Anyone who’s been a long time fan of anime has heard this complaint before, assuming they haven’t uttered the words themselves, “there are too many shows set in high school”. It is so easy to roll your eyes as every new season brings a fresh wave of high school kids and their adventures out for our viewing pleasure. Even when the show isn’t about high school explicitly, the vast majority of the time our protagonists and almost all the important characters are high school-aged. “But so what?” you might ask. “Even if it’s annoying it’s not like it’s bad.” you might say. Well I’m about to tell you how and why the anime industry’s excessive reliance on high school kids and campuses is bad, for everyone.
First things first, shows set in high school or set elsewhere but starring primarily high school-aged characters is not inherently a bad thing. Much like my first Raging Rant, this is less about the concept/practice and more about how it oversaturates the market. There are plenty of high school shows that do not in any way earn the sneering contempt so many people, myself included, often pour upon them out of sheer annoyance with the prevalence of the setting. I mean I just finished watching Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun and I had a great time with it. My last Unpopular Opinion was about a show set in high school, and it was a positive review. And more famously we have shows like Clannad and Toradora which are loved by a sizeable portion of the anime community, both of which are set in high school. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a cast that leans young. Hell in some shows an older cast would actually be worse. Take Magi for example. In Magi the story has to be about younger people because that’s part of the adventure, it’s a big wonderful journey that will eventually lead to our characters growing up after they’ve taken in all kinds of new experiences. Likewise Inuyasha would not have worked out as well if all the major characters were adults, because much of the humor played on the immaturity of the characters, as did many of the major plot twists. My issue has never been with the high school setting nor a cast that is made almost entirely of high school-aged people. My issue is with how infuriatingly common both scenarios are.
I’ve complained about the issues of overusing certain elements in anime before. Shows set in common settings stand out less than those with unique settings. Relying on over-used character archetypes without adding your own unique flair makes for bland and often unmemorable characters. Prolonged exposure to something makes the thing less powerful. This is true of anything even outside of anime. For example we just had this awesome lightning storm that had flashes of lightning for hours on end, and lightning is awesome to watch. But after seeing fifty or so bolts one after the other the appeal and awe starts to wear very thin. I could go on but this isn’t what I really want to focus on. In my mind it’s the lesser problem of the several major ones I could think of. One of the bigger issues is a sales one. I’ve no doubt that many anime fans come from a younger demographic and as such keeping casts young is in the industry’s interests. However, anime had major hits internationally during two notable time periods, Toonami’s release of DBZ and others back in the 90’s, and the mid-2000’s, especially 2007. How many of those people are still teens or younger? I mean if you got hooked on anime back in the 90’s you are at least 20 by now. Even if you only started back in 2007, it’s been eight years, so unless you got started very young, odds are you are in your late teens or may be 20 or older. What I’m getting at here is that even if anime has a sizable young fanbase, it also has a sizable older fanbase, and right now that older fanbase is not being given proper attention.
I’m going to give you guys an example. I mentioned that Toradora was one of the high school romcoms that has won mainstream approval from the anime community. When I first watched it I thought it was worth putting up with all of Taiga’s tsundere bullshit, because it was cute and touching and blah, blah, blah. Now I’ve tried rewatching it and I can’t. This is not because my tsundere tolerance is lower, or that the romance is somehow worse, it’s because of Golden Time. Golden Time was another romcom that won mainstream, and my, approval but unlike Toradora it was set in college. That may seem like a minute difference in the description, high school versus college, but it made for a world of difference in the storytelling. Golden Time had more drama, more impact and more realism. It’s narrative was more interesting, it’s characters more nuanced and it’s comedic and romantic scenarios were more refreshing. Now that I have Golden Time at my fingertips, I have no reason to put up with all things I hated about Taiga, I can go watch Koko instead because she’s much easier to bear. It’s also because I can better relate to Golden Times’ characters, having been through college myself and seeing all different kinds of people it brings together, whereas I never met a real tsundere in high school nor had class with a model in high school, that did happen in college though. When I look at Golden Time and Toradora side by side, I see one as world of new possibilities while the other is the poster child for so many of the tired tropes and archetypes we keep getting more of. This example is extremely narrow but it highlights some of the problems the industry has as a whole. A lot of fans are outgrowing the high school-centric casts and shows, we want to see stories that are more mature, with more adult characters and more nuance. The problem is that the industry standard is still stuck in high school mode, there are only a handful of shows a year that cater to an older, more mature crowd and that isn’t a good thing. I think one of the things that makes anime such a great and engaging medium is that it offers the magic of all kinds of possibilities, the likes of which most other mediums can’t or won’t touch. But the innumerable high school shows and casts take away from that magic, they take away from that sense of wonder and new possibilities. Now that I’m well into this rant, I think it’s time for me to admit that there are many types of stories which lend themselves to younger casts or high school settings. And because of this we are going to have a lot of high school shows or adventures following an adolescent cast. But there needs to be more mature and adult shows because a lot of people are really looking forward to those. We’ve seen enough high school slice of life, romcoms. We are ready for something new.
I’m also of the opinion that more mature stories allow the craft of anime to flourish and shine through. For example, SAO vs Log Horizon. Now SAO is super popular and all but if you dig into its craftsmanship as I have here, here and here, you will find that it’s of embarrassingly low quality in almost every facet of its makeup. Then there’s Log Horizon. Log Horizon is one of my favorite shows in recent years, and while it wasn’t the smashing hit SAO was, ask anyone who has seen both and isn’t some rabid SAO fanboy and they will tell Log Horizon is a much better show. Now there are a lot of reasons why Log Horizon is so much better made but I think it largely has to do with the characters. The main characters are college students or even older as opposed to SAO where our main hero is 15. And you can see right away how differently these people respond to being stuck in a game. Kirito goes onto to crush everything he fights and makes a harem. Meanwhile Shiroe and company carefully explore their surroundings, gathering information before they make their moves, stepping up to guide and protect younger players. In SAO you have a teenage power fantasy that has all kinds of narrative problems because the little details are a secondary concern to the flashy action. In Log Horizon, the show expects a fair amount of the viewer’s intelligence, and treats us to a less action-packed but ultimately richer world, character and story than SAO could have ever hoped to achieve. This isn’t the only series that shows huge differences just from making the cast a bit older. Fate Zero was leagues ahead of the recent Unlimited Blade Works series, I have a bunch of reasons why found here. But the main difference between the two is that one is full of adults fighting on roughly equal footing while the other is about a bunch of high schoolers who are blatantly different in terms of skill and power. But even if you get away from comparisons, you can see the ways more mature shows encourage craftsmanship to shine through.
Black Lagoon is a deal in the anime community. A lot of that has to do with the awesome gun fights and action. But another big part of Black Lagoon’s success has to do with its characters and setting, both of which fall under this whole mature thing I’ve been going on and on about. More specifically, both the characters and the setting are more realistic than the high school shows. Some of you might be wondering how that’s possible since high school and high schoolers are real while there is no Roanapur in the real world. It’s because I’m talking about literary traditions not literal realities, though in retrospect how many tsundere’s have you met in real life? In realistic stories the events on the page, or the screen, don’t have to depict stuff that only ever happens in reality, they have to make everything they showcase feel more real. In practical terms it means adding lots of nuance to the people and places of the story, making everything messy enough to make us believe that such a place and such people exist. A lot of the high school shows don’t have that. The characters are generally unrealistic, they are too one-note to seem like real people, or they are too capable to be young teenagers, or they are designed to be sort of ridiculous for one reason or another. Compared to so say Nozaki, of Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, I think Rock of Black Lagoon is a much more realistic character. Or for a more extreme example, I find Roberta infinitely more believable than Gasai Yuno, the queen of Mirai Nikki. That’s because Roberta’s story is messy and nuanced, it lends her more credence and gives her a reason to be the unstoppable fighting machine she is. By comparison Yuno makes almost no sense when actually think about her, I guess she’s just good at killing people because she’s crazy and a yandere, because that’s almost the entirety of her story and characterization.
There’s nothing inherently better about a realistic, mature story compared to less realistic, childish one. But as your audience gets older they will want more mature stories and those are sadly rare in anime today. Us otakus already have plenty of pandering to our niche and plenty of high school shows to go around. Now it’s time to broaden the appeal a bit and give the older fans some love. I’m tired of seeing premises that sound interesting but end up being formulaic because the cast is yet another uninspired group of high school kids. I’m tired of checking off so many shows from “anime to watch this season” list because they are just more of the same high school bullshit. It’s time to bring back the magic and spice that comes with variety. You can keep making those high school shows or mecha shows full of young teens, just make some more Black Lagoon’s while you’re at it. Because the industry has been oversaturating one particular genre for a while now, it’s time to mix things up a bit before people start finding the high school shows to be completely stale. Anyway, that’s enough ranting for one post. Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.