Anime: Dissecting a Vibe

John Ohno
4 min readAug 9, 2021

A response to iniksbane on what constitutes anime

Another blogger, iniksbane, has responded to my piece ‘What is Anime’. Their response is worth reading in full, and I think we are more closely in agreement than that essay makes out. Where I disagree is the characterization that the vibe of anime is merely melodrama. I think that, in trying to trace the mechanisms by which the vibe of anime were created & identify where similar media appear, I have neglected to clearly lay out what I think is shared among most anime, overestimating the degree to which readers have a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘anime’ outside of the context of actual animated material made in Japan for a Japanese audience.

For one thing, although much anime is melodramatic, I think what we are looking at is closer to ‘camp’. Shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, and Texhnolyze are not melodramatic: they do not emphasize the emotional states of characters. They do, however, make the invisible visible through semi-diagetic stylistic decisions. This is what I meant when I said “What defines anime is that it favors semiotic bandwidth over realism: the world of anime is constructed so as to be absolutely saturated with subtextual meaning.” When this subtext is emotional, you get melodrama.

Boogiepop Phantom (left) and Serial Experiments Lain (right) both make use of stylistic elements with a well-understood semiotic load, whose appearance is not intended to be fully diagetic. Time-saving measures do double duty in anime: they are meaningful.

That said, semiotic saturation is common in pulp media of all stripes. Whenever you have a lot to say and limited resources to say it with, you will necessarily lean on stand-ins. Pulp media is, typically, genre media because genre provides both a guaranteed audience and a code with its own history. Anime is eclectic, and an anime from one genre will often borrow conventions from non-anime from completely different genres, but the logic remains.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure delivers a shonen battle experience, but it begins as a mashup of Hammer horror and kung fu movie tropes (Phantom Blood, right) before switching to an Indiana Jones / Morning of the Magicians thing (Battle Tendency, center); eventually it engages in dialogue with Twin Peaks (Diamond is Unbreakable, left)
Vampire Hunter D, a long-running franchise, is also in conversation with Hammer’s very specific form of gothic vampire film; structurally, every Vampire Hunter D book (and movie) is a western. This franchise is also a far-future sci-fi.
1998 was a good year for the ‘space western’ in anime — Trigun (left), Outlaw Starr (center), and Cowboy Bebop (right) all came out that year. However, the ‘space western’ term is misleading! While all three of these movies have western-style episode structures, explicit references to westerns, and high-concept science fiction ideas, they are all very different in tone and style. Trigun combines the episodic morality tales familiar from classic westerns with stock japanese comedy structures and has more in common with Irresponsible Captain Tylor than it does with the rest of these shows. Outlaw Star is mostly in conversation with classic western science fiction from the 50s like The Stars My Destination, but also incorporates harem elements that would make it worth comparing to Tenchi Muyo. Cowboy Bebop does not allow itself to remain in dialogue with a single genre tradition for more than an episode at a stretch, although it owes a great deal to noir, blaxploitation, and yakuza films; despite this, its science fiction is the most grounded of the bunch, and very few episodes contain gag-driven comedy of any stripe.

Every pulp tradition has its own history, wherein tropes get established and…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net