You kids and your newfangled…
As animation grows and innovates, what happens to the series we love today? Where will they be long after their airing? The Inverseman discusses tonight!
Consider what’s been popular in the mainstream for the past few years. Sword Art Online has been making its rounds with a second season, and for newer shonen, Attack on Titan has been all the rage among your average young teenagers. The wheel of anime keeps turning year after year with trends going up and down. Now let’s fast forward say five or seven years, will any of our more recent hits still be as good as they are now? Or will they be fond memories?
Since we may as well (and since it’s a personal whipping boy), SAO doesn’t have much going for it past the first few episodes. While it is indeed well-animated and well-scored, it more or less amounts to a teenage boy’s power fantasy. While fans who watched it will remember good times, will it endure long enough for them to wholeheartedly recommend it to friends years from now? The evidence for this bold prediction comes from people having already forgotten Accel World. Accel World, while admittedly without all of the production values of SAO, suffered from the similar trappings, lacking a critical depth beyond the aforementioned power fantasy. As time goes on it will be replaced by the next shinier escapist fantasy with better production values, just like a new phone.
The issue is that while a series may indeed be entertaining and fun to watch, its staying power is a different question. If the inner inspiration for an anime is no different from another one, you may as well interchange it with another anime with a similar premise. Since we’re using SAO as a case study, we can look to Log Horizon as another anime with a similar premise of gamers being trapped in a game. While I doubt Log Horizon will be making “top anime lists” for years to come, I am more apt to recommend it to someone than SAO since its originality does not lie within its premise but its themes. We see the heroes undergo the process of figuring out their new world and build it for themselves, not just “infallible hero saving the day and getting the girl” which you can see anywhere. Seven years from now, I can easily recommend and re-watch a newer sci-fi anime where people are trapped in a digital world over SAO and they will be none the wiser.
Even if we go as mainstream as possible, the Jump Big Three shonen had something initially going for them. Notice how with the exception of fans, people remember the beginning chapters far more fondly than the more recent chapters. People fondly remember Naruto‘s original concept of a boy with a special talent seeking acceptance or the unique spin on death that inspired Bleach. While they may have broken down, we do know they were inspired enough to have histories nearing or above 15 years. Attack on Titan follows a similar trend but like many shonen before, it discarded its uniqueness, the dystopian narrative, for more traditional battle elements as more characters become Titans. It’s still a fun manga to read, don’t get me wrong, but its luster has dulled if at least just slightly. So then what will make a series consistently worth revisiting and so compelling that we urge others to view it?
The answer to that question is difficult, since it’s more art than science, but a typical answer is to “be original.” However, then the claim that humanity’s creative collective has run out of ideas easily arises, but this is true if you only look on a mere surface level. Our species ran out of “unique and original” stories millennia ago if you only look at basic plots, but the key is to look deeper at the themes and messages of our stories juxtaposed with different contexts. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of other stories, stories that have been told before, but his interesting takes and ideas that he installed into them are what made them revered as classics for critical analysis over the centuries.
I will say that bar a (rather problematic0 message of escapism, SAO fails to have that inner depth that people will keep mining for new ideas, just like previous “fad anime” like Guilty Crown. Bar a few holdouts, nobody is really extolling its literary quality or urging friends to view it with all haste due to the lack of focus it had in a paint-by-numbers narrative. Since there was a very unclear story, many of the characters, on whom the story rests on, were thin and just went through the motions of the plot. Therefore, there was not much deeper than what you saw on the screen was present, leaving the bulk of the viewers to simply consume it and move on.
For more positive examples, we see Madoka, which continues to be a high recommendation to people, especially newer anime fans because it was not just a “darker mahou shojou”, it had an actual critique of the genre through its story among countless other ideas. Going earlier in time, Gurren Lagann was a complete celebration of mecha with a powerful message of determination given to a generation of apathy and cynicism. You don’t even need to have “action”. A timeless slice-of-life (think Nichijou, Azumanga Daioh, etc.), will actually say some witty things about everyday life or have an overarching theme instead of mere pandering school life. Yes we have seen “dark” magical girl shows. Yes. We have seen combining mecha. And yes, we havee seen slice-of-life. None of those are new, but what is new are the ideas that good anime bring to the table. To this day, people are still recommending good anime; we’re still talking about them and pushing them onto the next generation.
Now do not get me wrong, there are still good anime to be found and the old Inverseman isn’t some doomsayer saying the anime industry is going to die, but it will go through paradigm shifts. There are still good anime. Just look at Under the Dog on Kickstarter. People want to see good stories be born from good ideas, and the money shows. For more present anime, Ping Pong is a labor of animation love, Space Dandy bridges the culture gap between East and West, and more all show experiments in making anime and new ideas to be had. Everyone has seen sports anime, sci-fi anime, and so forth, but the key difference is in the depth that has been attached. Other anime of similar ideas will be consumed and left to our memories, but the ones worth rewatching will have insights to be found and discussions to be had.
I think there are still stories worth telling, and they’re out there. We’ll naturally replace what’s replaceable, and replace “bad” with the “new bad,” but those works that we can regard as classic will stay around and with each new fan there will be a recommendation. And who knows? What anime would our descendants actually remember fifty years from now? One hundred years from now? Join me next time when I feast on potatoes.
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