Bateszi and Celeste recently posted an ingenious 2-part feature talking about an interview with Dai Sato, creator of Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo, as well as having been a contributor to other series. You can find the interview here.
What struck me in particular about the interview was the quote here: (emphasis mine)
Sato was upset with the lack of respect for stories in Japan… Sadly, he believes that fans are losing their media literacy – the ability to read narratives and stories and the meanings in the background.
What Sato talks about here is something in literature known as intertextuality, the literary context in which a work takes place, as well as the allusions it makes to other works. I think the real bitter pill for him to swallow is perhaps that in today’s world of hypertext links and Wikipedia – in spite of the easy access to information and the ability for viewers to quickly grasp at allusions – viewers are losing the whole ability to get intertextuality, and understand allusions outside of the medium.
Consider three of his works – Wolf’s Rain, Ergo Proxy, and Eureka Seven – all three evoke images and sensibilities that viewers can only get outside of the animated sphere – Wolf’s Rain creates folklore and mythology in its prophetic narratives; Ergo Proxy grapples with themes from cyberpunk science fiction and existential philosophy; and Eureka Seven grooves to musical and social upheavals from various counterculture movements during the last few decades. I’ve always found all his works brilliant for that reason – they’re crafted for very specific audiences but still retain some appeal even without it.
The flip-side of this, and what I think what he is really complaining about with the trend of K-ON (“kuuki-kei” or “atmospheric-type”) and the like, is that intertextuality in anime is becoming increasingly incestuous. The vast majority of allusions strike me as “otaku-isms”: simple reference-drops to other animated works (always Japanese ones, of course) or other aspects of the entire culture. While fascinating perhaps in an anthropological sense, it does create a certain barrier to the casual viewer (not to mention it may be construed as a breach of professional ethics). I think there’s some truth to this – to the untested viewer who has never cut their teeth on anything animated aside from Disney, K-ON is the last thing I would recommend. On the flip-side, I think the intertextuality behind shows like Wolf’s Rain, Eureka Seven, and Ergo Proxy is precisely what makes them feel so very mature – it gives them a certain weight that no amount of gratuitous sex and violence can accomplish.