Shelter and the problem with selfish love

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Even if you don’t watch anime, you might be familiar with Porter Robinson‘s Shelter. In a landmark collaboration with A-1 Pictures, their music video delivered a narrative that triggered a fairly heavy emotional response from me. And I wasn’t alone in this; many have praised Shelter’s emotionally impacting story. The problem for me was that I found myself being drawn to and affected by this heavy emotion, even though I realized that dwelling in it is probably not be the best thing to do.

The story of Shelter, on the outside, is a tragic but a beautiful story of a father who sacrifices himself in order to save his daughter from the apocalypse. What’s revealed by the end is that she is alone, living in a simulated world where whatever she draws comes to life:

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After watching this bittersweet ending, my frustrated roommate pointed out that if he were the father, he would have chosen to die together with the daughter instead of forcing her to be eternally alone. In response, I offered the thought that from the father’s perspective, his desire to save his daughter from dying was certainly understandable. I could even say this love the father had for his daughter was honorable… right? Well, I guess the perspective on this would depend entirely on the context of their world.

Because, if the story took place in our world (inhabited by other fathers, daughters, sons, and mothers), this decision would have been entirely shortsighted. Why did he not share his knowledge with other people? Why did he not collaborate with other fathers who would have also wanted to save their daughters? In his sole focus to save his daughter, the father neglected other individuals, and ultimately, he did a disservice to his daughter by depriving her of relationships and community. If the father loves and cares only for his family… is that really the kind of love that he would want to his daughter to understand?

This reminds me of the attitudes shaped by the ‘American nuclear family’ where it’s very often ‘us vs them’. I like to picture these families as if they are literally being sheltered from an actual nuclear war where they truly are relying only on themselves. It’s this ‘we are all we have’ kind of mentality. It’s… kind of lonely.

Having followed Porter Robinson’s other works, I understand that they–especially his last album, Worlds— are largely inspired by video games. And these games are inherently single player, meaning that we could rationalize the father’s decision with the context that was that no one had else existed in Shelter’s world.

But there are details in Shelter which helps us connect with that world emotionally; in the music video, the girl is clearly wearing a schoolbag, meaning that there has to be an entire community of kids going to that school. And what’s more, someone has to be broadcasting that news channel we saw:

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So the father–presumably–did what any father should, which is to provide what he thinks is best for his daughter. To fathers, this is clearly an act of love. But in the end, his decision was a selfish love that he wanted her to have, without fully understanding the quality of existence she would have to live out.

I’m going to stop this argument before it loses its effectiveness due to the music video being only 6 minutes long. Avoiding plot holes probably wasn’t the artistic priority. But for me–something I’ve yet to fully learn–is that, blindly engaging with this kind of emotional yet manipulative material can encourage depression. The feelings of emptiness and hopelessness are prone, and so it’s not always a good idea to give my heart to something simply because it drew my empathetic attention.

Since I started watching anime 8 months ago, I’ve been going on r/anime_irl pretty regularly. I think this subreddit is indicative of the themes in anime that the Western, internet-age audience resonates the most with: yuri, ecchi, loli, irony, and loneliness. These images (screencaps from anime) are essentially memes, and they are often not very wholesome. But still, in a way, it’s a community that comes together through expressing, acknowledging, and relating to the hardships and struggles in life:


While I think that this is generally a good thing, like all good things, we need to be able to discern what’s real and what’s not. Under the filter of depression, these memes would not only feel relevant, they may perpetuate that state of mind, because I would have already have bought the lie that I’m alone. But in reality, we aren’t alone–even if for the fact that many of us feel like we’re alone.

My primary concern with Shelter (and many other anime or art that include these kinds of artificial sadness) is not in their production or plot, but rather in their normalization and acceptance of loneliness. Feeling alone is definitely valid, and art that depicts loneliness certainly has value for the artist themselves even if it’s not cathartic to others. But I would caution against dwelling in those mindsets, because they’re surprisingly contagious.

I’m not trying to lecture anyone though; what I really wanted to bring out in my criticism of the father’s decision is that we are actually surrounded by people. As we look outwards to our neighbors, community members, and even friends on the internet (that’s you), the perceived distance between you and them is often greater than it actually is. There are people who want to listen to your story, and to walk life together with you. It’s already too easy to build stereotypes and fears without realizing it, so we shouldn’t be selfish with our love–don’t shelter that love all by yourself. Let it grow even bigger. Love beyond just our families and close friends. What kind of a person needs love the most?


Images are screenshots from Shelter


Linguistics of anime and moe


(Note: I don’t have the necessary experience to discuss this topic myself, so I’ll be doing a meta-analysis on what has been discussed already)

A video by Geoff Thew (Mother’s Basement) called, “Avatar is an Anime. F*** You. Fight Me.” went to the top of r/anime today. But the focus of this video wasn’t really about Avatar: The Last Airbender as it was about discussing the changing definition of “anime”. I highly recommend watching it, but what the video discusses is the growing problem with defining anime as a “Japanese produced animated series”. Geoff starts his argument with Shelter, which is a music video that challenged the integrity of the definition in a way that has never been challenged before. Can we call the work of an American music producer (Porter Robinson) collaborating with a Japanese animation studio (A-1 Pictures) an anime? Moreover, what about the fact that what most people would consider anime are actually produced in Korea or China?

Digibro acknowledges this dilution of the term but makes a point that having a distinction is convenient for discussion. r/anime certainly agrees in having the distinction as it exists to “focus on the discussion of anime”. So then, the question is, “What Is Anime?” We’ll come back to this after we look at moe.

In his video, “The Evolution of Moe Anime” (which was posted just 2 days ago), Lewis (Anime Everyday) defines moe as pertaining to both a genre and an aesthetic, where moe is a certain characteristic and art style used in anime. My interpretation of this is that moe is a device used to invoke feelings of ‘cherishment’ and love towards what the moe aesthetic was applied to. Lewis suggests that this moe aesthetic has pretty much always been an element in anime, as far back as Astro Boy: the focus on facial expressions, the emphasis on innocence, and the marketability of creating characters that live beyond the screen. Lewis highlights the introduction of lead female characters in anime which led to an increase in female viewers in the ’70s, thereby pushing anime productions to include moe aesthetics to appeal to both male and female viewers.

Digibro has also released a video in which he discusses moe. Digibro, however, is more concerned about how the word moe has been used and makes a clear distinction that initially, moe referred to neither a genre nor an art style, but was a word to describe a feeling. Thus, in its initial usage, otaku would use ‘moe’ to describe the feeling they had for anime characters — as in, they would feel moe towards a character that they wanted to see do well and succeed. This is different from how moe is presently understood as “something that triggers your protective instincts”. Digibro concludes by saying that moe is a dead term that only exists now to be used derogatorily to describe bad “cute girls doing cute things” shows.

What I think is interesting about all of this is the lack of Japanese perspective on these terms and their usage in Japan. But, understandably, the focus of the discussion is the cultural landscape of the international audience of anime. After all, we are using the word “anime” instead of cartoons to describe the predominantly and initially Japanese medium in our discussions. The definition of moe seems to be continuously debated and disagreed upon, but I think that as language evolves and definitions change, moe will largely be referring to the aesthetic of cute character designs.

Geoff and Digibro agree that, as time goes on, the distinction between anime and other mediums will be impossible to make. Geoff concluded in his video that anime is a movement and that it influences the American anime that we see today (like Avatar), and that the future anime creators are being influenced by the what’s popular now. As I’ve said before, one of the reasons why I watch anime is because it allows me to affectionately revisit the cultural attitudes and feelings of my upbringing. What I think will be interesting is to see how the specific cultural values and relational hierarchies that exist in Japan and thus in anime will translate to other mediums.