Diary of an Anime Lived: The Slice of Life Age, Part 2

The first period of my anime fandom ended with my college years. While I never stopped watching anime, the age of discovery was over, and I saw relatively few new shows from 2003-2005. By the time I returned to active fandom in 2006, an entire generational shift had happened in anime.

Part 2: The Hinge Years

There have always been domestic comedies and dramas in anime, and there are still many SF/fantasy shows today. One can go back as far as the mid 1980s for something like Maison Ikkoku or recent shows like Eve no Jikan or Eden of the East for examples of early “slice of life” and recent SF/fantasy. But something has definitely shifted in emphasis in recent years.

Looking through the shows I watched in my first fandom, three stand out to me as being precursors to the present mood: To Heart, Kare Kano, and Love Hina. All were shows I picked up during college, and all were released in the late 1990s or 2000, which in retrospect formed not only the hinge of the millennium but the hinge of an entire approach to anime as well. What makes them hallmarks of what we seem to see in today’s shows?

  • To Heart (1999): it was one of the first dating sim adaptations to be released as an anime. It was also an early example of an iyashikei anime, with nearly conflict-free narratives and a focus on a bevy of cute girls being cute with little to no fanservice. It is technically a harem, but not the sort that Love Hina was just a little later, or Tenchi Muyo was earlier.
  • Kare Kano (1998-1999): how ironic that Hideaki Anno, the man whose Evangelion cemented my fandom, would also foreshadow the believable, character-oriented, storytelling about ordinary existence we see in today’s best slice-of-life shows. Despite its shaky ending, it still really captures what adolescence is like in all its aspects, not just romance: and it actually told the story of the relationship, not the leading up to one. Honey and Clover and Toradora would be impossible without the precedent set by Kare Kano.
  • Love Hina (2000): the first modern harem comedy, with a focus of different “types” of girls (compare them to the girls in Tenchi and you’ll see the difference)—the mix of girls in most harem comedies has been similar ever since. The nearly S&M relationship between Keitaro and Naru may hearken back to Ataru/Lum, but so many “tsundere” scenes are patterned off of how it was done here. Not to mention the presence of the moe loli, the sword girl…and, especially, the promised childhood friend. Oh, the osana najimi.

Honorable mention goes to the influence of Megatokyo and Fred Gallagher. I, and probably many others in the English-speaking world, would have never heard about Key Visual Arts, Kanon, or Clannad without him first introducing them and having them be an open influence on his webcomic. In the early 2000s Gallagher could draw hundreds of people to panels at conventions like Otakon—and I was part of them at two Otakons in a row. (I’ve got a “Tortured Artist” t-shirt bought from the MT booth to prove it.) Key and its works—Kanon (2002, 2006), Air (2005), and Clannad (2007) in particular—are a crucial part of this shift, and Gallagher was one of the first to draw attention to a side of fandom once only known to players of Japanese visual novels.

Strip #62, which signaled a shift in Megatokyo's storytelling...and maybe an entire era??

In fact, the evolution of Megatokyo might even be a microcosm of what I’m talking about. I was a participant in the Megatokyo Forums in the early 2000s, and the shift of MT from a gaming comic to a full-blown, otaku romance melodrama—and its subsequent rise in popularity—says a lot about where fandom was headed in those days. I remember distinctly that it was the angsty, romantic comics centered around Piro and Kimiko that got the most reader response, and Gallagher would write in his rants about how scenes like that, along with side projects like “Warmth,” were influenced by the sorts of things he had seen in Key visual novels. By then, I had begun experiencing my own relationship dramas, and to see even a fanciful version of that within a manga/anime-like medium was cathartic—and that was far more important than the more outlandish aspects that would be thrown in (Rent-a-Zilla, Largo’s “thing”, etc). It seemed heartfelt and honest, and at that age, I was looking for those kinds of stories. The dark, helpless and angry angst that defined Evangelion had given way to more reflective and relationship-driven concerns. A shift from the teens to the twenties. I suspect many in my generation of fandom, who got into anime in college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, may have experienced the same transition, and may be drawn to that kind of anime as a result.

During the post-college phase I only watched a few new anime shows. I remember watching the original Kanon, with the Jay Leno chins, under the influence of Megatokyo—and found it all right. I was struck by the pure soap-opera nature of Kimi Nozo (aka Rumbling Hearts, 2003), which was emotionally intense without being truly connecting for me. I loved Fullmetal Alchemist (2004), which is really pure fantasy, the sort of show I would have enjoyed anyway in my earlier fandom (along with Scrapped Princess). Samurai Champloo was fun, but a disappointment compared to Cowboy Bebop.








Gosh, it's so pretty







Most relevantly, I also remember loving Makoto Shinkai’s first self-directed effort, Voices of a Distant Star (2002)—itself a harbinger of the shift, in which a very SF concept, time dilation, is put in the service of romance. (Compare with its use in Anno’s debut, Gunbuster.) The acclaim Shinkai received, and his subsequent films, point to how the marriage of vivid backgrounds, dramatic monologue, piano, and delicate childhood memory have become the arbiters of quality for all kinds of anime today. I began to associate the kind of bittersweet, nostalgic feelings that Shinkai movies and others (like Key, who turned this approach into an entire subgenre) evoked as being the sort that good shows, or at least emotionally powerful ones, produced. Key and Jun Maeda’s storytelling was sometimes manipulative and clumsy, and Shinkai a bit of a one-note: but good scenes would have eloquent monologues and delicate emotions and self-reflectiveness, laced with regret or some other quietly negative emotion. An expression of introverted pain, as it were. An otaku kind of pain.

All this, of course, laid the ground for the series that pulled me back in: Honey and Clover, Haruhi Suzumiya, and Welcome to the NHK.

To be continued in part 3: This Present Comfort

This is part of 21stcenturydigitalboy’s ongoing Diary of an Anime Lived series, 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.

13 thoughts on “Diary of an Anime Lived: The Slice of Life Age, Part 2

  1. As a relatively new anime fan I am finding this editorial very interesting. A large part of this is because many of my favorite anime would probably never have been made without this shift from sci-fi to slice of life but also because of the mention of Megatokyo which I honestly was not expecting (despite being one of the people who discovered Key through the comic). Have I been underestimating just how popular Fred Gallagher’s comic is (or was)?

    1. Megatokyo was very popular in its heyday. Gallagher was personally popular, speaking for the angst-ridden fan masses in the forums, and like I said the crowds at his events were astonishingly large for someone who isn’t a Japanese Guest of Honor. MT getting published in print form helped create the OEL (Original English Language) manga market, and gave people the idea that it might be financially viable. While he probably has little to do with the rise of the visual novel, moe archetypes, and the slice of life genre in Japan, I do think he absolutely has something to do with it spreading over here in America and other English speaking countries. You and I are both proof of that!

  2. I felt like I was largely reading an autobiographic account of my own journey through anime and the like – Love Hina, Megatokyo, Key, Voices of a Distant Star. I’ve often thought about my own shift of interest in anime series from sci-fi/action to slice-of-life, but never in much detail. I think that like you, it has to do with a change of time in life. Thanks for the great post and the food for thought.

    1. You know I get the feeling that we are very similar indeed. We should definitely meet sometime, I get the feeling we’d have a lot catch up on. 🙂

  3. Whoa I missed the first of these somehow. Love seeing it as a big post series on someone’s site~ I’ll add it to the diary after it’s finished.

    1. Thanks digiboy! I plan to finish this series by the end of the week at the latest. I’ve been wanting to do one for a long time but could never find the prompt to do so until now.

  4. As far as Megatokyo’s storytelling shift, I think the real impetus there was that Largo left the crew shortly after getting engaged. Previously there had been a tension between Fred’s story-driven content and Largo’s “make beer and gaming jokes” content. That balance was totally upended, and Megatokyo subsequently delved into long story arcs, Dead Piro Days, and outsider musings on girls’ emotional states.

    Without that, Megatokyo might have wound up a lot more like Neobaka – a webcomic that ran at the same time, featuring two college anime otaku and their robot girl (before the robot girl was introduced to MT.)

    1. That is a good point, Rodney/Largo had a totally different set of tastes. But I remember the days before the split, and the people hungering for angsty drama significantly outnumbered the “game and beer” fans. To me that says something about the direction of that part of fandom at least.

      One does wonder what an alternate universe where Rodney never left and still had control over MT would be like.

  5. Terrific writeup! But I guess where I’m coming from within this particular era is from the angle that for all the watermarks that were made, far too many shows made since seem to imitate so many elements from previous shows, without actually understanding what made them work in the first place. It’s interesting to see the MegaTokyo mention as it indeed was one of the few western works to come through the ether that embraced the essence of what the late-90s otaku fantasy was. But it can also be pointed out to be something not unlike what many game developers, animation studios, producers, and whatnot attempted to do to mine the hell out of this newly discovered well. Perhaps what we are witnessing is a thinning-down of story and ideas,(where the mix grows lighter and lighter, and yet production values go up) ending in a mere parade of hollowed out corpses. Hate to be a Debbie Downer, but that’s what I see right now. For me, Shinkai falls into a similar place where the imagery is there, but early every story accent is taken wholesale from other shows/projects. It’s no different than shelling out 12 dollars for a throwaway two hours in a darkened theater for a project that came at a 200 million dollar pricetag.

    My love for the troubled Kare Kano anime is simply that it was less revealing of Tsuda’s original manga, but more of Anno’s continued state of mind post-EVA. As much of the source material was used, a lot of the show’s juice came from somewhere more personal, and difficult. And it wasn’t because of the time so many began watching anime, rather it was fortunate timing for those who started. Because it was at a time where something akin to personal authorship was still visible in anime. It’s becoming harder and harder to see these days. Little stands out.

    But what does stand out is that a show as head-shake inducing as Love Hina, can actually be seen as quality in lieu of matters. Again, loved the show when it was new, but I can’t say the same for it now. Can a show be bad, and well executed? Beginning to feel this is possible.

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