WET AND DRY
When I'm not living in the Real World, I keep up a pretty active fantasy life. Most of it has to do with a place called Mobius.
In the fall of 1993, when I was in the process of learning my way around the Internet, I also taped some Saturday morning cartoons so I could keep up with the conversations on the rec.arts.animation newsgroup. The one show I really fell hard for was one I didn't hold out much hope for when I first heard about it: "Sonic the Hedgehog." I know, it's not an anime; I'll get to the topic, just bear with me for a few paragraphs.
Far from being a half-hour commercial for the video games as I had feared, it actually offered a rather compelling premise, extremely well-defined and sympathetic characters, and some of the best voice work I'd ever heard. One of the things that impressed me most about the show, however, was the writing, specifically the ability to blend the serious and the comic.
I do not, however, hold the Sonic the Hedgehog comic published by Archie Comics in anything like the same high esteem. In fact, I've sort of made a cottage industry out of pointing out the weakness of each issue. One of the biggest flaws with the comic is the editorial insistence that the book's core audience of pre-adolescent boys dictates that certain topics and certain treatments are strictly off-limits. One of the biggest taboos is tears. Sonic should never, EVER, cry.
In the language of Japanese popular culture, Archie wants the comic to be "dry."
"Dry" and "wet" are two of the major emotional states of anime and manga. As explained by Fred Schodt, comics that are action-oriented tend to be "dry." Girl's comics, with their emphases on romance and emotion, are wet. But while it would seem that these categories argue for sexual segregation and mutual exclusion, manga and anime display a lot of crossover. There are numerous anime with both wet and dry elements, and they manage to coexist.
Case in point: "Monster Rancher."
In this anime series, a boy named Genki is transported via a CD-ROM to an alternate world where humans and monsters exist side by side. However, unlike *'s "Dinotopia" books which seem to have partially inspired the series, Genki arrives in the midst of a huge cosmic conflict between good and evil. Collecting a girl named Holly and five different monsters along the way, he sets out on a quest that culminates in a titanic struggle between a phoenix, an archetype for good in Oriental mythology, and a Godzilla-like embodiment of evil.
The premise for the series, as described above, would seem to set this apart as a fairly dry show. But "seems" is not "is." "Monster Rancher" can get wet with the best of them.
This is a show, for instance, where the narrative flow comes to a halt for one episode so that Genki, with the help of the monsters, can throw a birthday party for Holly. Holly herself has her own issues, since it appears that her long-lost father has gone over to the dark side. Though the show never abandons its fight theme, it also works some of the classic wet occasions in anime into the plot: tearful reunions, tearful partings, death. In the next-to-last episode of the series, one creature agrees to merge itself with its mistress, in the knowledge that by doing so it will sacrifice its own consciousness so that she might life in a different form. There's not a dry eye in the cast as this turn of events sinks in. Even the monster itself, a large stone creature, sheds a tear and says: "I thought I'd forgotten how to cry." The name of the ep: "Tears."
In the final ep, when Genki returns to his own reality, his initial elation at realizing that it was no dream is almost immediately tempered by the realization that he'll never see his friends from that other world again. In an understated way, he tearfully mourns the loss. And in classic Japanese pop culture fashion, he does so in the midst of a steady rain, practically a visual cue to be sad along with him. But once he receives a vision of his friends assuring him they'll live on in his heart, which recalls E.T.'s last line "I'll be right here," the clouds part and Genki exults amid a shower of cherry blossoms.
Manga and anime are loaded with emotional cues, some more subtle than others. Yet wet and dry alternate on a fairly regular basis. In Sailor Moon the dry action sequences are balanced by the wet longings of the girls for romance or some other goal. Even Ryoko, one of the dryest characters in anime, has her wet moments in "Tenchi Universe" when she fears she's losing Tenchi.
I mentioned the Sonic comic earlier; in an effort to introduce manga-like elements, some of the artists have adapted their styles accordingly. But there's far more to doing manga than giving the females big eyes and long legs. Part of doing manga is recognizing the yin and yang of wet and dry moments in the story and giving each its due. You simply can't deal with form and expect content to take care of itself. Half way is no way.