I’ve been thinking about anime lately, and what makes it so special. And what I’ve decided is this: anime gets away with showing us stuff that live action could never get away with. I was watching the series “Now and Then, Here and There” a while back. The star is a young boy who, at times, gets beaten horribly. A young girl gets raped several times and finally murders her attacker. In “Grave of the Fireflies” [SPOILER INCOMING] we watch a very young girl slowly, painfully, starve to death while her older brother does everything he can think of to prevent it. When we see him put her in a coffin and light the pyre…man, its devastating.

Live action could show this stuff, but not so bluntly. And in having to soften it, the imagery loses some of the impact. So that’s part of it of what makes it special. It pulls certain subject matter out of the realm of taboo. But that’s not all…

At the same time anime is showing you these horiffic visuals…they are animated, and that triggers some kind of release in the brain. When Shu is getting horribly beaten by King Mondo, his neck actually stretches, cartoon style, as his head snaps back and forth. Now don’t misunderstand…this doesn’t make the scene funny. Instead, it both intensifies the action and makes it less real at the same time. And I really think that ‘less real’ bit gives us a mental escape valve.

For me anyway, this lets me walk away from “Now and Then…” thinking about the story, but not…scarred. I mean, seeing that kind of violence done to a young boy in live action would just be horrific. I’d feel guilty about watching it as ‘entertainment’ and just deeply disturbed by seeing it at all. That lizard part of my brain the doesn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction would just curl up into a ball.

Contrast “Now and Then…” with “Grave,” which never used any cartoon exaggeration of any sort. Days later, I’m still thinking about the movie and choking up. Since the misery here isn’t due, directly, to violence, the filmmaker didn’t feel the need to give us that kind of escape, I suppose. You won’t wake up screaming from a nightmare after seeing “Grave” and you might have if you saw a version of “Now and Then” where the violence hadn’t been ‘cartoonized’ a little.

Oh, and by the way, if you don’t watch anime, please don’t take this little brain-dump of mine out of context. Yes, there are scenes of great violence and sadness in anime, but there are also scenes of great happiness and love. It’s a medium of extreme emotions, I suppose. But no one needs an escape from too much happiness.