I critique anime, games, movies, books, and more, getting to deeper levels of analysis and thought than many other critics on the web.
The Fun World of Anime Tropes
Anime tropes are like speed dating, most of them are awful.
Tropes are just shorthand tools writers use to express ideas, neither good nor bad, it's about how they're used, yadda yadda...
In anime, the fun thing is that there are visual tropes and literary tropes. There's the story, and the way it's visually presented in the form of animation. Anime is known for certain tropes. Unfortunately, some of these tropes have become annoying and cliché from overuse. That's why I made this list (and have some ideas on how to improve on them). So which of these anime clichés make you cringe the most?
5. It's always high school
4. Color-coded hair
3. Bump into cute
2. Love triangles (and other shapes)
5. It's Always High School
High School Never Ends - in Anime Land!
It's easy to see why this happens, from the perspective of the good people making this sh*t. For one, giving every character the same or a similar school uniform means you have to think a lot less about clothing. In a magical girl show, a school uniform can be the basis of a magical girl costume, which usually looks something like a cross between a schoolgirl's uniform and a sparkly prom dress. It simplifies the very complex process of character design, and makes the animation easier. It's usually better for marketing if a character is recognizable by their outfit. Shows like Daria have kids who just happen to wear the exact same thing every day, in lieu of a school uniform. But in Japan, since uniforms are more common, you can just have kids in school uniforms. Or some slutty lingerie-style version that would probably get you banned from a real school?
I can kind of see why anime mostly involve teenagers. For one, from a narrative perspective, the teenage years are a major, exciting time in one's life. They're about that final push of learning and development you need before you're ready to leave the nest and go on to college, trade school, or starting your own meth lab in the desert. Life is full of options at this time, romantic, personal, political, social, and career options. When you get older, life is more about what you've done and who you are. In high school, it's all about potential.
And in Japan, adult men literally work to death while adult women generally stay home and do the housewife thing, even though women are increasingly stepping out into the working world as well. The demands of adult life in Japan are so high that it's hard to realistically imagine a fictional Japanese adult with time for those wacky adventures kids in anime get up to. It's not like you can work 70-80 hours a week and still have a magical girl, mech pilot, or vampire-slaying side-gig. I know. It's sad. We really need a union for this kind of thing.
There's also a whole host of marketing reasons for this omnipresent cliché. Teens have a lot of disposable income because any money they have is disposable income (usually), no bills to pay. So they have more to spend on anime and manga.
Also, teens are sexy and cute. Adults are probably, for that reason, likely to enjoy a book with a teenage protagonist. Adults can relate to teenagers, due to remembering their own struggles in their teen years. So if you write a story about teenagers, it will appeal to adults and teens, but if you write a story about adults, it most likely will only appeal to adults.
But, this anime cliché is revoltingly tired out by now too. And it's the mother of other annoying plot clichés, such as:
- The protagonist always sits in the back by the window.
- The fetishized school uniforms are usually far from realistic or practical. Or sometimes not even something a real teenager's mom would let her leave the house in!
- The general creepiness you feel as an adult watching media that sexualizes teenage girls, sometimes very young ones.
- The fact that every fucking first episode is about the protagonist being late to school, and bumping into someone of the opposite sex while rushing to school (oh this is another one that made the list, so I'll bitch about it more than in its own entry!).
Another problem here is, the "high school anime" is very rarely about the reality of life as a teenager. It's always some kind of fantasy ideal. Everyone is intelligent and beautiful in an anime high school unless they're a comic relief side character. Social encounters between protag-kun and -dere-chan might be awkward at first, but you know they're going to work out well by the end. Nobody has actual schoolwork unless it's a plot point that X badass activity is interfering with their studies. What they learn won't usually be discussed. This is weird, considering how big of a deal what you learn in high school is to your actual life in high school! I guess it's a fantasy/wish fulfillment thing. But it would be cool if the next high school anime was more about what it really feels like to be in high school. Some anime do this better than others. Comedy, like Azumanga Daioh! and Lucky Star make the mundane memorable using hilarious exaggeration.
But I'd also like to see more anime about adults? Or even about teenagers outside of Japan? Or just like, outside of Tokyo? Outside of modern times? This setting looks more and more like a prison the more I think about it. Like some kind of ...
4. Color-Coded Hair
Probably because so much anime is set in a high school, character differentiation is often mainly by hair color. Here's a handy guide:
- Black hair: Usually a character who is reserved, mature, intellectual, and studious.
- Brown hair: Average, boring character. Nothing special about them.
- Blue hair: Shy, dandere personality. But dark blue can be like black hair.
- Purple hair: Similar to black or blue hair. Usually a quiet bookworm. Sometimes denotes a relationship to the supernatural.
- Green hair: Rare, but usually means innocence, gentleness, or a magical connection to plants or nature. They're a hippie type.
- Pink hair: Dark pink can be a stand-in for red or blonde hair, but often means innocence.
- Red hair: Orange hair can be similar to blonde stereotypes (goofball, dumb, clutsy, cute, etc.), but can also suggest that a girl is a tough tomboy. Stop-sign red hair is more like a sign that a character is edgy and tough. Red hair is common in tsunderes.
- Golden Blonde hair: Usually stands for innocence and the dumb/ditsy blonde stereotype. Also commonly used for Americans.
- Light blonde or white hair: Usually used to denote someone with a haughty attitude. White hair often is also used to show that someone is evil or has evil powers. I have no idea why.
- Silver hair: If a young character has grey or silver hair, it's usually a sign of their wisdom beyond their years. Can also show shyness, similar to blue hair, like with Yuki in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and also Yuki in Fruits Basket.
You can also tell a lot about most anime characters by their hair style. There's slacker hair, average protag-kun hair, spiky villain hair, princess hair, president of the school counsel hair, etc. It's pretty easy to pick out what character type goes with what hair color and style when you read a lot of manga/watch a lot of anime.
But it's old. And characters are more than their hair color. And it creates a buildup of expectations that I just for once wish weren't true every time. Like if I see black, spiky hair, I know I'm getting a hot-headed, binge-eating, fighting-for-my-nakama shounen fighter kid. But wouldn't it be cool as hell to see a kid with black, spiky hair who was the bookworm instead of the bruiser? Or a girl with a red tsundere ponytail who was actually shy and nervous? Or where the brunette is the one with magical abilities, while their parakeet-colored best friend is just the non-magical sidekick? Or, just seeing new anime where the hair doesn't match pre-packaged templates set down by previous artists? Yeah, that would be cool.
3. Bump Into Cute
Drink if this sounds familiar:
- Protagkun is rushing to school at the same time as Derechan.
- Protagkun bumps into Derechan, because neither of them were looking where they were going. Derechan may or may not have toast in her mouth.
- Protagkun sees Derechan's panties, or accidentally gropes her.
- Derechan is embarrassed and may get up immediately and yell "baka!", hit Protagkun, and/ or run away. She will blush and look cute and dead-eyed at the camera for a few seconds though, first.
- LATER THAT DAY: Protagkun goes to School Club Club After School Club and sees none other than Derechan there, and they have an embarrassing cutesy moment, usually where Protagkun will apologize, even if it was Derechan who ran at him with the force of a speeding truck.
Well, it would be cute, except that I'm so sick of this scenario that seeing it makes me some weird combination of wanting to cry, vomit, and do violence at someone.
2. Love Triangles (And Other Shapes)
With a harem, you know that they will most likely follow the Tenchi Muyo pattern of letting the main character end up with all of the guys or girls available to them. With a love triangle, it's all the endless squabbling and treating the main character like a football that I can't stand. They don't love the protagonist in a love triangle situation, a lot of times it just seems to be about winning. Harem shows can also do this, where being the "main girl", better than the other girls in the harem, is more important than the actual feelings for, or actual interaction with, the object of their desire. It's a shallow, juvenile, possessive view of love being presented in these stories.
I've liked some anime that had love triangles, kind of hard not to since a love triangle is such a common romance trope. Sometimes it is interesting to guess which of two choices a character will end up with. For example, Peach Girl was a good show, but if I'm being honest, that was mainly in spite of jerking back and forth between the two possible love interests for Momo, not because of it. That got a little tiring after a while.
How many episodes of love triangle drama can you go through before you start yelling "JUST PICK ONE ALREADY!" at your TV, scaring your pet and/or loved ones?
Nearly everyone in the anime internet world is sick to death of tsunderes. When they first hit the scene, it was cute. It defied expectations, and was fun, to not only have a character who doffed expected ladylike manners to tell it like it is, but to have a harsh bully who warms up to friendship and romance over time. But that was so long ago that back then, Blockbuster was still relevant. Now, everyone is tired of it, because we know what to expect from the very moment Protagkun bumps into Tsunderechan. Tsunderechan will get mad, blush angrily, punch Protagkun with the force of a karate master (well, Akane was a karate master in Ranma 1/2, so maybe they're just copying that), and stomp off. And later it will be revealed that Tsunderechan had feelings for Protagkun, and cuteness will ensue. If the anime is particularly long and dull, they will go through several cycles of "will they or won't they" by having the tsundere constantly deny her feelings for Protagkun, constantly fight with him, abuse him, scream at him, etc., and then keep making up with him. N-not that I like you or anything! IDIOT!
The tsundere is simply an overdone character type at this time. There's nothing new here. Everything a new tsundere could have has already been done, better, by another tsundere character. And it's often a forced or pointless way to introduce romance in a story. And it's obvious as all hell. The original point of the tsundere was to show that characters who sometimes appear bossy and mean can have an unexpected sweet side once you get to know them. But now, audiences already know that and have been shown this exact same thing many times, and we're all sick of it.
Why Cliches Happen, and How Anime Can Improve
Why Cliches Happen, and How Anime Can Improve
Clichés aren't just demons from another dimension who come to assault our senses. They exist because there is market value in their use as a creative choice. For example, there are a lot of psychological, design, animation, and economic reasons for having so many anime take place in high school. Color-coded hair is a work-around to get around the fact that school uniforms don't leave a lot of room to accentuate characters' individual personalities artistically. So are things like accessories, eye color, and eye shape.
As for the "bumping into cute" example, the protagonist gets a little sneak preview of something normally forbidden; tits in the face, an accidental grope, or a flash of panties. He gets to (and we the audience get this vicariously through him) "sample the merchandise" so to speak, but in an accidental way, that leaves his honor, and hers, intact. And she shows that she's not a slut by acting ruffled, getting indignant, and giving Protagkun a concussion. So a girl and a guy get a moment where she kind of shows him something naughty, but it has plausible deniability because of her show of embarrassment.
A lot of people have talked at length at the psychology of liking the tsundere, but basically, getting a difficult person to like you ultimately just feels more meaningful and worth it than someone who instantly fawns all over you like a dog.
Love triangles? They're popular in all fiction and refuse to die anytime soon. I think that's because there are only so many ways to create conflict in a romantic story. In an action/adventure story, the conflict is obvious - the heroes are saving the world from an evil power of some kind. But romance isn't about saving the world. It's about romance. Conflict is usually about feelings and the tension caused by having to choose one person over another. And outside of harem anime, the possibility of ending in consensual non-monogamy is almost never explored, and liking one person too much is seen as a universally hurtful sign of betrayal against the other, now I'm having Peach Girl flashbacks! Love triangles are there because making a decision where you have to choose between two good things is hard, since no matter which you choose, you have to give up something good. It's hard to know which choice is better. It's easy to choose between a good thing and a bad thing. Choosing between two equally good things is painful, because of the fear of missing out.
Can Anime Improve?
I feel like all of these clichés might be salvageable if they simply changed a little and became less predictable and paint-by-numbers-y. For one, some realistic school uniforms where the skirts cover the girls' entire ass? Is that too much to ask? But also here are some ideas I'd like to see:
- The faux-tsundere: have a girl who appears to be a tsundere-classic, but is just angry and a bitch all the time. She doesn't care what you think. And she's legitimately not interested in romance.
- A high school where the girls aren't romance-obsessed to such an extent that they will fawn over this random dude and fight off other girls for him, despite him having the personality of a mop?
- A few more non-high-school anime? Children of the Whales, a Netflix anime series, was nice because it takes place in a fantasy world. The rising Isekai genre, or genre about someone crossing over from the real world into a fantasy world, seems like a move away from boring old high school settings as well.
- I really like when the hair color thing is dropped, played with, not there at all because all the characters have brown and black hair, or subverted. For example by having a shy bookworm with bright red hair. N-not that I'm saying I have a fetish for nerdy redheads... but um... I uh... I ... *blush*
- It would also be funny to see a complete psychological deconstruction of the tsundere. They went there with Asuka in the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, but come on. That was a while ago. Newbies think Eva is just fucking Rebuild these days. Bleargh. Let's get a new series that really deconstructs the psychology of a tsundere character!
- Think of ways to introduce Protagkun and Derechan without having them bump into each other on the way to school?
So yeah, I hope new anime doesn't keep pulling these same cliché tropes. Not that they're all bad all the time, but they simply reek of unoriginal writing that is reliant on old formulas. Which instantly sucks entertainment value away from what could otherwise be an awesome show.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rachael Lefler
Rin Arakara on August 09, 2020:
Nice job on using a fairy tail ship meme for the love triangles