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.
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.
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.