On the strands that make up “slice of life” in our day, and what it means to be a fan in this time where it is the predominant standard of quality and popularity.
Part 3: This Present Comfort (see part 1 and part 2)
If Key Visual Arts and the visual novel adaptation revolution formed one emerging strand of the “slice of life” drama genre, one of the other main strands surely belongs to the spawn of Fuji TV’s Noitamina block, whose debut title was Honey and Clover—the anime that defines the second part of my fandom as much as Evangelion did the first.
Honey and Clover, ostensibly aimed at young women who were not the usual audience for anime, actually turned out to be a narration of what the transition to adulthood meant for many young men—myself included. Most of the fans of the show I knew were men, and the show is told predominantly from a male point of view. The characters were students, artists, unemployed, wanderers, people stuck in their early to mid 20s and wondering where life would take them next. It was decidedly not sci-fi, fantasy, or anything other than an eloquent, well-told, funny and dramatic reflection of life: and not just about relationships/romance but also work, self-identity, and even calling.
Watching Honey and Clover, especially the insightful monologues, was catharsis all over again. But it was catharsis of a different sort than with Evangelion. It may not be an accident that so many Evangelion AMVs are scored with Linkin Park, the anthem of mainstream “you don’t understand me!” teenage angst: it functions more like a cry and a violent outpour of negativity. Honey and Clover is sadder, yes, but also prettier, gentler; reflective and hesitant on the part of many of the characters, especially Takemoto with his “tower of adolescence.” It’s indie pop rather than hard rock, literally in its soundtrack/insert songs and in its effect.
The Noitamina block succeeds, in my opinion, precisely because it’s not being written for otaku. Most of the shows that are featured are aimed at drawing a new audience for anime—the exception that proves the rule recently is one of the notable misfires, Fractale—and starting with the josei audience it gradually expanded to include daring sci-fi outings like Eden of the East and C and unconventional comedies like Moyashimon and experimental shows like Mononoke. It was, in short, where chances were being taken in anime, and brought prominence to the kind of well-written storytelling that Honey and Clover and the recent AnoHana embody. It’s gotten to the point where many fans, like myself and other bloggers, will automatically give a Noitamina show the benefit of the doubt for quality. It represents, for the most part, the best face of modern anime.
That, of course, is only one part. But it was not Honey and Clover alone that got me back into fandom, and led to the founding of this blog. It was two other shows, two that are reflective of our age in both its promise and its problems. I refer to Welcome to the NHK! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
The very first review posted on the site that would become Anime Diet was on one of the final episodes of Welcome to the NHK! That show was notable for several things: it was emotionally raw in the way that Evangelion was, at least for this viewer, in exposing the failures and foibles of being a socially-challenged adult otaku. It was, in a way that was largely unseen up to that point, meta: about fandom and anime and gaming itself, even more than the restrained and realistic Genshiken had foretold because it included so much of the pathology that underlay some of it. In that sense it was also about anime’s tropes and their effect on the lives of the characters. The catharsis I felt was both powerful and familiar. This, not H&C, was really my second Evangelion, though at the end of the day, I rate the former higher than the latter.
Why? A clue might be found in the other show that I found in that golden year, 2006: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. It was Ray who recommended it, on the strength of the super-meta episode 0, an assault on prevailing anime standards as much as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was for the classical music world. It was boldly amateurish—meticulously so!—and smart-aleck and self-aware at new heights. It sharply divided viewers at its release, and it even had me checking to see if it was the right show I had gotten. Haruhi Suzumiya works in large part because its fundamentals—the characters, the central plot, the quality of the animation as well as the jokes—are strong. But it is special because it played openly with fandom tropes—the moe girl, the cosplay, a Rei Ayanami clone, etc—and did it cleverly, with a touch of sci-fi that seems drawn from absurdist philosophy and perhaps Douglas Adams. No matter how dumb many of its imitators have been, Haruhi was smart. It was funny, and, in the quieter moments, a little bit moving.
The final broadcast episode of season 1 was just a day in the rain, with nothing strange or climactic. It was ordinary life, lived together with a few interesting people. It was the purest slice-of-life that could be found.
Notice what is missing from all of these shows: the fantastic. High quests. Speculation about the future or magical powers, aside from a few touches here and there mainly for parody/comedy. The goal of these shows was to, even in skewed ways, talk about “real life” in ways that were more down to earth. The mood is more interior, in ways that shows like Evangelion foretold but now became the norm, and insular too, in its self-referential humor. There has always been meta humor in anime, of course—the early Gainax was doing it in the 1980s, there was Project A-ko, etc.—but Haruhi institutionalized it. It also institutionalized the “slice of life” approach as a permanent option, even for relatively experimental shows like itself (and it failed when it overreached in experimentation, as in Endless Eight).
All the while, what was happening in comedy was also shifting, and the emblematic show was Azumanga Daioh. It did not follow the traditional sitcom-like format of a show like Ranma 1/2 or Kimagure Orange Road; instead, it was an all-female cast doing strange things in short vignettes, trying to capture the brevity of a four panel comic strip. Azumanga Daioh was one of the funniest shows I had ever seen up to that point, and I was surprised when I became teary-eyed at the end, because it turned out that these charming oddballs had grown on me as characters. They say in writing classes that one way to make your characters likeable and empathetic is through humor, and Azumanga had that in spades. And boy, did it work: the cuteness, the surrealism, and even the strange language jokes seemed to mesh together well. I still watch it sometimes when I need to feel better, when I need that healing laughter medicine.
Azumanga Daioh is the final godparent of modern slice-of-life anime. So many shows have followed its format since then, especially shows that purport to be “moe”: Lucky Star, K-ON!, Nichijou, just to name a few very famous recent examples. They are comforting, these shows about goofball cute girls doing cute things. The related iyashikei subgenre is really a distillation of this sort of show where nothing much happens at all except pleasantness; it just subtracts the the slapstick humor. Whether the successors of Azumanga are as good is a debatable point, but what is undeniable is that it is now a powerful current in the shape of anime today. The extreme popularity of the three shows I mentioned just before is a testament to that.
So what does this all mean?
It does not mean that sci-fi and fantasy is dead. Far from it; there are many great SF/fantasy shows that have been produced in the past several years, including high profile titles like Gurren Lagann, Macross Frontier, Kaiba, Haibane Renmei (which has slice of life elements to it but is a spiritual parable at its heart), Eve no Jikan, the Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex series, and many more. Madoka just proved that a show in the older style can be successful; it dethroned Haruhi as the most discussed anime on 4chan, after all. But it is no longer the main face that anime presents to the world, and those shows, while they have many fans, are not the ones exciting fans and discussion the most. A director like Akiyuki Shinbo, who is the visual heir of Hideaki Anno, might in earlier times produced an Evangelion or a Utena; instead he produces shows like Pani Poni Dash! and Madoka, which are deeply self-aware otaku concoctions.
It also means that the committed audience, at least the ones that are driving popularity polls in otakudom and in the blogosphere, has shifted. And I am both a witness and participant in that shift, mostly because my own life has changed. The places that I identify with and seek comfort in are no longer filled by a show like Evangelion, nor is a brain tease like the original Ghost in the Shell or Serial Experiments: Lain mean the same thing as it once did. Simply put, ordinary life and a reflection of it mean more to me than they once did. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the other kinds of titles—every one I listed in the paragraph above is a favorite. But different things speak to me than before.
I suppose my hope is that Noitamina and shows like it, perhaps like Hanasaku Iroha, will continue their march of quality. There is much in this age that is now generic and shopworn, something my colleague here has rightfully raised concerns about. Thing is, though, all art goes through phases. The mid-to-late 2000s have belonged to slice of life, and moe; perhaps we are entering a new phase now, of who knows what. But as I grow older as a person and as a fan, I still want to be surprised. I still want to be delighted and moved and provoked by animated art, with strong characters and plots and visuals. And, occasionally, if it speaks to my life in a way that I can understand and identify with, I want to be changed.
Simple to ask for, I know; hard to do. One can only hope.
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.