I was trying to watch another Kobato episode earlier tonight and I just could not stand it. The show is absolutely dull and you would be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise. I’m following Kobato as she goes around a giant university campus looking for some dude (I think his name is Fujimoto) and the big elephant in the room just kept jabbing me in the face with its nose: who gives a damn?
That’s the problem, however, with nearly every slice-of-life anime. Who gives a damn about some chicks going to the beach?
Who gives a damn about an astronomy club? Seriously, are our lives so boring that we’d watch some two-dimensional cut-outs live their equally boring two-dimensional lives? At this point, you might be saying, “Alright, we get the it–the slice-of-life genre isn’t for you. You’d rather be swept away in some thrilling plot. We, on the other hand, just love the character interactions in slice of life anime.”
But hold on a minute… I don’t hate all of the slice-of-life genre and I would love compelling character interactions in my anime.
I loved Genshiken, Haibane Renmei, Welcome to the NHK, Planetes (sort of slice-of-life), Whisper of the Heart, etc. In fact, I probably cared too much by writing entries after entries on No Longer Human. That’s pretty slice-of-lifey too, even if it’s depressing.
We can go beyond anime as well; I looked up slice-of-life on Google earlier and it turns out even Of Mice and Men is a slice-of-life story (seriously… before today, I had never heard anyone call it a slice-of-life novella). Most of all–and I can’t believe this slipped my mind–James Joyce’s Dubliners is not only pure slice-of-life, it’s my favorite collection of short stories ever. Slice-of-life can be very compelling, but why does it so often fail as an anime genre?
The answer is simple: slice-of-life anime are too often pointless. Take a look at each short story in Dubliners (if you haven’t read it, I really urge you to do so as James Joyce is one of the greatest writers of all time); each and every one of these stories are jammed full with themes, major and minor, and references to contemporary social issues/politics.
Not only that, Joyce layers meta-narratives in many of his stories and novels, making sarcastic critiques of literary pretension.
To demonstrate some of my points, take “Araby.” From a glance, it looks like a simple story of a boy on a trip to buy a gift for his childhood crush, but it’s so much more than that. On the surface, “Araby” is about the loss of innocence. The naive young boy had a crush on a girl and believed that there was some significance to her talking to him about Araby, a bazaar with a Middle Eastern theme. This turned into this big romantic quest in his head when the poor girl probably thought very little of it. The clincher comes when, finally at Araby, he’s saw a woman at a stall casually ‘fibbing’ with two men like it was no big deal:
At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
‘O, I never said such a thing!’
‘O, but you did!’
‘O, but I didn’t!’
‘Didn’t she say that?’
‘Yes. I heard her.’
‘O, there’s a… fib!’
At that point, he realized that relationships between men and women are not always like storybook romances. Furthermore, he realized that women can talk to men about things without there being any deep significance to it. He was foolish to think that the girl he had a crush on had any special intentions in talking about Araby with him: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The subtlety behind the entire story, however, is how Joyce gets us to identify with the boy by crafting “Araby” in a certain way:
I believe that “Araby” is structured with rigorous precision upon a paradigm of medieval romance, that the unnamed boy reflects in detail and in general the action and behaviour of smitten courtly lovers, and that the story as a whole shows Joyce working with the well-defined structure of a traditional literary genre, here the medieval romance… — source
“Araby” reminds us of such stories and we then expect it to end in similar fashion. The boy’s epiphany thus reflects our realization that not all stories have happy endings. We can go even deeper into an analysis of “Araby:”
For such a short story, “Araby” touches on a great number of themes: coming of age; the loss of innocence; the life of the mind versus poverty, both physical and intellectual; the dangers of idealization; the decreasing significance of the church, despite the preservation of empty ceremonies; and the pain that often comes when one encounters love in reality instead of its elevated form. These themes build on one another entirely through the thoughts of the young boy who serves as narrator. — Wikipedia
I have provided, however, a cursory interpretation that will suffice for this post.
By bringing up “Araby,” I’m not trying to be pedantic. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a misconception out there that slice-of-life stories are supposed to be simple. “Araby” is certainly not simple and it’s barely over 2300 words in length. Neither is Of Mice and Men simple. To use an anime example, Haibane Renmei is bursting at the seams with philosophical and religious themes when, at its core, it’s a day-to-day look at the lives of teenagers in a fantasy world. While slice-of-life stories are supposed to lack a structured plot with the typical build-up, climax and denouement, no story should be meaningless. Most importantly, no story should be stupid.
A lot of slice-of-life anime, however, are absolutely meaningless and stupid. I’m not asking anime to be on the same level as James Joyce, but anime so often has no insight to contribute whatsoever–nothing but character interactions at the most basic level. A little blushing here, some big lame smiles there and a whole lot of empty words in between.
We watch Genshiken for an insight (even in its light-hearted tone, it’s still an insight) into a subculture. We watch Welcome to the NHK for an insight of some very disturbing social issues. What do we watch Kobato for? What do we watch Sora no Manimani for? It can’t just be pure entertainment alone because that says nothing. For an insight on friendship? For a reflection on young (high school) love?
Although these themes have been done ad nauseum, I’ll grant that they’re still very relevant in our lives. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem watching a slice-of-life anime about high school friendship/love (I somewhat enjoyed Kare Kano). The problem isn’t so much the lack of meaningful themes. The problem is, as usual in popular culture, a failure of the imagination. Instead of examining friendships on an eye-opening level, we waste minutes upon minutes and hours upon hours of obligatory beach episodes, obligatory onsen episodes, obligatory “let’s eat ‘caeki'” moments.
When a show actually has a plot, I can understand taking a breather to look at the lighter side of the things. The comedic moments in Persona 3, for example, help to control the pace of an otherwise depressing story. Too many anime series, however, are stripped down to just these lighter moments and by themselves, a familiar question returns: who gives a damn? Why should we care so much about characters that don’t do anything but live a very simplified version of their daily lives.
At the very least, try to be funny. You can overlook so much crap in a show when it’s funny. Look at Seinfeld–it’s nothing but a slice-of-life (I really want to abbreviate it down to just ‘slife’) show about four people living out their lives in NYC, but it’s critically acclaimed because it’s funny. Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu is a thousand times more enjoyable than either the original series by Gonzo or The Second Raid and it had no plot. I also stomach Nyan Koi! because it too has its moments.
Hell, I can even enjoy parts of Kannagi ’cause it was initially funny (look at the Moe Sucks banner if you need proof). When the laughter stops, however, the inanity seeps back in.
Life is full of issues but slice-of-life anime, ironically, reflect instead some strange, saccharine ideality that the genre almost appears to be a rebellion against realism. It’s almost as if these shows conflate escapism with mind-numbing predictability, but I won’t expand on that here. The point is that I don’t necessarily need melodrama (once again, I like Genshiken and that only had melodrama when it was appropriate). I just need something to either make me think or laugh. People will probably counter with “you’re over-thinking it–just turn your brain off and enjoy the show.” I’m sorry, but that’s a cop out. How about you turn yours on?