No, this isn’t an answer to that question, so if you came to this because, like me, you don’t entirely get why Shelter is the big deal that it is, then either leave or check the comments because that’s sorta where I’m hoping the bulk of substance on this page ends up.
It seems like everyone in the anime community the past few days has been telling me that I have to watch Shelter. So I did. It’s a six minute short music video, with a song from Porter Robinson (who I guess I’m supposed to know, but I don’t, so whatever), and animation from A-1 Pictures. I have to say, at risk of sounding like a hypocrite, it’s good, go watch it.
But it’s not that good, at least as far as I can tell. It’s about a girl existing in a simulated world with nobody else around, while her physical body is hooked up to a computer drifting through space, and also she gets sad because she remembers her dad.
So I guess I’m being somewhat facetious in saying I don’t get why people like it. Obviously it’s very sweat and emotional, has genuinely beautiful animation, and features a top-tier cute anime girl. Of course people love it.
But when I see the anime community getting this worked up about a short, I expect something more from it. I expect Me!Me!Me!, Pale Cocoon, or Death Billiards, or at least Cassette Girl. Something thematic.
Of course, Shelter does have themes, but they’re not on the same level as what I listed above.
It’s about loneliness, conveyed from the beginning as main character girl, Rin, laying around in her room, interacting only with technology. Effectively resonant for the Otaku, and frankly wider, audience. Admittedly a little overused as a setting short-hand (hell, Serial Experiments Lain already perfected this in 1998), but I can forgive that. The fact that we see her tablet and it says “No messages for 2539 days” reinforces this and gives us an idea of how long she’s been in this fake world. Also, it nicely coincides with her claiming to not be lonely; the first thing she does after waking up is eagerly checking her messages when she knows they’re almost certainly none.
It’s about escapism, and trying to avoid these distressing and depressing emotions with the distractions of a fantasy world. Interestingly, as Rin is making her escapist fantasy, we she her stay in bed, drawing it on her tablet, and thus geoforming the world around her. It’s a neat way to depict the creative work going into this escapism; a lesser director would probably just have her walking through the world as it ‘s forming, looking in awe at the things around her. Such would be immediately alien to the actual viewer. But most people probably can relate to drawing, or writing, or in some way creating on a tablet or laptop or even paper while laying in bed. It reinforces this as mere fantasy.
Although the following shots, of her running around this world in awe of it, do somewhat undermine that. I honestly don’t see any point to these shots other than, well, escapism. This shit’s depressing, so cute-girl-running-through-field happens to temper that a little. But Shelter never actually gets that emotionally oppressive, so this seems completely unnecessary. Unless it was just to have a cute girl running through a field, in which case the character’s escapism and the creators’ escapism oddly line up in way that really should be more self-aware.
These shots are inter-cut with shots of Rin back in her room, drawing on the tablet, and I really don’t know what to make of this editing. Is she actually in her room the whole time, and the running around stuff is just a fantasy that’s not actually happening, even within this computer simulation that seeming can make the things she’s drawing real? Is she going out and coming back a bunch, like the time-skips would suggest? Is she- oh, she’s in a bath. Well, I know why that’s there, and it needs no further analysis, so let’s just skip to the next segment…
It’s about memories. More accurately, nostalgia, but not in the “my childhood cartoons!” way the internet uses nostalgia. The I-look-at-pictures-of-me-with-my-family-as-a-child-and-we’re-all-happy-and-I-remember-the-day-that-picture-was-taken-and-it-makes-me-wish-things-could-go-back-that-way type of nostalgia.
I’ve always been disappointed with this in media because it never seems to get it right. I am intimately familiar with this feeling. I avoid seeing family pictures unless I’ve already prepared myself to have a nice long cry. And in my experience, the only way to get it right is to make it personal; have the viewer already be familiar with the characters and the events they’re remembering, and make as many things as you can have some symbolic resonance. A short can’t do that. So instead, Shelter resorts to the most generic memories, with the most generic looking father, pushing his daughter on the damn swing-set. At this point, my emotional involvement in the anime is only as strong as my attraction to Rin, which isn’t that strong. And it is at this point that that Shelter fails.
I get that Shelter is well crafted and sad. But it’s entire point is to appeal to this particular feeling of loneliness, reality, and nostalgia. This feeling that can be capture many times better simply by browsing a family photo album. Because of that, there is no reason for me to watch this. While it may be more difficult and actually make me cry, looking at pictures of my family is much more rewarding than looking at some anime girl’s generic looking father, and all her super generic memories with him.
Me!Me!Me! didn’t make me feel anything, but at least it had a social message directed specifically at the people most likely to watch it. Pale Cocoon‘s plot was confusing and its ending poorly presented, but at least it made me think about humanity’s frailty and stature. Death Billiards was good. That’s all I have to say about it. And Cassette Girl may have been dumb with no actual message beyond some hardcore otaku’s justification for collecting old shit, but at least it was fun to watch.
Shelter is about some very complex and personal emotions, but in being that it ultimately just serves as another form of escapism from those emotions. If you want to reflect on your family and childhood, then watch an anime music video instead, you’re missing the point.
And other than that, it’s some pretty animation and a cute girl. Which is probably why it’s popular.
Don’t Lose Your Way