[Editorial Tuesday] Breaking the 4th Wall In Anime

Anime is a medium we enjoy for various reasons. However, many of us note that the perspective of storytelling is a completely different one to Western cartoons as well as Chinese and Korean equivalents. Be that as it may, there is a particular technique that is common to all these various storytelling techniques and media: breaking through the fourth wall. We will explain exactly what that entails, as well as what its implications are on any individual show, as well as the full-scale impact on anime as a medium. Most of the time, these are some of the funniest, the wittiest and even the most memorable moments in anime. So let’s get to it!

So, uh, breaking what?

First, we need to understand exactly what it means when a character Breaks the Fourth Wall. The concept of the fourth wall has its origins in theatre, by some accounts. The idea is that a room will have three walls and the so-called “Fourth” wall was the barrier separating the story, setting and characters from the audience. When a character breaches this fourth wall by violating certain properties of its fictional existence, we call this “Breaking the Fourth Wall”. This is often ripe with comedy and in the contexts of the stories in question at the time, the characters question their very existence. The philosophical content behind the Fourth Wall concept is quite interesting when one thinks about it further and we will slowly explore one of the most enjoyable techniques of modern fiction.

What exactly needs to happen for it to be a Fourth Wall break?

Overall, Fourth Wall breaks are very easy to spot and they are not necessarily the most complex technique ever observed in fiction. The main characteristic is the way in which characters in anime, manga, books, theatre, et cetera, become self-aware. This self-awareness is something that most of us would say we relate to on a fairly significant level; or so we’d expect given some schools of thought in influencing society to place self-awareness as an intrinsically human trait. Thus, these characters, by a minor stretch of the imagination, become human. In becoming aware of the true nature of their own environment, or of their own character, fictional characters perhaps become akin to the audience. Another way in which characters break the Fourth Wall is simply through interacting with you – the audience.

Okay, but why do we care?

At first glance, it is very simple to reduce the significance of Fourth Wall Breaks to the immense humour factor that they create; however, there may be a little bit more to the concept than what we think. Now we need to get to thinking: what other value does the Fourth Wall Break have? Perhaps there is something we can draw out of this technique that gives us insight into people in general. Fourth Wall Breaks are characters coming to understand the weight of their very existence and accepting that it amounts to very little. This is expressed in different ways, obviously, but it is eerily similar to the way in which humankind has contemplated its own existence. We have Fourth Wall Breaks of our own, in some ways.

For as far back as we can go, there is evidence of people conjuring up various ways to summarise and interpret the human experience. For one, René Descartes arriving at the conclusion that “I think, therefore I am,” was a manner in which people in real life have managed to break through the fourth wall and enquire about the very basis of what it is that allows beings to be. In that same way, anime characters temporarily gain insight into their very being and make us laugh while doing it. For instance, take the anime Binbougami-ga!, a high school comedy about 16-year-old Ichijou Sakura, an extremely beautiful, extremely talented, wealthy golden girl born with abnormally high good fortune. As a result, she literally saps the happiness out of the people around her – a classic utility monster. The show makes several references to the fact that Sakura is the main character and in one hilarious case, someone in her class asks the teacher about the sudden high rate of transfer students into their class. The teacher replied, “Oh, that’s because this is the main character’s class.” This blatant expression of the character roles by the teacher was a hilarious Fourth Wall Break: it highlighted the chartered, or “prescribed” lives the characters are aware they’re living.

How does this relate to us? Many of us feel that the vast majority of people feel compelled to subscribe to a basic framework with regards to the progression of their lives. We are born, we grow up, attend school, college, work, procreate then die. Fourth Wall Breakers are experiencing such a philosophical moment and because they are able to experience existential crisis, could it be that they mirror real psychology and life better than we thought. Looking at things this way gives the stories we love and enjoy a new dimension as it means that characters feel more real.

Some amazing Fourth Wall Breaks

Talking all about Fourth Wall Breaks without mentioning a few just wouldn’t be right, so prepare yourselves for self-realisation and awareness in anime in some of the most entertaining settings.

  • In the Boku no Hero Academia manga, in the beginning when Midoriya meets All Might, Midoriya in his hysterical fanboying over All Might even took note of the fact that All Might is drawn in a different style, nodding over to the idea that Deku knows that he is a drawing in a sea of drawings. Unfortunately, this exchange was not included in the anime.
  • Bleach characters being completely aware of how unnatural it is for Kurosaki Ichigo to have orange hair – the very title of the show is in some accounts, a reference to the idea that other Bleach characters initially believe that Ichigo bleached his hair in order to achieve his current carrot look.
  • Osomatsu-san, 2015’s pilot episode featured parodies of the vast majority of the major anime/manga franchises. In its Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) reference during that episode, one of the Osomatsu brothers was positioned in front of a Colossal Chibita in a manner reminiscent of Attack on Titan Season 1, Episode 5, when the Colossal Titan returns. In this scene, Choromatsu says “Yo, it’s been 27 years,” in reference to the fact that the Osomatsu series was being animated again for the first time after a 27-year-long absence.


Conclusion

Fourth Wall Breaks are an old trope that has been used for centuries – literally. It spices up the media it touches and creates a particular connection then and there between the audience and the character, as well the particular story in question. Anime just so happens to be one such medium, one which gracefully takes the trope and makes it work. Fourth Wall Breaks are not only a great experience for the audience, they also show a level of wit on behalf of the author. Are there any Fourth Wall Breaks in anime that you enjoyed? Drop a comment below and tell us all about it!

Hoshi-kun

Writer

Author: Hoshi-kun

I’m South African, harbouring an obsession for anything remotely related to Japan, mostly anime, of course. I draw sometimes. Some people call me Naledi, it’s my real name, or something like that. People think I’m stoic because I don’t smile often (I do sometimes). I like languages. Hoshi-kun and Naledi are the same side of the same coin.

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