Romance, Drama, and Trauma: A Tentative Mid-Season Reflection

For some reason, this fall season has resulted in me only blogging three shows regularly–Clannad, Kimikiss Pure Rouge, and especially ef-a tale of memories. All are either primarily or feature romance in prominent places, and of the teenage variety to boot, and a good many have either some real heavy drama/trauma or at least the threat of such. What gives? Why am I sucked into these shows time and time again? Is it time to wonder whether Ray is right and I’m much more confused about my sexuality than I assumed? :)

This is an Anime Blog Collective post, in conjunction with Roxas, Karura, CCYoshi, Martin, Hige, J. Valdez, Xerox and Owen–not to mention our very own Ray, whom I’ve asked to join us.

Is it just me, or is nearly every relationship show that has any ambition at all fraught with high-concept drama and trauma this season? Clannad has Fuko, Tomoya’s family issues, and Nagisa’s possible internal turmoil. Myself;Yourself is turning into a drama-fest. ef is a cast full of basket cases of some sort, with Chihiro being the lead. Kimikiss is refreshing precisely because the characters seem so normal, and this is hailed in many circles, my own included, as being a real step forward in originality (of all things)!

What gives? Is this good? I have to admit I’m instinctively drawn to this sort of combination for two reasons.

First, it’s no secret that I got into anime because of Neon Genesis Evangelion, especially the second half of the series with its psychodrama and its naked depiction of emotional breakdown. So for me the appeal of anime is, on an emotional level, connected to its willingness to be delve into unpleasant and dark feelings that I could identify with on some level, especially feelings of helplessness, depression, and the inability to measure up to expectations. Evangelion, of course, is a special case; it is psychologically informed and still unusually raw by today’s standards. Most creators opt for the easier and lazier option of explaining everything with a traumatic childhood event–perhaps abuse; perhaps a death in the family–and using that either to garner sympathy or build “complexity,” especially for villains. Such development is often melodramatic and unbelievable, but it is often nonetheless extreme and painful and it has a visceral effect on me. Perhaps a template was set in all the top-of-the-lungs screaming in movies like Akira, not to mention the screaming in Evangelion itself. A lot of my favored anime of late has been characterized by its emotional restraint, but in equal measures there are plenty of great shows that go to emotional extremes. Where would we be without Higurashi?

The point is that anime is full of primal emotions and outright melodrama, and it’s something that’s become almost a convention of sorts. Often it’s a signal that this is a serious show to be taken seriously! and when it does it it triggers a baseline emotional response in me, sometimes out of proportion to is actual quality. I admit, when I am predisposed to something, I can be easily emotionally affected, especially when the soundtrack is good. Big emotions and big events done well can seem epic.

Of course, many genres do this, but here the topic is some of the romantic shows this season, which leads me to the second point.

Anime and manga is often the introduction for many lovelorn sensitive, shy (and I suspect especially Asian) young men to romantic stories aimed at them rather than young women. It was for me! The angst of being unable to express one’s true feelings, for instance: I remember the first time I encountered Video Girl Ai early in my fandom, and its earnest sadness mixed with a little fan-service vocalized some feelings I hadn’t expressed terribly well before. Later, when you find out that romance and its cousin, harem comedy, are among the most rigid and cliched of genres, you become inured to the Childhood Friend, the Nice Pretty Softspoken one who is oblivious to you, the Little Sister, the Accidental Stumbling Into Mammaries and Bathhouses. But they are not cliches well-known outside the fan community. If you had a childhood friend whom you have pined for many years later, as I have (are you there, Anna?), or wondered whether when the pretty girl that talks to you a lot and likes spending time with you actually likes you, it’s gratifying to see some level of emotional connection that is largely unavailable in our typical western media. It is a typical sign of a n00b to anime of course. Or perhaps emotional maturity? :)

These two elements often work together in interesting ways, and the most recent examples I can think of are Myself; Yourself and School Days. In both shows, the romantic elements start out very conventionally, even cliched. On its own, it’s boring. The creators in both cases have used the threat of violent trauma, though, to string the viewer along and spice up what might otherwise be seen as a terribly typical relationship comedy/drama. We don’t know where Myself;Yourself is headed, but School Days has set a precedent, and as I have expressed before, not one I think is good. I really hope for one that grotesque violence doesn’t become the way storytellers shore up otherwise uninteresting stories.

So you put these two ingredients together: emotional trauma and the sick pleasures of watching the process of unrequited or budding teenage love, and you often have not just something that might appeal to me, but apparently to a lot of otaku, given how popular Clannad is at least. Key’s turned this into a winning formula, though they seem to have finally have started subduing the worst excesses in their current show. Kimikiss and ef are not as popular on the blogosphere at any rate, one for its sheer normalcy (read: boringness) and one for being daring and experimental (and emotionally raw to Eva-like proportions at times). But in general, learning about the characters’ darkness makes you feel closer to them, somewhat like when we get to know some of our friends’ deepest-held secrets. The spell can be ruined of course by unbelievable developments, unearned spilling of emotion, and unwarranted drama, which is how I felt about ef episode 1 at first. (Rewatching it in the light of later episodes really made it fall into place for me, but I could also sense why newcomers would be put off by it.) But at its best, when it is done right, knowing a character’s dark side and having it interact meaningful with the story and characters is the surest way to generate genuine emotion in the audience. In matters of love, where so many extreme emotions come out even in real life, it makes even more sense.

Of course, given my now notorious suspicion-to-the-point-of-unfairness of the harem subgenre, which at its worst really does threaten to ruin male-oriented romantic storytelling in anime, these elements aren’t the only thing that make me like a show. I have to like the characters too: Tomoya is a great lead in Clannad, and Nagisa is the least annoying “promised girl” yet in the Key pantheon. Kimikiss has the very appealing Mao. ef has a bunch of artists struggling with real artistic issues as well as with the notion of memory, and actually I find the love triangle to be secondary, as well as much less interesting, than those subjects. Storytelling still matters to me, and I’ve also seen too much to be as innocently entertained by hackneyed conventions as I once was. There is no going back to the way I felt the first time I saw the introductory scenes of Love Hina or the soulful angstyness of Video Girl Ai. Now it has to ring truer, the way Honey and Clover and Byousoku 5 cm did.

Or at least be really, really funny. You can turn me around if you slap Nagasumi-san a few more times.

12 thoughts on “Romance, Drama, and Trauma: A Tentative Mid-Season Reflection”

  1. Yeah, I’d definitely agree that a lot of the popularity of anime (beyond the initial, typically shonen entryways of stuff like Initial D and Naruto) lies in the genres that American TV lacks, especially said ‘male romance’ genre. I wrote a little piece on Megatokyo a while back and I think a large part of that comic’s popularity lied in the fact that it provided romantic escapades for guys.

    I know it’s why I got into a lot of these shows, anyway. It’s one of the easiest ways to click with an audience.

    About drama in these romance shows, though, perhaps School Days and even Myself; Yourself are a bit extreme examples (not to mention anything Key), but I think it would be strange to have a romance show without drama (whether it be supernatural or chara vs. chara) since romance, especially of the teenage kind, is largely drama-filled. At least, that’s how it appears. XD

  2. I’m beginning to wonder how first anime experiences affect taste later on – I too was introduced to anime proper through NGE and Akira and wound up focusing on the same aspects of ef and Clannad as you did…either that or great minds think alike! :P

    In all seriousness though, these two shows, more than any this season, do aim for the predictable emotional buttons of unrequited love and angst but since they do such a good job of it I’ll continue to watch them. It’s not just the story that matters – it’s the execution that’s of great importance too.

  3. “There is no going back to the way I felt the first time I saw the introductory scenes of Love Hina or the soulful angstyness of Video Girl Ai. Now it has to ring truer, the way Honey and Clover and Byousoku 5 cm did.”

    Ah, I feel the same way, except my introduction to harems were the Tenchi Muyo series and the Love Hina manga. FLCL will always have a special place in my heart.

    :3 Ah, how our tastes refine over time. But for some reason, much of popular media doesn’t seem to hold the same kind of evolution. That’s right. TRANSFORMERS THE MOVIE was TERRIBLE.

    Anyways, ranting aside, sometime I wish I could never tire of hackneyed, trite characters and plots. I would love so much more.

  4. Wow, that took me way back. Reminded me of one of my first loves that was Love Hina. While the anime wasn’t exactly terrible for its time (although I shudder to think of the decidedly chubby character designs on retrospect), it was the manga that I adored to the point of even reading volume 14 raw when it first was published. It was hilarious, charming, even sweet to some extent when you looked past the gratuitous fanservice, of which I learned to do so even then.

    In some way I kinda miss the rose-tinted perspective, but I suppose one has to move on to heavier things at some point. It’s strange to think that once upon a time (and by that I mean when I was like 15 or so) I might have found kimikiss and ef boring, but that’s growing up for you.

  5. Sorry for the late responses, folks. I was very busy transcribing stuff this weekend. :)

    @CCY: I discovered Megatokyo around the same time I was discovering the shows I mentioned above–Love Hina, Video Girl Ai, etc. I still read it, though I’ve been disappointed in it for a long time, and I guess that says something. At its best it has enough emotional resonance to keep me going. As for drama–of course, every romance show needs “drama,” in the sense that there needs to be both external and internal conflict. But I see a trend toward extreme kinds of it–murder, violence, and/or supernatural types. Personally, I’m most impressed when the writers manage to squeeze lots of emotion out of ordinary situations.

    @Martin: absolutely, execution is important. Hantsuki is an example of a show executed so poorly that it was hard to take seriously, even though it had a fine premise and good moments. And actually in my opinion there are only a few “emotional buttons” to push as far as storytelling goes anyway. It’s whether we care enough about the characters who get pushed that makes the difference.

    @korosora: maybe we all need the Eternal Sunshine mind eraser. :) Though the positive thing about viewers and critics like us is that once you get introduced to Good Stuff it’s really hard to go back, and you feel like telling others about it too. Hence this blog, which was in part established so I could rave about Welcome to the NHK.

    @Owen: formula shows can be done right. See my review of Seto no Hanayome. I like to try to watch something like that alongside the “heavier” stuff and for me it’s usually apparent which formula show has a spark of life in it and which ones really do just feel tired and boring (Nagasarete Airantou). I try to follow the way Roger Ebert treats genre films–he considers whether the movie succeeds on its own terms, and gives a star rating accordingly. So he is just as capable of giving “Speed” or “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” good reviews as he is to praise the latest foreign art film. Of course, still being a bit of an elitist unlike your born-again self :), I sometimes lurch back into good old fashioned snobbery!

  6. Ahh yes, the joys of being an anime noob.

    I jumped straight into the deep end with Evangelion and Excel Saga, and I think the experience permanently broke something, because I’ve always preferred the extremes – either extremely wacky or extremely serious, and for the most part given romance shows a wide berth.

    “Perhaps a template was set in all the top-of-the-lungs screaming in movies like Akira…”

    TETSUOOOOOO!!

Leave a Reply