I have a thing for light novels (LNs). And so, it seems, do LNs themselves! WHAT TYPE OF STRANGE INCEST PLOT TWIST IS THIS?!
Warning: 5000+ word post incoming.
In an era where LNs (and more generally, storytelling and stories themselves) are continually attacked from critics, most likely snobby (post)modernist douchebags, as well as people who don’t understand the wonders of wincest, LNs are striking back!…by putting out material with really long titles that are almost impossible to distinguish from each other both verbally and conceptually that often looks, smells, and tastes like crap. I mean, c’mon – who comes up with names like Ore no Kanojo to Osananajimi ga Shuraba Sugiru (OreShura), Yahari Ore no Seishun Rabu Kome wa Machigatteiru (Oregairu), and Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai (OreImo) and expects us not to treat them as some sort of joke?!
In all seriousness though, I find that the anisphere tends to underestimate LNs, both intellectually and emotionally. I know at least I’ve been genuinely moved by LN adaptations before, and the fact that most people get angry when they watch them also means that whatever they’re doing is effective enough to elicit a strong emotional response. When you start taking LN adaptations more seriously, however, what you’ll find is a very strange, but often quite clever (although not usually as clever as it thinks it is) genre. Furthermore, seen in a certain light, some LNs actually attempt to mount some sort of defense of their own genre, as well as of storytelling in general.
This is no trivial feat. LNs legitimately seem to try and provide answers of some sort to age-old questions (which are quickly becoming more and more pressing) like:
- What use are stories trapped within a mass of tropes and cliches (in other words within “genres”)?
- How can you really put out anything original when it’s all been done before?
- Can stories still be “deep” when their surrounded by a culture that is anything but?
- How can we defend the extreme escapist/disconnected nature of LN and more broadly anime culture in general? (Well, this last one is not really so “age old”, but whatever – you know what I mean!)
And so on.
Maybe a look at some of these shows will give us some answers. Or, if nothing else, show just how far a devoted anime fan and aniblogger is willing to go to defend his likes against the general consensus of the anisphere. Regardless of the result, it should at least be interesting, right?
Preface #0: I spend most of the post backing up/leading up to main ideas that I have bolded (hopefully decently well – if not let me know in the comments how/if I could do better!). If you’re looking to just grab the main points, you can probably skim most of the post (including the rest of this section) and focus on those.
Preface #1: Throughout the post, I’m going to use the terms light novels (LNs), light novel adaptations, shows, and anime (and maybe a couple others) interchangeably, because the specific medium isn’t really central to the points I’ll be making. I’ll also be expanding/using some of the points I discussed in my previous light novel post, although I’ll avoid using it’s explicit terminology to prevent this post from becoming too much of a referential pain to read. A little bit ironic, given that LNs do the exact same thing. And shit look at me being overly obvious about explaining things just like a LN. I guess I’ll never learn!
Preface #2: As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m probably going to be giving these writers/directors/whatever involved in making these LN adaptations much more credit than they’re due. But that’s okay, because if that’s true then what I’ve just done is used LNs to defend LNs, rather than it being done by the LNs themselves. It’s a little bit removed from being as meta, but only by about a step, since you’re just replacing the authors/directors of the work in question with me. The overall points of the post remain the same.
Preface #3: I am an unapologetic fan of wincest, which will be spelled that way throughout the post (and any other posts on my blog for that matter).
Preface #4: Throughout the post, I will be using the term “real” or “genuine” stories to refer to what people generally are looking for in anime shows relative to what they define as regular “otaku pandering crap”. As such, the definition is completely flexible and its up to you how you define them – I think the arguments I’ll put forward here hold assuming any reasonable definition of the word(s).
Preface #5: As always, there will be extensive spoilers and discussions of the shows in question.
So first on the docket for this post is OreShura. Taking a cue from Rebecca, I’ll start off with a quick synopsis (adapted/expanded from Wikipedia) to refresh anyone’s memory who’s seen it:
Eita Kidō enters high school with the aim to attend medical school. Since he was abandoned by both his parents after they got divorced and ran off with new lovers, Eita currently lives with his aunt, Saeko Kiryū. This experience, plus his intention to maintain his grades, leads him to shun anything to do with romance or love. However, one day, the school beauty Masuzu Natsukawa invites him to walk home with her, seemingly under romantic pretenses. Though he initially refuses, after several days Eita gives in and walks home with her. It turns out that Masuzu also shuns love, and is tired of constantly getting confessed to by boys, and suggests that she and Eita become a fake couple. Although Eita tries to refuse, Masuzu blackmails him into becoming her boyfriend in name only by getting a hold of Eita’s chuunibyou notebook. News spreads fast within the school of the new couple, and Eita’s childhood friend Chiwa Harusaki begins to battle with Masuzu for Eita’s affections. She is later joined by the current chuunibyou Himeka Akishino – Eita’s “girlfriend from a previous life” – as well as his forgotten childhood friend Ai Fuyuumi. Eita must somehow navigate this dangerous battleground of love, keeping the truth of his “fake” relationship with Masuzu a secret, all while coming to terms with his chuunibyou past and discovering what it truly means to love someone.
At first glance, you’d probably say: “This sounds like every other harem show.” And you’d almost right, except for two BIG TWISTS – the main relationship is “fake”, and the show is meta-aware! Clearly paradigm-altering gamechangers.
Setting the very much generic nature of OreShura aside, the show spends a lot of time doing two things: trying to issue a heartfelt defense of escapism, in the guise of chuunibyou, and making a bunch of references in attempts to be “clever” and “meta”. I’ll deal with each of these in turn since they’re very much related.
First off, one of the show’s core messages centers around the concept of facades, identities, and escapism. Eita is forced to come to terms with his chuunibyou past (and in fact is still a bit chu2 [chuni] himself), and throughout the series embarrasses himself to no end trying to defend other peoples dreams. When he comes to the rescue of Chiwa as the “Burning Fighting Fighter”, or screams his delusions at the sky in order to make up with Ai after seeing her super-creepy-stalker notebook (centered around Eita, of course), or tries to defend Himeka against Masuzu’s sister Mana’s insults, he always returns to the central idea that having dreams – delusions, even – are something you shouldn’t be ashamed about. In fact, through his behavior the show makes a strong argument that they are integral to who we are.
OreShura then progresses to dealing with a natural evolution of this point: namely that if you can have delusions where you’re someone else, actually acting/becoming someone else (AKA lying and/or putting up facades) is again something that is really who you are and something you shouldn’t be ashamed of. This issue comes to a head at the climax of the series, where Eita consoles Masuzu over her supposedly identity crisis and turns their “fake” relationship into a “real” one. In fact, this theme of “fake” vs. “real”, duplicity vs. honesty, is another core element of the show. The entire evolution of Masuzu and Eita’s relationship, plus their behavior, is meant to be a testament to that. So, essentially, we have a show telling us escapism and duplicity is fine, and possibly even good for us.
The other major element of the show is it’s repeated efforts to showcase that it’s “self-aware” – that it understands itself, it’s context, and/or its consumers. It does this by occasionally breaking the “fourth wall” and commenting about itself, as well as making repeated references to other shows. The biggest example of this is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, which the author Yūji Yūji said was a big influence on his/her (guessing his) work. Characters continually make references to the manga, and frequently scenes have characters pose in ways that pay homage to JoJo‘s bizarre style. Furthermore, major points in the show center around a meta-awareness of the culture surrounding harem shows, such as Eita’s discussion with his aunt where they discuss his life/harem the same way one would talk about an eroge. His aunt, by the way, also designs eroge/VN, and some of the later episodes involve girls taking a “quiz” to determine their love for Eita. Eita and Masuzu’s lovey-dovey dialogue is also portrayed as too well thought out, as they attempt to “play” their “fake” relationship in a similar fashion. The show also makes very clear to accentuate the extensive use of tropes, either dialing them up to maximum or referencing them outright (e.g. with Ai’s tsundere nature). Furthermore, given an inherent theme of genuineness vs. duplicity, you get the feeling that the show seems to be aware of its own double-faced nature (trying to be “genuine” and tell a real story when also trying to be otaku bait bogged down in tropes and the like) and is explicitly trying to deal with that in a slightly less direct way. Given all this, we end up with the impression of a show that understands exactly what it is – a harem LN adaptation.
Taking both elements together, we end up with something like this:
OreShura is the quintessential escapist show, but with a twist – it itself is a defense of escapism. It argues that even though a story can be bound by the circumstances from which it is born – circumstances that lend stories to being escapist, shallow, and generic – they can still be “deep” and genuine. Furthermore, it pushes the idea that escapism itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a fundamental part of human nature we should not be ashamed of.
I’m making one big assumption here, which is that OreShura wasn’t actually “hollow” itself, but rather genuinely believed the message it was pushing. I’m not sure if that’s true, but at least the show did enough work to convince me otherwise if it wasn’t. And that’s all that really matters here.
Now, with the above caveat in mind, I still have one big problem with the show: it doesn’t really follow through on this sort of thing. Namely, although it pulls a lot of “meta” type stuff and has the “fake relationship” BIG TWIST, in the end it still is pretty much a standard generic harem show (or at least much more than OreImo and Oregairu). It seems to have this message, but then really itself isn’t anything special. The fanservice wasn’t anything to rave about, the plot in general was “eh”, and most of the characters didn’t really get fleshed out beyond the standard “love interest” shebang. Most of the instances where the show attempts to be heartfelt involve Eita yelling and screaming his feelings at/around people, and not too much more than that. There’s no real exploration of the theme(s) other than what is essentially shouted at the viewer. To make things worse, it turns out this type of message has in part already been delivered before: Chu2koi tackles the same sort of things and does it much better.
Essentially, OreShura fails to break free of the tropes that surround it. It offers a tale that seems to suggest duplicity and facades are okay as long as the feelings are genuine, that escapism is fine as long as its recognized, but in the end doesn’t give you really anything new to work on other than the message. Which was actually the same problem the show had with its core themes as well, so no surprise there.
In the end, OreShura doesn’t try to subvert the tropes it uses, but simply comments on and defends them, and therefore fails to deal with the framework that surrounds them. And because of this, although I wholeheartedly believe what it’s saying (it’d be a depressing world if I didn’t), I’m ultimately not convinced by the presentation.
Again, let’s start with a quick summary:
Hachiman Hikigaya is really a NICE GUY. But right before the start of the new school year he is the victim of an car accident while attempting to save a dog that had run out into the street. Thanks to this, he starts school as a loner, isolated from his peers because he missed the prime “friendship making” period of high school. Hikigaya doesn’t mind though, and in fact takes pleasure in being a loner and looking down on the shallowness of normal high school life. In an effort to get him out of his shell, his teacher Shizuka Hiratsuka forces Hikigaya to join the school’s Service Club. There, he meets the beautiful but aloof Yukino Yukinoshita and friendly but still lonely Yui Yuigahama and, despite their varying personalities and ideals, together offer help and advice to their fellow students who approach them with problems. Oregairu follows their antics, with a focus on the psychology that drives character interactions from the skewed perspective from our “#1 loner” protagonist.
Again, you’d probably say: “This sounds pretty generic.” BUT! I bet you’ve realized there must be some BIG TWIST in there to spice things up, probably related to the last sentence, in addition to the obligatory attempts to be “meta”. And you’d be right, because there is one BIG TWIST: every single trope is subverted/perverted.
Now what do I mean by this? Simply that the show manages to hit a surprisingly high number of tropes, but somehow they all go slightly wrong.
So what are some examples of tropes? Having a loner protagonist is a trope. Having him be cynical and give copious amounts of internal commentary is a trope. Having a girl “forced” into his life from some outside force (in this case his teacher) is a trope. Being part of a service club, frequently unwillingly or unenthusiastically, is a trope. Having the girl in question be beautiful and aloof (tropes in themselves) introduced as the first love interest is a trope. Some of Hachiman’s thoughts regarding the situations he’s in as being filled with tropes themselves are tropes, because LNs at this point have done them to death. Things get even worse when you look at the characters, who themselves are essentially animated collections of tropes (e.g. Yui Yuigahama’s personality, Yukinoshita’s sister, Hachiman’s sister, his chu2 friend, etc. etc.) and who’s inclusions are tropes in themselves. Some of the interactions surrounding the characters (e.g. Hachiman’s supposed “siscon”, his harem setup) are tropes. The events that take place themselves are tropes of shows, such as the Cultural Festival or the camping trip. The aim of having the main character develop throughout the course of the show thanks to help from his new-found friends is a trope (and a common themes to harems). And we can’t forget the LN title trope either! All in all, It’s in fact quite an impressive collection of tropes – one that a normal show probably wouldn’t have. This type of thing would require some real work trying to draw them across a wide expanse of current and past anime culture. But who would do such a thing, and for what purpose? Something seems to be up here.
That something is exactly what I mentioned earlier: in all cases, something is off. All the tropes seem to slightly miss their intended targets, in a way that’s noticeable. Hachiman is proud to be a loner, and his commentary is orders of magnitude more biting (and remarkably insightful) than that of your typical protangonist. His fawning thoughts tend to be about Totsuka instead of Yukino, although they somehow still seem to develop a relationship. But then that relationship is…off, as is his relationship with Yui (thanks to the revelations surrounding their involvement with his accident). And then his other supposed harem love interests don’t really seem to be real love interests at all. His siscon seems to be nonexistent. His relationships with his new “friends” never really take off. All the events he’s in end badly for himself, mostly because his way of solving problems are self-injuring. This feature doesn’t develop throughout the show. Hachiman’s growth (because there is some) is repeatedly stunted by revelations about his accident, which continually reset relationships but yet are never dealt with openly (rather than being a MAJOR PLOT TWIST like in most shows). I could go on and on, but essentially the show manages to pervert the entire spectrum of tropes it utilizes – a remarkable feat.
But given this trope extravaganza and obsession with subversion (another method of “being meta”), there is one huge element of Oregairu I’ve completely ignored: the show is incredibly genuine. It has heart in spades (couldn’t resist). It really tries to deal with deep socio-psychological issues in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before, mostly because anime avoids them like the plague. When you’re goal is being escapist and trying to romanticize the high school experience, you tend to overlook those things. But Oregairu, even in this context, faces them unflinchingly. And in fact even makes them one of the center themes of the entire show, by making the nicest guy the “villain” of the series and his own worst enemy. Now, you could view this too as a subversion of more common tropes (albeit more underlying ones), and while this might be true, that doesn’t necessarily make the core message any less genuine.
Which is what OreShura was trying to say, right? But now we have a show that has gone a step further, since Oregairu subverts the entire genre rather than the simply the main tropes utilized in the genre. And the messages Oregairu is trying to tell us isn’t just pretentious preaching (although of course with any show there’s some of that) – it actually is deep. Thus, Oregairu is the proof-of-concept that OreShura wasn’t – that a show could tell a real heartfelt story even while bogged down tropes (genre).
Integrating these points, we arrive at something like this:
Oregairu is an escapist show that – by visibly subverting established tropes while simultaneously dealing with complex issues – subverts its very own escapist nature. It offers up itself as a “proof of concept” that even though stories can be bound by convention, genre, culture, etc., they can nonetheless still be deep and meaningful.
Now, I think one of the biggest messages to get out of Oregairu is the last point, because the show didn’t really have to go through all the trouble to really do all this trope subversion if it wanted to just tell the story it did. There are multiple ways to go about that issue that don’t involve trying to make your story completely fit into this “generic anime” box. But the show did so just to prove a point – that even in the most generic, trope-filled case, you can still tell a “real” story. It took the core ideas of OreShura and applied them to the worst possible case just to prove that it was possible. I don’t know about you, but I think it succeeded with flying colors.
But of course I can’t end a section on Oregairu without ruining it the same way the show does. So I’ll let Froggykun (who posted this jewel of a comment over at Draggle’s blog post on the series) do the talking:
I love Oregairu with every fibre of my being, but in the end, I still agree with this review. It is a generic LN romcom, just wrapped up in different colours. I actually think Hachiman himself wouldn’t even like this anime if it was showed to him. He’d probably say, “Every romcom includes some BIG TWIST to point out in the promotional material, but that doesn’t make them original.” I think this is the ultimate irony of the show.
And now you guys can see where I got my BIG TWIST thing from (and now look at me explaining a reference I’d made in the last section – maybe I should become a LN writer, or better yet a writer who writes about LN writing – now that’d be pretty cool!). Whoops.
Ah, OreImo. Seeing as this just finished airing recently, I’m not going to do a refresher synopsis (but here’s a link to the Wikipedia page just in case). However, I will say right off the bat that I really liked the show. I know this already puts me in the vast majority of the aniblogging community as far as I can tell, but hopefully some of the stuff I talk about below will help explain why.
First off, from what I can tell, most people disliked the show for one of three reasons (I’m excluding the anti-incest crowd here, but that’s a factor too). The first was that they went into the first season thinking “this is going to be a show with a real message about sibling relationships, even with this weird brocon/siscon thing!”, and then realized that it totally was not going to happen a decent ways in. And what instead happened instead was the show became exactly what they thought/hoped it wasn’t going to be – a trope-filled harem, albeit one that didn’t pull any punches (excluding the ending). The second one was Kirino. Instead of her tsundere personality being endearing, most of the online community (or at least the most vocal ones) thought she was a Grade A Bitch. The third is an extension of the second – mainly, people hated the ending, both because it was the Imouto True End and because it backed off from going all the way at the last minute. And the ending is bad enough to be pretty jarring.
I have a little problem with this though, because my philosophy generally is when you go into a show expecting one thing and you don’t enjoy it, the natural solution is to try and change your perspective on things (if you want to continue watching it, that is – you always can drop it). Misfortunedogged and I talked about this a little while back, but this is essentially what I did for OreImo. I went into it with the mindset of the first crowd, and then when that didn’t pan out, I had to shop around for other ways to look at things. I had a bit of trouble finding it at first, but about a week or so later after my first souring impression with the show, I had an epiphany. OreImo was not an anime trying to be “genuine” (like Oregairu was), but rather a “real” story that had been perverted by anime tropes. And there are oh so many.
This is a fundamentally different beast than OreShura and Oregairu, which are going the other direction. Now, the natural question to ask here is: why? Why would a show choose to do such a thing? In this case, the subject matter gives us a big hint – the show focuses in large part on otaku culture. Kirino’s otaku hobbies are a big part of the show, as is the otaku-ification of Kyousuke (and Kanako) and the development of Saori’s circle. In fact, a central point of the show might indeed be a celebration of otaku culture – both the good and the bad. Given this, what better way to celebrate otaku culture by giving your characters tropes from the same area? No better way to show what anime tropes are than by using them directly!
But just having a normal trope-filled show wouldn’t really celebrate both the good and the bad parts of otaku culture, because you need some reference point for comparison. After some thought, I came to the same conclusion the show evidently did, which was that the best reference point for these tropes would actually be real life! There is no better way to show how warped and strange the culture is then by injecting it into a story that seemed to be “real”/”genuine”.
This is the reason then that many aspects of the show seemed so bizarre, why everything seemed to straddle some anime-esque uncanny valley where things seemed so damn close to being genuine on micro scales but yet fell apart on macro ones such that the viewer who was looking for a “real” story couldn’t help but be endlessly frustrated. It also explains some of Kirino and Kyousuke’s relationship dynamic, which I would express best as “wincest meets real life”, especially towards the latter episodes. It was an attempt at…wait for it…SERIOUS WINCEST. Yes. A normal brother-sister relationship perverted by wincest then taken completely seriously because this is “real life”. Since I tend to be a purist about wincest, and get endlessly annoyed when shows pull some sort of copout, this actually was a huge boost for the show for me, regardless of how ridiculous it turned out (if you’re looking for commentary on the ending, it’s been discussed elsewhere – you won’t find it here). This type of way of looking at the show, where elements are perverted and then taken completely seriously, ends up working well for pretty much all of the events that take place over both seasons, from Saori’s backstory and Kuroneko’s relationship to Kanako’s bid as an idol and Ayase’s yandere behavior.
Now, why should we be looking at the show this way? Mainly because I think the author/director probably intended us to, to be perfectly honest. The show pulls a lot of antics where it not only shows that it is meta, but actually comments on and actively discusses a bunch of features of otaku culture. This type of thing ranges from discussing LNs in the first season (with Kirino’s whole entrance into the LN biz and her discussion with Kuroneko), doujinshi (I believe when the circle was trying to publish some work for Comiket), and LN adaptations (in the most recent season 2 OVAs). Unlike the first two shows, which only take tropes and use them, ignoring the culture where they originated from, OreImo recognizes it’s roots in otaku culture and directly pays homage to that throughout the show. Given all this material, assuming OreImo is a typical LN adaptation which just uses tropes willy-nilly seems like an unreasonable assumption that isn’t giving it enough credit.
Given all this homage to otaku culture and this “real life meets anime” style plot, there is another notable thing about OreImo: it attempts to tell a serious story, and it seems to do so wholeheartedly rather than just going through the motions. And this serious story is in fact one that is entirely based in otaku culture: one of wincest. The fact that, even given all this weirdness, the story tries to be meaningful, says something about what the show believes storytelling can be.
Combining these features, we get something like this:
OreImo is an escapist show that, rather than subverting itself or the medium, actively discusses its heritage and its own story by comparison to “real life”. By telling a heartfelt story heavily influenced by the genre/culture from which it is based, the show argues that a “real” story can still be told through such influences, rather than only by breaking free of them. It also argues that by better understanding these influences, we can tell more meaningful stories.
Well, I think I’m spent on OreImo – now it’s time to go pretend Kyousuke went the Ayase Bad End yandere route.
My Gargantuan LN Post Can’t Have Ended This Quickly!
Phew – that was a heck of a post. What did we get at the end of all of this?
OreShura tries to justify shows themselves being escapist as either fine or possibly a good thing, and so we can’t inherently dock a show for that. Oregairu shows that that under the worst possible conditions, a show can still cut through the tropes that surround it to tell a “real” story with enough time and effort. And OreImo seems to be telling us that, if you understand the medium and the culture that surrounds it well enough, you can tell a “real” story remaining within a medium rather than trying to “break free” of it. Take those three points together, plus some of the more subtle ones I pointed out above, and I think you have a pretty good defense of the entire concept of storytelling taken from a LN perspective.
Of course, the Monogatari series pretty much does the whole thing, but whatever ;).