To be generic, or to be unique?

A recent post by Valence got me thinking about “generic anime vs unique anime.” Even though many fans, myself included, admit that most anime produced nowadays has a generic plot with cliche character archetypes, we’re still drawn to them. What makes anime appealing even though it’s become much like other forms of media entertainment – formulaic and driven by popular tropes…

I’ve already discussed the importance of originality in anime in a post I wrote back in May. So rather than repeat myself, I’m going to expand on and add a few points.

We can’t deny that anime as a whole is generic. Being a commercial product like other forms of media, the companies are going to produce shows with genres and themes that are popular even if they become overused. Profit is the main goal and creativity is secondary. We can’t blame the companies too much though, since the individual original manga/light novel creators that most anime is based on made them that way. Even if the cliches are cranked up for the sake of higher appeal in the anime, the original creators of anime titles passionately made these series the way they wanted to, even if that way was generic, rather than try to be as unique as possible.

Valence used the big shonen trio – Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece – as examples, which I also did in my previous post. I like all three of them, but if I hear someone claim that they’re “generic,” would I disagree? I can’t deny that they don’t encompass every shonen trope imaginable – dynamic heroes overflowing with passion for their goals, who engage in epic battles against really nasty villains, lots of action, fighting, awesome super powers, and tear-filled dramatics just to name a few. But in spite of being mostly cliche, the three series each have something that sets them apart. Bleach has a style that screams “cool,” Naruto has a wealth of memorably well-developed characters, and One Piece has a refreshing feeling of carefree-ness and adventure in its colorful setting. I believe it’s very rare for an anime to be 100% cliche. It’s also very rare for an anime to be 100% unique. It’s not very profitable either way – if it’s too cliche, only the most die-hard fans of that particular genre would go for it. If it’s too unique, fans who have grown to like anime for particular tropes that appeal to them (which is most fans) will be turned off. I think the most successful anime have been the ones that have a good balance between generic and unique. They convey generic stories and characters in unique ways (like the shonen trio) or they convey unique stories and characters with enough familiar anime tropes so most fans can relate.

To simplify, when it comes to being generic or unique, an anime’s appeal to me comes down to these factors:

– If it’s generic, what genre is it? My chances of liking it are higher if it’s a genre I particularly like.

– If it’s generic, is there anything else about it that I like enough to overlook the cliches, i.e., good animation, appealing character designs, an interesting setting, or a certain character that catches my fancy?

– If it’s generic, are there enough unique things about it so the cliches don’t matter, and even someone who’s not a huge fan of that genre can like it? Even if the story/characters are cliche, they’re presented in a unique way, or the setting and story are interesting even if the characters aren’t, or something of this nature.

– If it’s unique, is it so unique that I can’t relate to it as anime at all? Does it lack so many of the anime tropes I love that I become disinterested?

Being able to harmonize with the generic and the unique can be a big player in an anime’s success. In particular, I think the ability to present generic stories/characters in unique ways is one of the main reasons why the aforementioned shonen trio are more popular than the other, less talked about shonen titles, or slice-of-life/moe anime like K-ON!, Lucky Star, and Azumanga Daioh succeed while the many others in their same genre fall by the wayside. In One Piece’s case, it could be Eiichiro Oda’s unique character designs and his notable planning ahead for story and setting. For Lucky Star, it could be KyoAni/Kadokawa’s marketing tactics and pretty animation. But whatever the reason, something about these really popular titles make them stand out despite seeming generic.

I suppose the uniqueness and generic-ness of an anime can be divided into percentages, which are obviously debatable among viewers. Going back to the shonen trio, I would say that Bleach is about 80% generic and 20% unique, while One Piece and Naruto are about 70% generic and 30% unique. And, not to ignore anime that I feel are more unique than generic:

Death Note = 85% unique, 15% generic
Kemono no Souja Erin = 90% unique, 10% generic
Haruhi = 70% unique, 30% generic
Mushishi = 90% unique, 10% generic

Though anime that are more generic seem to dominate, there are plenty I feel have a higher unique percentage too. In a way, it balances out, as fans of a particular genre can revel in their generic titles, and fans who prefer more creative anime can find their gems just the same.

In conclusion, I definitely don’t believe that being generic automatically means an anime is bad. I watch anime knowing that it’s meant to be a commercial product that may or may not also be creative. If I find things to enjoy about it despite being generic, then who cares? And if not, I’ll just move on to the next series or avoid that genre altogether. Anime is, after all, meant to be enjoyed ;)

17 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Considering that humans have been on this planet for so long, it’s difficult to create something absolutely 100% new without infringing on something that’s been done before. We also have an issue when we like to associate things together in our heads. When I think of Bleach, I also think of One Piece and Naruto despite not having seen any of those three because they’re constantly compared. Overcoming both unoriginality and comparisons makes it difficult to truly be unique.

    One thing that I’d like to add is the generic studio production itself. While studios like Shaft and Kyoto Animation may be known for being different in aspects, they have a distinct style that becomes overused at times. I was watching Kanon for the first time recently and one thing that popped into my head was how similar the character designs were to other KyoAni shows. Regardless of the plot being different, the animation style may be similar and create another sense of “generic.”

    Personally, I don’t mind generic at all as long as it’s performed well. One of our favorite shows (Toradora!) is a generic love story between the main characters, but because the story itself is so well done it never feels that way. K-On!(!) is simply four/five girls living everyday lives, yet it’s done well enough to entrance so many viewers.

    It’s nice to know that if I enjoy a show that there are others out there that I can enjoy just as much due to being similar/generic, but you need some type of uniqueness to break the monotony between shows. If you watch too much of the KeyAni shows, you start to lose emotions due to how impactful they are. Afterall, variety is the spice of life.

    Where would you say Railgun/Index fit on your scale?

    • Yumeka says:

      I agree that it’s impossible to be 100% unique. That’s a point I touched on in the previous point I linked. We humans are completely dependent on outside influences in order for us to originate things. If we’re not exposed to things, it’s not possible to create ideas about them. I also agree that we tend to compare things since it’s the natural way we make sense of our world.

      Animation studios can develop their own “style” much like individual artists can. Their art style could be unique, but their stories are still likely to draw inspiration from other sources.

      Railgun and Index would both be about 60% unique and 40% generic for me ;)

  2. f0calizer says:

    As someone who researches and teaches literature for a living, I can safely say that truly original or unique work is very hard to come by. In fact, a lot of writers today don’t really aspire to such dazzling originality, since it’s actually much better to see one’s work as entering a conversation with earlier or contemporary writers, and then gradually working out one’s own distinctive style or techniques as one goes along. And this isn’t a bad thing at all, since being part of a literary conversation or “tradition” or “lineage” gives one’s work cultural cachet and helps one’s readers figure out where one’s coming from. The destination, however, is something else altogether!

    As an anime viewer, I like trying establishing the dominant trope or genre as a “starting point” for certain series and then figuring out what the series is doing differently. Take Baka to Test and Angel Beats! — both of them start of with the “hapless guy in a new high school” trope, and both are fascinating to me because they exploit the generic setting of the high school to such different ends, both emotionally and thematically. (And yes, I’ve reached the first tear-jerking moment of AB!) I love the “aha! I see what you did there!” moments when an anime revises a trope I associate with its dominant genre. But I love the idea of genre as well — genres exist because we need them to organize and describe our world, and new genres really only emerge when there’s a larger shift or change in the culture at large. And that’s one reason why (to go back to your previous blog post) “moe” isn’t a genre that American audiences can really enjoy yet.

    • Yumeka says:

      Excellent points. I remember one of my high school English teachers telling us that “all great authors are thieves” and that kinda stuck with me. I agree that uniqueness is overrated and something can be just as worthwhile as a “commentary” on a past trope, a new perspective on it, or something of that nature. I also agree that popular genres are dependent on the culture of the times.

      Glad you’re getting through Angel Beats!~ I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. A few points…

    a) A certain portion of the audience always seems to complain loudly about the lack of originality in anime (and other media), but history has shown that the truly “original” productions typically sell very poorly. Why? Because it’s difficult for people to understand and relate to them, or even to take the risk to try them in the first place.

    Further,

    b) A lot of people view entertainment as a sort of “comfort food”. Unlike the “professional critic”, most viewers aren’t necessarily seeking to explore the vast richness of the possibilities within a medium. They’re just watching to having a good time without too many barriers.

    Which leads to…

    c) The easiest way to deliver a reliably pleasant experience is to tap into patterns, memories, and designs that people have already found enjoyable in the past, and vary it up with just enough “newness” so that it feels fresh. This sort of experience is naturally reinforcing; it makes you “feel good”. That applies both at a micro and macro level.

    That being said…

    d) Some people consume anime at a pace that exceeds the rate of “evolution” within the medium. Anime creators are generally only working on one series at time, and with lead times of 12-18 months, so it takes a certain time to “evolve” anime concepts in response to that continued need for “newness”. If someone gorges excessively on anime from a certain time period and isn’t willing to look back and around for other inspiration, they’re very likely to burn themselves out.

    So, perhaps unsurprisingly…

    e) The turnaround rate in the anime market is extremely high, and the cycle is quick. I’ve heard it said that the lifecycle of the average fan may be as short as one year or less. So if you’ve been watching anime for years and years and it’s starting to get old, odds are you’ve probably already outlasted most others. And also, even a show that may seem generic and boring to you may be new and exciting to the new generation of fans. The producers aren’t necessarily expecting that the same people will be watching a long-running shounen show for all 10+ years of its run (though of course there’s nothing wrong with that either). This sort of “churn” is just a reality of the business.

    The Internet can provide a way of extending your “life” in the anime world because it provides another positive reinforcement structure. Seeing other people get excited about certain shows can be contagious, and conversations with friends help spur people on through the down times. And, that said, there are also just people for whom anime is part of their life and they’ve found a way to make it part of who they are. As long as these people continue to find things they enjoy, they may remain fans indefinitely. These people tend to be the least likely to complain about anime being “generic” because their own personal enjoyment may not weigh “uniqueness” as heavily on the priority scale.

    Anyway, that ended up being more than a few points; probably could have made my own blog post about this… but that’s how I roll. ^^; Interesting topic, as always.

    • Yumeka says:

      Thanks as always for your extensive input =) You’ve definitely come up with a good step-by-step process of the topic. I especially liked what you said for b) and c). b) is reminiscent of things I’ve mentioned in previous posts about how one shouldn’t criticize things for lack of uniqueness when that’s not their goal. Entertainment is most likely the goal of the creators since the majority of viewers don’t want to, as you said, “explore the vast richness of the possibilities within a medium” as part of a recreational activity. And for c), that basically describes my idea of what some of the best, and usually most successful, anime have done.

      “…there are also just people for whom anime is part of their life and they’ve found a way to make it part of who they are. As long as these people continue to find things they enjoy, they may remain fans indefinitely. These people tend to be the least likely to complain about anime being “generic” because their own personal enjoyment may not weigh “uniqueness” as heavily on the priority scale.”

      Wow, you’ve pretty much summed up how I relate to anime XD I’ve been watching anime regularly since 2000, have been keeping up with the latest shows since 2006, and have never once experienced anime burnout.

  4. ~xxx says:

    Generic shows isn’t really much interesting to follow, but after all I liked them(Naruto, bleach, One piece).

    But that doesn’t mean that unique shows isn’t good at all.

    I remembered that many fans of naruto somehow didn’t know the presence of shows like k-on!, Set0 no hanayome, To aru kagaku railgun, fullmetal alchemist and etc.

    [And my normal friends never known them… unless I say the title of the Korean series they like.]

    anyways, even though generic anime has been over the streams for a long while… There is always a need for change… and that’s where unique anime kicks in and takes the spotlight for months and years to come.

    Who knows It could become legendary .

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, generic anime and unique anime both have their place and anime fandom would be lacking without either. As I mentioned in the post, generic anime gives fans of that genre what they like, while unique anime gives something refreshing to everyone else. So eventually, everyone should be able to find anime that appeals to them =)

  5. Valence says:

    I admit, shows are getting kind of generic nowadays, when you look at it objectively, part by part without any interference from your own opinion. But unfortunately, in retrospect that is impossible.

    No matter how ‘generic’ or ‘unique’ the show may be, it all, like what relentlessflame had typed, depends on you. You enjoy it or not, that’s up to you. In no way does the degree of uniqueness of a show directly affect its value as anime, as it all lies in the viewer’s hands. I think they don’t aim for uniqueness per se more than entertainment value or even , if one wants to cast them in a bad light, economical value, i.e. power in the market. Whatever the case may be, we know uniqueness doesn’t affect the show’s quality directly, given all of these other factors – if it did, then studios would have changed their focus to create new, original pieces of animation.

    But you have to admit that as an anime fan waiting for a new, unprecedented and truly, unique show is indeed, an interesting prospect, one that I, too, look forward to seeing one day.

    • Yumeka says:

      Like all other forms of media entertainment, an anime’s value and worth are dependent on the viewer’s taste. As you said, your own personal enjoyment is what it comes down to. Companies are aware of this, which is why they’d rather produce things that follow the established successes rather than risk something new. But some are willing to take the risk, because that too has its own audience. And when culture changes, so will people’s tastes, and anime genres soon will follow.

      I agree that finding anime gems among all the mediocre shows is indeed an interesting prospect =)

  6. Adam Skinner says:

    We can’t deny that anime as a whole isn’t generic

    I think you mean “is generic”. Of course, it’s within context. To the average, unexposed American viewer, prototypical shounen shows like Bleach and Naruto are a breath of fresh air, with their well developed characters and plot continuity, rather than cheap laughs catering to the butterfly-attention generation.

    Then there are specific tropes, which I think largely have to be viewed with a grain of salt.

    Take the currently airing Shinrei Tantei Yakumo, for example. While it doesn’t really stand out as following any tropes, it feels kind of generic and not all together interesting. Fortune Arterial is likewise a blasé show, but it uses tropes all over the place.

    I think that my enjoyment of a show is more focused around (1) the feeling I get when watching it and (2) the quality of it’s implementation, than whether I’ve “seen that before” somewhere else. Having played hundreds of different designer board and card games, as I play a new one I can see where mechanics from other games have been borrowed. Every so often a new one pops up (the Rondel, recently) and is played with by a number of designers. I don’t say “Bah, this game falls prey to the ‘area majority‘ trope of game design!”. I look for how well implemented it is, how it blends with the other aspects of the game to pull of an enjoyable and interesting playing experience.

    Anime is much the same. Look at Asatte no Houkou, for example: a woman and a young girl switch ages through the magic of some local wishing stone. It sounds trite, like some Freaky Friday knockoff. But the quality of the show is on a level with Koi Kaze, and that’s what makes all the difference.

    • Yumeka says:

      Ah yes, now that I scrutinize that sentence, I did mean “is generic.” I fixed it…thanks for pointing it out.

      That’s a good point about Nartuo, etc., seeming like something unique for American audiences while that’s not the case for their country of origin. This goes back to what was said in a few above comments about how “generic” and “unique” are dependent on culture as well.

      I think I look at anime the same way you look at games; I recognize that they use familiar tropes, but I like examining how they use them and what kind of affect it has overall. Did I enjoy this particular interpretation of something familiar is what it boils down to.

      Oh, and Asatte no Houkou was a lovely show~

  7. rc_1277 says:

    I think we all agree that being original is becoming harder nowadays, not only because of the loss of profit (originality tends to appeal a certain part of the fandom that doesn’t represent a big part of the market), but also because of the difficulty that means coming with unique traits and new ideas that hadn’t been used before. Every anime show will have a certain degree of generisism, that’s inevitable.

    When I look for originality, I’m looking for a new and interesting intetrpretation of something done before (like Toradora! or Angel Beats, as said by the commenters above), rather than some avant-garde anime that breaks all the notions we had about the genre (wich I don’t think is possible at the development point that anime has coming to reach).

    One problem that lots of people and critics seems to have is that they do the equation generic=bad/boring, nothing further from the truth. There are still lots of good “generic” anime shows airing nowadays, that are just fun to watch, and that’s it, I think, what should matter. Who cares if the studios and companies responsibles for doing it are doing lots of money? If they keep releasing funny, “generic” sohws, I’ll keep looking for them. I know I sound like a very comformist fan that watches everything labelled as anime, but that’s how I feel.

    Great post as usual, I pretty much agree with all your points. As you said, anime is meant to be enjoyed.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, people need to look at it from the companies’ point of view and see that it’s not profitable to create more unique than generic anime. Yet, some companies do it anyway, or we wouldn’t have series like Mushishi, Kemono no Souja Erin, Aoi Bungaku, and others. I think that the fact that there are quite a few unique anime, despite them never becoming as profitable as others, attests to anime’s worth as a medium that balances commercialism with creativity.

      I too would prefer to see interesting interpretations of familiar tropes rather than something that breaks my notions of what anime is. I could still like and greatly respect the latter, but it’s the former that tend to be my most loved shows.

  8. glothelegend says:

    If you ask me the only types of anime that are generic would be romance anime and any anime where a mysterious girl appears out of no where to live with some guy (I guess romance anime).

    Shows like One Piece and Bleach are unique in that…how many other shows about pirates are there? With magical fruits that grant powers? Bleach has a very depthy plot, even if it has some generic qualities. Harem shows and ecchi shows are usually the only real generic ones, because they all have the same episodes: Beach episode, spa episode, etc.)

  9. akani says:

    Good post. You’ve brought up some good points, and it’s a good argument against those people who complain that anime is too generic these days.

    Take the airing Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt for example. When it was first announced, many people laughed at it and said that Gainax was going down the drain. Not so. It may seem generic, with its American cartoon style, overwhelming amount of raunchy sex jokes, and episodic nature, but it manages to present the genericness in an entirely creative manner that makes you go “What the HELL just happened?” in just about every episode (in a good way). We see transformation sequences in mahou shoujo series all the time, but you’ve never seen a transformation sequence like the one Gainax does here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGcriRycYbs). It’s generic, yes, but it manages to be unpredictably fun while sticking a middle finger at both anime and American cartoon stereotypes.

    Another example is To Aru Majutsu no Index. Yes, there are some generic characters (Mikoto) and fanservice (Oriana). However, it completely immerses you with the detail put into the world itself, with ESPer abilities being detailed and drawing from real life physics, such as Kuroko’s teleportation power described as a point to point movement that functions by taking a shortcut through the 11th dimension. Magic draws upon real religious references and legends, like Luccia’s wheel weapon based off of the legend Catherine of Alexandria and the Stab Sword that focuses on the act of nailing (stabbing) Christ to death being very dangerous to Saints because they have similar bodies to him. Also, you get the feeling that the separate events in Index all are smaller pieces of a much bigger picture. With that in mind, it’s not enough to call Index simply “generic” or “unique”, but it stands as one of the best-selling light novel series of all time because it combines both so well.

    The amount of generic and unique traits in anime needs to be in just the correct proportions depending on the series to stand out successfully.

  10. Kal says:

    Hum… Interesting analysis, but I don’t think there is a winning formula. People are completely unpredictable when it comes to what they like or dislike. That’s why there is no perfect formula to make the perfect manga, anime, movie, drink, clothes, perfume, etc. Some things that people think will be absolute hits may simply die out quick, and other things that people think are not so good may bloom into huge commercial success monsters.

    And even personally, I cannot answer your initial question:

    “To be generic, or to be unique?”

    I think either one can be successful if they can hit that secret combination that makes the show/movie/food strike a harmonic chord in peoples convoluted, and mysterious brains.

    I like unique anime, but I also like generic mainstream anime. I disliked some anime that I thought the premise was great, and also liked some other anime that I thought would not appeal to me.

    I guess it’s just impossible to predict how people will react to a show, and you never know when something will be a smash hit, or just smash :S

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