The dichotomy of emotion vs logic is treated very similarly to the dichotomy of subjective vs objective. Emotion is seen as biased, as a way to cloud your fair judgement. Logic is seen as a means to judge anime on it’s own merits. I think this is an idea that fundamentally doesn’t work because fiction is made to elicit an emotional response from the audience. The emotion varies for each work, but there is an emotion the author wants you to feel.
So this begs the question. Is it possible to have a somewhat fair and objective review of something that elicited an emotional response in you? Let’s use sadness as an example. If an anime made you cry, is it a good anime? The logic purists would say no because your emotions are getting the better of you. I’m not a logic purist so I won’t say no, but I won’t definitively say yes either.
I think the discussion around emotion in anime, or really in any work of fiction can get a bit ridiculous. Ever heard of the term “emotional manipulation”? It’s basically a term used to mean a work is trying to force you to feel a certain set of emotions. It’s a criticism sometimes used towards shows that made people cry. The show is doing everything in its power to make you cry, manipulating your emotions, and clouding your fair judgement.
It’s such a ridiculous concept. Every work of fiction is emotionally manipulative to an extent because that is the point. If a show is sad, it might make you cry. In that situation, it did it’s job. Generally, this should be a good thing. I can understand where people are coming from when criticizing shows that are made to make the audience feel intense emotions, but the problem doesn’t lie with “emotional manipulation”. The problem lies with the emotions not being earned.
I don’t think a blanket statement “Anime that makes you emotional is good” makes any sense because there are lots of anime that made other people emotional are absolutely terrible. Obviously, an anime should’t try to make you cry just for the sake of making you cry. It makes it feel cheap, like getting the audience to cry is more important than any sort of message the show could convey. In this case, the audience’s emotions are getting the better of their fair judgement.
So when it comes to emotion in anime, how does one determine whether the emotional response is the result of the show being good, or the result of the author forcefully trying to elicit that response regardless of the quality of writing? It’s a hard question to answer using a simple response.
Probably the best way to make that determination is to ask WHY the work made you emotional.
Was it emotional because simply because it’s a sad scene or did the scene actually have real meaning that resonated with you? When put like this, it seems simple. But there are situations that complicate the matter.
Let’s use character deaths as an example. Was the death of a character emotional because you liked the character that died? The answer to this question alone isn’t enough to make the determination on whether the work, or even just the scene, was good or bad. The scene could be good or bad for both answers.
If the answer is yes, you would need to determine how good the character actually was. Did the character have a fully developed character arc? Did their character arc have an affect on other characters in the show? If the answer to either of these questions are yes, that is a good sign. But what if you only liked the character because they were cool? Maybe you liked their design or their special powers. In this situation, the emotional response wouldn’t have been earned. It’s only there because you had an attachment to a character that is now gone. But what have you actually lost? An character who’s growth had an affect on you as a person, or a character that is cool.
If the answer to the first question is no, that brings up a different situation. You’d think you would need to be really attached to a character to feel emotional when they die, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the death of a character can have an effect on the characters around them. The ones still alive mourn the loss and it can even help them grow as characters. You might not have had a personal attachment to the character that died, but you feel what the characters that are still alive feel. If this isn’t the case for you and you still get emotional over the death of a character you never cared for, maybe you just get emotional very easily and it’s hard to say one way or another how good the scene was.
But let’s flip the script now. Let’s approach this issue with an emotion that has a more negative connotation when it comes to the quality of a show. Say for example, disgust. A character does something that has you disgusted. If you feel disgusted, was it a good or a bad scene?
If a scene was meant to be disgusting, you might think that it is a good scene. Sometimes characters are created specifically to do terrible things to get a disgusted reaction out of the audience. Technically, it did the job the writer wanted it to. But what if the character in question is just some generic psycho who serves no other purpose than to appease an audience infatuated with crazy characters? Then the disgust felt might not be a good thing. It might not just be disgust at their actions, but also the way the character is written. It might even be disgust at the author for how they portrayed something. Maybe the scene was only disgusting to you, and might not have disgusted other people, which brings a whole slew of new questions. Maybe the character isn’t a generic psycho but the scene was out of character or out of place. But disgust can also be a good way to portray something bad in an effort to criticize it, such as with anime that show problematic content in an effort to criticize it. In this case, disgust serves a genuine purpose.
When it comes to a wide variety of emotions anime, or any medium, can elicit, it becomes a complex subject to determine if it did it well. Even asking yourself why it created those emotions can raise a bunch of other questions. I would have loved to use more specific examples to explain my points, but that would require spoiling anime in a general topic, and I don’t want a general topic to gatekeep people who haven’t seen the anime I used as examples.
Instead of using terms like “emotional manipulation”, I think there are betters ways people can approach the idea of how emotions affect people in anime and how that affects the quality of a show. Ultimately, an anime eliciting certain emotions in a person doesn’t means the show is good, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad either. It requires a more thorough examination into why the show made you feel that way and how the author was able to achieve it.
I want to end off this post by explaining how certain anime affected me emotionally. I will try to be vague to avoid spoilers. I don’t wanna go through too many anime as I could ramble on forever, so I will just pick the ones that impacted me the most.
First I want to talk about Sword Art Online. Sinon was a character who suffered PTSD due to an event from her past. The most emotional moment in her character arc was the end where she faces her past and comes to accept and love herself in spite of what happened. A good way to get me emotional is to have a character overcome something that overwhelmed them and to get over self-hatred. As one who has had to deal with undeserved self-loathing, seeing a character overcome that really struck a cord with me. Other examples of shows that did something similar was The Ancient Magus’ Bride, A Certain Magical Index, Boogiepop and Others, and The Idolmaster. I would love to talk about the Mother’s Rosario arc too but that is going down major spoiler territory.
Another anime with a huge emotional impact on me is A Certain Magical Index, which I mentioned earlier, and A Certain Scientific Railgun. It wasn’t sad scenes in particular that got me emotional watching this show. For Touma, it was his acts of kindness and motivational speeches and actions that got me emotional. He is a great person who I honestly aspire to be more like. He is one who truly believes in doing what’s best for those he cares about. He would never think about doing something that causes others to suffer, regardless of the justification for it. He also embodies what it truly means to be altruistic. Let’s ignore the paradox of altruism for a second which is a nonsense concept to begin with. Touma helps people because he wants to. He doesn’t need a justification to do it. He does it because it’s right and he wants to see those around him happy. A quote like “you don’t need a reason to save someone” holds more emotional weight to me than any death scene could ever hold, and is one of my favorite lines in anime.
It’s for this reason that similar characters and scenarios also hold as much emotional weight to me, such as Astolfo in Fate/Apocrypha. He had a truly kind nature and wanted the best for everyone. Lines as simple as “Live, you’re allowed to now” are able to hold such emotional weight for me because the world is so shitty, that acts of kindness in spite of it really make me feel a longing for an ideal goodness to be realized. Planet With resonated with me emotionally for similar reasons with its ideals about forgiveness and empathy.
Getting back to Index, we also have Accelerator, a character who also undergoes a character arc of learning to love oneself and wanting to be good in spite of the guilt he holds for all the bad he has done. We have Shiage Hamazura who resolves to overcome his toxic worldview and to help the people he cares about regardless of his lack of power. Both of these character’s arc showed huge amounts of character growth. The payoff was so satisfying that it had such an emotional impact that is hard for me to to describe with any sort of adjective. It’s because of this that I realized how much meaningful character growth really has an effect on my emotions, at least a lot more than it did a few years ago.
It’s for this reason that the character arcs of Mikoto Misaka and Ruiko Saten from Railgun also has a large emotional impact on me. Mikoto Misaka also deals with self-hatred for circumstances that weren’t her fault for she feels responsible. Ruiko Saten feels inferiority due to being a level 0 and struggles to find her own sense of self-worth. In a way these characters somewhat mirror Accelerator and Shiage Hamazura in some ways, despite the large difference in circumstances.
The franchise as a whole has always made it a point to humanize most of it’s villains. A decent amount of them aren’t truly malicious, and even turn good for the most part. It really allows you to sympathize with them, even if you don’t condone their actions. Sometimes it even makes you feel just as bad for them as any of the people they hurt. It’s a common theme in many of the arcs in Index as well as in the Level Upper arc in Railgun, which I think is one of the best examples of what I’m talking about. The Poltergeist arc in Railgun resolves a conflict in the Level Upper arc that has some of the greatest emotional payoff I’ve seen in anime.
The last show I wanted to discuss is The Idolmaster. This anime is not tonally consistent throughout. Generally you would think this to be a bad thing, but Idolmaster is a very episodic show. Each episode has it’s own focus in terms of character and tone. But each episode was so sharply focused on what it set out to do that it always elicited the correct emotional response with ease. Humorous episodes had me dying of laughter. Wholesome episodes gave me a cheesy grin on my face. But it could also get dark when it wanted to and those heartbreaking emotional scenes managed to hit all the right notes, especially in Chihaya’s arc, where she has to overcome her past and find her love for singing again, as well as Haruka’s arc which has her relearning what made her want to be an idol in the first place so that she could renew her passion for her craft. As absurd of a show Idolmaster could be, due to it’s careful attention to the way it portrayed the character’s personal issues, it managed to also be one of the most emotionally rewarding anime I’ve ever watched, to the point where I consider episode 20 of the show to be my single favorite anime episode.
I could go on forever listing scenes that made me emotional in anime but if I was to cover everything, I could be here for hours. But these anime in particular had some of the most notable emotional impacts on me, and hopefully I was able to explain why without spoiling.
So I want to leave off this blog asking you what you think makes a good emotional scene or what makes you emotional, and to give examples of anime that made you emotional. I also encourage you to determine why a certain anime elicited such emotions, so we can better understand the media we consume, and to hopefully create a more fair metric for how we judge the way anime, or fiction in general, affects us emotionally and how that affects the quality of the work.