In Anime, Is Genre the Message?

There’s a moderately famous dictum that goes “the medium is the message”. Maybe it’s only moderately famous here? It’s credited to Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. We Canadians love to talk about other Canadians. It’s a thing, hey.

Canada.full.2297270

accurate!

In very distilled (possibly misunderstood) form, that expression means that the medium itself rather than its content is what has the most influence in society. The form of delivery of a message will affect its reception and interpretation to a point where it becomes more important than the message it carries. The content is not completely irrelevant but it’s just an element in the whole, one that can be manipulated to suit one’s needs. It’s a theory that has a lot going for it. I think most PR firms will tell you there’s at least some degree of truth in it.

I was wondering if we can bring it down to a slightly more granular level and say that in anime “genre is the message”.

Genres in fiction is generally defined by literary or narrative technique, tone and content. But in anime, I think it goes a step further. Content expands beyond just plot elements to also include tropes and character archetypes. Tone also affects voice actor delivery, colour palettes and visual atmosphere. I would say narrative technique may go as far as to encompass art style. You could argue that the same goes for cinema and this is simply an adaptation of the concept of literary genres for a visual medium. You would be right. In my experience however, anime has brought the fine art of categorizing storytelling to the next level.

When I say Anime, I may may just mean anime fans. Because there are so many clearly defined popular genres (more than in live action tv for instance), and because fans can often be very protective of one genre or dismissive of another, the distinction have become more ingrained in the way we view anime.

anbime all watching tv

they love historical isekai shonen bl(?)

I will often point out an element I felt didn’t work in a show and have a reader explain that it’s just a trope of the genre, implying I should simply accept it because of that. In fact, I have done the same myself. But just because something is associated with a particular genre, doesn’t mean you can just throw it in and call it a day.

I have written a bit about the harem genre bias. In that post I gave examples of shows with a male main character surrounded by several women who had feelings for him and those feelings are a recurring and significant plot point. And boy did you guys let me have it. I don’t know how many times I was told that Steins;Gate is most definitely not a harem! I’m not going to argue with you. I learned that lesson. But the reasons that it was not a harem for some where interesting. It’s a seriousish piece of science fiction was one. The lack of Ecchi was another. The fact that the main character did exhibit some harem tropes but was more complex or nuanced than a harem protag. So on.

The actual genre and merits of Steins;Gate completely aside, it did show me that “harem” had so many associations for anime fans that the idea of a series falling into the genre changed the way they considered it.

Something else I’ve noticed is the use of fanservice. I’ve seen two shows aimed at the same group age airing at similar times with equivalent amounts of fanservice (both in gratuitousness and level of exposure). Yet one has fans relatively outraged while it doesn’t seem to even register for the other. This happens so often that I’ve given up on figuring out what the variables are. I have a feeling that genre plays a pretty big role in that too.

best fan service

oohhh yeah!!!

For better or for worse, anime (and the community) has created a whole lot of expectations and preconceptions based on genre. Like I said, it works on me as well. I tend to pick up certain genres first because I know that they generally employ tropes I enjoy and prioritize narrative elements I find interesting. And it’s normal to have expectations. If you really want to see a murder mystery with some sexy ladies for spice, you’re likely not going to pick up a sports anime.

For the industry itself though, it can be somewhat of a double edged sword. (Why would you want a single edged sword? I looked it up, katanas are single edged and they’re cool, I take my question back.)

On the one hand, advertising a show as clearly belonging to a particular genre is a good way to get the attentions of fans of the genre. Because we are a “passionate” lot, there are in fact fans that will watch just about any series that comes out associated with their preferred genre simply on principle. That’s not something many art forms have access to. On the other hand, detractors of genres will stay away from anime also on principle. BL and Sports get a lot of that, although moe has its fair share as well as the now infamous harem.

And sometimes it’s completely unjustified as the series really doesn’t have many elements of the genre at all.

Dr Stone ep6-1 (6)

hmmm, should kids be seeing this?

I might be the only person who finds this interesting, but I find it very very interesting. Since I started “writing” and mostly reading a lot of reviews, I have started seeing how some things which I would have thought to be objective or at least consistent, vary a lot from reviewer to reviewer and even post to post. Very often, the variable is genre. We expect characters to be more developed for some type of stories while I’ve often seen reviewers put more emphasis on relatability or congeniality for slice of life shows.

Drab colours are more o.k. in dramas (maybe cause they seem more realistic?) than in action shows. Dialogue changes in quality a lot from psychological thriller to dramatic romance. I have so many tucked away prejudices that I’m not even fully aware of and so I can’t even fully tell if they’re affecting my viewing experience. (But I bet they are!)

And really that’s all I was thinking about. How the anime community’s persistent use to genre classification, coupled with the wide ranging genre associations have given the abstract notion of “genre” the power to affect our perception. Of course not all fans have preconceptions or even care in any way about genres just like the media isn’t always the message. It is an interesting social phenomenon though.

Are you one of those people who gets swayed by genre? Do you have a favourite one? Do you have the same expectations and standards for all shows?

little devil Rini

I like supernatural anime!

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

You may also like...

22 Responses

  1. Kapodaco says:

    “Do you have the same expectations and standards for all shows?”

    PFFFFFFFFFFF! Who is this perfect human being? I would like to meet them! Is it even human?!

  2. Genre is a good flag to indicate you’ll like X show, but it may not end up adequately 100% describing X show in your eyes once you’re done. For instance, I never once saw Land of the Lustrous as a mystery anime and yet it has that genre on AL.

    I’ve expressed a preference for quite a few genres (or subgenres), such as comedy, action, magical girl shows and superhero shows (which magical girl warriors can be said to be a subgenre of).

    There’s no way you’ll have zero expectations going into any anime – there’s a reason you picked it up, based on your life experiences and dealings with past anime/other similar media, so there’s no way you can have the same standards for every anime, even if that’s on a subconscious level. (Then again, I am trying to open my horizons to new genres I used to not touch at all right now…)

  3. A Library Archivist says:

    “The medium is the message” is by Marshall McLuhan from back in the early 1970’s. He was a communications guru cult leader bull5h17 artist who sold a lot of books but on review was talking complete nonsense. Back in the 70’s it was all BS artists in academia. There was no intelligence in the intelligentsia, not even here in the West. Or New York City.

    I get your point though. Genres do affect expectations. Some shows, however, should be watched because they are pretty. Some very frantic shows which don’t follow their genre are classics today because their madness just worked. Cowboy Bebop was bounty hunters in space. It was mad, frantic, beautiful and sometimes poignant. Love Chuunibyo and Other Delusions is technically a school romance, but its actually about the difficulties of caring for someone with mental illness, and has beautiful art and funny characters. Its a masterpiece, but its not typical for its genre. Toradora is a school romance but also a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac in a Japanese style with a happier ending. Its not a traditional romance story, and its not exactly Cyrano either. Its a school romantic comedy about the difficulties of parents and being judged for your appearance rather than your character, itself why I realized this was Cyrano after all. I blame Steve Martin’s Roxanne for that awareness. Demon Hunters Sister In A Box and Fire Devils Barefoot are both pretty shows with stupid plots you’re happier ignoring. Just watch for the animation and turn off your brain. I don’t even care that isn’t the name of either show. They don’t matter. They’re pretty. I like the traditional pattern kimono in Sister Box, and the usual Japanese hashup of sexual nuns is pretty typical trope for them. The fire all over the place is pretty. They put some effort into their backgrounds too. Like Blood Blockade Battlefront or Princess Princess Steampunk Princess, they harken back to Heat Guy J, who was clearly an influence for all those creators.

  4. iniksbane says:

    So I’m still processing this. But I’m wondering if the point is that anime genres influence what we’ll accept from a show?

    If so, sure. But I think I wonder if that’s not true for all fiction. I will accept less realism from an action movie then I will from a drama.

    Or does it get more granular then that?

    • Irina says:

      I think fans if anime have created more genres than present in most media and attached a more expectations to them. I rarely see movie or tv buffs reacting protectively towards specific genres like anime fans do. Although this may be simply a limitation of personal experience.
      I do think genre influences expectations in all fiction as I mentionned but I wonder if that influence is stronger in anime.

      • iniksbane says:

        I think you do see it, but not around genres. I think you see it around properties. Just look at The Last Jedi, it’s critically acclaimed, but the whole movie is aimed at undercutting what fans love about Star Wars. So they reacted violently.

  5. Dawnstorm says:

    I’d say it’s a matter of framing. People make sense of the world in frames, and they aren’t always aware of how many frames they apply all at once. “The medium is the message,” has always felt to me like it ties into that.

    For example: “That’s a great anime.”

    The primary frame tells you the meaning. You communicate exactly what you mean to say. It is a great anime.

    But the inflection of your voice might suggest sarcasm: that’s a secondary frame. You mean the opposite of what you say.

    However, you secretly do think that it’s a great anime. There’s a tertiary frame here: you’re pretending to be sarcastic. And here you have two possibilities: you trie to hide the frame, or you give secret-handshake type signals as to the presence of the frame (i.e. “I’m pretending to be sarcastic, but if you’re one of us you understand”).

    This is getting pretty complicated to analyse, but in practise it’s actually nearly automatically parsed. So when you ask whether Steins;Gate is a harem or not you might come to different results depending on what frames you apply. The harem elements could turn off someone from the story if they want a SF story, but don’t like harems, and they might then say, if the context is why they drop the show, “Because it’s a harem.” But if someone were in the mood for a harem, they might wait too long for the harem elements to become prominent, and they’ll postpone the show “because it’s not a harem.” The wording sounds like it’s mutually exclusive, like people disagree. But the context suggests different expectations, and elements stand out differently. (Think of it as placing their cute little frames around different parts of the picture.) [Of course, Steins;Gate is good enough to draw in many people regardless, though people who like lots of genres and aren’t in a particular mood have a head-start, here.]

    Creators also know genre expectations matter, so we get first episodes like School Live or Kotoura san.

    And sometimes genre trends matter. When Hyouka first aired, I wasn’t too fond of it because I watched it as a mystery, and it followed on the heels of quite a few other shows, such as Gossick or Un-Go. It took almost an entire cour for me to shatter the preconceptions and realise what the show was really doing, and by end I quite liked the show, but I didn’t love it until the re-watch, now entirely with the new frame in mind. You suddenly see an extremely well-crafted coming-of-age story. I might have gotten the hang of this sooner, had I not detected a mystery trend and instinctively felt that the show was riding that wave. Bad instinct; obscured what’s great about a great show.

    So genre definitely has an effect on watching anime, for me. I’ve often gone back to watching a show because I started having doubts about my initial impression (for example, A Sister’s All You Need, which turned out not at all to be what I expected). And it’s not only genre; it’s also things like culture (a certain gag in Minami-ke, became much funnier once I understood what a teruterubozu is) or language (I first saw School Rumble in an English dub, and I can’t remember how I reacted to the portrayal of trauma as a tiger horse [“tora-uma” “torauma”]).

    There’s a lot going on here, and much of it is probably unconscious, only revealing itself when we run into problems, or when we change our minds about something.

    • Irina says:

      Fantastic insight. Getting lost in translation or adaptation is another pitfall of anime. One that I oddly enjoy although I’ve no idea why.

  6. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    I can certainly see genre as being a large part of the message. . .

  7. Dominic says:

    Fascinating piece with all your usual insight and humour. I used to pay a lot more attention to genre back when I first started writing about anime, but now I see it as more of a hindrance. In a wider context, genre tends to just be for marketing. But for the purposes of reviews, it is useful to have an understanding of genre conventions. I think of all my favourite anime and there’s a mix of slice of life, drama, sci-fi and so on. Genre doesn’t really matter compared to great stories and characters. Also, I loved seeing another ani-blogger name drop McLuhan in a piece 😉

    • Irina says:

      McLuhan isn’t really the most go to name in anime commentary but there you go. I can see what you mean about genre as a hindrance. I do hope fans can look beyond general labels.

  8. Lumi says:

    The best thing about making assumptions based on genre is that I’m either right or pleasantly surprised. Before I ever saw One Punch man, I thought it was a serious drama about a man who, despite all his power, can’t save everyone. This was ALL assumed because I saw a screenshot of Saitama in the rain with a hoodie on looking serious. I though “Wow, this looks like a brutal action anime with dark themes”. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was an action comedy.

  9. Pete Davison says:

    Genre can be a good starting point, but as marthaurion says above, it’s always best to try and take things on their own merits — if only because deconstructions and subversions of expectations are becoming increasingly popular things in their own right these days!

    I personally like it when something looks like one thing but ends up being something else. I’ll write more about this in my Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal pieces which are coming very soon, but that game does it wonderfully, combining 1) colourful, cheerful, fanservicey happy gay funtimes with big-boobed ninja girls with 2) some seriously dark shit from both their pasts and the challenges that are ahead of them. I love that kind of thing.

  10. I always try to keep an open mind with genre, becuase if there’s one thing that anime has taught me it’s that a good story can be found anywhere. Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have touched a slice of life or sports anime with a bargepole, but now some of my favourite shows fall under those genres.

    That being said I still have genre preconceptions that can either work in favour or against a show. Any time I see an isekai now my expectations immediately drop, but if that isekai manages to do something even mildly interesting then I’ll love it, even if rationally it’s only okay.

  11. marthaurion says:

    ive tended to pay less attention to genre as time goes on, since i think that they’re meant to be broad categorizations. it feels better if i take a series for what it is, rather than trying to impose any expectations on it. i personally dislike when people try to force genres to be too prescriptive, saying that a show has to have certain elements to be in a high-level genre. i have no problem with coming up with more specific categories, but it often goes too far

    • Irina says:

      To be honest I can hardly keep genres straight myself. Still I find that I do go into shows with different expectations. Still at the end of the day, a great anime is great regardless of category.

Leave me a comment and make my day!

%d bloggers like this: