Last year I picked up a new pastime: Dungeons and Dragons. While, even now, some of the game’s finer mechanics elude me, I’m super invested in the story that my DM has masterfully woven together. As I’m writing this, my character, Sorrel, and his girlfriend, Tilly, find themselves in dire straights. This, partnered with the fact that our next session isn’t for another two weeks, means that I’m an emotional wreck. Regrettably, my husband doesn’t understand what I’m going through. “They’re just fictional characters! None of it is real!” All this in spite of the fact that it’s not the first time I’ve gotten upset over fictional characters…
In fact, I cry over anime all the time. Just the other day I snotted all over my husband’s shirt while watching I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (that movie destroyed me). So you’d think he’d be used to this particular quirk of mine by now. But, is there any merit in what my husband is saying? Or what it implies: that it’s dumb to get emotional over anime?
I’ll concede that my husband is, at least partially, correct. He’s right to say that none of it is real. However, according to research (please refer to the links at the bottom of the page), our brains are actually unable to differentiate between real relationships and the one-sided (or parasocial) ones that we share with fictional characters. It makes sense, when you think about it. We often spend just as much (if not more) time with our favourite characters as we do with our real-life friends and family. This is especially true of me, given that many of my friends and family live in a different country. Not to mention that, through first-person storytelling, we’re often given more of an insight into these characters’ fears and failures, dreams and achievements, than we are our real-life friends and family. To me it only seems natural that this would result in some kind of a connection.
Let’s say your favourite character undergoes some kind of trial… Or maybe they achieve their lifelong dream… Or perhaps, heaven forbid, your connection to that character is severed by their untimely demise… While it’s normal (and there’s a strong biological basis) to get emotional over these things, is it healthy? Are there actually any benefits in doing so?
Well, yes, actually… There are several…
The first is that crying over a particularly emotional scene, whether that be in a game, a movie, or, yes, an anime, allows us to purge our negative emotions. According to research, these scenes give us something to focus our negative emotions on and get them out of our system. Maybe that’s why we’re inclined to chuck on a chick flick and tuck into a knee-high tub of Ben and Jerry’s when our fellas have done us wrong!
The second benefit is that especially sad or emotional scenes trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin in our brains. Oxytocin plays a role in social bonding and may lead to an increase in empathy. One study found that, after watching a sad film, participants were more likely to be helpful or generous towards other people. I’ve found this to be true of myself, too. After watching Otonashi’s death in Angel Beats! (not a spoiler, he’s dead right from the get-go), I immediately signed myself up to become an organ donor after my own passing.
The third is that our connection with our favourite fictional characters may improve our ability to recognise and appropriately respond to our own and other people’s emotions (this is called emotional intelligence). This also rings true for me! I wasn’t always the social butterfly that I am today. It was actually anime that taught me a lot of the social skills that I now possess… For instance, it was Naruto that taught me how to process grief, to stick by your friends, and how to channel negative emotions like loneliness, bitterness, and unforgiveness into something positive.
Lastly… This one’s not a benefit, as such, and is based more on my opinion than on any existing research, but I felt it was worth including all the same… I really and truly believe that getting emotional over anime is indicative of somebody who is better able to appreciate art and beauty. If we’re able to be moved by a certain scene or a certain character in anime, then we’re also likely to be moved by an awesome sunset, an amazing piece of music, or a beautiful piece of artwork. We’re the kind of people who feel things deeply and appreciate all that the world has to offer. If I wasn’t able to bring myself to feel anything over any of those things, I’d consider mine a pretty colourless existence…
Naturally, there does come a point where it is unhealthy to get emotional over anime… One piece of research found that some of its participants reported feeling more upset over the death of a fictional character than they were of somebody they knew in real life, which is a little scary! I’d suggest that we ought not to value our fictitious relationships more than our real-life ones. And if something you’ve seen is affecting you to the point where you can no longer function, then, yes, that’s a definite problem and you should probably seek out some help! That aside, research has found that it’s perfectly normal to be moved by fiction and that there are actually many benefits in doing so. So the next time somebody raises an eyebrow over you getting all emotional over anime, you know just what to tell them!