Physics and the Fantastic

Where we discuss why physics laws are important in anime, and fiction in general.

We love fantasy worlds because the craziest events can happen: humans with supernatural powers can fly freely in the sky, young boys can control water with their mind and sports teams manage to become world champions after only one year of practice. Okay, that last one might or might not be fantasy, but is still pretty common in the world of anime. In the two other cases, reasonable people would agree such feats could not happen in our world, as flying attempts have all resulted in utter failure and telekinesis is only a form of real life magic, which, unlike fantasy magic, is fake.

This is because our world follows the laws of physics, a set of very strict rules which dictate what is possible and what isn’t. For example, gravity only goes one way and a humanoid at the surface of any planet will always be attracted by the centre of this planet. No matter where you travel in the universe, you will never find a planet where the person is repelled instead of being attracted. These fundamental rules can sometimes be hard to grasp, but they influence all of the other sciences: chemistry, biology (which will tell you why a butterfly can fly, but a human can’t), neurosciences (which will tell you the brain is a powerful tool, but not good enough to move objects around on its own) and many others.

One may therefore think that these laws don’t matter at all when writing fiction. It is fiction after all and doesn’t need to follow any of these real-world rules. In particular, in a setting where some superhumans are able to fly, the laws of gravity can obviously be ignored, right? Well, I believe it is more complicated than that.

In most superheroes stories, being able to fly is an exception and not the norm. Although some heroes are able to fly, or (a bit) more reasonably jump from the top of a five floors building without suffering any injury, these characters are pretty unique and for everyone and everything else living in this world, the laws of gravity still apply. Normal people cannot jump five meters into the air and if they throw a ball, this one will eventually fall to the ground and not suddenly fly away in the sky. This is important, as it makes the world feel relatable to the reader or watcher, and puts the emphasis on why this superhero is super in the first place.

The laws don’t have to be exactly the same as the ones of the real world, but if they do, it does help the narrative to focus on what is important in the story, instead of losing the reader with superfluous information. For example, imagine a classic high school love story, complete with unrequited love and teen drama. A classic anime trope. The only difference being that, when characters are indoors, they walk on the ceiling. This could be fun as a one-time absurd joke, but if it doesn’t add anything to the story and just happens because the author felt like meddling with the laws of nature, this becomes terrible story-telling. During all the story, the person watching this anime will wonder why everyone is walking on the ceiling, instead of caring about the romance and drama which should be the focus of the story. It will also be terribly disappointing when the story ends without ever acknowledging this question, and the viewer may wonder about the sanity of this particular author!

This is obviously an exaggeration. The bottom line is that changing the laws of nature just for the sake of it is not a good idea. It can of course be done to make a moment more epic (huge jumps are cool!) or for comedy purpose, but in general it would just confuse the anime viewer or manga reader, unless it is an important and unique feature of this world. In the first episode of the 2020 anime Id:Invaded, the protagonist wakes up in a room where the laws of gravity don’t apply, as the physical world is split into parts, scattered on a blank background, like a puzzle he needs to put together. This is an extremely unfamiliar experience for the viewer, who may wonder what is happening. However, the internal monologue of the protagonist makes it clear that this is not normal for him either, and that gravity isn’t supposed to work like that. His experience of the situation is therefore similar to the viewer’s, making the scene much more relatable. In this example, changing the laws helps to create a mystery for the viewer. What is this place? Who is this person? What about this situation is real and what isn’t? It is only at the end of the episode that we slowly understand a bit more about the situation.

Traffic lights, signs and entire rooms flying around with no respect for gravity in Id:Invaded. [Official art from Id:Invaded, by NAZ studio, directed by Ei Aoki and written by Ōtarō Maijō]

When creating a fantasy world, there are basically two ways to make it different from our real world. The first one is by changing the laws of physics, while the second one is by transcending the existing laws of that same fantasy world. Of course, it is possible to do both, or none of them when going for a realistic setting. Both options have their advantages.

In the first case, this allows to create a world with more freedom, where there is no need to think too much about the logical and physical consequences of a narrative choice. A world where people can speak underwater, breathe in outer space or walk on clouds is very convenient. There is no need to explain why this is possible, this is just how it is. The characters in the story act as if this is normal, and a person following the series will slowly accept this reality as a fact and move on with the story. This is similar to the previous example of ceiling-walking, except the changes are useful from a narrative point of view. Imagine writing a story about people living mostly underwater, like in Nagi no Asu kara (A Lull in the Sea), except that the protagonists aren’t able to talk underwater and can only do so while they are on the surface. It would not only be harder to write the scenario, but also detrimental to the story progression and to the world-building, as we would question the creation of this underwater community in the first place.

In the second case, it is possible to introduce characters or items with unique properties, going beyond what the usual people can do, bound by the laws most people need to follow. This allows the introduction of magic, superpowers or advanced technology, all going against what the laws of nature dictate. One may fly, another create fire out of nowhere, while a third one can transform into animals. Every power may be different, or every power can be the same, as long as this power is an exception and not the norm of this world.

Of course, the line between these two cases is not very clear. For example, magic is often an important feature of the world and is just as present as oxygen (if we suppose it’s a world where the inhabitants need to breathe oxygen to survive!). Some people just have a better compatibility with magic and can therefore become wizards, while others may not even feel the presence of magic. It is, however, a known fact for every inhabitant of that world that magic does exist and is as much a part of the world as gravity or electricity. In American superhero comics, it is also very common to give an explanation about the source of the superpowers, usually hiding behind some pseudo-scientific jargon, which would make it seem like it could almost happen in our world.

No matter if an author decides to change them or not, laws of physics are therefore very important in fiction. They help the reader to follow the story, by allowing them to make the assumption that this world mostly works like ours: gravity is present, the sky is blue during the day, and characters perceive sounds as we do… But as humans experience only one specific set of these rules, they remain important even when they are different or when they’re violated. In this case, the reader will still be able to follow the story, by making a mental note of the differences between the two worlds. And will be ready to start a new adventure in this mysterious, yet slightly familiar world.

Thank you for reading this article. It is the first of a series on science in anime. This first one is more general, and focused more on story-telling aspects than actual science. Kind of a prologue, really. In the future, I plan to focus on specific scientific themes by analysing how they are treated in different anime, as compared to their application in real life.

Stories about science in anime, manga and more.

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