Anime Film Scripting Traditions

__—— October 2021  As an ex-animator who has also written 15 novels, I take a keen interest in how animation is used to tell stories, with particular focus on scripting issues.  Animation need not be restricted to kids’ stories or funny stories in a cartoon style.  Japanese Anime-style animation could tell serious stories, but ONLY if current scripting standards are changed.
The distinctive Anime style of animation was developed over decades by making lots of kids’ films.  It relied heavily on mystique and magic, and did that very well.  During the original pre-CGI era, everything was hand-drawn, but CGI technology allowed the art style to develop.  However, the market changed along with the new technology.  Far fewer kids’ films, now, as the international demand is mostly for stories with modest adult themes – usually teen love stories or mild science fiction.  Modern Anime suits any subject, but archaic Japanese social customs restrict the way adult content can be shown in films.  Adult themes can’t be handled with kids-style magic, mystique and fantasy – they demand reality and adult logic.
Japanese social customs include many VISUAL restrictions for public places.  Some story events, completely inoffensive in other countries, are considered too rude to depict publicly in Japan.  By trying to respect Japanese social standards, Anime studios CANNOT effectively make films with adult themes.

To appeal to the domestic market, most Anime stories are set in Japan.  The main problem is that it is considered very bad manners for Japanese adults to show more than very mild emotions in public.  That’s a crippling limitation for ANY film script.  Film audiences need to SEE what characters are feeling, but showing strong emotions is considered rude, so script-writers avoid that.  Without emotional displays, it’s difficult for audiences to follow any story with lots of emotional and social content...  which adult-themed stories ALWAYS have.  Other unpleasant social factors are avoided by using ‘Spirit World’ mystique – things happen by magic, conveniently out of sight.  Japanese audiences accept magic as a substitute for unattractive story elements, because it’s part of their cultural heritage.  But it’s incomprehensible for international audiences, who simply do not SEE anything happening – they have to guess.
Extreme understatement is another scripting tradition.  Typically by showing a possible storyline ‘cause’ but then NOT showing what effect it might have...  an effect is merely assumed to happen.  That’s no good for adult film audiences.  If cause is NOT followed by some VISIBLE effect (it’s a FILM, after all) audiences will logically believe that nothing happened.  Audiences are forced to guess the outcome for many important story elements, because script-writers avoid showing elements that might make story characters appear impolite – therefore unattractive – to Japanese audiences.
These Japanese cultural limitations for public display mean that Anime films have beautiful images, but very vague, ineffective story-telling, with characters never showing, saying or doing anything distasteful or possibly offensive by Japanese custom.  Film is a VISUAL story-telling medium, so all important story elements must be SHOWN in some way.  Characters have to ‘act out’ the emotional and social elements of the story, even if that means openly displaying emotions, saying or doing impolite things.  Japanese audiences enjoy animated films from other countries, but it’s one thing to accept Foreigners being rude and impolite, quite another to accept Japanese characters – even animated ones – acting that way.

Japanese Anime studios are very unlikely to change, as there would be strong local resistance to any weakening of deeply ingrained social traditions.  Anime studios will slowly lose the industry dominance they have worked so hard to establish.  Studios in other countries can tell stories WITH adult themes, but WITHOUT any artificial limitations on characters’ actions.  No Anime studio has yet made a convincing film with adult themes.

__—— What can Anime studios do?  Here are four ideas that would allow adult-themed stories to be told WITHOUT offending Japanese cultural purists:

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