Don't Get Jaded: Cynicism in Anime

by Nick Creamer,

I've been watching some pretty jaded shows recently. Girlish Number is the new one - written by Wataru Watari, the author of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, its protagonist harbors all the snark and world-facing resentment you'd expect from that writer. Its heroine Chitose is a voice actress who's just in it for the fame and fortune, and who expects the worst of everyone around her because she herself is, well, the worst. She's a concentrated ball of withering skepticism, and watching her stumble through life is pretty darn funny.

I've also been watching The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the show which more or less put cynical, genre-savvy protagonists on the map. Its protagonist Kyon is too wise to believe in fairy tales, but is constantly dragged into them in spite of all his efforts. It is impossible to escape Kyon's voice in that show - his wry, fatigued commentary looms over every adventure, deflating fantastical ideas like aliens and espers with cheap quips and sighs. Kyon's loud cynicism is one of the principal forces in Haruhi Suzumiya.

And yet, ultimately, I don't think Girlish Number, SNAFU, or Haruhi Suzumiya are truly “cynical shows.” I've seen cynical shows, plenty of them, and I can't say I'm generally a fan. True show-based cynicism requires a skepticism about the world that feels almost incompatible with inspiring fiction, and I'm a person who loves all that inspirational hoo-ha. But I also think the benefits of optimistic fiction go beyond “makes you feel good,” and that assessing the world with a cynical eye truly handicaps the stories you can tell. So let's start with those Watari properties, and hopefully wander our way towards some not-so-cynical points.

The Nature of a Cynical Narrative

It'd be easy to dismiss a show like Girlish Number or SNAFU as cynical or self-satisfied. Both of them feature protagonists who think they know it all, and who are never short of a dismissive line to keep them from growing as people. But as I discussed last year, there's a clear distinction in SNAFU between the perspectives of Hachiman the grump and SNAFU the show. Hachiman is a cynic, and his voice dominates the show, but SNAFU itself does not agree with his cynicism. That may seem like a cop-out, so let's explore that a bit more: how do we separate the worldview of a show's characters from the nature of the world they inhabit?

It's easy to diagnose a character's cynicism - everything of them that “exists” is expressed through their actions on-screen. Hachiman is cynical because he constantly talks about the failings of himself, those around him, and society at large. Chitose is cynical because she sees her industry as a stupid game, and everyone she interacts with as two-faced people putting on the same professional act that she is. But even here, there's a nuance in divining exactly how characters look at their world. Kyon is the key example there - though he constantly makes cynical commentary about Haruhi's enthusiasm, the fact that he follows her at all is reflective of the fact that he himself cannot give in to cynicism, and wants to believe in the same exciting things she wants to. Sometimes characters lie to us, and sometimes they lie to themselves - it's up to us as viewers to take into account their words, actions, and position in the world, if we want to engage with them as the hopefully multifaceted characters they are.

When it comes to diagnosing a show's cynicism, things get a little more complicated. It is easy enough to see that the cynicism of Hachiman is not the cynicism of SNAFU, because his words and deeds are constantly contradicted by the world around him. Hachiman believes he has figured everyone out, and that the world is a selfish and cruel place - but he is wrong in those beliefs (or at least his creator believes he is wrong), and the show constantly punishes him for them. SNAFU literally stars an adult character who exists largely to chastise Hachiman and push him towards the “right path,” and by the end of the second season, he has broken down in tears over the limits of his philosophy. At his lowest point, Hachiman tearfully admits he wants “the real thing,” meaning relationships more honest than the cynicism he's built as a shield.

The trajectory of SNAFU's narrative makes for an easy separation of character psychology and author psychology. Hachiman starts out reasonably self-assured, but the nature of his world goes so against his own philosophy that he's eventually chastened. Therefore, when seeking a show that actually is cynical, you have to look not just to the characters themselves, but to the world they inhabit. What beliefs are supported by the universe itself? What is considered a universal truth? What assumptions about the world are never meaningfully questioned?

Genre and Attitude

Attack on Titan is a fine example of a reasonably cynical show. Titan exists in a downtrodden world, where humanity is on the brink of extinction, and all of its narrative turns enforce both the hopelessness of this situation and the weakness of mankind. This is intentional, and not necessarily a bad thing - Titan is attempting to create an oppressive tone, and so cynicism works for its goals. Optimistic characters are punished in Titan, and the only law that's revered is “survival of the fittest,” something made clear in the words of its most valued characters. Single characters aren't the ones who dictate Titan's worldview - it's the world itself that conveys that perspective, clear again and again in the cowardice of its common people, and the viciousness of its bloodshed. At times the show kinda bangs you over the head with this perspective, like when the geese that represented one character's introduction to "survival of the fittest" are later used to emphasize that we must kill and eat to survive.

Bloody action shows are often quite cynical in their worldview. This makes sense in terms of their storytelling; it's hard to stay positive when everyone around you is dying, and worlds that posit violence as the only answer to their conflicts are inherently cynical ones. It also makes sense in terms of audience - ultraviolence is very popular among teenage audiences, and teenage audiences tend to be more overtly cynical than either their younger or older counterparts (like good old Hachiman himself). When you believe you've figured everything out, and yet people still don't agree with you, expressing your will through violent force is the cynic's answer to the multiplicity of human perspective.

Shows that followed in the Haruhi Suzumiya “Kyon-voice” style are also often cynical. While Kyon's cynicism betrayed an underlying desire for a fantastical world, many of the protagonists who've followed him are simply genre-savvy as heck, commenting on the anime-style events around them as they're happening. Shows for children tend to be earnest and direct in their values, but once that style no longer appeals to you, the next step is often simply to comment on the artificiality of traditional storytelling. This can easily provide an immediate rush of validation for the audience, since it echoes that audience's own genre awareness, but this style ultimately makes it much, much harder to believe in the worlds these characters inhabit. Characters and audiences are not “above” caring about invented stories - they simply need stories worthy of their emotional investment.

The Primacy of Authorial Voice

At this point, you might be asking yourself “why does the authorial perspective even matter?” And that's a very reasonable question! We only tend to drop shows because of authorial perspective specifically in extreme cases - when a story is so focused on imparting a specific message that it becomes more of a lecture, or when the author's views on women or minorities or some political topic are so distancing that we can't enjoy the story being told around them. And this is a threshold that varies for everyone, meaning the female-focused fanservice that is the background radiation for so much anime is itself one more expression of “authorial voice,” and one that seriously limits much of anime's broader appeal. If you feel the worldview of a show is constantly demeaning you specifically, it's perfectly understandable to seek better uses of your time.

But even setting aside the clear cases, authorial voice still naturally impacts our relationship with shows. Individual characters are often wrong, and heroic characters will either learn from their mistakes or suffer from them. But what decides which of their actions are “mistakes” in the first place is the authorial view. Things like “stealing is bad” and “be good to your friends” aren't universal truths - they are beliefs most of us have internalized to the point where they come across as obvious lessons in fiction. Things like “the world is an uncaring place” are also values that can be internalized, and values like that will be strongly apparent in any fiction you create. This is clear in more didactic productions, like The Irregular At Magical High School, which essentially acts as a mouthpiece for its author's libertarian politics. Ultimately, what we can learn from stories is inherently tied to what we can learn from the worldviews that are offering them. Which brings me to my own relevant belief: that shows which wholly embrace cynicism rarely have much to tell us about the world.

Believing in the Unbelievable

Cynicism implies doubt about the world around you. Doubt about people specifically, in that you believe others act for self-interested reasons, but also doubt about the world itself's ability to surprise you. It's often used as a shield against being hurt (key to its eternal popularity among adolescents), and it can work quite well in that way - if you expect the worst of people and events, you'll never be let down. But when it comes to fiction, cynicism on the part of either author or audience can often be a fatal flaw. Cynicism protects us by telling us we already know things, and thus closing us off from new experiences. When we distrust everything, we engage honestly with nothing. And when we write stories from a cynical perspective, we only discover things we already know.

Empathy lies at the heart of strong character writing. We do not live in a world where everyone takes actions purely because they're stupid or selfish or trying to be cruel - we live in a world of complex and contradictory motivations, where nearly everyone is trying to “do their best” in the ways they find most appropriate. Some people are ruled by their fears, but that does not dictate the entirety of their possible actions. Others are gallant or funny or self-aware, but not always, and not with everyone. Every real person contains multitudes, and if you want to write or engage with satisfying characters, you have to embrace that complexity. We must be kind to our characters, because only then do they become human.

One of the great strengths of fiction is that it can illustrate the fundamental humanity of people totally unlike ourselves, in situations utterly foreign to us. Fiction can challenge us with new perspectives partially because it is fiction - it is “safe” in that way, a realm of discovery where we can explore worlds and viewpoints unfamiliar to us with no threat of consequences. A sensitive, earnest, and motivated author can bring nearly any perspective to life, teaching us something new about our collective humanity in the process. Even when it comes to simple characters, approaching them with an open hand results in far more humanity than the alternative.

If you assume the worst of something as a member of the audience, you won't dig any deeper - if you assume the worst as a writer, you won't write any deeper. Cynical depictions of characters unlike the author tend to result in flat characters, because the author doesn't believe those characters really do contain multitudes. And it's this defensive quality of cynicism that makes fundamentally cynical works so often unsatisfying - instead of leading us to unimaginable people and places, they simply validate one author's unhappy assumptions about the world.

So be careful about bringing your own cynicism to media, whether as a creator or a consumer. Cynicism is one of the easiest ways to miss out, both on the complexity of characters and the many ways shows can succeed. Try to avoid letting your first response be the snarky dismissal, even if just for a moment - if you let a show surprise you, you're opening yourself to far more potential media experiences. Cynicism is a natural response to a world that's full of ugliness, and an easy habit to fall into after being disappointed by too many shows. But putting your most earnest foot forward is the only way to see the magic in the world.

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