cute things. So long as we don’t start seeing ourselves as superior to those who do.