Expressed sympathy – anime’s endless capacity for the elegiac wistfulness of life

I’ve been looking out at the city skyscape from the top floor window of my house recently. Generally around nine o’clock – so proper sunset time – glorious burnt umber fading to the polluted London haze of grey-blue. Snatches of clouds offering an endless panoply of variety from night to night. A skyscape tapestry of endless wonder. And it reminded me, like most things do these days, of anime.


Everyone knows Makoto Shinkai’s famous ‘skies’. His endless views that seem to go on forever. Gorgeous Japanese clouds that teeter away into the blue abyss – so high they must surely penetrate the stratosphere and wind out into space. Shinkai, in his majesty of capturing the poignancy of human emotion – puts the very landscape of our world to work in his efforts to jerk out our very emotions. Squeezing and wringing like a kitchen towel – bleeding the tears from our eyes and the empathy from our hearts.


In my recent research readings I’ve been obsessed with the three expression modes Susan Napier puts forward in her classic study Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle – chiefly that of the elegiac mode. People often comment on anime’s wistful tones – why so often it preoccupies itself with a faintly mournful loss, paired with a wry twist of hope. An Ozu smile write large.


It’s this quality, I think, that’s kept me coming back to anime again and again. Beyond the aesthetic. Beyond the narrative. It’s the poignancy – the ability to extract from your heart the rawest of emotion – to break down and destroy every conceivable barrier and semblance of tough British sentiment. It burns in your heart, deep and ceaseless – just like the much-discussed moe principle. Anime itself burns away – embers of warm sentiment peppered with nostalgia circulating away into the bloodstream.


And the skies – they call to mind that same feeling. Looking at a sky and knowing it’s different yet the same. The same skies the twenty year old you saw. The same skies a ten year old you pondered too. Anime is all those yous, captured throughout your life – photocard snapshots imprinted in digital celluloid. It reaches out its hand and beckons you in with a half-forgotten memory and then… you remember… the feelings at the very least. Re-captured at last.


I’ve gone on before about anime’s endless capacity for nostalgia – a quality I believe it excels at to an exceptional degree as a medium. We feel sympathy for our own sympathies – recalculating and recapturing them every time we re-watch a show, each-time ‘upgrading’ the vision in our minds – from grainy VHS and CITV morning broadcast to crisp DVD and even-crisper Blu-Ray. Our minds sort and process, till we reach the high-definition of our own present.


And then we search further into the future – knowing the wistfulness will return again. It keeps us coming back – the eternal drug of hoping optimism, for that one hit that will strike us more greatly and strongly than ever before. Shinkai’s Your Name proved this – even now, there were stories to be told to rank in a collective Top 10 – new visions of old feelings. A nation-capturing sentiment of expressed sympathy. Where, for a time being, we all feel as one.


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