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.
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?.
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.
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:
- A context where teaching the viewer feels natural OR one which sufficiently immerses the viewer so that it makes sense.
- 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.
- Being actually a fun series that the audience will want to watch in the first place.