Educating with Anime

When we think about edutainment, most will jump straight to educational video games or TV programming like Sesame Street. Anime as edutainment isn’t common, unless you count moral lessons from kodomo series. However, there have been plenty of anime for older audiences that have tried, in one way or another, to teach the viewers about specific subjects.

PHOTO: Rin Shima camping out by the mountains.

Yuru Camp and Are You Lost? tackled wilderness survival, Cells At Work was all about human biology, and this week’s How Heavy are the Dumbbells you Lift was stuffed full of advice on healthy living and exercise. All mixed in with their own flavors of comedy to make those lessons appealing. However, not all shows that attempt something like this end up successful. I had a great time with the Dumbbell anime, but Cells at Work is one of the lowest-rated series on my AniList account. So what makes a good educational anime?

Obviously, being an entertaining show first and foremost is pivotal. If a show is bad, then you probably won’t want to watch it or absorb any of the information it tries to convey. This is partly subjective of course. If you don’t like fanservice but are really into extravagant shounen anime, then Cells At Work is probably more appealing to you than Are You Lost?.

PHOTO: Sakura stars in a fitness video.

A less subjective factor is found in how the anime conveys its information. How Heavy are the Dumbbells you Lift is framed as a slice-of-life show where the characters are trying to get in shape. They encounter new techniques and machines, which they learn to use through comedic lessons from their trainer. These often take the shape of TV fitness programs starring the girls doing the exercises as Machio provides the instructions.

The context feels natural and the lessons neatly combine direct instructions with visual aids. If you don’t exactly understand what Machio said, then you can at least see one of the girls perform the exercise. Often from different angles or with a second window showing how it would look if you did it wrong. The anime takes its time with these segments and that makes it easy to understand them. At the same time, the fanservice, little jokes, and likeable characters make this educational content fun.

PHOTO: A germ is brutalized by a white blood cell.

Contrast that with Cells At Work. Its attempt at anthropomorphizing all these… things in the human body creates an alien setting for those who don’t know much about biology already. Before you can even begin to understand any specific topic that the show wants to teach, you have to wrap your head around its crazy world. It conjures up more questions than the anime is prepared to answer, so you have to look it up yourself if you want to keep up.

An example of something I found confusing in Cells at Work is the uniqueness of certain characters. The anime makes a point of how there are countless cells; too many to ever keep apart. However, there are some unique characters like the Mast Cell, who don’t have a legion of clones running about. Does that mean there is only 1 mast cell in your entire body? Does it do all that work on its own? Can I lose it?

Also, all the red and white blood cells are slightly different, but Macrophages are all the exact same lady. Does that mean the countless red & white blood cells in our body are all slightly unique and identifiable, whereas macrophages are not? I don’t know. I wish the anime explained it to me better.

Besides the confusing context created by show’s setting, there is also an issue with how the anime tries to teach you. Whenever it introduces a new concept, the screen freezes dramatically, chaotic text is pasted all over the screen, and a narrator rambles off an explanation. This of course means subtitles, which means more text appearing as you’re trying to read, all of which is time sensitive. You can pause, sure, but this is going to happen dozens of times across the series. Do you really want to deal with that?

Instead of weaving the lessons into the fun part of the show, the fun grinds to a halt so you can read paragraphs of text. Not only is it not very fun, it’s also not helping much. These paragraphs and short narrations aren’t sufficient to explain these biological concepts to a layman. Unless you dig into the material yourself outside of the anime, you’re likely to get increasingly confused. At which point it becomes tempting to just ignore the lessons entirely since you’re not retaining any of it anyway.

So to get back to the original question, I believe that a good educational anime requires 3 things:

  1. A context where teaching the viewer feels natural OR one which sufficiently immerses the viewer so that it makes sense.
  2. Sufficient and clear instructions so that the information is both correct and can be understood by a layman. Preferably by combining spoken instructions with visual aids.
  3. Being actually a fun series that the audience will want to watch in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Educating with Anime

  1. Yeah, I think the main problem with Cells at Work is that it’s written for a Japanese audience and assumes that the viewer has about Japanese middle school level education. So it just skips over information that it assumes “everybody” knows. Japan education tends to lean more towards science and math, rather than in other countries where there is more focus on language arts and social studies. You might have noticed that while sciencey anime seems to lack some important information to explain what is happening and why (like Cells at Work) in other anime that are more artsy or historicy, it seems to be very basic and even over explains things that seem like common knowledge. One of the reasons is just because of the difference between countries in what their education focuses on.

    1. I didn’t know that, but it could help explain some shortcuts taken in the explanations in this particular case. I dropped biology when I was still in middle school (ye olde times) and hoped that a fun educational anime could teach me some basics.

      If we factor in cultural differences, that also explains why a fitness anime is so much more digestible. Really though, I kinda want to watch a bunch more shows like these now and dig into the topic some more. Thanks for sharing your vision on this, even though it cursed me with more work :3

  2. That is a great topic worth discussing despite not watching any of the anime you mentioned. I think the anime series I got the most educational stuff from was Hikaru no Go. It has a great balance of having a plot, setting up Go-playing concepts in a way a total newbie would understand that doesn’t halt the story, and there are live-action segments about how to play the game after the end credits. Yugo the Negotiator was low-key educational with geography (okay, mainly Pakistan and Russia), world cultures, and some survival skills on display. Also, props to the English dub for correcting the mistake in the Japanese version by saying the newspapers in Pakistan would have Urdu instead of Arabic which ended up being a legit plot point.

    1. So you’d recommend the English dub over the Japanese original? For anime with a lot of explanations, I typically prefer English myself. It’s a lot easier to parse information when I can listen and understand it directly, as opposed to reading subtitles while characters are talking in a language I can’t comprehend.

      1. Definitely. Yugo is one of the few anime I think has a better dub than the Original Japanese version alongside Shinesman although for different reasons. I also consider Yugo to be Jason Douglas’s best role. Yes, that’s the same guy who would eventually be Aokiji from One Piece and Beerus from Dragon Ball Super. I hear you right there when it comes to get information from what you watch in a language you understand. I’m not against watching something in another language obviously, but it’s easier for me hearing or seeing something in English. It’s also why I want to get better at being fluent in multiple languages even though this will be an arduous task.

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