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Before we start with the “treatment”, we should warn everyone here that this article includes sensitive content that is not suitable for all ages. If you are a minor or have mental health issues yourself, you will find triggers all over the place. In such cases, please consider to pick up another article instead.
It is true that a lot of people watch anime to distract themselves and have fun, but there are a few of us that love to dissect the characters, the story and find the whys behind the action. Sometimes those whys are so dark or illogical that we wonder if the character is sane. Take into account that we are going beyond some spontaneous and/ or uneventful eccentricity here. We are not talking about rude looking characters who like to collect knitting patterns.
Mental health deals with diseases that overturn daily life or that even pose a threat to life. These diseases cause changes in thoughts and/or behaviors. But, how can we distinguish what is healthy, especially in such a realm as the complicated world of the human mind? Thoughts and emotions can be so subjective… And how do we see mental health reflected in anime? We will try to clarify a little on such topics on this article.
So, what can we say about mental health?
For beginners, we can see that there is a bigger awareness of mental health in recent years. Not so long ago, terms such as depression or schizophrenia belonged to the psychiatrist’s office. We can almost picture Freud asking uncomfortable questions to a patient lying over a couch. Nevertheless, Japan has remained quite shy regarding mental illnesses. A society used to hard work and privacy regarding their personal life does not openly discuss the circumstances about their high suicide rate, for example. And we must be careful here, as not all lost lives are due to the same causes. Plus, not all mental illnesses are fatal or are triggered immediately.
It might be surprising for many that there are over 200 identified types of mental illnesses. A rough classification based on the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders could be as follows:
- Dissociative disorders: examples include amnesia and dissociative identity disorder.
- Eating disorders: most common examples include anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
- Learning disorders: usually present from childhood. Also called developmental disorders.
- Personality disorders: they go from antisocial disorder to psychosis. They are probably the most well-known types.
- Sexual disorders: includes masochism, sadism and voyeurism.
- Sleep disorders: examples include insomnia and narcolepsy (too much sleep).
- Others: includes phobias.
Talking about so many diseases would be challenging for one article, so we will focus mainly on two categories: eating and personality disorders. These are health problems that are familiar to people in Japan also, so we will see them depicted often in anime. And this is the point where things get complicated, as anime is fiction. Taking into account that mental illnesses have to be properly diagnosed by a professional, their symptoms are not always obvious, and/or they can be combined with other issues, we have the perfect recipe for their improper usage in the anime world. But let’s look at some examples on the following sections.
Mental health issues treated in a superficial way.
It often happens that we are enjoying our favorite anime show and some character ends up belittled, beaten or flying away through the skies because the said character said or acted in a way that prompted annoyance in someone else. The scene can be funny, but is there something else going on behind?
Take Megumi, the protagonist of Nodame Cantabile. She has all the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as she finds hard to follow instructions and lives in a very messy way before Chiaki crosses her path. And what does Chiaki (who eventually becomes Megumi’s boyfriend) do? Yell at her, beat her, throw her to the bathtub and clean up her mess, in that order. For a highly intelligent man, Chiaki fails to notice that his lady might need a little bit of professional help to adult in a better way. And do not start us on the topic of codependency here...
Or maybe yes, as there is another anime that gives us a clear example. That would be Nana Komatsu, from Nana. Perhaps in order to make her character contrast more with the other protagonist (Nana Oosaki), she was portrayed as a girl with few aspirations in life and a tendency to follow “shiny” people. It was the other Nana who gave her the nickname of Hachi, a joke based on their names and her dog-like personality. This also was a running gag throughout the anime, and we see Hachi happily accepting it. It might look funny, but perhaps only Nobu among the cast of characters tried to help Hachi to stand for herself instead of being looked down, as some sort of mascot. And well, this is because the characters of Nana tend to support Hachi’s immaturity and underachieving nature. If we add her low self esteem and her admiration for Takumi, we end up with her unhappy marriage. We can see the result of Hachi’s codependency, but do we as audience translate that to our real lives?
To be looked down could be considered typical in Japanese society. It even has a specific name: Chuunibyo, which roughly translates to “Middle school second year syndrome”. As you can infer, this arrogant and looking down attitude is expected to occur on the second grade of middle school. Only some characters never outgrow it, right? Although such an attitude can help the story move forward, once you think about it twice, it is kinda crazy to have such a character that never changes their extreme ways. This is the case of Tomoko Kuroki from Watamote. Our protagonist is socially inept and tries to become popular but fails spectacularly (and comically at times). So yes, it can be funny. But what happens in reality? Chuunibyos lack empathy for others, which causes disharmony on interpersonal relationships. Thus, being an unattended Chuunibyo has consequences beyond bullying others at middle school. It is hard to work with such people, right?
But let’s get to more touchy subjects, shall we? Who remembers Aiko from Say “I love you”? She is famous for stating that she lost 20 kgs. in a month to get Yamato. The problem is that Aiko overuses makeup and keeps worried about her weight. Say “I love you” is sending the wrong message, as Aiko’s eating disorder is portrayed in a too casual way. We already have too much attention to idealized female bodies in anime in general (at least more than in the case of male characters).
Finally, we will talk about Osamu Dazai, from Bungou Stray Dogs. He is the comic relief of the story and his motto is to “have a pure, cheerful and energetic suicide”. Em… if you are not uncomfortable with taking suicide as a joke, you should know that this character has a real life counterpart. Osamu Dazai is one of the most popular post Meiji era writers in Japan. He was so conflicted between his moral and political beliefs, and his rich family’s demands, that he tried to commit suicide several times in his life… succeeding on his last attempt in a double suicide. So, it is a demeaning decision to honour his legacy with a comical character that talks about suicide in such a light hearted way. In short, we are not doing any favor to characters with mental health problems by using them as comic relief, as this attitude could be transferred to people in real life. Portraying them as funny only makes us distant from their suffering and from the suffering of their real life counterparts.
Another big issue is when a character is so exaggerated that his/her mental issue is misinterpreted. Thus, personality disorders get mixed in the anime realm. For example, a stalker is often portrayed also as a murderous psycho, as seen in the second episode of Jigoku Shoujo. People who have been treated unfairly or have received strong shocks seek vengeance in twisted ways too, like Miyo Takano in Higurashi no naku koro ni. The truth is that personality disorders have different severity levels. Psychosis can go from having spontaneous hallucinations from time to time, to always perceive reality in a distorted way. The hallucinations can be visual, auditive and/or tactile. They can also be innocuous or horrifying, but the person who perceives them can be in control. People with severe psychotic episodes can be a danger more to themselves than to others, but that is rarely seen, not to mention explained in an anime.
And how about portraying scientists and doctors as having some sort of mental illness? This does not help much to such professions that require long years of training and dedication in order to save human lives. An example can be Dr. Ichiro Irabu from Kuuchuu Buranko, who enjoys giving injections to his patients for no reason whatsoever. Dr. Irabu’s apparently absurd methods to cure mental illnesses work, but he is portrayed in such a weird fashion that the character can incite fear and mistrust. Mental illnesses are among the most undertreatment illnesses in our world, and such characterizations do not motivate someone to go and seek professional help. It also does not help that there is stigma when someone openly accepts they have a problem and/or seek professional help. Patients are generically labelled as “crazy” by the society and ostracized. So, the typical anime crazy doctor is part of the problem.
We also have mental delusions, where one can perceive oneself in a distorted manner. Sometimes this can be kinda positive, but took to the extreme, we get narcissism and megalomanías. Many great evil characters in anime have symptoms for both (Light Yagami from Death note and Lelouch from Code Geass are great examples). We see these two extremely intelligent guys defying whole “justice” systems. What is problematic is when such characters have so much charisma that their actions end up being justified. So, we see Misa and Nunnally practically worshipping Light and Lelouch. In turn, the audience can also be prompted to justify and admire them.
Finally, we have to discuss depression. Let’s take Lucy from Elfen Lied, who is a murderous and depressed research subject with super powers. For most of the show, Kouta (the protagonist) deals well with her. But well, he is a kid when he makes his first mistake with Lucy (to lie so that she won’t be jealous). Plus, the end of the anime makes Lucy disappear, instead of dealing with her problems. It is like she is far beyond repair, which is a dangerous message. Actually, most people in the world believe that mental illnesses do not have remedy, when in truth, they have. It is just very difficult to make people accept they need help and go through treatment, which can be long and tiring depending on the nature of their problem. Telling such people to simply “get over it” only worsens their condition. Also, depression can have a very specific cause (like postpartum depression) or be experienced for very long periods of time. So, instead of killing characters with such problems, it would be nice to see them receiving help.
As depression is a little more openly accepted in Japanese society, it has won a considerable portion of protagonism in animes. We want to mention Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kara no kyoukai and Welcome to the NHK, just to cite a few. Perfect blue was a masterpiece in showing paranoia and psychosis in a honest way. As for less known mental illnesses, Sound of the Sky portrayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), which is common among victims of war and violent crime. And how about Kokone’s stuttering in Aquarion Logos? She is shown slowly and naturally overcoming it as the anime advances.
Conclusion: How dark is the dark side?
One as otaku can argue that anime is not reality, and that characters who have glimpses of mental illnesses add an interesting layer to the story. We must agree that we can get hours of fun by discussing characters in online forums or conventions if we have gray areas in the plot. Nevertheless, mental illnesses do not necessarily have to be taken lightly, exaggerated or mistakenly portrayed in order to make a good anime.
It would be nice if new anime portrayed more diverse mental illnesses without exaggerating them or making ill people feel uncomfortable. The old remedy of having a strong backup (family, friends) and an informed and accepting society could be shown in the plots more often as well. All in all, anime represents an excellent opportunity to discuss such issues. But what do you guys think? Has an anime made you feel uncomfortable about a mental illness? Has anime made you understand more about mental health, or has it confused you? Let’s not forget that we love to hear your comments and questions. See you soon!