We all know about anime clichés, archetypes and tropes and we’ve all kind of come to accept that there are certain characters and events that we’re going to run into again and again. However, for some people, the existence of clichés and archetype characters who don’t break the mould are enough for them to scorn a show and turn away from it. They label it unoriginal or boring and might claim it offers nothing. And yet there are a lot of good reasons for stories not to go off script or venture into new waters.
That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be nice occasionally for things to be changed up a bit or presented in a new way, nor is it excusing the lazy use of clichés for laughs in exchange for actually writing a story or considering the purpose of the characters but it does mean that just because something is entirely cliché does not mean it is bad just because it is. I think we need to consider the context and the execution (as well as which cliché it is because there are some clichés that individuals will accept more readily than others) before making up our minds.
It is kind of timely to visit this topic with so many new shows starting for the season. It is inevitable that first episodes will be riddled with clichés. And for those who consider that a death sentence on a story that is something you will have to accept.
First episodes need to get their point across, set up what their tone is going to be, introduce characters and give the audience some impression of who they are, as well as do some basic world-building. And they need to grab the audience’s attention so there are going to be some bells and whistles thrown in. All of this in some twenty minutes. It is a lot to ask and while some shows put off some of these attributes for later episodes and choose to either focus on world building, tone, or characters rather than all of them in one episode, with the short attention span of viewers these days that’s a pretty risky move. That’s where clichés and archetypes come in.
Archetypes are recognisable and memorable. They also cut through a lot of explanations because people already know what is on offer. In a first episode a female character might come across as the ‘manic pixie girl’ and a male character might be ‘generic self-insert isekai protagonist’ but it instantly establishes where this character is starting and the tone the audience can expect. Depending on which character archetypes we have on display the audience can begin making predictions about the kind of narrative path we’re about to walk and what is on offer. They may have seen it before, but they haven’t seen this version, so as long as the quality of how things are being executed is there, or there is some reason to believe that things are going to get shaken up in future episodes, there’s no reason to dismiss something just because it seems like it might be similar to about a thousand other stories.
Cliche events and actions such as first meetings, finding a secret power, some sort of misunderstanding, and so on serve much the same purpose in these first episodes. They may not be terribly original but as long as they are presented with integrity, that isn’t a huge problem. The issue isn’t from the archetypes and clichés themselves, the issue comes from the lazy way these are sometimes rolled out.
If we take a look at the current anime season on offer we might look at something like How Not To Summon a Demon Lord and begin with the take down criticism of it being horrendously unoriginal, derivative, and the same as about a million other stories. And certainly it isn’t exactly ground breaking as we’ve seen a player trapped in his in game character that is some sort of demon in Overlord, we’ve seen transported to another world about a million times, and a world based on a game fairly recently in Death March to a Parallel World Rhapsody. We’ve certainly seen ordinary socially awkward guy instantly surrounded by bunch of girls of various types who for whatever reason all end up in love with him (more times than I can count).
The set up is incredibly generic, and then the events in the first episode are incredibly cliche. We have more fan-service moments then I’d care to recount right at the moment, an obnoxious jerk who wants to teach the protagonist a lesson and consequently gets beaten down, and the cute girl who eats a lot. Then the main character who is so incredibly recognisable as a gamer with no social skills or ability to talk to other people without assuming some sort of in game role (No Game No Life and about a million others).
All of this might be enough reason for some anime viewers to pass on this show entirely and I’ve certainly seen a fair number of reviewers who have thrown all isekai offerings this season into a basket and if that basket had been more than just metaphorical they’d have set it on fire (much the same to how I feel about idol anime really). However, not all isekai anime are created equal and while episode 1 of How Not To Summon A Demon Lord certainly didn’t blow my socks off, it did a decent job of setting up a potential story of interest with characters that have most definitely started out as cookie cutter archetypes that we’ve seen before but they all have growth potential.
This is where it gets tricky. The anime now has a short window of time to convert viewers like me from ‘maybe’ into definitely following the show. While generic cliches and archetypes work well enough in first episodes to establish ideas, if the show doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to do anything more than walk the well tread path of other stories, or worse, it has established the characters and then it leaves them exactly where they are, then the show becomes utterly deserving of the criticism of being unoriginal, derivative and not worth the time. But a first episode isn’t enough to make that judgement.
Though episode 2’s opening act with Diablo waking up with his hands on the boobs of both of his female companions probably indicates where this show sees character development.
While comparing first episodes I’m really looking at How Not To Summon a Demon Lord or The Master of Ragnarok and Blesser of Einherjar to add to this season’s watch list (but not both because even I draw the line on isekai at some point). At the moment How Not To Summon a Demon Lord is slightly edging out The Master of Ragnarok for the simple reason that I had more fun with the first episode and the potential story set up looks like it will have a better pay off. Also, cool explosion (sorry, deep down I’m six years old and I know it) and the reference was cool even though I never watched the anime being referenced (memes do wonders for filling in context sometimes). The Master of Ragnarok didn’t get an immediate skip though because despite the overly harem qualities, the overt sex jokes, and every other poor generic idea this genre likes to throw at us, it does have the slight intrigue of not being another world but potential the past earth and the protagonist isn’t just arriving, he’s already there and established. It gives it just enough points of interest to earn a second episode consideration despite all the flaws with the first episode.
Regardless of which isekai I end up watching, the point that clichés and archetypes aren’t all bad can be made pretty clearly through an anime that also aired recently, Cells at Work. Outside of the concept that the characters are all anthropomorphic cells doing jobs within the body, there’s really nothing particularly original about the first episode. While AE3803 might be a truly adorable red blood cell, she’s your stereotypical naive and shy girl on her first day at work. She’s confused, she gets lost, after a chance encounter with a guy who saves her she literally clings on to him as he shows her around before he saves her again. If we took out the fact that they are blood cells, it is pretty much the script of any romantic comedy anywhere or even an action flick (actually, take out first day on the job and we’ve more or less got Temple of Doom working here).
Yet most viewers would agree that Cells at Work presents itself in such a way that it feels original, fresh and entertaining. The change in setting and the clever way that is integrated into plot and character development allows them to execute a fairly ordinary and familiar story in a way that people appreciated and enjoyed. Something isekai stories might start doing if every ‘other world’ wasn’t generic fantasy land type B (why are no other worlds ever technologically advanced or just completely different from anything we’re familiar with – pseudo-medieval settings have been done to death, move on).
As a reviewer, I’m not above calling something cliche or generic, but at the same time, that isn’t reason enough for me to condemn a story and stop watching. As a fantasy/horror/action/sci-fi fan (in movies) I am well used to seeing very familiar characters and plots time and time again. What I want isn’t something that reinvents the wheel or revolutionises story telling; what I want is a quality story with a purpose and passion behind it that lends integrity to the work. Though that also might be asking too much sometimes and maybe I should just stick to wanting to be entertained for twenty minutes because that is something I’m more likely to achieve.
Alright, over to the readers. What do you think about the use of generic plots, tropes, cliches and archetypes and what do you think about the start of the Summer anime season? Be sure to leave me a comment letting me know.
Thanks for reading.
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