In last week’s article, we talked about evaluating anime in terms of their ability to deliver rewatchable moments for us viewers. The place of the “rewatchability ratio” as the first in our series of evaluation ratios is no accident because it is one of the most important factors from which I personally derive utility in viewing an anime. As such, before leaving the topic entirely, I felt it would be interesting to take a look at one of the reasons why rewatchability is so important to me.
Those of you who read the previous article may have noticed my extremely high threshold for rewatchability (over 100 viewings). In fact I tend to watch a particularly enjoyable episode 3 to 8 times almost immediately depending on how much I like it. For my absolute favorite episodes (ex. the endings of Last Exile, Gurren Lagann, and Wolf’s Rain TV) I watch them for days on end (probably in excess of 50 times) and return to them periodically when the fancy strikes. In addition to these viewings (whole episodes), I will rewatch moments within them (ex. Kamina’s death, Anemone’s reunion with Dominic, Youko’s Inaugural Address) about 3 times per viewing, averaging around 150 viewings within 1 month of seeing the episode for the first time. Further, at work, I have a collection of my favorite anime eps, as well as bits I have spliced, which I listen to just like you would a radio drama. That’s about 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week (excluding holidays), 12 months a year.
This behavior fundamentally alters the way I derive utility from anime I watch. Generally, I tend to have fonder memories of anime that provide me with rewatchable moments simply because I generate more utility per minute due to selective rewatching. For example, I actually love Brain Powered (an anime generally agreed upon to be atrocious) because of exactly 2 moments in the later episodes that I watched more than all the episodes of the entire series combined.
But the concept of utility is really a nebulous one. While we can certainly say that we derive utility from watching anime, dissecting the factors of an anime that bring us utility is a far more difficult task to undertake. This is due in no small part to not only subjectively, but at times subliminally (sometimes we don’t really know why something brings us utility), determined utility criteria. As such, I find myself looking for non-quantitative ways to explain utility derived from my anime consumption patterns.
Milan Kundera has given me an interesting way of framing my utility from this behavior via the concept of eternal recurrence.
First, a background. The quick Wikipedia definition of eternal recurrence is:
“Eternal return (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times…
The basic premise is that the universe is limited in extent and contains a finite amount of matter, while time is viewed as being infinite. The universe has no starting or ending state, while the matter comprising it is constantly changing its state. The number of possible changes is finite, and so sooner or later the same state will recur.
…Nietzsche calls the idea “horrifying and paralyzing”, and says that its burden is the “heaviest weight” (“das schwerste Gewicht”) imaginable.”
In his book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” however, Kundera seems to posit an opposing hypothesis which assigns an equally terrible insignificance that pervades ones existence in a transient world (which we assume is the real world). In fact, his remarkable book begins with the following:
“(H)ow can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated with the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine… (there is a) profound moral perversity in a world that rests, essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything is cynically permitted.”
More from Wikipedia:
“Assuming that eternal return were impossible, humankind would experience an ‘absolute absence of burden,’ and this would ‘[cause] man to be lighter than air’ in his lack of weight of meaning. Something which does not forever recur has its brief existence, and, once it is complete, the universe goes on existing, utterly indifferent to the completed phenomenon. ‘Life which disappears once and for all, which does not return’ writes Kundera, is ‘without weight…and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime…means nothing.’ Each life is insignificant; every decision does not matter. Since decisions do not matter, they are ‘light’: they do not tie us down. However, at the same time, the insignificance of our decisions – our lives, or being – is unbearable. Hence, ‘the unbearable lightness of being.'”
In his words, where an existence defined by eternal recurrence can be paralyzing in its weight, an existence defined by the non-existence of return can be equally terrible in its lightness. Further, Kundera questions whether eternal recurrence, is really that terrible at all:
“But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?
Te heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”
The dichotomy between weight and lightness, between permanence and transience becomes the central focus of the book and its characters.
But what is the world of fiction, and anime in particular, other than an artificially created world of eternal return? Working under this assumption then, that events that occur in the realm of eternal recurrence have more weight, are more real than events that occur in an world where things happen only once, these imagined worlds take on a weightier reality than our own lives, even our own recorded history. How can an anime character escape from his context when that context is revealed again and again in its entirety? Have we managed to transcend the unbearable lightness of our existence through narrative?
Not exactly. I propose 3 levels of experiencing a text:
1. The text from the eyes of a character within it. This is a world where things only happen once. (ie. To Simon, Kamina dies only once)
2. The text from the eyes of a viewer who has suspended disbelief. The viewer accepts the events in the text as true for the characters within the text. The viewer is a visitor to their world. Not outside looking in. (i.e. To me, Euphie is a real person, and she died in episode 23).
3. The text from the perspective of a viewer who is no longer actively reading it. (i.e. Kamina is a character in Gurren Lagann, an anime sitting on the DVDs on my shelf).
In the first and third levels, the experience retains its transient nature. To Simon, Kamina will only die once, I will also watch his death specifically before my final exam only once. Thus, as we get farther away from the time of the event/specific viewing, the power of its context is lost or changed.
However, what is of interest to us is is the second level of experience (#2) wherein we are, for a moment, immersed in the text. I’m sure you are all familiar with the “waking” sensation you get at the end of a particularly engrossing movie or show. For that brief moment wherein your disbelief is suspended, the events unfolding before you are true. And more importantly, by the very nature of a narrative, all the necessary context of an event lies before you and will be present in subsequent rewatchings. If a world of eternal recurrence is one where things happen again and again in all the power of their context, then by rewatching something repeatedly while my disbelief is suspended, I enter that magical realm where events eternally recur. There is an immortality that I share with these characters as an observer in their world.
Moments in anime, as we experience them are light. More than that, they are not even real. But because they are replicable in all the power of their context, they can be, to us, more real that the food we ate this morning. However, shouldn’t there be an unbearable weight associated with this kind of existence? Not in this case. For one thing, since my role is that of an observer, I share none of the responsibility for the events unfolding before me. More importantly, prior to my suspension of disbelief, I make a conscious choice to rewatch only events that give me pleasure. It is a world of eternal recurrence, but devoid of undesirable events. An eternal existence where only good/awesome/pleasurable things happen to me.
Hmmmm… A world where only good things happen repeatedly… sounds like heaven to me!