Diary of an Anime Lived: The Slice-of-Life Age, Part 1

Or, a caricature of how anime has evolved in the last 15 years.

Today, many of the most popular, acclaimed anime TV series are labeled “slice-of-life” shows: tragicomedies about the ups and downs of ordinary life like Honey and Clover, or quirky, plot-light ensemble comedies like Azumanga Daioh or K-ON!. It’s quite a shift from the kind of SF/fantasy anime that were being held up as exemplars in the late 1990s, back when I first became an anime fan, and it’s a shift that seems to track with the way my own life has changed since then.

Part 1: F&SF&E(va)
I have been a fantasy and science-fiction fan all of my life, and I started writing my own stories in those genres in elementary school. Being a stereotypical kind of nerd, complete with the thick glasses and the social awkwardness, the book that most moved and reassured me was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Ender was both brutalized and brutal, a child praised and cursed with his gifts and the responsibilities they carried, and unable to relate to other children normally as a result. Card, at his best, portrayed characters with both compassion and hard-edged honesty about their flaws, particularly in the sequel, Speaker For The Dead. Despite my voracious appetite for novels by David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Isaac Asimov, I never could find another SF writer who quite managed that balance in my younger years. His stories were not just cool, but moving, and true to the human condition as I understood then.

Would the Ender's Game manga look like this?

My attraction to anime was, at first, an extension of my love of SF and fantasy. Record of Lodoss Wars was actually the first anime I watched all the way through—and despite its rather elementary plot, it fulfilled my appetite for a different take on traditional Western fantasy. Ghost in the Shell of course fit the cerebral SF mold, not too unlike stories by Arthur C. Clarke or the movie Blade Runner. Akira at least had spectacle and the post-apocalyptic mood.

As many of you know, though, none of those shows captured my heart the way Neon Genesis Evangelion did. The words I used back then was: “this is a Japanese Ender’s Game.” On some forum in the deep recesses of the Internet, in 2001-2002, there are posts by me arguing the very same. While Ender and Shinji are very different characters, the situations they are thrust within are very similar: world-consequential battles where they have little say in their fates. Shinji, though, was much more “Asian” than Ender, the product of the parental neglect and tyranny endemic to many Asian and Asian-American households. It was easy for me to identify with him, and more closely than I could with Ender. And Eva at its best also had the same mix of brutality and compassion which I found so compelling in Card’s novels, though perhaps Anno was harder on his protagonists than Card ultimately was. There was a sense that he was expiating his own sins and trying to warn otaku of going down the same road in the original series and movies, a raw confessionalism that the polished remakes seem to lack.

I needed that hardness, that unflinching glance at the depths back then. Catharsis isn’t supposed to be painless. It felt like a new experience, to see a ”cartoon” do the sort of thing that Ender’s Game and Speaker For the Dead had done for me years before. And while it was new, it was also deeply continuous with my love of SF/F. Anime wasn’t really a separate thing for me then. It was one more notch alongside my copies of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Lord of the Rings and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My voracious search for information about anime began around that time, and I discovered an entire world of anime and gaming that drew upon Eva’s well of dark, psychological SF. There was the story of Final Fantasy VII, Serial Experiments: Lain, and the later homage RahXephon. There were parodies, like Martian Successor Nadesico and Vandread. And if I wasn’t in the mood for SF, most anime series contained some fantastical elements, and not necessarily of the Western medieval variety like in Slayers or Lodoss Wars. Even the romances, which I was just beginning to discover, had overt fantasy elements: Ah My Goddess!, Kimagure Orange Road, Video Girl Ai, to name a few.

There were, in short, few shows that had no fantasy or SF elements on the radar of my fandom then. Little did I know that in those days, from 1999-2003—my college years, and the first period of my fandom—the ground had already begun to shift in the anime landscape.

To be continued in part 2: the hinge years

This is part of 21stcenturydigitalboy’s ongoing Diary of an Anime Livedseries, which is a blogosphere-wide series of articles about the intersection of anime and personal life.


Author: gendomike

Michael lives in the Los Angeles area, and has been into anime since he saw Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1999. Some of his favorite shows include Full Metal Alchemist, Honey and Clover, and Welcome to the NHK!. Since 2003 he has gone to at least one anime convention every year. A public radio junkie, which naturally led to podcasting, he now holds a seminary degree and is looking to become Dr. Rev. Otaku Bible Man any day now. Michael can be reached at mike.huang@animediet.net. You can also find his Twitter account at @gendomike.

23 thoughts on “Diary of an Anime Lived: The Slice-of-Life Age, Part 1

  1. I hadn’t thought too much about it, but in the past few years, there has been a significant shift in anime. I, too, have a fondness for those sci-fi/fantasy juggernauts, but I have seen them move aside for more realistic titles. For example, my recent discovery of Eden of the East, which is very much a cyberpunk in the realm of William Gibson, is a show regarded as a drama, a mystery, and sometimes a romance. I almost never see Eden of the East described as science fiction.

    Summer Wars functions primarily as a family drama. Le Chevalier D’eon does its best to act like a historical drama rather than the historically themed fantasy that it is. The rise of Satoshi Kon, though linked to psychological stories, is the rise of a director focused greatly on modern realism.

    1. That’s a really good point—that many anime that would otherwise be slotted into the SF/fantasy genre b/c of their elements now function differently. It goes back all the way to shows like Kimagure Orange Road, at least, though: that functions as a school romance despite the ESP/psychic aspects that are peppered throughout. In my next part in fact I’m going to argue that it’s the romance shows, and their harem offshoots, that are in large part responsible for the shift. They have always been there but it’s only in recent years that it’s become dominant. (That, and for the other branch, the rise of the Noitamina block—which, it should be noted, is where Eden of the East as well as Honey and Clover were slotted.)

  2. Gosh, I just realized that we’re the same age (give a year or two). While I wasn’t he sci-fi fan you were (I drifted from genre to genre while reading as a teen and into my early twenties, with Zahn’s Star Wars books and Crichton novels the only sci-fi novels I read), Neon Genesis Evangelion also pulled me into anime. I watched Tenchi Muyo, and was intrigued. I watched Evangelion, and I was hooked.

    I’m looking forward to part 2!

    1. Part 2 is coming soon. As in, the next day or two. As well as something else I owe you, you know what. 🙂

  3. Honestly, I was into sci-fi & fantasy “way back when”. I remember watching Record of Loddoss War on VHS in the 90s, and everyone was really excited about anime such as Akira and such. However, I never really “got it”. Most anime seemed to me to be masculine bravado along the lines of “Look how badd-asss I can be NOW!”… I didn’t see the same kind of deep plotlines that existed even in books like Ender’s Game. Maybe they were there, but I couldn’t get past the flashy showing off. I didn’t really “get” Anime until the drama/slice of life movement took hold. To this day, I have a very hard time enjoying any kind of sci-fi/mecha anime. They just seem juvenile to me in most cases.

    1. I stayed away from those “endless powerup” kind of shows in general, and one of the things that made Eva was how it subverted and totally contradicted that whole mode of thinking. (In fact, one can argue it swung too far the other way; Gurren Lagann might even be seen as an apology and yet another overcorrection for self-loathing protagonists like Shinji.)

      There is still lots of good SF anime around. Try, for starters, Kaiba, The Time of Eve (Eve no Jikan); for mecha, I recommend Bokurano.

  4. Very interesting article! It gave me a lot of thoughts out of it.

    “Shinji was Asian’s Ender!” That’s very interesting. Certainly I couldn’t experience your childhood you had in America. If I grew up in America, I would’ve had that same Asian consciousness with yours. In fact I never thought of myself Asian but rather gaijin living in America. I’m not a perfect bilingual either, everyone can recognize me that I’m a gaijin by my terrible speech pattern. My Ameringlish is always “second language,” which automatically makes me a second-class citizen, that’s what “gaijin” is. Always “second” i.e. inferior.

    Yes, I often hear that Oedipus complex is missing in Asian cultures, and also in African cultures according to Franz Fanon. A typical Western family is pretty much intimate, shows a lot of skinship between husband and wife, so children can develop Oedipus. I can’t speak for all Asians, but at least for the Japanese, parents almost never show intimacy to their children, but rather remote and authoritative to their children. Parents don’t even sleep in the same bed, or the same room. Yes, remote and authoritative are synonyms for “neglect and tyranny.” I thought color didn’t matter in America. Though you’re Asian or black or white, you guys all love Star Trek, so I didn’t expect Asian-Americans retain that kind of parental life style, which had led you to have a click in the world of Eva.

    I don’t know what the exact Japanese translation of “slice of life” would be. Probably, “yutori” may be the word for that. At least that’s what I feel. A neologism would be “yutori anime”? The Yutori education started in 1989, so my guess is that the boom of slice-of-life anime was around the time when children educated in yutori style started becoming grownups.

    Very looking forward to Part 2!

    1. Well, one important sub-branch of the slice of life movement is the iyashikei anime typified by shows like Aria. A big part of it is the search for a deliberate lack of plot, drama, and conflict…a search for a static peace and harmony. I haven’t heard the term “yutori” before, though. What kind of education is involved with that?

      Not all Asians or Asian Americans were raised by the kind of parent now publicized by the Tiger Mother. But enough of them can relate to a distant, disapproving parent who withholds affection and praise and only cares for performance—and makes the child desperate to receive both. That pretty much describes Shinji to a T, and probably much of the audience that identifies with him too, and if one was raised by parents who are from the old country, it’s more likely I think that they would get that kind of experience. (Most of the Asian Americans I knew in the East Coast were like myself second generation, meaning their parents were immigrants.)

      1. Yutori education is the complete opposite of what Tiger Mother does to her kids. Experts thought school violence was due to the jammed curriculum. So, the government reduced school hours. We used to have school on Saturday too, but after yutori, we got Saturday off. Yutori started in 1989 as a trial, then it’s been implemented in a full scale from 2002. Coincidentally, iyashikei started around 2000. Since then, I think, these types of tranquil anime have been called “iyashikei.”

        I see, here in SoCal, I met Japanese-Americans like 5th or 6th generation. Btw, our president is also a second-generation Kenyan, so the moment is yours!

        Anyhow, Shinji was “Asian Ender.” So, that’s how Eva was introduced to you. That’s like “Black Orpheus.” That’s how Bossa Nova was introduced to the West. When I saw A Fistful Of Dollars by Clint Eastwood, I was like, “That’s Western Youjinbou!”

      2. Interesting info about “yutori,” I see that Japan has tried to moderate a lot of the harsher aspects of the education system. (I had no idea that Saturday half days had been abolished, for instance.) I wonder, did they ever learn anything from the Montessori method of teaching? That’s probably the most “free-spirited” Western educational philosophy I know of.

      3. Probably they went over it as reference. But it is far from Montessori. The Japanese society itself is very rigid, so relaxation is drop in the bucket. The society itself is the limit to have that kind of free-spirited education.

  5. Pretty good.. though I have heard that a lot of people who are getting into anime nowadays has not seen Evangelion yet. Hmm I remember around the time I watched Eva was when I was watching Lain, Key the Metal Idol, Love Hina, Shamanic Princess, Slayers, Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou etc. Such is a teen memory lane. ^_^

    1. I’m not surprised that the new generation hasn’t seen Eva—it’s more than 15 years old now after all. Plus, anime has changed a lot since then. It’s not really representative of most of anime these days—though who knows how Madoka, with its striking stylistic similarities, might fare in the future.

      I watched all those shows you listed back in my early fandom. Finally, someone who remembers Key the Metal Idol!. It had great ideas but poor execution. As for Kare Kano…that is going to figure in the later part of my essay as an example of how Anno himself may have helped pave the way for the slice-of-life revolution after Evangelion.

      1. Yep, since I recall I loved the beginning of Key the metal idol, and then was very disappointed at the ending. Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou was directed by Anno? I just remember the ending, and was pretty depressed.

      2. Anno was the director for 3/4 of Kare Kano, then was fired under pressure from the manga creator herself—she didn’t want an original Anno-penned ending to her story, given what had happened to Evangelion. 🙂 He was replaced and the budget ran out, hence the abrupt end of the anime which ended where the manga had at the time. The manga would continue and only ended recently.

  6. Well this is something that I have been grappling with over the last several years as like you, Mike, the overriding thing that anime did for me, was offer new and exciting ways to envision what could be done with filmed science fiction entertainment. For nearly 20 years, this was the medium known for often being first in establishing concepts, ideas and images that could only previously be seen in literature. Which is why I can’t help but feel as if the needle has wandered into dare I call it, mudane territory. And the mundane doesn’t have to be uninvolving, and/ or uninteresting. The problem is that we are at the mercy of changes in viewer behavior which could still be traced back to Evangelion’s crossover from the fantastical to the personal. Up until that point, in many ways these were treated with a manner of near-mutual exclusivity. We could see a domestic dramatic comedy over here, while another space war variant rattled in with a new ship/ mecha/ crew over here.

    The crossover has long past, giving way to a sort of cross-pollination effect that has led to shows bleeding into sort of hybrid-class shows, designed to reach as many potential new viewers as possible. And while this is fine and good in terms of business, it hardly is in regards to writers who aren’t accustomed to writing outside their spheres of experience. I see these limits often, and sadly many shows grab me in one element, while often putting me off in others. The balance tends to waver, and as such, matters become harder when considering shows that may be worth following through with. Too many cooks in the kitchen, and all that. It ends up being a colorful, yet bland tasting mess.

    What made Higashi No Eden exciting for me is that it reminds me of what anime could be capable of being, without resorting to safety nets. And it is this rebel quality that attracts me to art of all kinds. I can’t help but believe that what we’re witnessing now is a fearful retraction inward from a more confident, open love for stories, and the power they can convey. It’s one thing to discover something new within the familiar, but it’s another to see the same five characters remixed ad-nauseum because anything less is terrifying.

  7. -and yet, it is THIS terror that informs potentially great new tales. That untapped beyond. After all, isn’t it not only about the world-building, and plot, but rather how characters react to events within the world?

    1. Interesting reflections. About “hybrid class” shows, isn’t Eden of the East a prime example of one? It’s suspense, sci-fi, action, romance, all blended together in an original though (imo) occasionally clumsy way. It’s rare to see such bravura, though, and you might be interested in what director Kamiyama told me at last year’s AX about his intentions in making the show: he was aiming to make a social statement about today’s generation of young people and their need for connection. He is definitely one of the few directors with any ambition left in anime, and with something to say.

      A lot of what I’m going to say though is about how many of the most popular shows now have turned away from overt SF/F elements altogether in favor of a different set of cliches—or, in the good ones, a pure focus on character as opposed to plot. It also must be said that good SF has never disappeared from anime—but it’s not what gets the 2chans, 4chans, and anime blogs on fire much anymore. Madoka is a huge recent exception to that, being as you once mentioned a bit of a throwback even if not as character-focused on it might have been. But if we just look at Haruhi Suzumiya, probably the defining anime of the Aughts the way Eva was for the 90s, it’s technically SF but only incidentally so, compared to the meta-humor, fan archetypes, and smart-aleck attitude. And that one works well precisely because Kyon and Haruhi are pretty well-drawn characters. Its imitators are not so distinguished.

  8. Oh yes, totally aware of Kamiyama’s intent with Higashi, and you seem to hit the nail squarely on the head regarding ambition. And that’s a large part of what’s missing from today’s crop. There are risks being taken, however not in many ways that seem to leap beyond a certain safety ceiling. Which is what makes some of the more aesthetically surreal shows feel more like artifice, and less like actual statements. Striking visuals rarely equal emotive power, which is harder and harder for me to come by. And again, as you mentioned with Haruhi, it was a careful mixture that helped that show reach the highs it did. And it seems to be something that continues to elude many productions regardless of the talent involved.

  9. Awesome post… it’s true, not so long ago it was all about traveling the Universe or save the world from a bunch of “angels”, and now most shows focus on everyday situations… but well, I personally enjoy the “slice-of-life” genre a lot… probably because I don’t have a life myself xD

    I’m looking forward for the next post; thanks for sharing! 😀

    1. You may be more right than you know about the relationship of loving slice of life and not having a life. 🙂 As for the other posts, did you read parts 2 and 3?

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