A doylist view of romantic anime

With Ano Natsu de Matteru being the only relatively serious romance-based story in this season, multiple people started to use it as a starting point to write about their view on the genre in general, that often slipped into comparisons to romance in real life, or the difficulties of identifying with the setup . It’s not very hard to see why this path of thinking is so common.  There  is something about the romance genre, that increases the audience’s expectations of realism, and the necessity of self-insertion. It’s easy to suspend our disbelief about the physical rules of a world being unrealistic, or even if it’s rules of logic are unrealistic. But human emotions are something different, they are expected to be perfectly believeable, or the story fails at being “real” enough.


These two sets of expectations are based on the Watsonian and Doylist perspectives. The phrase originates from the Sherlock Holmes fandom, and refers to the two different attitudes, that “The written events were essentially real, and they were collected by Dr. Watson” and that “These stories are works of fiction, created by Arthur Conan Doyle”. While obviously the latter is the historical truth, both attitudes are necessary parts of interpreting a story. The phenomena that I described above, is a strong watsonian element. For example, contemplating that most high school romances fail sooner or later, so most of these anime protagonists “will eventually break up”, already contains a subconscious assumption that the characters “really exist”, and the anime is just telling a part of their life. A 100% doylist would refuse the entire assumption, with the statement  that the characters only existed inside the story to begin with, they are not real people, so they can’t break up without it being told in another story.

From this alone, it could seem like the whole idea of  a “doylist perspective” is just some buzkill cynics’ excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun of getting into the show, but overall, this thinking is just as natural in certain parts of art analysis, as the other one. For example, a  heavily symbolic story simply can’t be discussed without frequently bringing up what “the author wanted to signify with that scene”. You can’t meaningfully review Mawaru Penguindrum, as if it would be only a record from the lives of three kids living  together. You also need to admit things that make absolutely no sense from a 100% watsonian point of view, such as how the “apples” mean “love”, or how a certain scene’s execution is intended to evoke a certain emotion.

And how does the romance genre come into this picture? At least in Anime, romance is probably the most trope-heavy, (or if you will, the most formulatic) genre. Whether we are talking about harems, or more complicated Love Dodecahedron situations, romantic anime is ridiculously filled with “rules”, to the point that it almost sounds like a horse race, where, you can bet on one of the racers depending on her basic character archetype, the time of her first appearance, her size of boobs, and even her position in the OP compared to the male lead.

Pictured: True Love

I’m trying not to sound too cynical. As I said in my introduction post, I don’t think that tropes are bad. They can be presented in boring, predictable ways, but by default, they are just… symbols.

And that’s where doylism meets romance. In anime, romance is actually the most symbol-heavy genre. All these body types, character-establishing shots, stock scenery, etc, are (narrative) tropes in the same way as the metaphors,  metonyms, allegories, etc, are the (literary) tropes of poetry. With poetry, and some other genres, it’s obvious that the atmosphere that the writer wanted to convey, or that the way the words were put after each other, is the main attraction, and the actual events described are secondary, so they are supposed to be appreciated from  mostly doylist point. But for some reason, romantic anime is usually judged on the same level as action-adventure stories, through a watsonian make-believe view.

Why?

Well, first of all, there is the obvious fact, that romcoms, especially harems, are looked down, as  “not true art”, dumb commercial products that are just pandering to consumers, so comparing their execution to poetry, or even to abstract anime series, that are generally considered “smart” media, sounds like faggotry on a level that the world has never seen before.  But this is mostly just a stereotype. According to Sturgeon’s law, most poetry is still shit, and most abstract anime is still shit. A doylist attitude just sets a different list of expectations, but these are not necessarily lower.

Second, there is the issue of cultural differences. In the west, romance is usually seen as a very non-nerdy, “casual” genre, for people like average housewives, or teenage girls, who are not experts of any artistic conventions, or author messages, just want some quick, accessibly realistic escapism without having to learn the rules of a new world.  But in Japan, the target audiences of romantic anime are the nerdiest of them all. The kind of people who proudly declare that they are “not interested in 3D”. The very fact that it’s 2D animated, instead of photorealistic, is a sign that it’s expected to be attractive in it’s own way, and not by accurately reflecting reality. And that method of visually making things attractive, is extended to making stories as attractive works, without making them realistically believeable.

I don’t know, maybe for those people, these styles are already seen as entirely natural, but at least for me, the easiest way to enjoy them, is to add a bit of extra doylism to my expectations, and see it as a “What creative methods will they combine now, and how?” story, instead of an “Imagine if this could happen!” story.

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One response to “A doylist view of romantic anime

  1. But most people like a tiny touch of realism in romance stories, the tropes approach is mostly authors battling a losing war with their internal fanboy. People who recognise and appreciate symbols aren’t the end all be all of creativity and fandom, and fanboys running the show in Japan don’t seem to acknowledge or care about this. This back and forth usually stops when one side realizes animation isn’t as marketable as live action out of reasons you state. But I think even realism can be taken as a symbol, especially if you take into account how anime fans reacted to ToraDora and NatsuMachi. Which begs the question why don’t creators go for more of that? Anime fans seem to appreciate it.

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