The Young Animator Training Project is an initiative by the Japanese animation industry to help train home-grown animation talent in a financial environment which is no longer conducive to nurturing such talent the traditional way. Animation studios are provided a grant to produce a thirty minute animated piece during which experienced animators serve as mentors while younger animators hone their skills. Over the two years that this initiative has been active, eight animated shorts have been produced, many of them featuring creative visuals and interesting narratives that cover a wide variety of subject matter. While I certainly plan to talk about the others at another time, today I felt compelled to write about the most recently-released entry, "Minding my own Business."
The story is told from the point-of-view of a young elementary-school boy who witnesses a classmate being repeatedly harassed by a gang of bullies. The boy wrestles with his own conflicted feelings throughout most of the episode; one part of him fantasizes about striking back against the bullies and defending his classmate, while the other suspects that, by standing up for his friend, he might become the next target. Eventually, the bullied classmate moves away and some of the neighborhood parents accept this as a marker of his own guilt. The protagonist continues to wrestle with his feelings which come from knowing the truth of the matter while witnessing several situations that echo the one in which he was too intimidated to stand up for himself and his friend. As these things go, he's finally given the chance to redeem himself.
I can only really speak for myself, but I suspect that there are a lot of people who've experienced this sort of situation, whether it's from the perspective of the bullied kid or that of the bystander who feels helpless (or frightened) to intervene. The insidiousness of bullying is not the physical pain it often inflicts, but the emotional terrorism and subsequent deflation of one's self-worth that eats away at its victims. The directness with which this truth is addressed here is at times incredibly painful to watch; my own empathy with the boy being harassed made it difficult for me to suffer through certain parts of the episode.
I suppose, though, that's part of the point. Victims of all different types carry with them a sort of shame that's difficult to describe to people who haven't experienced it. As I was watching this, I heard in my mind the voices of a (hopefully fictional) group of anime fans complaining about the fact that the bullied kid doesn't strike back at his attackers, or that the main character relegates his heroic actions to the realm of revenge fantasy. There's a narrative expectation that, during the climax of a piece on bullying, the forces of good will enjoy a definitive moment of triumph. In many other anime that deal with bullying (even very good ones, like Kimi ni Todoke), the victim defeats his or her bullies with physicality, showmanship, or the power of love and tolerance. In real life, in most cases, there really is no moment of victory or satisfying resolution; the victim is simply saddled with society's malformed expectations that they somehow come to their own defense, and that their lack of action almost makes them deserving of the abuse they receive.
Along those same lines, there's a common thread that runs throughout this episode that deals with the inability of anyone to take responsibility for the abuse that's happening right in front of their faces. It would be tempting to blame this attitude on Japan's particular tendency towards social order (that old adage about hammering down the nail that sticks out above the others probably does have some basis in reality), but I find that the ability to ignore uncomfortable circumstances for the sake of one's own mental well-being is not restricted to one culture or another. In this animation, parents are content to gossip about the situation behind closed doors, teachers rely on their students to come forward instead of directly intervening in the situation, and the girls in the class leave it to the boys to deal with what's seen as "their own" problem. There's a common refrain that those who take direct action will only end up as the next victims, so nobody makes any move to help. And, in a sad but probably very common twist, the bully's situation is complicated by his own victimhood.
This, in essence, is the story that this animation shares. It's not a cut-and-dry tale of heroism, nor is it about happy endings. The bully doesn't get his comeuppance, nor does the protagonist swoop in like a white knight and somehow make everything right in the end. However, within the span of a half-hour, this piece manages to elaborate upon the muddy truths about bullying and the hidden shame that so many people are forced to carry with them because of the way society has chosen to blame victims for their own abuse. It's one of the few things I've ever watched that manages to portray the cyclical nature of bullying with any amount of accuracy. It's an animated short that's difficult to watch, but at the same time, I'd also call it recommended reading for the bullies, the bullied, and the bystanders. Its message of empathy as a path towards redemption is very relevant, indeed.