Musings on the Netflix Documentary “ENTER THE ANIME” and the Orientalism of Anime and Anime Viewing Culture

#TheAnimangaFestival

Don’t worry, this is, like, only 80% a rant (xD)

A couple of weeks ago, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across one of those promoted Tweets from “NX” (which is kinda like Netflix’s version of Adult Swim) which had on it the trailer for “Enter The Anime”. Not really knowing much about it at the time, I thought it’d be something interesting to check out at some point in the near future, given my recent proclivity towards watching any and all documentaries that tackle topics that pique my interest. Bonus points of course if they’re somehow on subjects that I genuinely find fascinating and/or are wholly about media that I peruse on a regular basis (feel free to check out the two-part discussion I had with Al from SliceOfAlfredo on the documentary “Tokyo Idols” which you can also catch on Netflix right now)

Suffice it to say I thought I’d give it a shot during one of my free weekends. I didn’t really want to look into it all that much beforehand to avoid being prejudiced, but even without my purposefully doing so I ended up finding out about the mostly negative reception “Enter The Anime” had (at least in the areas of AniTwitter where I reside). Which, of course, got me even more intrigued as to what the hubbub was all about. To be fair, I personally don’t think it’s that hard to turn a significant portion of the fanbase against you (which I attribute more so towards the “trigger” culture of our current social landscape), so I was very much ready to chalk most of the documentary’s initial reception to something of a knee-jerk reaction in the hopes that maybe people simply took too much offense to a subject they know and love being breached by an entity of mainstream media in the form of Netflix.

So, I watched this thing right? Not even a full five minutes in I had to just hit pause and really just reconsider whether or not I should go through finishing the thing. I think that alone says quite a lot considering that “Enter The Anime” is only a little over an hour long, and by most documentary standards that’s a fairly short run time. At the time I wasn’t even thinking about writing a piece on it, and was really just in it to hopefully glean some insight on the perception of anime in the context of the present. I mean, I do think that that’s what the documentary aimed for… other than Netflix trying to cash in on their newfound anime viewership by making it seem like they, as a media platform, are genuinely interested in the kind of content that they’re putting out there (more on this later), whilst also riding this documentary high that everyone (including myself) has apparently gotten into.

I’ll try my best to run through the main beats of “Enter The Anime” as I go along here as best as I can because, at the end of the day, I do think you should see it for yourself if only to understand where I’m coming from. Let me say right here though that I do not at all recommend this documentary to anyone trying to get into anime. If by chance you’ve found yourself here as someone who is not at all a fan of the medium, and is interested in checking this out as a start, I’ll save you the time and say that you’re better off just straight up watching any of the anime shows available on Netflix right now. Better yet, get a CrunchyRoll subscription. I’ll even spot you a premium pass.

Like many westerners, I thought of anime as an endless parade of Hello Kitties dressed as wide-eyed school girls, riding rainbow ponies.”

However, if you’ve been watching anime for a fair amount of time (like me) then I honestly think there’s some amount of value that can be taken from here. Specifically, I found “Enter The Anime” to be a lesson (albeit a grueling one) on perception, and how it applies to discussions that can be had regarding anime; as a medium that slowly but surely has been more and more accessible throughout the years, and yet is continuously stigmatized by and to people less privy to its nature. Subsequently, this will be our main talking point for today (or tonight, wherever you are), so strap in 😀

The premise of this documentary is fairly simple. Alex Burunova, writer and director of “Enter The Anime” (in the voice of one Tania Nolan), claims to have zero knowledge of anime (both as an entertainment medium and as an industry) and thus sets out on a journey to learn all about it. She aimed primarily to “teach herself” about the nuances of anime and ideally be an “anime expert” by the end of the documentary, so as to help her be a “better filmmaker”. Now, I have nothing, absolutely nothing against people trying to better themselves in whichever form they see fit, so that part I’m actually fine with. Where I found issue (and mind you this is, like, three minutes in) was her wanting to be an expert at something she, in her words, knew nothing about. I mean, sure, it could’ve just been an expression but it also goes to show the… maturity of the approach towards the subject at hand. That and, I guess I’ll say this now too, I’m not a huge fan of superlatives.

But I digress. Burunova begun her inquiry into anime by asking “what is anime?” and, fair enough, anyone who wants to learn about anything should first know what that thing is. “What is anime?” isn’t really that hard of a question (in my own opinion at least) to find an answer to. Anime, that is to say Japanese animation is an audio-visual entertainment medium much in the same vein of cartoons, that air alongisde other television programs like live-action drama and variety shows. Of course, a lot of things can be said about how, say, anime is different from the general idea of cartoons and from there we can already start talking about things like differences in the fictional narratives that both portray or the cultural backgrounds of those that write them; the difference in work environments; audience preferences; and the list goes on and on, with the focal point being that anime is animation — no more, no less.

Why this documentary was instead SO dead-set from the jump on fetishizing anime as some sort of inconceivable art form made by “deranged minds” (yes, they do in fact say this right at the beginning, and on more than one occasion throughout the film /smh) from a mysterious foreign land was beyond me; and is really what I’d consider my main gripe with the feature as a whole. That is to say, I found “Enter The Anime” to be almost if not entirely Orientalist, that only ever emphasized anime’s idosyncrasies from what one would consider the norm from an entirely Western perspective. On the whole it was a shallow attempt (both in concept and execution) at defining the medium for what it is, and was at times far less informative about anime than it was unwittingly insulting towards both the creators and the fans.

Who are the creative and deranged brains behind some of the most innovative anime out today?”

What is Orientalism really? Well, as a quick aside — Orientalism is, to not mince words “the way that the West perceives of, and thereby defines, the East”. This definition, coined by theorist Edward Said best encapsulates the idea behind what’s seemingly happening here. The East; its products, practices, and ideas are treated as that of the “orient”. The exotic “other” to the otherwise normal “occident” that is the West.

I mean, c’mon, saying that anime writers must be deranged to be able to create these “dark, twisted, crazy” stories, is enough for any fan of the medium to realize how out of touch the tone of this documentary was. I’m no “anime expert” by any stretch (nor do I know what exactly being an “anime expert” entails), but I do know for a fact that not all anime is dark, twisted, and crazy nor was it ever about that. Sure, one of the things we can point to about how anime is different from cartoons is how the ceiling for mature content is higher for the former than it is for the latter, and from that lead-in you’d think that that train of thought was what the documentary was gonna pursue.

But no. Instead the notion that anime is “cool” and “edgy” because it goes against the grain of the societal norms of the otherwise orderly and conservative Japan gets further conflated by broad-strokes generalizations (from someone who, mind you, admitted to not knowing much if at all about the subject matter at hand) that were quite frankly baseless and simply untrue. For instance, in one of the interviews presented in the doc (with animator-turned-director Hirano Toshiki) he off-handedly states that one of his favorite lines from Baki was “I don’t give a f*ck” which is then followed up by Burunova saying that these were “the golden words of anime”; that “the point of anime” was “to take risks”, “to listen to nobody”, and “to abide by your own rules”. This is again referenced towards the end of the documentary, and in Burunova’s words:

“The thing that unifies anime and makes it special… is the way it makes you a part of something bigger than yourself. How it accepts you into this crazy community. And the way it makes you feel like you’re not alone. Made by misfits for other misfits.”

I wish I was making this up, if at least to prevent people from thinking that this was true, but alas, this is all very real and for the most part very wrong. I’m sorry to sound all high-and-mighty here. I hate to be the person telling people what they should or shouldn’t be doing (not that I think that my doing so would have that much of an effect if any at all for the person/s involved), but this is not how you go about introducing someone to anime — or to anything for that matter. What this does is only reinforce already-existing problems and beliefs that we have as a viewership like anime gatekeeping and otaku elitism. It does not define anime in the way that it thinks it does, and instead settles on a definition of anime that resonates with what Burunova and the team behind this documentary sees anime viewing culture as.

Which is why I say that ‘Enter the Anime’ is very Orientalist in its approach. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the fundamental question of “what is anime” got transposed with “why are the Japanese and anime fans so weird”, which almost immediately derailed their approach altogether. Burunova states that “to know anime” we have to “go to Japan” and that’s just not true, at least from a purely media standoint (again, first two weeks of CR are on me for whoever wants it). She continues to say that “to understand anime, we have to dive into the intricacies of Japanese culture, and the nuance of its way of life […]” which, to be fair, is a good way of going about it but…

“To understand anime, we have to dive into the intricacies of Japanese culture and the nuance of its way of life. How are we gonna do it? Food!

Yeah… Food. Right.

In Burunova’s attempt to define anime, she forgot to completely take herself out of the process. Everything was perceived through the lens of a Westerner with preconceived notions of what anime is as opposed to being a neutral party trying to understand something foreign to them. The end result is a very colored and insincere account that really doesn’t inform as much as it should, given that it is, at the end of the day a documentary. It’s interesting to note here that at one point Burunova actully jokes about documentaries being a horrible idea to learn about something (in this case she was trying to know more about Japan to understand anime) which, in hindsight is actually quite ironic given how little she was able to achieve in that department. Being informative that is.

I know, I know, I’m being a little bit too harsh, but I’ll have you know that I’m genuinely frustrated. Not because I felt attacked as an anime fan or anything of the sort, but because this was such a wasted opportunity to have a discussion on anime as something other than that weird thing from Japan that the misfits watch and love. It’s not often that some amount of time and money gets spent on talking about these things, and I’m pretty sure that a fair amount of effort went into making this documentary so if anything, you could say I’m just disappointed that these resources weren’t utilized in a better way.

WTH is this? lol

I’m pretty sure most of it went to the ludicrous amount video editing that went into this thing like, damn, a one-on-one interview doesn’t need 6000 transitions (xD). Seriously, at one point I was just watching one corner of the screen so I could focus on what was being said. Towards the end I also just opted to watch without audio to get myself away from the relentess EDM/dubstep that served as the primary backing track for most of the feature.

However, I do want to absolve Alex Burunova here a bit and assume that it was actually quite hard for Netflix to get someone to do this. She does admit early on that Netflix directly hired her, so we know this isn’t something she willingly threw her hat in for (I mean, really, would anyone other than a fan of anime host a documentary about anime of all things? xD). One of the most honest parts of “Enter The Anime” from Burunova was her empathizing with the anime creation process, and in that time I too couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Burunova who might’ve just been looking for her big break as a director when she got the call to do this and was ready to take on the biggest project she can get. I do respect her for bravery on that end and I wish her the best in her future endeavors.

Sure, Netflix hired me to do this. But it wasn’t just a job. It became an obsession. I had to find anime’s soul […]”

Another thing to consider here is that Netflix had complete vested interest in this project (being a Netflix-branded documentary), which meant that one of its primary functions was to promote Netflix’s anime library. This is also the reason why the only anime featured in this documentary were all titles you can watch on Netflix. This immediately kills objectivity in my opinion, and for the most part just makes “Enter The Anime” a sizzle reel of sorts for Netflix-produced anime, rather than it be representative of anime as a whole — both as a medium and as an industry.

All in all, this was just a poorly executed project that had a very promising premise and an ill-formed approach to go with it. In hindsight, the title of this documentary alone should have already been a red flag. “Enter The Anime”; implying that anime is some sort of closed off medium that needed to be entered, as is the gatekeeping culture we are now currently in. In reinforcing this in-group/out-group mentality, the documentary doesn’t really come across as an invitation to anime viewing culture than it does treat itself as an initiation. Where the overall focus ended up being on validating why anime and the anime sub-culture was so different from a Western norm, rather than understanding what inherently sets it apart from other forms of media.

“I feel like as an American, Japanese animation, as a medium, as an art form is a truly trans-genre medium. They have animation content for toddlers to young boys and girls to teens to adults to porn.”

It did very (and I mean very) briefly touch on some interesting concepts such as anime as a “trans-genre medium” (which is a term that I liked and haven’t come across anywhere else) in one of the interviews, and while the concept doesn’t really get explored as much as I woul have wanted, I did want to give that one singular moment some actual praise. Actually, If nothing else, I would only (and I mean only) really recommend a viewing of “Enter The Anime” for the interviews they ended up getting for it (that or you could just look-up a transcript for ’em, in which I wouldn’t blame you for doing so)

Otherwise, I again do not recommend this documentary if you yourself reading this now are curious about how to start getting into anime. If you’re already a fan of the medium and just want to see what this is all about, by all means do so but be warned (lol) that this is an uncomfortable watch, so you might wanna save it for a special occasion (xD). If you’ve already seen “Enter The Anime” (*high five* *pats on the back*) I’d love to compare notes on it down at the comments section below.

“The veil has been lifted. Enter the anime.

And that’s a wrap! If you made it all the way down here, thank you so much for your time. I hope it was a worthwhile read, and I’ll catch y’all again in my next post!

ーー

If it wasn’t all that apparent, I’m also putting this post up as part of Auri’s Animanga Festival! I’ve been drafting this post for a while now so when Auri sent me an invite to participate and I saw that it aligns with one of the events going on (specifically the (G)Rant Slam), I figured I might as well publish this one for it (as it ended up being fairly rant-y).

Apologies if this does sound a bit too tacked on as that is not at all my intention, but do check out what The Animanga Festival has in store for you guys if you haven’t yet. There’s a ton of awesome content out there right now so, what are you waiting for!?? Hop on over on Twitter and look up the tag #TheAnimangaFestival and you’re ready to roll!

If you made it here as part of The Animanga Festival, than I again would like to thank you for dropping by, and I hope you enjoyed your stay 🙂 Mine’s is going to be a very brief appearance over the course of this month-long event, but I’m glad to be able to somewhat participate, and ayy, don’t forget to greet Auri a Happy Bloggiversary!

Cheers everyone, and enjoy the rest of the festivities!

8 thoughts on “Musings on the Netflix Documentary “ENTER THE ANIME” and the Orientalism of Anime and Anime Viewing Culture

  1. sounds like a fun time. heh.
    it sounds cringy from the way you describe it. anime is, like, a big influence now. It’s the main reason I watch Steven Universe haha.
    it kinda has a 90s mindset when anime isn’t all that accessible, and its kinda funny that kind of mindset still exists.

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