How Anime Uses Surrealism To Tell A Story

Disclaimer: This post contains minor spoilers for Paprika, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. There’s nothing that would ruin your experience if you haven’t seen these anime yet, but I just wanted to give a heads up. Anyway, let’s talk about some avant-garde shit!

Anime is weird, in a good way. It can tell stories you can’t find anywhere else, and transport you to worlds like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And a lot of the most popular and critically acclaimed anime out there has a bizarre, surrealistic feel to it – psychedelic landscapes, otherworldly creatures, and symbolic iconography. So today I wanted to talk about how surrealism is used in some of my favorite anime, and how it can tell a unique story through color, sound, and motion.

Miyazaki films are more rooted in magical realism than surrealism, but close enough

Surrealism is an artistic and cultural movement that started in Paris in the 1920’s, as a response to the horrors of World War I. The orderly world of Victorian Europe was destroyed, and the surrealists’ response was to make art that was chaotic, shocking, and, well, surreal. Taking inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, surrealists created their art in a dreamlike state, painting whatever random and bizarre images popped into their heads at the time. The most famous surrealist was Salvador Dalí, whose striking works and eccentric personality made him a rock star in the art world. You’ll probably recognize his work The Persistence of Memory, also known as “that weird melting clock painting”:

This strange movement helped change the way that we express ourselves through art, cinema, literature, and music. So it’s no surprise that a lot of great anime is surrealistic too! The stylized nature of animation allows artists to get experimental without ruining suspension of disbelief, and without the complex costumes, sets, and props of traditional filmmaking, the only restraints are time, money, and the creators’ imaginations. Surrealism in anime is used to shock and disorient the viewer, give a show a dreamlike quality, or give subtle cues to a story’s themes and symbolism. 

Mob Psycho 100‘s surrealistic openings show the otherworldly aspect of psychic powers

The bizarre and beautiful thriller Paprika is a fantastic example. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically Inception: The Anime (but better!) A group of inventors create a device that allows them to enter the world of other people’s dreams – only for it to inevitably be stolen by a megalomaniac who wants to bring about the end of days. But behind that trippy sci-fi premise is a film that uses dreams and surrealism to explore the concept of identity. The main character, stuffy scientist Atsuko Chiba, becomes the free-spirited Paprika in the dream world, and her character arc is all about trying to reconcile who she wants to be with what society expects her to be. The dream world gives Paprika a chance to be free from the shackles of reality, until it starts merging with the real world, and then, well…

WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING

That dichotomy between the “real” world and the surreal one is also a huge part of what makes Puella Magi Madoka Magica so fascinating. Its cast of tragic lesbian magical girls fight witches – not cackling old ladies on broomsticks, but Lynchian nightmare creatures who live in trippy alternate dimensions. At first, the witches’ labyrinths seem totally nonsensical – until you learn the secrets behind the witches themselves, and realize their labyrinths are a reflection of their own lifestyles and personalities. H.N. Elly’s labyrinth in Episode 4 is a world of screens and pixel art, implying she is a shut-in who uses technology to manipulate others into doing her bidding…

While Charlotte, the witch of Episode 3, has a dessert theme which betrays her childish cruelty and sadism.

Why hello there…

But my favorite use of surrealism in anime is the 90’s shoujo masterpiece, Revolutionary Girl Utena. It deconstructs fairy tales, Greek mythology, Shakespearean drama, and even Sailor Moon to create a world where everything is symbolic, yet nothing is as it seems. The rose imagery, which appears freaking everywhere, is an obvious symbol of the love between the two female leads Utena and Anthy, as well as the pain Anthy is forced to endure as the Rose Bride…

They gay!

While the pitched sword duels that take place nearly every episode are an even more obvious metaphor for, um…

SEX! They’re a metaphor for sex. I hope my parents never read this blog!

There are so many great anime that use surrealism to create beautifully unique stories, and this post really only scratches the surface. So the next time you’re watching a show like Utena, Madoka, or even Mob Psycho, try thinking of all the ways they make complex and avant-garde ideas like surrealism accessible for mainstream audiences. Or try and find the deeper meaning behind some of the weird and wonderful imagery onscreen. You’ll never know what you might discover, and it might make you appreciate some of your favorite series that much more!

What are some of your favorite surrealistic anime? Let me know in comments 🙂

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