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Anime Instincts

When life imitates cartoons

By Annalee Newitz

MY FRIEND CHARLES, who once asked me never to mention him in my column, has a cat named Siu Gwai. While Charles is telecommuting to his East Coast job, Siu Gwai runs in frenetic circles around his apartment. Apparently, she squeaks or yowls or attacks invisible energy beasts or something.

Anyway, if you're talking to somebody on the phone about their earnings in this quarter of the fiscal year, you don't want them hearing your cat freaking out in the background. It's unprofessional; it doesn't say "business." So, like other telecommuters, Charles must invent ways to keep his personal life--which is in the apartment all around him--out of his professional job.

He does this, I think, by acting exactly like a Japanese cartoon character--someone out of Kimagure Orange Road or Maison Ikkoku or Oh! My Goddess! The other day, he described himself at work in precisely the same terms I would use to describe the young male characters in these romantic comedy anime. In the middle of a serious phone conversation with some biz type, Charles grabbed his psychotically active cat, shook her and addressed his next questions right into Siu Gwai's attention-starved furry face: "Can you tell me about your expansion plans? Are you acquiring any new companies?" I don't think she answered him, but apparently she liked being asked.

Geeked-out anime fans--who are abundant in any tech-related industry--can imagine the scene exactly as it would appear in an anime. The semi-magical main character (that would be Charles) is trying to be an ordinary worker in extraordinary circumstances. He's doing homework, say, but his enchanted magical cat keeps floating into the air, or doing telepathy, or telling him the answer to a challenging statistical problem. So he grimaces one of those face-consuming expressions that anime characters get, grabs the cat, and tries to make her behave normally. The point is that it's impossible for our overwhelmed hero to act normally in his whacked anime world, and therefore he can hardly expect his cat to be normal either.

Something about work has become so weird that we can't describe it without calling upon the symbolic conventions of fantasy animation from another country. The labor of people in flextime, telecommute-friendly industries where you can work from anywhere, all the time, is undeniably surreal. Where once we could divide our lives neatly into "work" vs. "the real world" (or perhaps "the real world" vs. "home life," depending on your perspective), now we live in a cartoonish mishmash of home/work and fun/serious.

For people like me, who grew up surrounded by adults who worked away from home, this collapse of the wall between personal and professional life still feels like some kind of improbable comedy--we're juggling a preternaturally active cat and a computer with DSL and phone calls from bureaucrats working in the treasury department and washing dishes, all at the same time. You've heard about the way work seeps into our personal lives before, but have you ever thought about how difficult it is to find books or movies or TV shows where this new kind of labor is being depicted with any accuracy or truthfulness?

Many of us are leading lives that haven't been represented by American pop culture yet. That's why I and other geeks look to anime for our entertainment and--strangely--our self-images. In the story of a magical boy and his magical cat trying to fit into a world of non-magical worker bees, we find fairy tale analogies to our own experiences as new economy workers in a country where most people still think of work as what is "out there" instead of "right here" at home.

My point goes beyond telecommuting and into the world of tech more generally. Oftentimes the nature of our work in the computer industry makes no sense to outsiders. Have you ever witnessed a hard-core back-end Java and C++ nerd trying to explain the structure of her code to a front-end designer who barely knows HTML? It happens all the time, and our coder might as well be interrogating her cat about corporate expansion, if you know what I mean.

Searching for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible directions our work lives are headed, I continue to turn to anime. In the pop culture of a country I've never visited, whose language and social habits I barely understand, I have found something that resembles the tech-addled lives of my friends and myself.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who isn't afraid to admit she's into hentai anime.

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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