Since moving to Japan in May of 2008, I have discovered a feedback loop in my perception of and interaction with anime and manga. Anime/Manga make me recognise aspects of the Japanese experience, and aspects of the Japanese experience make me better understand anime and manga.
I often make the joke that before I moved to Japan (and in fact, I was falling out of anime fandom in the years between 2003 and 2006 for various reasons), I watched anime because it was exotic and different, but that since moving to Japan I watch anime because it is familiar. In fact, while back in Texas working on my MA I ended up watching considerably more anime and reading more manga than I had in either my time in Japan or for quite a few years prior to that point. The reason was clear pretty much from the outset: I was terribly homesick and anime and manga helped to fill a very real sociocultural void.
Given that I have a year of MA work back in Texas to compare to years of living in Japan (and being back again), I'm able to recognise that so much of my enjoyment of anime and manga, and specifically, the slice of life genre (be there other genres like drama, romance), derived from the personal meaning the settings and situations had to me, being that they are undeniably Japanese settings and Japanese situations. These settings are my settings. They situations are my situations.
And I've tried to reach back, and identify what about anime and manga it was that made me interested in it in the first place. I guess I can cite the complex characters, the sophisticated plots, and just in general the greater understanding of animation or comics as worthy of being considered great literature. I could point to the fact that often anime and manga explore the human condition in ways which American animation and American comics are only now starting to truly deal with. And maybe all of that would be true but...
Was it anime that instilled in me the need for the clickity-clack of trains constantly in the background? (You laugh, but going back to Texas, the lack of train sounds constantly disturbed me). Was it manga that led to me deep respect for Japanese school architecture and uniforms, even if I am deeply critical of the pedagogical methodologies utilised in the Japanese public school system? Or is it instead that these sounds and sights are only important to me now because of my deep connection to Japan, and this throws their presence in anime, even anime I've seen many years before into sudden hyper-relief? And what of the smells? Or the textures? These are not duplicated in anime, and yet now, when I watch an anime (say Tamayura, which takes place in fairly nearby Takehara), I am capable of sensory recall which includes smelling and touching.
In 2009, my first major awareness of this change was in rewatching Lucky Star. I had watched it twice before. Both times prior to my arrival in Japan. Bluntly put; I didn't get it. I didn't think it was funny. I didn't understand how it was so popular. Rewatching it after a year in Japan was very much like watching it for the first time. It was hilarious. All the jokes made sense. I understood the references. I had personal experience with many of the situations presented. And it made me wonder how much I had missed in the various series I had already seen. I didn't rewatch everything; that would not have been possible. So, instead, I restricted myself to anime which was slice of life. My conclusion: anime and manga, by virtue of being part of a unique Japanese intertexuality, simply has more meaning to someone with direct, personal experience of Japan.
Which brings me to my question: what do you think is universal in Japanese animation and comics, and do you believe that those without a personal connection to Japan are gaining a complete enough understanding of the works?