Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss


I tried to watch an anime yesterday that made me give up long before the end of first episode. This is a rare event. There are few if any animes that I don’t fall into and stick with to the end, however unlikely they seem on first glance, and I think I probably watch as many as a Tokyo teen. But this one made me feel uncomfortable, and I knew I’d end up hating the thing’s guts. It didn’t seem to be what I regard as proper Japanese anime. Interestingly, a quick check after I hit the off button on my Fire TV stick showed that it was a western “homage” (the kiss of creative death) so maybe there’s a cultural issue that made it miss the target. But if anything proves that anime takes a lot more than a formalised art style, this show does.

As a writer, I try to work out why some fiction bores or repels me, because that’s useful business data, plus it stops me bitching about a wasted hour of my life. I don’t like intellectualising, though, because nothing kills entertainment like over-analysis. But there’s an important lesson in storytelling to be learned when an addict in search of a high rejects the crack that’s offered.

What struck me about this show was how self-conscious and smirking it was. I still can't put my finger on the specifics, but it seemed to be looking over its shoulder, winking at the audience, and saying how quaint this all this funny clunky cartoon stuff was. I don’t mean the normal kind of fourth wall breach, either. It felt like any other western animation but with a layer of charmless smart-arsery. And that’s everything that anime isn’t, at least in my eyes.

The problem was that the story didn’t seem to believe itself. And if your story doesn’t believe itself, your audience won’t engage with it either.

Anime’s power is that it really doesn’t seem to give a shit. It’s like a drunken karaoke night: it goes balls to the wall, and it doesn’t care if it makes a temporary fool of itself as long as it has fun. Heroes don’t always win, or even survive, and it’s often hard to identify a full-on hero in the western sense. The bad guys frequently have a serious case that makes you pause and doubt. Maybe it looks different from a Japanese perspective, but from mine, I see an approach to fiction that, despite its own archetypes, has none of the boundaries we impose in the west, be that age, subject, politics, or culture. The story goes where it wants to go. You can take it at face value and enjoy the craziness – or the total absence of crazy, like The Great Passage – but there’s always a solid underpinning of reality about the human condition and the posing of questions that we don’t really want to ask ourselves. The stories always take that extra step in the plot and ask the unasked question, way past the point where Hollywood would regard it as all neatly tied up. I’ve seen more analysis of human behaviour and more memorable quotes from demonic trees (or whatever) than I’ve seen in years of worthy Hollywood movies or TV drama. This is what storytelling is about. It’s exploration, not a lecture. Good fiction should move you enough for the characters, situations, and quotes to stay with you for a long time afterwards, and to make that impact, it has to immerse you in its own belief.

On paper, I’m an unlikely person to be drawn to anime. I’m old, prosaic, and data-rational, and my fiction is extrapolated reality, obsessively researched. As I said in a recent blog, you’re not going to find any talking cauliflowers in my books. (I really wish I could do that. ) But I can swallow anime whole and step into whatever totally mental universe opens its doors, because it’s told with complete conviction and abandon. On the rare occasions it sidebars itself, it’s done with what I can only call good-natured humility. It’s all about the story: the writers never interrupt to point out how jolly clever they are.

Anyway, back to the lesson. What was learned? Believe your story one hundred percent. Don’t think of what you can’t do or where you can’t go. Don’t try to send a message, either. Walk into your world and live fully in it.