“Longing seizes people more powerfully than poison and more deeply than illness. […]
[…] Once it catches hold of you, there is absolutely no escape. That is quite a curse, and yet adventurers all willingly devote themselves to its pursuit. For them, a life without longing is more terrifying than death itself.”
The above quote is a line from the last episode of the immensely polarizing (and consensus candidate for “Anime of the Year”) 2017 feature Made in Abyss. I know it might be hard to believe for those who have no clue what’s it about (including myself previously) but if anything has been made known about Made in Abyss over the past couple of months is that it is a story not for the faint at heart.
Underneath the cartoony title card and cutesy character designs lies a cheerful yet macabre tale of adventure and discovery. One might even say that the story of Made in Abyss is in itself quite fitting of the word “abyss” — possessing a depth to it that far surpasses expectation. Suffice to say, a lot of people were caught off-guard with what the show had to offer, earning both the delight and the ire of anime viewers hand-in-hand.
After the season’s final episode it had come to my attention that some fans openly showed distaste towards Made in Abyss’ use of “triggering” themes and imagery as its main appeal point while at the same time heralding it’s avant-garde and subversive nature. That is to say, no matter what people say about how sad or disturbed they got after watching it, they still liked it nonetheless — or at the very least watched it through to the end.
Liking anime that make you feel sad isn’t really anything new (as fans of CLANNAD, AnoHana, and YLIA would be quick to tell you). But have you ever stopped and wondered why that is? Why would we actively choose to subject ourselves to an experience we know is going to affect us in a negative manner? Like the cave raiders in Made in Abyss, why too do we seemingly long for an abyss that only brings sadness and despair? Why do we watch sad anime?
Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis (and that one psychology guy everyone more or less knows) said that humans innately possess a desire to engage in self-destruction in what he attributes to our “death drive”. Old man Freud, and many others after his time, theorized that humans have two intrinsic driving forces: Eros, the drive towards the formation of life; and Thanatos, the drive towards death and/or the state before life. He illustrates this disparate system of drives to explain, more or less, why we humans do certain things — like for example, Eros explains man’s desire to stay healthy and procreate whereas Thanatos reflects man’s capacity for self-harm and crime.
Bear in mind that these are intrinsic drives, meaning man doesn’t derive pleasure out of these acts, but simply does them because he’s man (so no, death drive does not equal sadomasochism, if that thought crossed your mind). Although while not as extreme as endangering others or ourselves physically (as was the main point of contention to Freud’s analysis), one could argue that we knowingly expose ourselves to anime tragedy as a means of destroying ourselves emotionally. As a natural course of action, we long for and seek out anime that make us sad because of a deep-seated death drive in all of us. It may be in this very manner that people watch TV shows like Game of Thrones or movies like Titanic, despite knowing full well what happens in those stories. We go to them not because we want nor need to get hurt, but because we are human.
Another well known figure in the field of psychology, Carl Jung, gives us a different perspective on the matter. He once wrote that “[o]ne does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” in reference to the creation of philosophical thought and understanding. While the line itself deals with a completely unrelated matter altogether, we can try to derive meaning from it in a different sense. If we take “darkness” here to mean whatever saddening thing we come across in a certain anime, then it becomes a matter of acknowledging it outright in the hope that it unravels something to or within us. Why does this particular scene make you sad? Why are you feeling the way you do now, watching this anime? What are you feeling?
Perhaps we watch these shows to find out — to give those feelings shape; to make them conscious. In doing so we’re able to sort out our feelings and come to terms with our emotions on our own terms. By “imagining figures of light”, that is to say by denying ourselves the empathy to feel the way we do and instead detach ourselves from what we’re watching, we achieve nothing. Whereas by taking on the “darkness”, the full experience; becoming sad when the scene is making you sad; crying when it’s making you cry; hurting when it’s hurtful; we achieve “enlightenment”. Enlightenment in the form of catharsis, our emotional release when everything’s said and done; where our feelings resonate in euphoria to what we’re seeing on the screen.
H.P. Lovecraft, a well-celbrated hallmark of Western horror fiction (and totally not another psychologist), provides us with possibly the most optimistic reasoning (oddly enough) to why we may like sad anime. In a letter to fellow writer Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft wrote: “[t]he process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.” The black abyss is but one of the many themes in what is now considered Lovecraftian horror and in this quoted passage in particular he recounts it with a rather curious longing. Of course, the “black abyss” he’s referring to is one that is purely within his own lore, but as with Jung there’s still something we can take away from his words.
What lies within the abyss? Within the tragic narratives of certain shows? We won’t know unless we go through it. But rather than lay ourselves bare to the sadness and wait for it to be over, we go through the process with the greatest of scrutiny. We allow ourselves to get taken in but not taken over. The sadness we feel is not just the result of being inside the abyss, but rather we recognize that the sadness itself is merely part of it. We acknowledge all the suffering, pain, anguish etc. shown to us in anime with honest fascination — deriving admiration for its artistic execution. In getting sad, that is to say by being affected by its presentation, we are able to find genuine enjoyment for what the show was able to do.
So you see there are a lot of ways to go about answering the question of why it is we like sad anime so much. I can’t even be too sure that the answer is in anything that I’ve said at all (xD) It could be different depending on the anime. There’s a good chance it’s different for a lot of people too.
After all of that though (and I’ll leave you with this), it would do us well to remember that “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” as Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. Where Nietzsche mostly spoke of the change in the psyche one may undergo as he/she confronts the darkest parts of his/her moral consciousness, we will use this relatively famous line of his as our analogy to illustrate emotion — where we recognize “monsters” and the “abyss” as sadness, despair, and all the negative feelings that fall in between.
It’s perfectly fine (and completely normal) to feel sad when watching anime that is intended to make you sad. I mean, it’s better than being completely apathetic towards anime completely — why even bother watching at that point, right? However, we should also do our best to not allow that very sadness to take hold of our hearts lest we begin to lose heart completely. Anime, as an entertainment medium, is one meant to be enjoyed at the end of the day 😀 (… well ideally that would be the case, I mean, not all anime shows are “enjoyable”, but that’s a topic for another day).
Yes, shows like Made in Abyss will make you feel terrible at times — I knew that going in, so did a lot of others, and now those of you who have not yet seen it but are reading this very line know it as well.
But we dive into it still — into the abyss we so long for.
Do we do so in an ongoing pursuit to destroy ourselves? Do we seek emotional release beyond its dark depths? Or are we simply fascinated by what’s inside?