Stories being what they are

From about Summer 2020 to Summer 2021, I watched a lot of anime. I found a lot to love in anime:

Watching a lot of anime (of widely varying quality) helped me develop a certain structural sense for narrative that I didn’t have before. Through sheer volume of exposure, I began to more clearly see the underlying structure of narratives, improving my thinking about storytelling and art in general. For example, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is an excellent example of effective pacing. By watching it after seeing other shows struggle with pacing & direction, I was primed to better appreciate how exactly it accomplishes that.

One of the big concepts that took shape for me had to do with understanding themes & symbols in stories. When I was in high school, I never felt like I got much out of English class. The approach to discussing symbolism in literature I was taught never really did much for me. I got the impression that books were saying one thing in the text, but were actually supposed to be secretly talking about abstract themes through symbolism, metaphor, or allegory. If you weren’t in on the secret, you were just missing the point.

Frame from Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli

This was probably a misunderstanding on my part, but I wish someone had cleared it up for me earlier. What I realized while watching anime is that themes usually aren’t really some secret message coded through symbolism. Themes are ideas that you can arrive at yourself just by considering what’s presented in the context of the story.

For example, one of the themes of Princess Mononoke is about the danger of living out of balance with nature. You can look at the Forest Spirit as a symbol of powerful natural dynamics beyond our understanding, but you can also look at it purely within the context of the narrative, to the same effect. The Forest Spirit is not just a symbol of a powerful force of nature, it literally is a powerful force of nature in the story-world. It doesn’t need to be brought out into our world by metaphor in order to be meaningful.

The nice thing about looking at themes this way is that it means they can be effective even if you “miss the point” and fail to draw the metaphor into our world. If you spend any time thinking about the story, if it has any effect on you beyond the time you spend taking it in, you will be engaging the themes of the work just by thinking about the story on its own terms. If it sticks with you, the metaphors will draw themselves naturally in time.

Have you seen any anime? Do you look at themes in stories more as metaphors or more within the context of the story? Do you know of a good word to describe this kind of “anti-symbolic” way of looking at stories? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​