There’s a certain type of anime — and it’s not just anime, but that’s the easiest example for me to draw upon — that I feel like I love if only I had seen it as a teenager. Most recently, this came up with Boogiepop Phantom, which has fantastic directorial flair but little of value to say beyond “man, aren’t teenagers disaffected?” What I’m talking about here isn’t a guilty pleasure, not really. Guilty pleasures are trashy, but these works are anything but. While I’m hesitant to use the word, the specific phrase I’d use for these would be either ‘pretentious’ or ‘relatively vapid’. These sort of works appeal to a very particular feeling of adolescence, where you’re alienated from those around you and have only finally reached the level of maturity necessary to realize that the beautiful world you thought existed as a child was actually tainted to its core.
But, let’s be real: that adolescent realization is just as juvenile as it seems, and any work that someone latches onto as a teenager for portraying that worldview is going to have a much harder time succeeding with someone who’s moved on from pure Doomer-mode aesthetics. That being said, it’s not as if I dislike these works purely out of their adolescent natures. As an anime fan, I can hardly claim to be opposed to “immature” art, and that goes doubly so given that Nanoha is one of my favorite series. Painting a portrait of the maladies inherent to adolescence is not necessarily a bad thing, because adolescence is an important period in ever person’s life and it deserves its own art.
The issue, I think, is that this kind of work fail to portray the actual breadth of adolescence, which might be why they end up being so popular among depressed teenagers. Adolescence is scary and opens one up to the dangers and pain of the world, but it also offers beautiful new experiences and a deepening maturity which allows burgeoning adults to appreciate much of life’s peculiarities in a more meaningful way.
Depression, however, can cut one off from this, making the evil visible while covering up the good. Depression can last for someone’s entire life, but the longer you have it the more you adapt to it, and so its adolescent form will naturally lose some of its relatability to an older audience. This is, at the very least, my best guess for why I don’t enjoy Gunslinger Girl and Boogiepop; they’re simply too focused on the immediate teenage feeling of realizing the world is fucked up. When Gunslinger Girl consistently portrays a group of girls who’ve had awful lives to the point of being conditioned into absolute obedience to men whose care for them is contingent on their tools as weapons, I certainly see how people could relate to it, but only if they themselves were in a fairly dark place. There is no room for real, lasting joy or human goodness in a world like Gunslinger Girl, and even when it tries to portray those feelings it comes across as jarring and subtly wrong.
Still, after arguing it out with Lachlan — who cares a lot about Boogiepop and especially Gunslinger Girl — it’s hard to say that I’m immune this myself, as someone who was once a depressed teenager. Something like Evangelion is good enough on its own terms, and expansive enough in what it’s saying, that I suspect I’d care about it even if I watched it for the first time now. But can I really say that’s true for, say, Lain? That show’s got a lot of issues with its script and while I feel now like it’s much less relentlessly depressive than the shows I’m thinking of, that could very well be an opinion born of my own lingering fondness for the show.
What, then, is the primary difference? To some extent, of course, it’s surely that I actually watched Lain as a teenager, which I didn’t do for the other shows. I also think that Lain is simply a better series than the other two in spite of its flaws, with a more convincing narrative. Yet, there is one other cause that I think is worth noting, which is just how sterile the other two shows are. Lain shares a number of narrative and formal elements with the two shows I’m talking about here — as does Kino’s Journey which has the same director as Lain and some remarkably similar directorial decisions to Boogiepop Phantom — and yet all the life feels removed the ones I’m not fond of, and not in a positive sense.
It seems to me that if you’re going to focus on adolescence, it’s important both to show the beauty that becomes apparent at the time as well as the absolute complexity of life itself. All kinds of anime, alongside other regions of mass culture, suffer from their exclusivity. Focus on the topic at hand is important, but taking that too far makes it impossible to meaningfully communicate anything about the human condition at large. Where these dreary adolescent works fail — and they fail outside of anime just as surely as in it — is in refusing to make their portrayals of a specific period and condition into a more general and universal commentary which goes beyond saying that humans can sometimes be bad. In this refusal, it’s only natural that they’d become something that only a teenager could love in a way that’s not true for other equally dark works.