Anime does a lot of things. It shows us amazing places and takes us on wild adventures. It can make us laugh or cry or wince or groan. It can make our eyes widen in shock and it can bore us to tears. However, what it does every now and then is really make us think.
This is part of why I love stories. Even stupid comedies sometimes hold a much greater truth than we might realise and thinking about those themes and messages, while enjoying a great show, is really rewarding.
This week I want to look at anime that look at what it means to be human. And the list is huge and there are plenty of amazing quotes and gifs out there that deal with this and I’m sure that people will tell me I missed some of the most obvious in the discussion below. I will say I deliberately have avoided Evangelion. At some point I’m going to get into that anime on this blog and I’ll leave that discussion for that later.
Now, some anime are pretty heavy handed when making a statement or delivering a moral message. One that immediately springs to mind is Parasyte. This is a really enjoyable anime but the conflict of our main character, Shinichi, as he wonders whether he is human or not after his arm is taken over by a parasite and his ongoing moral dilemmas about killing people, fighting and the like is anything but subtle.
Basically Shinichi wants to protect people from the parasites but is too weak to do this by himself. So he is forced to cooperate with Migi (the name he gave the parasite that is his right hand) in his attempts to protect his friends, family and occasional random stranger. However, Migi isn’t all that cooperative. He doesn’t see the point in risking his own existence for another. Cue long conversations about right and wrong and the value and meaning of life.
While it might sound like I’m belittling it, I’m not. I really loved Parasyte and at least it didn’t try to be smarter than it was. Both Shinichi and Migi evolved as characters through gaining insight into the others point of view. The blending of what is originally a clear binary opposition and what the compromise looks like really is the take-away from the show and leaves you wondering where you would have ended up if placed in a similar situation.
Then we have Gundam, a franchise that is so heavy handed with the morals and messages that at times it is difficult to see individual characters as anything other than the voice of whatever moral viewpoint they have been appointed at that point in the plot. While most of these revolve around war and the futility of fighting and dying while also trying to acknowledge the necessity of these things, they also sometimes dive headlong into the overall discussion of what it means to be human and what motivates us to act.
Asking why sometimes seems incredibly futile but it is these questions and reflections that actually make up the stronger emotional side of several of the Gundam series (you know, the parts that aren’t giant robots shooting or stabbing each other). The strength of Gundam is the sheer number of characters which gives more or less every audience member someone to agree with in terms of how they feel about the essential weakness of the human character.
Yet life and death aren’t the only elements of what it is to be human. Golden Time tackles several questions about the human experience including a sense of self and personal identity as well as how we define ourselves through relationships. And it is on how we create and maintain relationships with others that Golden Time really manages to shine.
The other questions the show asks always feel a little forced given most of us aren’t an amnesiac with a dual personality caused by the soul of our past self trying to bump out the soul of our present existence. It kind of makes it hard to relate to. However, the romance and the heart break and how we deal with others, that we can watch and understand and really feel for some of these characters even as we wonder how we would cope in such a situation.
But if you were after an anime that decided to tackle identity, Charlotte gives it a good go, though you may find this theme hard to follow as at times it confronts it head on and at others it leaves you to fill the gaps in how the characters respond.
Although, reading the quote above I’m always reminded a little bit of Alice In Wonderland and begin wondering, “Who Am I?”
Then we have the sheer number of ‘inhuman’ characters who cast their judgement on the human race. Which of course leads to the I know that this character was actually created by a human so it’s a human pretending to be a demon/ghost/arbiter/god/whatever speaking about their views of humanity. We very recently had an example in Twin Star Exorcists of this when one of the Kegare asked Benio if she remembered all the ants she’d ever stood on. This probably would have been more affective if it wasn’t a reasonably clichéd line from an overpowered non-human character.
But this trope can actually be done well. Sebastian from Black Butler makes numerous observations about human nature, usually in comparison to himself. He generally views humans with disdain and so lumps most of humanity into very overly generalised groups but at the same time, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions at times.
Though demons and devils in anime are regularly used to make us wonder who the real demons are as we frequently have human characters acting far worse than the demons within particular stories. Works symbolically but one has to wonder where all the good, old-fashioned demons have gone.
However, I don’t want this post to get too caught up in the ins and outs of philosophy in anime. Keep in mind, mostly it is a form of entertainment. So sometimes, even in anime that seem like they are working very hard to have a serious message, you get a comment so off the wall it just kind of sticks with you. Hence, Potato Girl from Attack on Titan.
So what animes have made you think about what it means to be human? Or just made you laugh with an incredibly obvious observation (such as people die when they are killed). I’d love to know.