Culture Film & TV

“Adult animation”: all grown up now

Illustration by Rūta Ashworth

Why “adult animation”? Why do we need to qualify that this genre – that oh so prickly term – is definitely not for children? Is animation always meant to cater to children in the first place, and  include Disney’s fantasy, Dora the Explorer’s constant breaking of the fourth wall, Cocomelon’s songs that deserve to perish and burn in hell forever more? Animation might still be considered to be the “children’s genre” considering how much film studios market their animated films to children in particular, but I want to challenge that notion. “Adult animation” is not adult animation, it’s adult animation. It is animation; not a genre, but a medium.

The Simpsons – Disney+

Everybody’s heard of The Simpsons – that one cartoon that just won’t leave our TV screen even though its soul died years ago despite all attempts to revive it. But if you only look at Seasons 2-7, you will see why The Simpsons is the greatest TV show of all time. The perfect animated series to begin with, the dialogue works alongside the visual jokes to make every single minute of an episode a joy to watch, while the plots of each episode reveal something deeper both about the characters and about life. Whether it’s the futile attempt to rise up the company ladder, or what the soul really is, The Simpsons touches on almost every issue of being a modern human with grace and humour; but, for me, the relationships between the characters , especially within the nuclear family,  really take centre-stage. Every episode in this golden age of The Simpsons is satisfying, each ending doubling down on the family core. I think this is where the show has lost its ways: it needs to return to its family roots, because in those opening seasons, The Simpsons was not a fantasy, but a down-to-earth family sitcom more than anything. But if anyone says that they prefer the zombie Simpsons of seasons 13 onwards, they don’t deserve the glory days Simpsons anyway.

Episode to watch: S7E4 – Bart Sells His Soul

Cowboy Bebop – All4

That theme tune. That theme tune. That theme tune sums up what Cowboy Bebop looks like from the outside: bold, flashy, full of action as the full brassy horns of a big band blare this bombastic bebop banger; and that is exactly how the action sequences of Cowboy Bebop feel, like a heady mix of wild Jackie Chan style martial arts fighting, intense Star Wars battle scenes, and a soundtrack packed full of jazz. You follow bounty hunters Spike and Jet aboard their ship, the Bebop, chasing after criminals throughout the galaxy for bounties set by the universe-wide police; but at the very heart of this anime is an emotional core which leaves you wondering about the universe. Faye Valentine stands out from the motley crew – a criminal turned bounty hunter who no longer remembers who her younger self was – as she battles to know herself. The art style is fantastic, understated but perfect for the setting that spans the galaxies, and the quiet moments of stillness really underline the themes of this show. Existential boredom and dread lie under this anime, rising from the deep as the TV show progresses, and reveal themselves to the viewer just as the episodes all come to a head. An animated masterpiece and a welcome introduction to anime, far removed from the kawaii aesthetic.

Episode to watch: S1E4 – Gateway Shuffle

Bojack Horseman – Netflix

You can describe Bojack Horseman with the Three Ds: dark, depressing, dreadfullyfunny. This is the show that revived animation in the mid-teens, taking it in a bold new direction into depression and the human condition. It starts off with Bojack, a drugged up anthropomorphic horse who starred on a long-forgotten sitcom called Horsin’ Around, looking for someone to write his biography, to rewrite his story and to redeem himself; but as we watch the episodes and the series go by, we see how irredeemable Bojack really is: a downright, horrible horse-man being yet still suffering from self-doubt and self-destruction. Though it picks up on many traditional sitcom tropes – Todd is the slacker following on from Kramer in Seinfeld and Mr Peanutbutter is eccentric, annoying, overly happy – it was (and still is) the perfect TV show for the mid-teens, just as recognition of mental health issues and growing existential doubt in the modern world rose among the general populace and there needed to be a new medium to explore these thoughts. Diane Nguyen is a brilliant straight woman – while everyone else is off on their antics, she still stays down-to-earth – but she is also a fascinating character, battling with her own identity as a second generation immigrant family member. Bojack Horseman will leave you (most likely) sad, but emotionally enlightened.  

Episode to watch: S5E6 – Free Churro

Adult animation

So what is “adult animation”? You can say that it is animation, but grown up, with grown up themes and grown up stories and grown up characters. But by that account, Mission Impossible, Shaun of the Dead and Citizen Kane are adult films. Animation is not a genre, but a medium, and can be just as flexible as films and novels for narrative works of art. Animation’s lack of realism is what makes it so beautiful and so direct in its storytelling. So the next time you get recommended any animated series, don’t discount it for the fact that it is animated, but embrace it for this very reason. Animation is just as capable as any other medium.

Thang Tu

Thang is a second year Classicist at Trinity. He plays the trombone and sings tenor in the Trinity College Chapel Choir. He enjoys baking and long walks along the beach.