Mixing slice-of-life with plot in anime

Credit to linked pixiv user

A few posts ago I wrote about anime that mix comedy into their otherwise dramatic stories. Today I’ll be writing about a similar concept of anime that have a number of stand-alone “slice-of-life” stories despite having an established plot they could be progressing instead…

Even if they have an ongoing story, there are many anime that also have slice-of-life episodes which, as I think of the term, is having the characters take part in random, side activities and basically just interact with each other in often stand-alone stories that don’t progress the overall narrative. Even anime categorized by fans as being in the “slice-of-life” genre usually have some kind of plot. In K-ON, the girls are trying to progress as a light music club. In Haganai, the main characters are trying to “make friends” and there’s also the love triangle between Kodaka, Sena, and Yozora. In Little Busters!, the characters are trying to make their own baseball team and figure out the mystery behind the letters they keep receiving. But for shows like this, “slice-of-life” is already the dominant theme while “plot” is the downplayed theme. What I’m interested in for this post is anime that reverse this; anime that have a clearly defined story and progressing plot that’s the main focus, yet they also have a number of slice-of-life episodes too.

Disregarding the long-running shonen anime that make up filler episodes for the sole purpose of giving the original manga time to produce more material, there are quite a number of shorter plot-centered anime that include slice-of-life stories. And what particularly intrigued me is the fact that just about every anime that was ever a favorite of mine, or at least a really big hit with me, was exactly this type of series I’m describing – one that has a main plot but also has a number of slice-of-life episodes, from my early favorites like Tenchi Muyo! and Slayers, to my newer ones like Inuyasha and Haruhi. I’ve tried to think of a reason for this and I think Digibro described it quite well in his post here. To sum it up, the appeal of these shows with loose narratives, or shows that have an overarching plot but also have episodes where the characters partake in independent slice-of-life adventures, is that we can see the characters in a wider variety of situations and thus develop them in a way that the plot alone wouldn’t allow. As Digibro said in his post, “I realized that 100% of the characters that I really care about come from shows with loose narrative structures, because those are the kind of characters that I can imagine in a capacity beyond what they do in the show. They are the kind of characters whose everyday life I can picture and interact with outside the narrative.”

To give an example, I’ll use one of my old favorites, Inuyasha. Although the anime version did include some original filler episodes, a number of slice-of-life episodes were indeed made by the original manga-ka herself as chapters mixed in amongst the regular dramatic story arcs. While these slice-of-life chapters don’t seem to serve a purpose other than being a funny breather story in between big story arcs, what’s great about them is that it allows the characters, especially Inuyasha and Kagome since they’re often the focus of these chapters, to be further fleshed out in a way that the plot wouldn’t have time for. When they’re not fighting demons or partaking in impending danger, how would they interact with each other in lighter situations? These kinds of slice-of-life stories answer that question, and while people who are more interested in the story’s plot would be like, “This is boring, hurry up and get back to the real stuff,” people who are interested in the characters as well as the plot would see this as a rare look into how the characters would act in a different kind of situation, and thus develop them more.

For another example, I’ll use my current favorite, Haruhi. The Haruhi series has a very loose narrative, but it’s not hard to point out the more plot-centered stories from the more filler-ish ones. Other than being mentioned in later stories, episodes like “Live A Live,” “Remote Island Syndrome,” and “Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya” could almost be skipped in favor of the “important” stories like “Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody” and “Disappearance.” And yet, they serve their purpose quite well in developing the characters more than the plot. How would these characters act at a culture festival, being trapped on a remote island amongst a murder, or playing baseball? We get to see how the characters interact in a variety of situations and thus we get to know them better. Including these kinds of “extra” stories makes the characters feel less like confined players in someone’s story and more like individuals of their own. It also makes the world they exist in seem larger and more believable since we then see that there’s more possible situations in the show besides those that involve the plot.

Even series with a clear narrative as opposed to a loose one can include these side story episodes without them seeming too out of place and yet serving their purpose of developing the characters an extra step. I personally think a number of middle Evangelion episodes could be skipped, for example, the one with the blackout and the one that focused on Ritsuko and the Magi computers, and it wouldn’t affect one’s ability to follow the rest of the story (besides not seeing how a few Angels were defeated). But again, having these episodes develops the characters more and that’s just as important for a show than just developing the plot. Railgun is another series that does a great job in having a complex plot yet also taking plenty of episodes to show us character interactions beyond the scope of the main story.

This isn’t to say that plot-centered shows with no slice-of-life episodes can’t have good characters. I can think of a lot of great shows with thematic stories that have pretty much no “extra” episodes like what I’m describing and skipping just one of their episodes could totally throw you off with their plot – Madoka, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Fate/Zero, Code Geass, and Eden of the East to name a few. These shows can still be fantastic and have well developed characters, it’s just that I tend to get more attached to characters whom I can see interact with situations beyond a continuously progressing plotline.

There are all kinds of ways to mix slice-of-life stories with an ongoing plot. Some series like Madoka and Fate/Zero choose not to have them, which to some people doesn’t affect their enjoyment while to others it feels like something is lacking. And on the flip-side, there are series whose plot is basically about the characters already being in many slice-of-life situations, like Fruits Basket, Cowboy Bebop, and Toradora! for example. But for me, my favorite characters tend to come from series that have loose narratives and place the characters both in dramatic plot-centered situations as well as lighter slice-of-life situations. After all, real life itself is made up of both kinds of stories so it makes characters more likable to me the more variety of situations I see them in =)

13 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. chikorita157 says:

    While some say that slice of life don’t have a plot, it’s not necessarily the case. I think it’s a good way to introduce the characters in shows that have a plot before focusing on it… but of course, it’s not true that slice of life don’t have a plot… it’s mostly character driven rather than a concrete story.

    • Yumeka says:

      What most fans think of as slice-of-life anime refers to series that simply have “loose” plots – there’s a simple overarching plot, even it’s something as plain as “getting through high school,” but it just isn’t the focus of a lot of the episodes. I also agree that for plot-centered shows, it’s better to introduce the characters within the plot first and then further develop them through slice-of-life episodes.

  2. Frootytooty says:

    Slice-of-life portions in a series can work well, provided they’re well connected with the main plot. One thing that throws me off a series is when they have blatantly unrelated episodes where the characters go to the beach or whatever and NOTHING plot-related happens at all. In my mind, any episode in a perfect (shorter) series should not be able to be taken out without short-changing the story – some good examples are the ones you mentioned before, like Madoka or Code Geass. Although they have moments where the characters are doing school things and having light-hearted fun, it doesn’t take up the whole episode and there is perfect juxtaposition of slice-of-life with more serious plot in the same episode so that the slice-of-life bits don’t come as a complete contrast.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that if there’s going to be slice-of-life elements, there should be a good mix throughout all episodes of the series, rather than having mostly serious episodes punctuated by surprise slice-of-life episodes.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good point, and for me it simply comes down to how well written the slice-of-life portion is, whether it takes up a whole episode or is just a part of a regular episode. But you’re right that even if it develops the characters well, you don’t want it to seem way too out of place in comparison to the show’s world. For example, if Code Geass had a random beach episode where absolutely nothing plot-related happened and all it did was show off the female characters in swimsuits, then yeah, that wouldn’t be worth it. But if it had a slice-of-life episode that instead focused on the characters in school, something that actually feels relevant, that would work. And yeah, if the show is extremely serious, you don’t want to have a slice-of-life scene/episode that’s all comical and zany. The slice-of-life should feel like a look at a different side of the characters and should not jar the mood as if a new brand new team of writers suddenly took over for an episode XD

  3. CoolCARTGuy says:

    For a slice-of-life segment to work in an otherwise non-slice-of-life series, the characters need to be enjoyable (or least their interaction needs to be engaging). These segments can also be helpful in building characters and showcasing them in a way the main plot may not necessarily have the capacity to do.

    I’ll use a video game example of the latter – Valkyria Chronicles 3. The whole Valkyria Chronicles series focuses on war in the small fictional country of Gallia; there is a lot of emphasis on the profound effects of war on the populace in the story. In two of the three games, there are missions focusing on each individual squadmate; these begin with three cutscenes that emphasize the character’s personality and provide a glimpse into how the characters fit into their squad and interact with the people they enter battle with alongside. Since there are lots of characters in the squad, the main plot does not have a lot of time to dedicate to fleshing out and exploring each individual character, so the missions focusing on a particular squadmate are very important to giving dimension to the characters. I specifically bring up Valkyria Chronicles 3 because understanding the individual characters and seeing them interact with one another was more vital to the game’s plot than the other games (VC3 focuses on a squad full of criminals and insubordinate soldiers) and also serves to tie together the plots from the first and second games in a way.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good example with VC3. Even if characters don’t seem enjoyable, having these extra slice-of-life segments to flesh them out in ways the main plot doesn’t allow, is a great opportunity to turn seemingly one-dimensional characters into well-developed, enjoyable characters…if these extra segments are written well of course ;)

  4. Kal says:

    I think it is important to have valleys and hills in the flow of a story. For example, an action story having all action filled episodes would soon lose it’s “wow” effect. Same with dramatic series being completely dramatic all the time would tire out the viewer. So an episode that breaks out of the standard theme can actually make a series better, instead of worse. I read about it a long time ago, I believe it was called “difference in kind”. There is no way to maintain a constant, increasing, level of action, or drama, or comedy, it’s impossible. So that’s where changes in “kind” come on. After some drama, comes a lighter episode, then the next drama bit will feel dramatic again. If they simply try to make each bit more dramatic than the last, something will eventually break.

    Very interesting topic indeed, but there is a very good reason for certain shifts in series, and they usually (not always. changes in kind are bad if done too often) can make a series better.

    • Yumeka says:

      That “difference in kind” idea is certainly one to keep in mind for a lot of things, including anime. Though I can think of some examples where the mood never really changed throughout a series and yet that series still remained good, at least for me; Death Note and Madoka were continually suspenseful to me despite never taking any breaks to have “light” episodes or segments to complement the drama. But for the most part, the characters I tend to get most attached to come from shows that ebb and flow with drama and lightness =)

  5. Nopy says:

    I was a bit confused at first when you mentioned non-slice-of-life series with slice-of-life moments, but when you gave those examples it finally made sense. When I think about it, my favourite anime, Nadesico, also has these slice-of-life episodes. One of them involved a Christmas celebration with an idol contest.

    I certainly don’t mind slice-of-life moments in plot-heavy stories so long as they help to develop the characters more.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, it’s something people don’t really think about so I don’t blame you for being confused at first =P Like I said, those kinds of moments/episodes are great for developing the characters and even the setting, in ways that the plot won’t allow…as long as they’re done well of course and aren’t just used for half-assed fan service.

  6. Shikon says:

    Like the above post I had never put much thought into the topic of this post, but the examples gave me a clearer picture of what you meant. I guess I like anime with a main plot and a few slice of life episodes here and there, especially in series that are more story driven. I love seeing characters in a normal everyday situation from what they would normally be in (saving the world, getting revenge, etc), to me its a really nice change of pace, as long as its not excessive or out of place. I guess the only example I can think of is Steins Gate, of course the characters mostly started out in slice-of-life situations and then it took a more serious turn later on but I really loved that aspect.

    • Yumeka says:

      It can work just as well if a series starts off as slice-of-life-ish and then suddenly shifts to plot-centered drama, like in Steins;Gate. There’s often a big wow-factor for that as the audience isn’t expecting the sudden change in mood. But usually I prefer when it’s more mixed up =P

  7. Overlord-G says:

    Slice of Life is reality TV done the right way. The characters are not paid to pretend they’re idiots. In SoL shows, some characters are idiotic both to appease stereotype seekers and because they have a legitimate reason for being the way they are.

    Filler episodes can be divided between the useless ones and character development ones. Some episodes simply have people doing stuff to show the audience that they do have civil lives and aren’t all about saving the universe from sympathetic villains some fans love to eat up.

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