Anime Can Be Educational & I Love That

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…”

Things Change

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.



Inspiration From Anywhere Is Valid

For a long time, I felt embarrassed by the things that inspired me as a writer.

I mean, for most people, the decision to be a writer means putting in the work. Looking at what has come before. It means studying the masters of the craft, going back over your Shakespeare, your Milton, your Joyce, and your Hemingway. If you’re slumming it in the ghetto of genre fiction, then, begrudgingly, some will acknowledge the necessity of referring to the masters. In the case of science fiction and fantasy, your Tolkien, Asimov, Le Guin and maybe some newer names like Gibson and Jemisin.

But the path to growing your imagination and finding your inspiration is pretty clear. If you want to write books, you’ve got to draw from books. I see the value in that and have taken it to heart. There are many authors of novels that I respect and am in awe of. They’re writers that I wish I could be. Some novels that had a huge impact on me, and provoked all kinds of powerful emotions.

But other stuff does that too.

Does It Have To Be A Book?

I’m Generation X, which means that as a kid, comic books were already well-established as a form of children’s entertainment. I got my start on that with the usual suspects — the Justice League from DC, and the X-Men from Marvel. But as a member of Generation X, I was also there right at the start as new ways to entertain ourselves came to the forefront. Video game consoles had just debuted.  12th generation bootleg VHS tapes circulated, with things like Super Dimension Fortress: Macross and Megazone 23 with no dubbing or subtitles. I was blown away by how utterly unlike anything these were to anything I’d seen before, even if I didn’t have a clue what the hell these big-eyed people were saying as giant robots trashed the landscape.

I grew up in a world where novels were there, and so were many other things. And those other things had a massive impact on me, often just as much as the novels I loved reading. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a seminal experience for me, as anyone reading The Chimera Code will doubtless figure out. But so was Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. So was Graveyard of the Fireflies and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. So was Final Fantasy VI or Metal Gear Solid. And, of course, Star Trek on TV and the big screen, as well as Star Wars and Aliens. So, even, were my own adventures, as I sat in a basement, rolling dice to save versus poison in Dungeons & Dragons, or search for a coveted black ray pistol in the ruins of Gamma World.

All of these different stories, in various media, fired up my imagination. John Steakley’s military SF novel, Armor, floored me. But, I had more ideas than I knew what to do with after Shirow Masamune’s Appleseed. Stephen King’s The Stand made me feel like I’d gone on a journey with a beloved cast of characters. But Persona 4 felt like my hometown and found family was now a small rural town in Japan called Inaba.

We Like What We Like

There’s been some talk about the validity of loving science fiction and fantasy if you haven’t read the classics, like Clarke, Herbert, or Tolkien. It’s a bizarre argument to me because your attempt to read Margaret Atwood is ill-advised if you haven’t previously read To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby. The stories available to us now are written for us. Now. The stories that stand the test of time have things we can learn and appreciate, and to some, that education is invaluable. But they aren’t mandatory.

The stories and narratives that we engage with that move us are the ones that have value to us. If Asimov’s Foundation series didn’t do anything for you, but Mass Effect did, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you still love The Sandman comics, but Neverwhere didn’t grab you, that’s okay. And if you legitimately got something out of Shadow of the Colossus but not The Lord of the Rings, that doesn’t make the inspiration and ideas Fumito Ueda gave you somehow less valid or significant than what Tolkien gave someone else who decides to write a story with elves and dwarves in it.

Something that matters to you doesn’t have to matter the “right way,” it just has to matter. And if it does, that’s yours. Keep it. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. One of the best things that can happen to any creative, writer, musician, or otherwise, is to have a work that matters in some way. That’s our job; to make something that matters to us, and then put it out there, and hope it matters to someone else. Twilight hasn’t done anything for me. But if it changed someone else’s life, I’m not going to say that’s wrong, any more than someone should tell me I made a mistake being fundamentally shaken and never quite the same after reading Neuromancer.

So find the things that matter to you. And let them matter.