Anime and the Originality Paradox

Zetsubou_DEEP

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.

Aikatsu!

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.

I think you're giving them too much credit.

I think you’re giving them too much credit.

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.

If you still wanted to infer that originality exists in other forms of media...

If you still wanted to infer that originality exists in other media…

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.

DECONSTRUCTION

DECONSTRUCTION

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13 responses to “Anime and the Originality Paradox

  1. I AGREE.

    I wouldn’t say originality is dead or anything because people have been saying that for-fucking-ever and new ideas do occasionally show up, but I would say that that shouldn’t factor into how one judges something. At all. A well-executed yet familiar story is generally worth far more than its opposite: a story that might hit you over the head with some new and shiny gimmick, but has to grasp at unsound plot devices to accomplish it. That’s not to say either side is fundamentally better, as cliches can be a deterrent when they feel lazy (and, quite often, they do), but at the end of the day, Good Things Are Good, regardless of “originality”.

    So yeah, here’s a comment essentially reiterating some things you said.

    • Originality isn’t dead, but it’s becoming a rarity, and when it does surface, may just be old ideas/techniques given form in a different cultural context. Either way, judging via execution is a much fairer way to go in my mind as it helps eliminate some biases. That being said, I do value innovative approaches as much as the next guy, but they’re certainly not the decisive factor in defining quality.

  2. While I agree with the main point of this article (namely that criticism should be about what something does rather than for what it isn’t) it does seem to be based off a faulty premise, as if you haven’t fully thought through your logic. Yes, you are right in saying that the perception of originality is more important than the concept itself, but you also said that originality is dying, which implies that originality is something that existed only in the past. This basically ignores the entire premise of modernism – which signifies an upheaval of the past. In truth, all works are derivative because they are drawn from the influences of the environment they were made in. If originality doesn’t exist now, it never existed back then either.

    The rest of your post is fine and I agreed with it. It’s true that as fans and even as critics we tend to latch onto rather gimmicky storytelling for the sake of novelty. Your analogy with Kokoro Connect was extremely fitting. There’s a good cautionary message in this: we shouldn’t let such ideas of originality shroud our understanding of a story. I doubt KC will be remembered in years to come for its sparkling originality.

    • Well, if we wanted to get really technical, then there likely was a point a few millenniums ago (think ancient mythology) where certain story concepts were considered new or original. That said, I’d agree that modernism is a better way of phrasing it in our current context.

      My concern with titles like Kokoro Connect that were well-received due to their gimmicks is the influence they may have on future products. As we both know, once something catches on, there’s a good chance works of a similar nature will begin trending. It doesn’t even matter how long people remember a single one for, as the initial market demand is enough to keep the fire going. I doubt many people reminisce about all the OreImo clones months after they’ve aired, but the fact of the matter is, the continuous pool of them perpetuates said trend.

      I definitely agree that the concept of originality should not play into our understanding or appreciation of a story, even if we’ve previously seen works of a similar nature. I feel judging via execution is a fairer method, but everyone’s mileage will vary.

  3. I spy a show which combines so many things it must be gimmicks!

    1. Steals from Mahou Shoujo.
    2. Steals from Idolmaster.
    3. Steals from silly slice of life, especially the K-ON!-inspired display of FOOD.
    4. Oh, and steals CGI ideas from both the waifu simulator, no, Idol games and so obviously a certain Mahou Shoujo franchise.

    Is it even possible to steal so many ideas that if they are all mixed up well, it essentially becomes “original”? Original or not, the said show in my mind definitely does a decent job at execution and targeting a certain (non-otaku) market. Well, some adult anime watchers like it too. :3

    • “Is it even possible to steal so many ideas that if they are all mixed up well, it essentially becomes “original”?”

      Haha, well maybe not completely “original”, as I’ve explained in my post why I don’t feel that truly exists. That said, many successful authors and directors have fused elements from different genres together to create a distinctive style of their own. Works such as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure pay homage to tons of outrageous B-list tropes such as ancient gods and CYBER NAZIS. While one could argue that this is ripping off, I feel that it is still something worth commending, if one feels the work’s stylistic merits meshed well.

      Oh, there’s no question Aikatsu is nothing special if we were to compare it to the mountains of other kiddie aidoru anime. Thankfully, the show rarely tries to be anything it’s not, and as a result does a good job with its silly humour and entertaining cast.

  4. This is my first time reading one of your posts and it’s very insightful =) I’ve written a post or two about cliches and originality in anime before, and I basically agree with the idea that fundamentally most anime is not original. Therefore, what I look for in anime is whether it can take tried and familiar premises and character archetypes and do something memorable with them. And if even it can’t bring anything unique to its genre, if it’s well written with likable characters and an engaging story, that suffices as well. As you mentioned, one should be wary to immediately praise an anime that seems unique, whether it’s because of just one little tweak it its premise (Kokoro Connect was a good example) or if its style alone is simply avant-garde (Bakemonogatari for example). I liked Kokoro Connect for the body-swapping idea, but I also looked at its other elements such as story and characterization, which were not that well written. So that ultimately hurt my overall rating of it.

    In the end, originality is a bit overrated to me, especially in terms of anime. I just want to see well written stories and good characters that appeal to my tastes, regardless of whether the overall premise is something that’s been done before or not.

    • It can be tough at times for even an experienced viewer to get all wound up by a premise, stylistic element or even the themes/messages that a work is attempting to convey. What’s most important is just taking that step back at times so we don’t make a hasty judgement by not taking other elements into account.

      I was actually thinking of touching upon Bakemonogatari in my post, since that’s a good example of something that took the anime community by storm when it first aired. However, unlike Kokoro Connect, Bake’s theatrical presentation style wasn’t the only thing it had going for it, as Nisio Isin’s clever writing and the character dialogue resulted in a very well-rounded, creative work. That being said, the fact that quite a few people are losing interest in Second Second leads me to believe that most audiences were just sold on its style. Ideally, the effortless fusion of style and substance is what I feel creates a memorable work, and I sometimes wish more people would take both into account.

      Anyhow, glad you enjoyed the read and I found your thoughts on this matter quite interesting!

  5. I think it’s best to release an original anime once in a while. Something like Serial Experiments Lain, for me, would be best put out sparingly and not on a regular basis, that way it would make the originality of the show more impacting to see. For what anime is worth these days, I’m fine with studios churning out RomComs or whatever is popular these days as long as they provide any kind of substance that makes the experience worth while to go through.

    • As much as I love Lain, a lot of its cultural impact had to do with how relevant it was at the turn of the new millennium. The technophobia was much more prominent with the Y2K scare lingering in the back of people’s minds, whereas nowadays there isn’t the same level of fear surrounding computers and the web. That’s not to say I still wouldn’t value Lain highly, as its powerful themes of isolation coupled with the immaculate direction deserve just as much praise now as then.

      The quality of anime in this decade is certainly a different bag, though I’d agree with you that so long as they’re able to provide some substance (either through the narrative or presentation style) it’s generally fine. The problem is that most of them don’t, due to a combination of amateur writing and trying to be something they’re not (hi Kokoro Connect).

  6. Well, that is a subjective statement that most anime entertainment don’t hold statement since you haven’t watched every show that came out in each season. It’s more half an half that have substance. Hataraku Maou-sama and Hentai Ouji have both been the most highly enjoyable comedies of the year for me and there are numerous other that are pretty good or decent so it just depends on what you look for for entertainment purposes. I bet you’d have a different opinion if there were more precure shows, though I heard Doki Doki Precure kind of blows. 😛

    • Let’s be realistic here, who is going to pick up every single airing show just so they can say with utmost certainty that a lot of stuff lacks substance? The closest I got to that was watching 20+ shows each season during 2012, which was enough to get a good indication of what direction the industry was headed. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by a bunch of shows this year such as Uchouten Kazoku and Kyousougiga, so there’s still hope.

      And yeah, DokiDoki Precure is pretty bad by the franchise’s standards. Toei is making up for it though with Kyousougiga and hopefully Toei Robot Girls Z, Sailor Moon remake and Happiness Charge Precure next year.