When I first started watching anime as a kid, it was as a complement to the science fiction I was reading. Books like Starship Troopers and Armor came to life in anime like Robotech, Bubble Gum Crisis and Black Magic M-66. The things in my head had form, color, and gratuitous explosions with shell casings raining to the ground. But as time went on, I found that anime was also doing something completely unexpected. It was teaching the hell out of me.
The world of Mobile Suit Gundam is an amazing example of Looking It Up Yourself. Few things are explained, but they still adhere to actual science. Giant space colonies were massive, hollow, rotating cylinders. They never explained why that was the case, but if you did your homework, you eventually found out they were based on O’Neill Cylinders. Everybody in space drifted around and used motorized hand-holds to get around in ships, instead of just standing around and walking to the turbo-lift, like Star Trek. And that was because of the zero-gravity/weightless effect in space. As a kid, it was mindblowing to wonder at why Gundam would make these weird choices, with no explanation, and then read up on it and find out, “Holy SHIT, this is real science…”
As the years passed, anime became easier to watch. I used to hear rumors in the classroom about some guy with a 5th generation pirate VHS copy of a show that had been passed around from conventions. Now services like Crunchyroll let you watch the latest subtitled episode of the latest series within hours of the original broadcast in Japan, with a huge archive of past series. We’re now living in an age where anime isn’t some marginalized hobby that involves knowing a guy who knows a guy.
Today, if you have a credit card and an Internet connection, tons of anime is now accessible. Old shows archived, new shows broadcast daily, there’s so much more choice available, including less obvious, mainstream hits. Because of that, I’ve had admittedly unhealthy access to anime that I never had before. There’s one thing about watching it now that’s both surprising and delightful; you can learn a lot from watching this stuff.
It’s Not Always Smooth
One of the crazy things that gradually crystallized for me about anime is that there is a real love of knowledge and information, and sometimes there is no seamless way to impart that information. So anime will sometimes just say, “Screw it,” and jump straight into a pace-killing piece of expository narrative that sits down and flat-out lectures you on what you’re supposed to be learning. One amazing example of this is in the still-ongoing-at-this-time baseball soap opera Ace of the Diamond. Even if you have no idea what a knuckleball is, have no fear, the episode will tell you. Right in the middle of the game. With two characters, sports journalists, who have been created for the sole purpose of sitting in the crowd during games. The “new girl” asks questions, and the old hand explains what’s going on to her and the audience.
Sometimes, these shows don’t even give you the conceit of expository characters that explain things to each other. The food-based anime I’ve watched is like this. Food Wars and Yakitate!! Japan are both shows based on the manga with plucky main characters that are all about the food, and unique ways to whip something up. In both shows, critical events like major cooking/baking contests pop up and when these characters do something totally crazy with their food preparation. Not only is there a hilarious, over-the-top reaction that only anime could pull off–complete with flying whales–the people eating just STOP. Then they expound, at length and detail exactly what to do to the food to create this taste.
Just Go With It
Sometimes, you just have to make the call. It could be that I’m just more forgiving, but I’m willing to overlook the clunkiness of expository, educational dialog when it means I learn something. That’s especially true when it comes wrapped up in an engaging plot, characters I’ve grown to like, and a story that pulls me in with drama, humor or something other hook. Educating and entertaining at the same time is no small feat. Any story that can manage to do both, even if it’s not perfectly balanced, is something I’m willing to let slide.
So I’m going to continue to watch this type of anime, occasionally note its clumsy educational transitions, and roll with it. Even if it is clunky, anything that gets me, a non-food aficionado to care about how to preserve umami flavors in rice, is an accomplishment. I sometimes wonder how much more of my own high school education I might have retained if my physics classes had some Mobile Suit Gundam in them.