On Interpreting Anime Philosophically

I am currently in the process of writing a fairly long philosophical essay, with the aim of getting it published one of these days. The essay, as planned, will eventually focus on Utena and then - briefly at the end - Evangelion. To some extent, the aim of the essay is just to demonstrate what I think serious philosophical writing about anime should be, i.e. what it should aim for. The excerpt posted here, which is basically a condensed manifesto, is from a three-page excursus following the introduction. It loses something without the context, but I hope some of the other writers here may find it helpful to clarify their own thoughts. In any case, I'd accept any well-wishings on finishing the rest of this thing.



Shows like Utena and Evangelion mean something to people. Everything else I say on the matter follows from this point. Viewers throughout the world take these shows into their lives; to one degree or another they understand what the shows say, they make sense of them. No one will deny this. However, if this thought is strictly followed through then we arrive at serious questions as to what something like an “interpretation” of an anime is supposed to be.

We get the sense that an interpretation should be doing something, and from that we get the sense that the anime (the object) needs something done to it. This often goes under the name of “analysis.” The anime as such seems to us something obscure; it needs to be reassessed and decoded by way of a rigorous analytical method, or a series of such methods, so that its meaning can be exposed. These theoretical tools may be psychoanalytical, sociological, linguistic, hermeneutical, theological, etc.. In all cases, though, we are looking for the essence of the anime, or at least something along those lines. “[Our questions] see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view… but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out. ‘The essence is hidden from us’: this is the form our problem now assumes.” (Wittgenstein, PI 92) The work of interpretation, in this view, is just to expose these hidden essences, these hidden meanings.

However, such a view is challenged when we consider (as above) that these shows mean something to the viewers. Somehow – and this should boggle anyone in a humanities department – people can make sense of Utena having never heard of Judy Butler, they can understand Evangelion having never read Freud or Shimon bar Yohai. They do nothing except sit and watch (though certainly not without prejudice), and yet that is enough. We are forced to either disregard such understandings as illegitimate, or question our search for hidden essences.

What happens – in a real situation, with no academic motives – when I watch a show like Utena? Do I experience myself receiving sensory impressions of the sights and sounds, then constructing them – according to certain normative psychical and social structures – into a particular object? No: I experience myself watching the show itself, as something immediately given to me with a particular sensibility. From the moment I begin to watch, I already understand it in a certain way (perhaps not the only way, but that is a topic for another time) – not only the characters and the muthos, but also what the show has to say to me, what meaning it has for my own existence. If anything, the attempt to theoretically excavate a “deeper” meaning has the effect of breaking me away from this given sense. What interests me then, initially and typically, is the extraordinary explanatory power of the theory I use, its applicability and systematic coherence, and precisely not the anime itself.

On the other hand, the “theories” we use in this way often have the advantage of being logically (in the widest sense) well-formed, which is seldom true of the sensibility given in “casual” viewings. In such viewings I surely understand something of the show, but would I be able to articulate this meaning, this sensibility, in a perspicuous way? Would I be able to say what I understand, as well as understand it? Initially and typically, I likely would not. I may make attempts, certainly, but unless I am quite careful I shall surely stumble. This is the problem: although a show like Utena means something to me right from the beginning, nevertheless I may not be able to bring that to discussion (to discourse) for the same reason that I cannot articulate my own awe at seeing a mountain sunset. I can, to a certain extent, fail to understand my own understanding. Thus we seemed trapped between the Scylla of theories that, at the extreme, simply reduplicate themselves, and the Charybdis of meanings that seem somehow too obscure to be articulated for serious discussion.

And yet: perhaps the work of philosophy is suited for just these situations. Perhaps, if we are serious enough about it, we can help such meanings reach their own clarity.

If we take this difficult path, then in one way we become incomparably freer. The meaning (the “essence”) of an Utena or an Evangelion is no longer something hidden, requiring theoretical analysis – its meaningfulness is what we already have. It is itself simply given, it remains always there as the a priori condition of anything like watching anime at all. In another way, however, we must remain stuck at the hurdle of making this meaning explicit. This is a deep problem indeed: our language can miss the mark, our descriptions can go wrong. To some degree, we are doomed from the beginning to fail to bring into perspicuous discussion our own sense for these shows. The basic task of a philosophical “interpretation” is surely the elucidation of this sense as far as can be managed – but nothing guarantees that we shall not go astray.

To conclude my digression: I do not propose to simply do away with “theory” (apart from its unthinking “cookie cutter” use). Freud, Heidegger, and the rest should be read very closely – but then they should be set aside in favor of the anime itself. At some point they will no longer help us, as the only standard for any understanding of an anime is just what the anime itself can give. We must directly confront “die Sache selbst,” without theoretical assumptions or protection. We ourselves, without further help, must try to think through what the anime is saying, and then – with all due caution – we ourselves must venture an articulation of what it means. This presentation will not be flawless; it may not be the only possible meaning; it may not even be all that satisfying. However, this strikes me as the only strictly correct method for any such philosophical interpretation.