"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Tuning out of ‘toons: Why I don’t watch animation

Though there are a handful of exceptions, I normally don’t watch cartoons, anime, or any other form of animation. Whether in television or film, I almost always opt out of being a part of that experience. In what would perhaps appear to some as a direct contradiction to that, I really enjoy comics, some manga, and actually sketching and drawing characters – both in the comic book form and – years ago – even in the anime/manga style. After learning of my lack of interest in animation, many friends and acquaintances have asked me the simple, resounding question of, “Why?”

This blog post is my answer to that question, and a deeper explanation for my reasoning. But first, I should say that this was not the case during my childhood or teen years. I still remember The Lion King being the first film I ever saw as a child, and have memories of my mother walking with me to the theater at night in the next town over in New Jersey. I grew up watching the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman animated series, and those first two especially drove my enormous interest in the superhero genre and comics in general from a young age. I later got into anime, going through various phases in which I watched Pokemon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, InuYasha, and Dragon Ball Z.

This led to a strong interest in manga, and whenever I could I would pick up volumes of One Piece, Hellsing, and Rave Master. I also really got into Ghost in the Shell. This led to me drawing manga, and I first envisioned what is to eventually become my series of fantasy novels as – at that time – a series of manga. I was 14 at the time, and I had drawn my main characters complete with big, colored hair and giant weapons. I even had a few issues of Shonen Jump back around 2003, 2004. It actually looked like I was on a real trajectory to get massively into anime and manga, but then something happened to derail that path.

I started reading fantasy novels. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (despite reading The Hobbit many times as a kid, I did not read these books until about age 12 or 13). Rowling’s Harry Potter. Harry Turtledove’s Darkness series. Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara. I had always loved reading books, even before I regularly watched animated series, and I had always loved fantasy. Now, the traditional written word and the fictional worlds of epic fantasy were colliding together for me in a way that just perfectly clicked. The deal was sealed on one night I’ll always remember: it was around 3 in the morning, and I was finishing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, reading the part where Harry grieves and rages over the loss of his godfather, Sirius Black. The character-driven emotion hit me just the right way, and it was then that I decided I wanted to be a fantasy writer; but of novels, not of manga (my desire to write superhero comics, however, would persist).

For whatever reason, I drifted away from watching anime as I got older and became more focused on music and my busy social life in a new town I had moved to. And anyway, I ended up not having access to TV for about 6 years while I was living in poverty. When I tried to come back to it later, around age 20 or so, something in me had changed, and the things I realized I had liked about animated shows years before were rooted in less mature things; as a kid I just wanted to see giant muscled heroes, dragons, monsters, fighting robots, and things blowing up. An important bit of clarity: this isn’t to say that I found anime to be immature – I’m well aware that it’s a fine medium with plenty of mature, sophisticated, and intelligent content available.

But you’ll notice that the animation I watched as a teen doesn’t necessarily fall into that category. I liked the anime I liked because I thought it was cool to see Dragon Ball Z’s Piccolo chop an alien in half with his hand, or watch Vegeta pummel someone into a bloody pulp. Or watch Egyptian gods blast out of playing cards and obliterate each other on Yu-Gi-Oh! So when people bring up the very correct point that there’s so much animation out there that is about so much more than that – stories that are deep, nuanced, and have real powerful, engaging themes – I completely understand, but it’s not what drove me to watch animation during that time of my life. And I had a sort of epiphany: that while I liked seeing drawings in comic books and manga, and loved drawing in general, when it came to ‘moving pictures’, animation was simply not the medium that I preferred.

Now that I had entered adulthood, I obviously watched shows and films for a different reason, and I wanted good storytelling, powerful characterization, interesting and resonant commentary, etc. And I still loved action and gratuitous violence, but on a more refined level – I came to appreciate the cinematic art and choreography and special effects associated with scenes of fighting or even horrific violence. I enjoyed the 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre scenes because I liked watching the great use of practical effects to depict all the gore and savagery. When I entered my 30s, I liked John Wick because of how excellent and attention-to-detail the fight choreography was. And so on and so forth.

Objectively speaking, I could look at anime – those for kids, teens, adults, or all of the above – and respect and appreciate the talent that went into it, but I always preferred to see the mastery of traditional drawing on paper, not a TV screen. Live action just felt more immediate and immersive to me, whereas with animation, I more so felt like I was just watching things happen rather than feeling engaged in it. It isn’t that I don’t have a strong enough suspension of disbelief – I’m an artist and writer, of course I do – I think it was more that I was just not willing; that I chose not to suspend my disbelief when it came to animated shows or films, because I just didn’t feel the ‘pull’ to sit and pay close enough attention to it. At the end of the day, I realized a simple fact: it just wasn’t to my taste.

And that’s really it, guys. It’s nothing much more complex than that. Some people just can’t get into films that are in black and white. Some people can’t sit and watch films in different languages, even with subtitles, it just drives them crazy. Some people (myself included) can’t get into musicals. Or westerns. Or romance. It really does just come down to what tickles your fancy and in what taste something comes across to your palate. Certainly there’s an argument to be made for someone to be well rounded and cultured, but at the end of the day, we’re still all unique individuals with our own preferences – in everything from artistic medium to genre to presentation.

See, I wasn’t watching anime because I specifically wanted to gravitate toward it. I could have been watching live action series, but many of those were too deep and complex for me to understand or fully absorb at that age, and I wouldn’t discover them until my late teens/early adulthood. But I watched shows like Dragon Ball Z because they were the closest I could get to something edgy, violent, and bloody. At that time I wanted to push boundaries and experience things that were extreme and visceral, and when I was young I wasn’t allowed to watch horror films or very violent action films (I managed to sneak a few in anyway, but that’s another story for another time). If I could have gotten my hands on something live action that had a real level of violence and attitude, I probably would have jumped ship and swam away from animation that much sooner.

There are some exceptions. I might someday watch an episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series or Batman: The Animated Series for pure fun and nostalgia (and the latter certainly had mature themes, as we know). And I did watch What If? with my girlfriend, and quite enjoyed some of it. Though even with that show, there were moments where I thought Thor looked a bit too much like a Disney prince, or the way the characters were running came across as bouncy and wobbly in an unintentionally comedic way. But as with any medium – even live action – animation has its limits. And rather than think less of it or disparage it, I instead appreciate all the work and skill that goes into animation studios, and the artists and animators who continue to push the boundaries of that particular art form to make it more memorable, engaging, and sometimes even atypical compared with what we’re used to seeing. I didn’t just appreciate What If? because it was Marvel, I liked that it was well-drawn and the graphics rose above my expectations to provide an experience that actually was engaging for me.

And while this is proof that somewhere out there, there’s likely some other animation that will have that same effect on me, I don’t have the time or interest level to sift through dozens of different animated series in order to find that one, special gem. If it finds me one day, great, I’m here for it. But I wanted to clear the air and better elucidate my thoughts and perspective on this, because anyone who thinks that because I may not enjoy most animation, that then means that I don’t respect or appreciate it, is simply wrong or misinformed. In fact, part of being open minded and cultured is having the ability to see the merits of something, even that which we may not subjectively find enjoyable or compelling.

Ultimately, I actually owe quite a bit to the animated form. It represents the absolute roots of many of my later interests – everything from comic book art to fantasy writing. And my nostalgia for much of it will always be a part of me. But in this day and age when there is just so much out there in the great, wide world of shows, films, and other story formats, I have to choose what I gravitate toward and what naturally pulls me in and makes me feel a plethora of emotions and ideas. As of now, animation – for the most part – simply isn’t part of it. But I’m glad it’s a part of the great, big tapestry that is the world of fictional stories and imagination. The arts would be a lesser place without it, and this writer may have never pursued his dreams otherwise.