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Liminal Anime

So it’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally processed my feelings on “Love Live” and similar anime, and now I will inflict it on you, who may even read this.

Anyone who’s watched anime for any length of time knows that there are a few different broad classes of anime.  There’s “Slice of Life” anime, there’s “Cute Girls doing Cute Things” anime, there’s “High School Rom-Com”, there are the action “Shounen” anime which involve a lot of fighting and girls with unrealistic bodies, Shoujo anime which involve a lot of kissing and boys with unrealistic bodies, “Seinen” which, well, seem to be targeted at grown men who are pining for their youth.  Just a lot to choose from.  And this isn’t, in itself, a bad thing at all.  Something for everyone, right?  I tend to personally like Shoujo and Seinen, Shounen just kind of annoys me, tbh.

But the thing about anime is, some of them cross the bounds of reality into liminality.

This might not be an obvious insight, so let me explain.  Many anime do not really go for realism.  You can tell these anime by the fact that everything’s slightly exaggerated.  For example, the school uniforms might be brightly colored and flashy, there might be a magic mechanism that doesn’t exist in reality – something to indicate that this isn’t intended to be taken seriously.  It’s easy to immerse yourself in the story with those kinds of anime, because you can easily accept the premise – this isn’t real, and that’s alright.  I’ve been watching “Love Lab”, it’s hilarious, it’s not really realistic, and I can completely accept it for what it is.  A hilarious romp with a bunch of baka middle school girls.  That’s what it is.  It’s not trying to be anything else.

But there are other types that subvert this.  These anime are hyper-realistic.  They use cleaned up versions of actual locations that you can visit.  “Sound! Euphonium”, “Bocchi the Rock”, to some degree “K-on”, and yes, “Love Live” fit these categories.  I think it’s no coincidence that these are some of the most popular anime ever created, and also no coincidence that they are also some of the most emotionally impactful to me.

It’s liminal.  By which I mean it’s just realistic enough to make one think that it could be real, but just unrealistic enough to make it painfully clear that it’s not and never can be.

I think anime, as well as most other types of entertainment, have an unlimited potential for both good and bad (to put it very simply).  The good – Love Live, for example, can be very inspiring.  Its message is that your dreams can (but not always do) come true if you follow your heart.  This is not a bad message at all and I certainly find myself, after watching it, thinking that maybe I could do something amazing too, if I just set my mind to it.  (That even actually happened with sound! Euphonium – it inspired me to write a concert band piece.  And I did.)

But the flip side of that is that it’s just unrealistic enough that you can come away with unrealistic expectations.  Those girls accomplish things that they should not be able to do at their age and with their skill level.  But it’s presented so realistically that you start to think that it really is possible, and you end up feeling completely dejected when you realize you’re being very, very subtly lied to.

It’s the same with “Sound! Euphonium”, though in a much more understated way.  In this case, it’s more about a normal high school experience – they’re not really doing anything that teenagers their age shouldn’t be able to do, and they don’t have opportunities that teenagers their age shouldn’t.  But there’s still a liminality to the experience that’s hard to pin down at first watch.  I think it comes down to how Uji is presented.  It’s using real locations, but the color palette, etc., is subtly altered to control the emotional impact.  It’s just real enough to be, well, real, but not real enough to be realistic.  I don’t think that makes complete sense, but it’s a difficult concept to get across.

And I think it ultimately comes down to what you take away from it.

There are two things you can take away from an anime like “Love Live”.  The first is you can take away the stated message:  you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it and don’t let anything stand in your way.  That’s a great message, and if it’s what you take away and can apply it in your own life, well, it’s an anime that has enriched you, and that’s a great thing.  I even find myself wanting to write some idol music, and that’s perfectly fine.  Though I probably won’t.

If you take away, instead, “I want to live in that world” and you start seeing the characters as real people, and immerse yourself fully in the liminal world it’s constructed for you, well, that’s actually pretty dangerous.  And very, very tempting.  So tempting that I see this is what a lot of the “anime community” – on both sides of the Pacific – does.  They go to concerts, they start having parasocial relationships with the seiyuu, it’s a whole world out there for the taking, that doesn’t exist.

And I’m tempted, too.  So tempted it’s not even funny.  After watching Nijigasaki, as I mentioned, I went outside, and saw my meager little backyard with its dead grass, and thought to myself, “there’s no train, there’s nothing here”, and I really wished that I lived in the “Love Live” world just because it seemed like there was so much there that’s missing in my life… and that’s actually pretty dangerous.  Because it’s a world that doesn’t actually exist.  Even in Japan, it doesn’t exist.  I could go to Japan, I could go on a pilgrimage to the Kanda shrine, and Uchiura, and all the other places that they used, and it wouldn’t matter.  Because the girls of muse (I can’t be arsed to find the proper character) and Aquors and Liella don’t exist.  Just like I could go to Toyosato, go that school (which is open to the public), go to the music room where they put out a table with plastic treats, and you could imagine the girls sitting at that table doing Keionbu stuff, but they’re not there.  They don’t exist.

None of it exists.

This type of liminality is encouraged.  I mean, why else would they have taken a convention center in Odaiba in Nijigasaki and turned it into a school?  That creative decision makes zero sense, until I realized that it was a very deliberate decision.  They didn’t want a real school.  They wanted something bigger than a real school, something huge, something liminal.  Something that didn’t quite fit.  Because if they made it too realistic, it wouldn’t have an emotional impact.

At the end of the day, I have to process what it gave me, what it told me about myself… but I’m going to wake up every day in my moderate sized city in Texas, look out on dead grass and a semi-suburban street, with no trains or schools or idol groups or anything like that…  and even if I were to go to Japan, none of that would change.  So I have to come to terms with it myself.  And at the end of the day, make sure anime stays in its proper place.  The mangaka were trying to tell me something, and often something important.  And once I understand what they’re trying to tell me…  the purpose of that anime has been filled in my life.  And I have to move on.  Getting too caught up in the anime world is dangerous and unhealthy.  And all you need to look at is the fandoms to know that’s true.

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