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 ;)