Not just physical beauty, but a sense of idyll, wonder or perfection

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Tanner Greer explains China’s obsession with anime and cosplay, which they call the “second dimension”:

The size of this two-dimensional world astounds. Consumers of this culture, broadly conceived, number 270 million in China, according to a March 2017 article on Sohu (with 90 million “core users” according to newer data). [...] An impressive display of the zeal and market power of this group is the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, held each year in Hangzhou. In 2018 the festival pulled in 1.3 million attendees. (In contrast, last year’s New York Comic Con broke an American record with only 200,000 visitors.)


What is it that draws these overwhelmingly urban, educated, middle-class Chinese youth to the second dimension? Ask this question to them, and you will hear the same word again and again: meihao — a compound of the Chinese words for beautiful and good, used to describe not just physical beauty, but a sense of idyll, wonder or perfection.

“Our 3D world cannot compare to the meihao of the second dimension,” explained Sun Wei, a college freshman who volunteers her weekends managing booths at manga meetups. “Only in the second dimension you can see a truly meihao sort of life.”


At first glance, 2D culture does not seem optimized for relaxation. It demands an unusual commitment from even its most casual participants. User participation on Bilibili is an excellent example: stream an anime episode on Bilibili and your video screen will be flooded with hundreds of moving “bullet comments” zipping across the screen. But not just anyone can leave their bullets on Bilibili — to register, users are required to first ace a 100-question test on site etiquette and 2D culture trivia. If you cannot answer questions such as “The vocaloid singer Hatsune Miku is based on the voice of which Japanese voice actor?” (A: Fujita Aya) and “In the anime series Full Metal Alchemist, the character Xiao Mei is always accompanied by what animal?” (A: a pet panda) you cannot register. Even casual engagement with the 2D world requires mastery of an esoteric array of 2D themed slang, memes and trivia.


In no other place has Japanese animation been so explosively popular: even in Japan, anime is perceived as “nerdy” (the realm of otaku) whereas in China it is mainstream, in the same way that in America sci-fi is seen as geeky but superhero movies are not.


  1. Mike-SMO says:

    Fantasy fills whatever voids are left. Especially the voids where there are no police. The simple pleasures.

  2. Kirk says:

    There’s a lot of anime I could never quite get into, mostly because the storytelling conventions never made a damn bit of sense to me… I had a soldier working for me, once, who was incredibly into the genre, and I pulled duty with him more than a few times, during which he’d try to explain it all to me. I was always left with the feeling that I was just not getting about nine-tenths of what he was trying to get across.

    Some story-telling is cross-cultural; other stuff just… Isn’t. I don’t know what a lot of anime fans are seeing in the material, and while I’m not going to criticize something I don’t understand, I’m also gonna have to point out that there’s a lot of just sheer “WTF?” in it all. Kinda like with the various genres of martial arts movies… It’s not accessible to the outsider, and picking up on it isn’t that easy absent early immersion in it.

  3. Graham says:

    I wonder if this has any points of connection with the way comic book culture has in the last decade or so gone mainstream in North America, despite Greer’s caution regarding scale. It’s different, though overlapping, in specific content, and not as pervasive. But superheroes, other comic book elements, cosplay, conventions, and related forms of escapism and alternative identities play a much more public role in North American life than they did a generation ago, and to me at least have had some impact even on how other issues are discussed.

    Perhaps it is its own search for a meihao way of life, at least as some folks define beautiful and good.

    I was a modest consumer of this content when young, but I never was into it to the degree some were, or many are now, let alone the way these Chinese young people are into their thing. It never seemed an alternative life, nor was I looking for one.

    Maybe I should be. I read Greer’s piece last night on an aging Blackberry in the dark, while unable to sleep as the old device slowly drained its power. That site has some interesting other articles too.

  4. Alistair says:

    From their experience, a lot of people think anime is deep and inaccessible. They’re wrong.

    A lot of anime is just plain bad storytelling. This is often masked by the exotic style and culture.

    In many cases, the craft of visual story-telling in the far east simply isn’t as developed as it is by, say, Pixar. Too often the focus is on the visuals or inner emotional states, but at the expense of drama, pacing, character and plot. Take studio Ghibli; some great movies, but others that are total train wrecks of storytelling that would shame a Pixar novice (*cough* Arietty *cough*). Even beloved classics like Nausicca and Mononoke have problems which could have been simply avoided. Sometimes you want to grab the makers and scream at them “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THIS SCENE APART FROM PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY?!”

    Some of this is cultural (“Oh, but they are happier with uncertainty”), but that’s exaggerated by the genres apologist’s. Japanese mainstream fiction and audiences has no trouble with conventional structures. Some of it comes from adaption from an ongoing manga; the anime overtakes its written source material and it left to improvise, badly (Sometimes this is a GOOD thing – see Game of Thrones!).

    But a lot of the problem is just simple lack of storycraft, from a development environment that emphasises technical skills over production skills. A lack of bibles for production, plots, and character arcs is ubiquitous in Anime; they start these shows and have genuinely NO IDEA where they are taking the story and characters. That’s unforgivably sloppy in the modern age. When you are playing with 10s of millions of dollars you absolutely MUST have a spreadsheet somewhere with the main plot, character arcs, and key scenes mapped out. You can’t pull it out of your ass as you go along. It shows.

    Oh wait. The New Star Wars trilogy…errr…

  5. Kirk says:


    There’s some of that, and your take on Star Wars is right along mine, but… There’s at least a part of the “anime tradition” that’s congruent with the Noh theater tradition–And, almost entirely inaccessible to people like me, who’ve got no idea what they’re watching.

    I had opinions like yours about anime; then I spent a set of multiple overnight duties with someone who knew every nuance, and insisted on sharing it with me. At the end of it, I was convinced that he was convince there was something there, where I saw confusion and poor storytelling, and I came away with the modified opinion that I have now–Anime isn’t necessarily poor storytelling or poor craft, it’s also got an extensive shorthand that you have to have digested and internalized before it even begins to make the slightest sense to you. In that sense, it’s kind of like a real shorthand–It looks like uninhibited epileptic chicken-scratchings to the person who doesn’t know it, but if you’re a stenographer, it makes complete sense.

    Of course, it could be that my informant in this matter was a raving lunatic who’d created a whole alternate reality where it made sense, but… There are a lot of people who agree with him.

  6. Paul from Canada says:

    Having recently become something of an anime fan myself, my opinion is that it is like any other genre. Some of it is great, deep, profound, well written, almost high art, but most of it is dreck.

    Given that a typical anime is a 12 or 13 weekly half hour episodes (including commercials), and they put out a new batch quarterly, the quality varies tremendously.

    It is also important to realize that there are numerous genres of Anime, some for kids, some for tweens, some for teens, some for adults, and all further sub-divided. For example, there is a genre of gay romance stories, some of which are targeted towards gays (duh), but a sub-genre of which is targeted at hetero women, (beats me!).

    What I have learned is that:

    a. Although anime now has a wider audience, it is still really Japanese. So if you have some insight into Japanese culture, and the stratification, conformity, crowding etc. some of the plots and tropes make sense. They also make sense in that many of them are an escape, rebellion or critique of that. If you don’t, then lots of it will make no sense whatsoever.

    b. Notwithstanding a. above, Japanese people are people, and universal stories, tropes and memes abound, so lots of it is perfectly accessible.

    c. The Japanese do have an appreciation of other cultures, and, contrary to my previous prejudices, they have sense of irony, and are able to laugh at, parody and critique themselves.

    d. Japan is definitely DIFFERENT. There is a blog I read, has a category for Japanese pop culture, “Japan, nuked too much or not enough?”

    Case in point. My gateway drug into Anime was Girls und Panzer. I came across it quite by accident on Youtube. I was watching clips of military marches, and Youtube’s autoplay recommendations popped up a clip from the show.

    What I saw was two typical Anime schoolgirls in typical school uniforms, standing on a Churchill tank, (exquisitely detailed, I am sure they got the details correct enough that a tank nerd could tell you what mark of Churchill it was), drinking tea while British Grenadiers played in the background. They then dropped into the tank, fired it up and drove into battle with it.

    The sheer incongruity and absurdity of what I was watching intrigued me so I looked at more clips, and got hooked.

    Girls und Panzer is what is called a “Moe” or “slice of life” Anime. It is often described as “cute girls, doing cute things”. They are targeted at tween and young teen girls, and are meant to be inspirational, affirming stories, life lessons etc. Kind of like Anne of Green Gables, Babysitters’ Cub and so on. They tend to follow what is almost a formula. Girl transfers to new school, needs to adjust, makes new friends, possibly some enemies, has typical high school dramas, and learns and grows etc. There is usually a plot point around her and her friends joining the “X” club/sports team etc, and has a “win one for the Gipper” sub-plot, through which the story unfolds. So far so good, and Girls und Panzer follows the trope except;

    -The sports club around which the action revolves is “Sensh-Do”, the art of the tankery. Basically, mock combat in reproduction WWW II tanks as an afterschool sport.

    -Like all Japanese martial arts, it has a governing body, rules, divisions, styles etc. Also, Sensh-Do, like Naginata-Do is considered a particularly feminine martial art (boys don’t participate).

    -The elite, semi-private girls’ schools that participate in the league are all based around a national theme. Each school uses that nation’s tanks, and are walking talking stereotypes of that country (or at least the Japanese stereotype of that country).

    So for example, the “British” school, (St. Gloriana’s Girls Academy), dress old style British school uniforms, are prim and proper, always play fair, stay calm and dignified, and constantly drink tea. They use British tanks (The Churchill is the command tanks, and the rest are Matilda IIs and Crusaders), and there march/theme music is the British Grenadiers.

    Likewise there is a German school, (German tanks, Prussian attitudes to discipline, and the Panzerlied and Erica as theme music). A Russian school (WWII Soviet uniforms, tanks and Katyusha as their march). There is a Finnish Team (BT-42 tank and the Saskiarvin Polka), and so on. I alluded to the ability of the Japanese to satirize and poke fun at themselves, and this is epitomized by the traditional Japanese school, who always lose because their only tactic is a Banzai charge.

    -There is a scene during training, when the first year girls are introduced to field rations, which are new to them, but one of them says “oh like canned luncheon meat (Spam), at which point, three of them segue into a rendition of the Monty Python Spam sketch and song. (This is what sealed the deal for me, and why I ended up buying and watching the whole show).

    What I found so fascinating was the level of detail and geekery involved. There were all kinds of Easter eggs and historical references (for example, our hero’s school is ambushed unexpectedly by the Germans “who must have taken a shortcut through the forest”.

    Now I don’t imagine a 12 year old Japanese schoolgirl is going to recognize and know references to the battle of France, WWII tank development, and Rommel and Guderian, but they are in there.

    It could be that the writers were tasked with producing a show, needed a hook or gimmick to anchor the show, and some of the animators and writers are World of Tanks video game nerds, and suggested it. Even so, the level of detail is amazing, and they have gained tank video game and history nerds (and me) as fans. I am still trying to decide if this is deliberate.

    The layers of detail, symbolism, historical detail etc in what is essentially an after school show for girls is intriguing, and that is what got me into Anime.

    Before this, I knew of Anime as Dragon Ball-Z/Sailor Moon kids programs, or Art style movies like Akira, but nothing I was interested in or cared about. I believed the stereotype of Anime as weird cartoons uniquely culturally Japanese. Inscrutable to outsiders in the west, except for a small groups of Aspie, Mom’s basement dwelling nerds. I have come to appreciate that this is not entirely so.

Leave a Reply