Anime has always been around; the Japanese animated shows and films have been telling whimsical stories often set in fantasy worlds filled with magical beings and supernatural powers for generations. While these works started in the ‘50s and gained popularity in the early 2000s, there’s a reason why the love for them has been passed on across these generations.
As a new convert, it’s easy to dismiss my opinion and argue that I’ve yet to grasp the intricacies involved in decades-old animated storytelling—especially if I myself have previously dismissed the genre in and of itself. Yet, my very transition from indifferent bystander to Reddit-reading binge watcher has allowed me to appreciate the ever-so-slight hand that anime uses in molding its viewers’ perspectives.
The timelessness of anime shows itself to newbies and veteran weebs alike through its subtle yet deep-reaching take on power. It’s not surprising to find that the first anime film was actually World War II propaganda. The depiction of sociopolitical turmoil in made-up worlds lived out by eager heroes and antiheroes holds a mirror up to the dark side of the real world.
It allows viewers to face the blurred lines between right and wrong as well as the crux of humanity. And when that black laptop or TV screen reflects your face when an episode ends, you’re left with an image of yourself that found itself both in the real world and the animated one.
“Attack on Titan” (Shingeki no Kyojin)
Arguably one of the most popular anime shows today would be “Attack on Titan” (Shingeki no Kyojin), based on the manga of the same name. It’s been on air since 2013, but, with its final season airing a heart-stopping episode every week combined with pandemic-induced streaming, it’s become one of the top-rated shows on anime websites.
The show follows Eren who lives in Paradis, a country surrounded by walls that separate its population from large, human-like, man-eating monsters called Titans who have taken over the world. When Titans with intelligence break down the walls, the “peace” protected within them comes tumbling down as well. At first glance, the story is about man vs. monster, but these monsters didn’t create themselves. Pulled by different strings within the country’s government and the outside world, the citizens of Paradis find themselves victim to an internal and external war they have no knowledge of. It’s an all-too-familiar story for citizens of countries who live in conditions they’ve been forced into by people in power who thrive on self-interest alone.
As the story unfolds, the viewer is bombarded with the merciless horrors of war—comrades knowingly sacrificed for the greater good, bodies left behind, and the necessity to become evil to be able to defeat evil. If one thinks of anime as solely for kids, this show will undoubtedly change their mind. It’s actually through the power of animation that these realities become as clear as ever. If one could feel for a dying character drawn by another person and voiced by another, how could one not feel for the real person this is happening to?
The unassuming power of anime lies in its very form. I was once also guilty of undermining it for its “childishness” because of it being a simple “cartoon.” Being brought up in an environment that thought the same didn’t help. But this camouflage is what makes it effective in spreading its very message. They’re trying to reach an audience who, like “Attack on Titan”’s unwitting victims, are barely aware of what’s going on. Hiding within the cloak of animation both intensifies and covers its power. It takes a certain level of self-realization—and, effectively, maturity—to find its true meaning.
“Fullmetal Alchemist: “Brotherhood” and “Fire Force”
“Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood,” another top-rated show, also delivers subliminal messages about the powers that be. In the series, the Elric brothers, Ed and Al, perform a taboo ritual to bring their mother back to life. During the ritual, Al loses his body and his older brother Ed “transmutes” Al’s soul into an empty armor, while sacrificing his arm to do so.
They then agree to become state alchemists for the government in order to secretly find out how to get their bodies back. But the key to their mission might have been held by the government all along—and countless wars have been waged to hold onto it. It’s up to Ed and Al to figure out how to do the right thing within a corrupted system that does the very opposite of what it’s supposed to do.
A similar story also appears in “Fire Force,” a show wherein humans spontaneously combust and are “put to rest” by prayerful “fire soldiers.” These fire soldiers belong to “companies” (similar to stations, really) that each have their own agenda—whether it be for the government, the state religion, the army, or private corporations looking to make money. Though founded on the promise of protecting human lives, these companies might be more loyal to their benefactors than the people they serve.
There are countless more shows that have the same twisted depiction of power and the people that control it. But another thing that these shows have in common is that they’re all available to watch on Netflix and other streaming services. It’s easy to overlook, but anime’s mere accessibility to people who don’t know where else to watch it is also one of its strengths.
It might seem like just another genre to scroll through while picking out what to watch for the night. Similar to the camouflage of cartoons, isn’t this what makes it all the more subtle? As if it were hiding in plain sight. The democratization of these shows through technology allows for a wider audience and therefore a bigger chance at an awakening—of the content they’re consuming and the reality they’re consuming it in.
“Voltes V” and the Power of Anime
In the Philippines, a famous anime series called “Voltes V” stopped airing 4 episodes before the finale because of an order from Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country under martial law. The act deprived a generation of kids the satisfaction of seeing their robot heroes overthrow the villains. For Marcos, it was because the show was “too violent,” but, for those who waited for a new episode every day, it was an awakening to the violence happening around them.
It made them question who the bad guy really was—the fictional Boazanian emperor conquering the world or the real-life dictator banning a series heavily inspired by the French Revolution? That was in 1978. There were no streaming services to watch episodes on and no social media to release frustrations with. It wasn’t until 1999 when those four episodes were allowed to air again, when Marcos was no longer in power.
Any piece of work—animated or not—holds the power of telling a compelling narrative for its audience. What anime does differently is how it wields this power. It entices its viewer into a world that’s so different from ours on the surface through animation then gives them space to explore all the similarities upon closer look through intricate storytelling. The genre may be of Japanese origin, but its use of the viewers’ collective consciousness allows it to transcend from differences into a state of universality.