I have a very dangerous theory that could be devastating to English teachers everywhere. I’ve seen countless examples of literary techniques in almost every anime I’ve seen. I admit, I have also seen literary terms in western cartoons, but they are produced so much more beautifully in anime and manga.
Now, in American high schools, kids read a mixture of the Great Books and other literary works so they can see these literary terms in action with an applied moral. The only thing that breaks my heart about this, is that many of the Great Books are boring to kids because they can’t relate or it’s too old fashioned. These works are just as emotionally devastating to me as anime is. Why is that? Both works use similar techniques and morals, but are often delivered quite differently. It’s the difference in delivery that I believe causes people to underestimate the value of anime.
I find, anime content, themes, literary terms, and morals are produced well enough to compete in merit with the Great Books. That’s a huge claim, that can never really be proven since it’s an opinion. You might ask, how can a person compare Fairy Tale with A Tale of Two Cities? Same themes, same morals, same character types, (I mean both main characters are named Lucy and have iconic blond hair…)
Being the English nerd I am, this is truly hard for me to say. The works I read in high school have a very special place in my heart, but so does anime. The reason I believe anime can compete with the Great Books is because some anime takes the same themes and tells it in a new way that makes it entertaining, meeting the needs of the consumers in a way old literature can’t. There was a time when these old books were written to simply be entertaining, but our generation has been so distant from indulging in books that way, that their merit in terms of practical entertainment is dwindling.
To prove this, I’ll give you a few examples.
Reveals details from an earlier part of a character’s life.
This is a term found everywhere in anime. This is especially a strong story telling tool in Naruto. We are drawn closer to the characters when we learn their tragic backstories. It claws at our emotions. Naturo is my favorite example of how powerful a flashback can be.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is basically one huge flashback. It trumps Naruto for amount of time spent telling past events. The story starts with the main character already dead. The book then uses a flashback to tell the relationship between Cathy and her love Heathcliff. Flashbacks put the story into proper perspective and reveal why characters do certain actions and why they make their decisions. This deepens the established conflict and gives the reader a path for sympathy with the characters, even the villain.
How many times in Naruto has there been a villain, introduced as the most evil of them all, only to have their story be told, causing the audience to fall in love with them? (This is very true for Kimimaru and I…) The Flashbacks in Naruto put evil in perspective. We understand why the villian’s actions are wrong, but we can better understand why. IN the middle of a fight, gaining as much information about your opponent is vital. The story implementing a flashback is how the audience gets to engage in the fight!
Hints about future events
To me, this is on of the most heartbreaking literary terms. The audience is given hints about what is to happen, and they beg quietly for the show to prove them wrong.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf stands as the prophetic and wise character who is the perfect vessel to usher in foreshadowing.
FRODO: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.
GANDALF: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that die deserve life, and some that live deserve death. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Gandalf highlights the fact that Gollum will play a very important role in the story to come. Frodo is very ignorant to his usefulness. It is the fight Gollum on Mount Doom that allows for Frodo to destroy the ring since in his own strength he could not. The ring had possessed him.
In Death Note, the first episode foreshadows the last episode, bringing the story full circle. Ryuk tells Light “When you die, I’ll be the one writing your name in a Death Note.” The symmetry presented by this anime shows mastery in foreshadowing and planning. This anime presents the moral challenge and many different perspectives as we watch characters forming their opinions. As the journey progresses, the show drops subtle hints and foreshadowing’s that keep us on the edge of our seat. Death Note keeps us engaged because of this literary technique.
What is said or what is happening is different from what is meant or what should be occurring.
I think one of the greatest Irony’s in all of anime may be Erin’s true form in Attack on Titian. The show takes the viewers on a deep and devastating journey as Erin cultivates his hate for the Titans. Then he is only to find that he is one! This information forces Erin feel like a hypocrite but it humbles him enough to fight harder, this time not only in his own strength but the power of something terrifying.
The Irony used in attack on Titan is shaming. Before they can understand, the townsmen mock him for what he is. They require Erin to prove himself. He then goes out to reclaim his honor but embracing his new power. In Oedipus Rex, the ironic information brings Oedipus to guilt. The guilt of his actions drags him to gorge his eyes out. He handles the information very dangerously because of the power of his guilt. This is the difference between shame and guilt as I see it. Guilt is more inclined to induce someone to commit actions in response to their negative feelings. Shame is being conscious of wrong doing which is often forced upon by other people.
Oedipus Rex spends the first part of his story vowing to his people that he will find the man who murdered the previous king cursing such a man. On his quest he discovers that it was he who killed him and that the man he killed was his father and the woman he married was his mother. Both Oedipus and Erin had information withheld form them that affected their decision-making. Since the information was held from them so long they, the discovery becomes more tragic. If the story hadn’t allowed the characters to establish their character and hypocritical attitudes, the irony couldn’t be effective. Erin and Oedipus show that these devises work best under traumatic conditions.
Dues ex Machina
Latin: God from the Machine
I learned about this freshman year as we ready Gulliver’s Travels. The Latin translates as “God from the Machine”. It’s an event where the character is in such a tight spot that only “god” can rescue them. This tool is seen in many Gecko Roman plays where a literal machine like device comes on stage and saves the character like a god reaching his hand out from heaven. It’s an eagle in Gulliver’s Travels that comes down and saves Gulliver. After living in Brobdingnag for two years and feeling treated like an animal in a cage, Gulliver is humbly saved by this god figure in the form of an eagle. The eagle represents a god since as a bird, it symbolizes freedom.
In Death Note, Light’s journey starts when a “god” rescues him from his normal life. Ryruk is the god, the “Deus” and the Death Note is the machine, the “Machina”. The funny thing about Death Note to me is the fact that Light spends his journey with the machina in his hands. He uses it to becomes a god. As the show starts with the classic version of Deus ex Machina, it ends the opposite way. It should be called, Hominis ex Machina.
So why is it important that there are examples of Literary techniques in anime? These older works that are boring kids are not to do with literary devices being used in an “out of date” way. Finding these techniques in anime proves that they are still an important part of literature and entertainment. There are those who do not believe that anime and manga are worthy of being thought of as “literature” but in my view, there are enough similarities and moral benefit found in anime, that it has every right to compete in the league of great works.
Another upper hand anime has over some old works of literature is it’s entertainment factor. They are created for entertainment purposes, but are effective because they use literary devices just as well as the Great Books. Any story needs some formula of literary devices, but anime is underrated in its mastery of this field.