Recently, well not so recently given its been a few weeks – what counts as recently? – Kapodaco posted some of his thoughts about how trends effect the quality of Japanese media. While there were many thought provoking points my brain latched on to the idea of repetition as being seen as a negative. And this is something that seems to be a fairly accepted point of view by a lot of viewers that something being the ‘same’ or having the ‘same story’ as something else somehow makes it a lesser work or less interesting.
I’m not actually going to tell people they can’t feel that way. Honestly, if you don’t like watching the same story line over and over, there’s little that will change your mind. There’s also plenty of people who never rewatch anything feeling once is enough. While I find that strange given I grow to love things more on repeated rewatches and find comfort in familiar favourites, it isn’t as though I don’t kind of get where they are coming from. Besides we all enjoy anime for different reasons and as long as we’re all having fun we should celebrate.
But it did make me want to write about the reasons why a telling the same story, again and again in slightly different variations, is not necessarily a bad thing and can in fact lead to something truly good. If all the years of studying variations on the ‘hero’s journey’ can finally be put to some good use here, who am I to walk away from that?
Reason One: New Viewers
This might seem cynical and kind of like it defeats the purpose of my own argument, but from an industry point of view this one makes sense. The average age of an anime viewer isn’t that high and every year new future fans stumble upon anime and some move on in their lives and away from the fandom. While there are some of us who are all about anime for life, it still isn’t exactly the standard fan model. As a result, recycling a plot or story structure is actually a pretty good idea.
If we just look at sports anime, there are many brilliant sports anime I never watched because I never used to watch them. Then three years ago I tried one that just happened to be streaming weekly and enjoyed it, then took on a reader’s recommendation and watched Haikyuu, then Yuri on Ice happened, and now I kind of watch sports anime (two this season in point of fact). The story lines are literally all the same with very minor variations, yet for me this is a genre I’ve not explored all that far and so while I can see familiar patterns from story to story, it doesn’t feel stale to me whereas someone who had watched more older sports shows might very well find the current options a little lacking.
New fans coming into the anime family through new anime that they love before they move on to more new anime or explore some of the older titles is certainly a good thing. It really doesn’t help the overall community when someone tells a new fan that they only like such-and-such because they’ve never seen whatever. Yet this happens all the time. Sorry, I’m not a new fan and I don’t only like the original Sword Art Online because I never watched Log Horizon. I’m going to be honest, I just don’t like Log Horizon and have never made it all the way through the first season. I liked the original season of Sword Art Online because I find it cool and exciting and I enjoy the characters.
But the point here – getting back on track – is that telling a similar story in a new anime will bring new fans in and that’s a good thing.
Reason Two: Refining a Model
While many stories are told and many will follow familiar paths one thing we should remember is that these paths have been forged through centuries of trial and error. Okay, maybe girl club anime have been refined through a couple of decades of trial and error, or maybe such stories always existed but no one felt the need to preserve them over the centuries… okay, going off on another tangent and stopping now.
But the bottom line is that while it feels like little is added in each minor variation, over time these small changes and trends, accumulating through bodies of work, lead to larger overall changes to the basic narrative. We don’t really notice it when just looking at the seasonal anime because from one season to the next the change is generally minuscule but when you then look back at anime from a decade ago the differences start to become more noticeable. Whether it is in art style, character tropes, variations in how jokes are delivered, or even the motivation of the protagonist, small things begin to shift and what people consider the norm moves without anyone even noticing it.
Now whether or not you like the trend that things slowly move in will really depend on your individual tastes as compared to the majority and the industry as a whole, but for the most part we see things that are less preferred slowly faded out and things that people like being driven to the forefront. This couldn’t happen if stories in anime were one-and-done. Not to mention we’d rapidly run out of stories to tell.
Certainly the counter-argument to this one is valid. Not all changes or iterations are value adding or an improvement. Some are a decided step back. However, that is also part of the refinement process, as are leaps forward, back, sideways, and going right back to basics and the generic story structure. Watching it play out is kind of like seeing history in motion even if the vast majority of it will swiftly be forgotten.
Reason Three: Playing With Audience Expectations
When an audience is kept totally on edge by being presented with something they aren’t familiar with or comfortable with, it is difficult to really manipulate their emotions. They are always at full awareness and so the basic narrative patterns where rising to an emotional climax is kind of supposed to kick in, just can’t. Not to mention a lot of people just don’t feel relaxed and comfortable watching something that is truly experimental or defying standard story models.
But when you introduce a trite set-up for a story we’ve seen before with characters we are familiar with that is when you have room to play. You can introduce an element or two that are a bit different from the expected or take that sub-plot in a direction we didn’t see coming. Wadded in amongst the pillowy comfort of a narrative we’ve seen before, the audience feels secure with minor variations – depending of course on what they are.
Madoka Magica used this to solid advantage by having a magical girl anime where the main character didn’t become a magical girl until the end. For all that people point to the death and darkness as the part of Madoka that was different, I found even Sailor Moon has some pretty dark themes under all the sparkles. Madoka’s true subversion was in not having the main character make a decision or a transformation until the very end of the series. However, with so many other familiar magical girl tropes this element didn’t feel jarring to audiences.
Then again, Zenitsu from Demon Slayer is a character who kind of plays with our expectations, exaggerates the cowardly hero trope to extreme levels, and still manages to give him some majorly impressive moments in some real pinches, and yet that character rubbed me wrong from start to finish. However, he really did divide audiences. Some loved him, some hated him, but everyone who watched Demon Slayer certainly remembered him. He really made an impact.
Should We Strive For Originality
Or Are Repeats Just Fine?
In truth, only the individual can answer this question for themselves. I love an old story told in a new way, seeing a pattern I know played out much the same, played with some slight variations, or just kind of played around with even if the end result is pretty messy and ultimately doesn’t work. However, this is my preference and I’ll happily keep watching isekai stories as they come out, loving some, dropping others, and tolerating the mass of mediocre titles that just coast along on the success of the few that grab the crowd.
But regardless of whether you like repeats or not, a story isn’t bad because it is similar to another. Certainly it may be weaker in other elements or maybe you won’t personally enjoy it as much because you are looking for something different, but those fans who like it, for what it is, genuinely do like it and should celebrate what they like about it.
Though, Kapodaco did make some very good points about predictability, companies just playing it safe, and the death of interest.
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