About Me

Newfoundland, Canada
I've been a big anime fan for about 10 years or so now. My five all-time favorite animes at this point are, in no particular order... Puella Magi Madoka Magica, El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Love Live!: School Idol Project, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. However, there are hundreds of anime shows that I like. The main purpose of this blog is to provide meta-commentary on anime, and the anime industry - to try to cast a critical, though appreciating, eye upon this entertainment genre that I believe has tremendous potential, but can also be easily wasted. I have always been a fan of animation in general - in the 80s, I grew up on western cartoons like He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. Through out the 90s, I was a hardcore comic book fan, for the most part. I'm also a big fan of Star Trek. Right now in my life, though, anime is my principal entertainment passion.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Anime: Nostalgia Entertainment?

There was one scene in Angel Beats! that I didn't touch on much, even though some of the ideas conveyed by it were potentially powerfully poignant, and likely very telling. I didn't touch on it much because it was suggesting a general truism of sorts about anime today which transcends Angel Beats! itself, and hence I didn't want to spend much time on it in an actual Angel Beats! review. That truism is that modern anime intermittently intensely idealizes school life. 

Yurippe herself is calling it "paradise" here, in a scene where Yurippe is miraculously shunted into a reality of sorts where she may live the life of a normal, healthy, stable high school girl.

So it's clear that, for Yurippe, the life of such a normal, healthy, stable high school girl constitutes a paradise. Given Yurippe's background, that's perhaps understandable; one can understand why someone with a very troubled and unusual existence like her's might yearn for something much simpler and typical. However, I think that this scene also clearly shows the very high esteem that modern anime holds when it comes to school.

In an older blog entry, I elaborated on how prominent and frequent school-based animes have become in recent years, particularly as a total percentage of all the animes that are out there. In fairness, school settings played prominent in many older animes from the 80s and 90s (and likely before that), but I don't recall school life itself being displayed so comprehensively, or viewed in an almost utopian light.

Ranma ½ had plenty of school-based episodes, NGE used it as an occasional backdrop, Tenchi Muyo! had a few notable school-related scenes, El Hazard starts out in a school (and has a major villain who takes great pride in his status of Student Council President), Fushigi Yuugi likewise starts out in a school, every so often Sailor Moon would have a school-based focus to one of its episodes, and this also applies to Card Captor Sakura and InuYasha. However, none of them were truly about school; the atmosphere of the school setting itself was not really a major driving force for any of these animes, and really not for any 80s and 90s animes that I personally saw.

I think that the anime which can perhaps be credited as being the first of the modern school-based animes is Azumanga Daioh.

Azumanga is the most recent anime I can think of, that I myself have personally watched, where school life is what the show is typically all about.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Azumanga. When I watched it, I found it dynamic, fresh, comedic, and cool. It presented school life not as an outright paradise, but still in a light where all of the faults and foibles that come with school life nonetheless enriches us and gives us great lasting memories. In many ways, this is similar to Kyon's growing appreciation for the SOS Brigade in the Haruhi novels: the SOS Brigade makes for a lot of work, and it can be a royal pain at times, but it also makes for an exciting and interesting life with plenty of vibrant, lasting memories.

It should be noted that Azumanga had a very sentimental graduation episode to conclude its anime. I have to admit that it left a strong emotional impression on me. I liked how Azumanga casted school life in a largely positive light, contrasting it with how school is treated largely as a place of undesired conflict, bullying, and arduous study in much of western entertainment.

However, while this makes Azumanga a nice change of pace from what I had played, read, and watched before, it also is now apparent to me that it's presentation of school has become par for course (if not understated) for modern anime shows.

And this, I think, helps to explain how anime has gone from this...

To this...

Love Hina is a slapstick-driven romance harem comedy. Negima! differs from it a bit, and obviously has some school elements to it, but likewise often has a slapstick-driven romance harem comedy feel to it. Other animes that had such a feel includes Saber Marionette J, and the afforementioned Tenchi Muyo!

With the slight exception of Negima!, though, these animes had little to do with school. In fact, the male lead of Love Hina (KeitarĊ Urashima) starts out as already being out of high school, and trying to get accepted into Tokyo University (which itself is not featured a whole lot in the anime). Yes, he's already an adult, and the same holds true of Keiichi Morisato in Ah! My Goddess. Here we see how two of the more prominent animes of a decade or more ago tried to appeal to the young adult male demographic by featuring actual adult male characters living something akin to a normal adult male life (only with the infusion of wonderfully entertaining female characters, of course ;) ).

The modern anime Amagami SS is likewise aimed at the 18 to 30 year old male audience. Amagami SS is, like Love Hina, a harem anime of sorts. Much of its appeal lies in a diverse attractive female cast, all interested in one particular male lead, after all.

However, unlike Love Hina, its setting is a high school and its male lead is a high school student, and school life itself is frequently a focus of the anime.

And school life is a predominant focus for the anime based on this seinen manga...

The change in anime has been rather large when you really stop to think about it.

From slapstick-driven harem romance comedies with diverse settings, frequently adult male leads, and little school focus; to comedy of a less physical nature, teenage male leads if male leads are there at all, and a steely focus on school life.

What accounts for the change?

I think it's because anime is increasingly nostalgia entertainment

But it's not nostalgia for a particular type of entertainment (as we see in the live-action Expendables movie with its classic 80s-style explosive action and ultimate muscular tough guy characters), but rather nostalgia for school life itself.

That, I think, is what anime is increasingly appealing to, and knowing this is perhaps essential to understanding K-On!'s appeal with the adult male demographic.

It could also explain why I don't see as many adult leads like Spike Spiegel and Major Motoko Kusanagi in major animes as I used to.

Perhaps the modern adult otaku is not interested in having his or her peers displayed onscreen, complete with elements of the typical lifestyle of the modern adult Japanese man or woman.

Perhaps the modern adult otaku would rather look back at simpler and more carefree times, such as those times in school. 

Or perhaps he or she yearns not merely for those times in school, but for the adolescence he or she never had; the adolescence that they regretted not having.

In Amagami SS, and in K-On!, we see school-based lives rooted in playful friendships, simple past times, and cordial tranquil relationships. Plot is arguably sacrificed for atmosphere, as its a relaxed idyllic school atmosphere that is key here.

So, this is the change that I think anime has largely underwent in recent years.

Is it a change that will continue to benefit anime (K-On! sells well, after all), or will it ultimately hurt anime?

That I'd like to read your opinion on. :)

Please feel free to share, as I'm open to all sorts of viewpoints on this.


  1. I'm not sure if I've stressed Azumanga's impact in previous discussions, but I definitely agree that it's the model for most of our modern slice of life shows. Huge seller on DVD too.

    While I do think Azumanga had a major impact, I'd actually say the idealization of high school in anime goes back much further. Shinji's dream in Evangelion proved pretty popular, and Martian Successor Nadesico had characters using what was essentially a holodeck equivalent to simulate a high school setting.

    I'm less sure why the setting is so popular. While I understand that being the typical "salaryman" career that many Japanese end up with is pretty mundane, I'm actually a bit surprised that otaku like high school settings. I'm not sure if bullying is necessarily as big as deal as in the US, but it's not like it doesn't exist, in fact, because Japan is a collectivist culture, ostracization can be particularly brutal. And of course, the workload if you want to do well on entrance exams is brutal. Most Japanese students find university a cakewalk in comparison, from what I hear, which raises the question of why that isn't the idealized period (BTW, I've also heard that more couples form in university because people aren't always so exam focused). I have heard it suggested that many Japanese enjoy the freedom they had from many adult social norms in high school, but I'm not sure that alone is convincing.

    Anyway, on the whole, I do find myself suspecting that these portrayals are pretty heavily idealized. Not to say that I consider the western "high school is hell" stuff all that accurate either - the people I knew in high school were great, but I'd be surprised if it represents the experiences of most Japanese.

    Good catch on Love Hina... while Keitaro is often lambasted by some fans for being spineless, I can't help but feel that he had a certain "everyman" appeal.

    It's hard for me to really hate on the school life setting because so many of the shows I like use it, and I actually do find myself watching a lot of slice of life comedies just because they're a nice way to take a break. However, I'd have to say on the whole I'd like to see anime start to regain some of it's fantasy/sci-fi elements, at the very least, and I think if we're ever going to be taken seriously by older audiences, we need to get more adult protagonists (the fantasy genre seems to be able to get away with teenage protagonists even in stuff not strictly aimed at teens, but it doesn't mean we can).

  2. Great post regarding modern anime being nostalgic entertainment. I think I can somewhat explain regarding why slice of life/school based anime is very popular these days.

    First is the change in demography over the decades. I remember the 90s being the "grim dark" era of anime, where 2 in 3 animes dealt with a supernatural theme, often with lots of violence and sci-fi elements. Prior to that era (the 80s) it was all about mecha. These eras were dominated by an older male audience. And the older male audience generally likes violent, mature, "grim dark" mediums of entertainment.

    If we have a look at the demography today, it is dominated by the younger generation, typically those of the high-school and university age. Young people tend to like the more lighthearted, less serious mediums of entertainment, which is why comedies, in particular romantic comedies. This is also the case with western media. Western romantic comedies tend to be more vulgar and "sexy", whilst eastern ones tend to show a more childish, innocent approach - particularly the case with a lot of anime, K-dramas, J-dramas.

    Second factor is that high school/slice of life settings portray a "what-could-have-been" scenario. 0utf0xZer0 mentioned that he is unsure why anime doesn't focus more on university life which many countries around the world consider it the "golden" period of time. However, I think that is exactly the reason why high-school/slice of anime is so prominent.

    In the developed asian countries/cities (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan etc), high school life is considered "hell" by most people. Not saying western high school life is happy-go-lucky, but high school in these asian countries is *extremely* competitive. And the social bar on the value of education is also *extremely* high. In anime, you see high-school portrayed as a opportunistic period to muck around with your friends, find a romantic interest, procrastinate and do fun club activities. In reality, high-school life is having less than 4 hours a day of sleep, going to multiple cram schools and hiring multiple tutors so you can do well in that university entrance exam in the near future.

    Coming from a South Korean background, I know in that country there's two things as a male that you need to do do in order to be recognized as a "civil, standard" human being. Serve your 2-3 years of military service and then to attend and graduate from university, preferably from one of the more prestigious ones like Seoul National University. And to get admittance into university, you need to experience the hells of high school life. It is ironic though that these university graduatees have one of the highest rates of suicide, unemployment and underemployment, while the more less socially accepted "blue-collar" workers have lower rates.

    Hence, the high school/slice of life genres are ultimately forms nostalgic escapism, a "what could have" been scenario that many people, particularly otakus, would liked high-school life to have been instead of the "hell" they in reality faced.

  3. Unfortunately, the subject matter presented here isn't exactly something I can comment on, as I did enjoy my last three years of high school(the rough equivalent of Japan's high school years) and my only knowledge when it comes to the Japanese school system is... what I've seen in anime. I will say going through five-and-a-half-day school weeks for around 10 to 11 months a year isn't exactly my idea of a "paradise," though. Gotta have more of a downtime than that. ^^;;

    As far as people looking at a life they wish they would have had, however, I can at least relate to that. While I largely enjoyed my school life(aside from my junior high and freshman years, but that's another story), I won't deny there are things I wish I could've done then, as well as people I wish I would've gotten to know a little better. In a sense, both of these things are covered by this type of anime, so I can understand why someone would use it as a form of escapism.

    Anyway, I think that using K-On! as an example of things to come isn't really a smart idea. It may have sold well, but that doesn't necessarily mean something similar to it will have similar sales figures.

    Sorry I can't say much more, but this is about all I have to say about this particular subject. =/

  4. I think it hurts. Some of this is fine but as someone who has been out of school 4 years now and wasn't a big fan I just don't feel the nostalgia. I think we need more variety. More awesome shows like before all this moe and high school stuff. Love hina was great