The concept of originality is a tricky one as there isn’t a single universal definition. If we were to look at originality as it pertains to fictional media at our current juncture in time, it would definitely be facing a mid-life crisis.
Actually, I take that back. With or without senior discounts, originality is nearing the end of its lifespan. Whether one decides to believe it or not, there are only a finite number of plotlines, twists and outcomes in existence. While our ever-changing cultural landscape directly influences the ebb and flow of specific story elements (such as characteristics of the setting or characters), the bottom line is: it’s all been done before. Try as they might, writers are not going to magically create new story concepts off the top of their head. Rather, they are more likely to be influenced by previous works and apply the tried and true within their own cultural setting. For instance, a pre-millennial anime such as Serial Experiments Lain could be re-applied in our current day and age and still convey a story of an individual’s disconnect with reality (okay, maybe that wasn’t the best example, since Lain is an odd one to tackle, but hopefully you get the point I’m making). In short, universal originality is a rarity, as someone down the line somewhere has already tackled a similar story concept.
With all that said, I tend to feel as though it’s much simpler to define originality on an individual basis as opposed to a vague global scale. In this case, originality is ultimately relative to how much of a particular medium a single person has experienced. This stands to reason, as a viewer who has only seen or read a small handful of titles may be more impressed by stuff that adopt a different narrative or visual style from what they are accustomed to. Said works may not even be attempting to be unconventional or innovative, rather, the initial sensation of experiencing something new or foreign can positively or negatively alter one’s perception. For the purpose of this article though, I’ll just focus on how relative originality can impact one’s opinion on more recent anime.
As a direct result of Japan’s economy, the anime industry has shifted towards a “low risk, high reward” model in more recent years. Coupled with the large cost of producing animation, studios have opted for generating material that will generally sell well with the primary otaku market. But with that comes a rather bleak reality for some. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that there’s been an abundance of harem, moe, mecha and self-insert power fantasies littering the tellies over the last year or so. Though there will always be audiences who enjoy these types of shows for what they are (and there is nothing wrong with that if one choses to do so), the reality is that a lot of titles are safe by concept and just aren’t written all that well. This is because the reward of market demand generally outweighs the risk of producing something that won’t be an instant hit with the target audience. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few gems here and there which achieve both, but by and large, we’re looking at a very homogenized pool of anime that continuously recycles itself far past its expiration date.
As audiences are consistently fed the same dish over and over, it either reinforces complacency or causes people to long for something slightly different from the norm. However, the problem is that with the bar for innovation at a low, it doesn’t take much for a writer to give the illusion of originality within the current industry. What this means is that an author could take any generic Light Novel or rom-com premise, give the main girl ESP powers and call it a day – and they are! To make matters worse, a lot of these one-trick ponies become green lit and are praised by fans for their “unique” premises, despite the fact that they are riding on a superficial gimmick.
For instance, a show such as Kokoro Connect received a lot of praise for its body-swapping shenanigans, which many felt differentiated it from the ilk of its rom-com brethren. Although I would strongly argue that the show failed to use this construct to achieve anything meaningful (beyond acting as a plot device for horribly scripted melodrama), it was still met with a positive reception (Silver Link scandals aside). This isn’t to say Kokoro Connect was loved unanimously, but by in large the failure to develop the supernatural element past the initial premise was not a huge issue for many audiences. While it could just be that I’m no longer able to stomach forced teenage melodrama, something can be said about the inability to analyze all elements of a work.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling bedazzled by what appears to be an original premise, it is important to keep in mind other aspects of fictional media. At times, this initial perception may cloud one’s better judgement, causing an otherwise attentive viewer to overlook flaws such as plot holes or shoddy characterization. Remember, a premise is only one component of the story, and especially in the case of anime where production schedules are tight, it’s fairly easy for a good apple to quickly turn sour.
So is there a simple answer to all of this? Not exactly, as the criteria for rating our beloved Chinese cartoons differs on a person to person basis. The main thing to keep in mind is to look beyond a work’s initial “wow” factor, as this can sometimes cause one to fall into a twisted sense of reasoning. When one feels that a work is good only if it unconventional, they will tend to discredit anything that isn’t. Oddly enough, this is more apparent with crowds who have seen a large amount of anime as their standards can become much narrower (I’ll admit I’m guilty of this at times). Nevertheless, it is still an error in judgment wrapped around the illusion of originality.
A work that does not break the boundaries of cinematography/animation or expand upon the knowledge of the human mind is not automatically worse off than one that does. Far too often, people will criticize a piece of fiction for what it didn’t rather than what it did. If the story was still able to convey a beautiful message, had realistic characters and effective cinematography, then those aspects should be praised irrespective of whether or not it was ground breaking. This frustrates me to no end when I see anime fans complain about more traditional magical girl shows because they didn’t do anything different from the norm. Just because “originality” wasn’t present in the form of a bunch of prepubescent girls getting slaughtered, falling back on genre conventions does not prevent the work from standing on its own merits. In fact, conventions only came about due to their successful usage over time; as they say, tried and true.
In closing, the concept of originality is a paradox of sorts: what is considered original really isn’t original anymore. As such, it’s ultimately relative to our own experiences and knowledge, which can indirectly affect our perception. Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it never hurts to look at the bigger picture of what we are viewing rather than a premise or single concept being presented.