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.
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.
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.
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.
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?