I was always interested in the fine line between a medium or genre convention, that one is expected to accept as an inherent purpose of the story, and other, minor tropes.
It’s another part of the neverending objectivity/subjectivity debates: If you can successfully argue that your favourite story did what it did because that’s how things are done in that genre, that gives the story some kind of legitimacy, and the best thing the haters can say is “Well, then I don’t like this genre”, but if you don’t manage to make that claim, then they can still say that your story is just a failed deviation of the greater genre.
For example, you can always say, that “it’s OK that Star Wars is unscientific because it’s not a hard sci-fi, but a “Space Opera”, that is, by definition allowed to be unscientific”. Even though we usually treat phony science science as a bad thing, it looks like some shows are allowed to openly declare themselves to be unscientific, and get away with it, because it’s a whole genre. You are allowed to dislike the concept of Space opera, but you can’t just call Star Wars “a bad sci-fi because it’s unrealistic”, you have to accept that in itself, it’s unrealism is value neutral.
So, how about this one? It’s “OK for Guilty Crown to have a bland whimpy male lead, because it’s not a heroic epic fantasy, but a “Shana-clone genre” show, where the male lead is traditionally a bland, annoying whimp”. It doesn’t ring that well… But why? Isn’t it the same thing? From season to season, there are artists deciding that they are going to make yet another one of those fantasy action stories with a boring whimp as the protagonist. Even the name for them, “Shana-clone”, is starting to get popular on the net. Of course it’s still used as an insult instead of a value-neutral descriptor, but so was Space Opera, at one point, when along with Soap Opera and Horse Opera, they referred to shallow Sci-fi, shallow drama, and shallow Western, respectively.
If a magical girl show is allowed to have it’s typical transformation scene, or a superhero is expected to have his sidekick archetype, then who can say that an ecchi show’s typical panty shot, or a harem series’ osananajimi member, are just clichés resulting from the writers’ laziness either, that we need to get rid of, and not genre conventions that are expected to be there? What about the yonkoma-that-is-based-around-a-single-joke “genre”? or the shows-with-esoteric-asspull-ending “genre”? or the genderswapped-sengoku-series “genre”? Who can tell where is the line?
Only time can. Just as Space Opera somehow turned from an insult into a genre over the decades, maybe some of these will also turn into legitimate genre conventions, and we won’t even bat an eyelid, that many shows proudly use them. Then again, maybe they won’t. Just like Horse Opera didn’t grow up with it’s two companions: maybe audiences never bought the idea of the western genre used as a shallow setting. Or maybe there was only a limited amount of stories that could be told in it, while Space opera had more.
So, even if looking back at all the above examples that came to my mind suggests a rather worrying trend, that bad cliches are constantly getting legitimized as neutral subgenres, actually I think that this process has a positive effect on creativity. With time, the boring clichés get dropped out, while the interesting tropes, with the potential to tell hundreds of different stories, get legitimized, so they can actually focus on figuring out how to play them in the most entertaining way.
But all of the genres that I was talking about here, had a common point: They are all like big, overgrown tropes: Even the old, established ones, like sci-fi, or the superhero genre, are defined by how certain settings, character types, or plot points must happen in them. But there is also another, older way of categorizing genres, based on the emotional reaction that they are supposed to stir in the viewer. Laughing, depression, thrill, titillation, adoration, awe, horror, etc.
One would expect, that these are all inherently legitimate. After all, there is only a small number of basic, defined emotions, and obviously fiction always tried to exploit them.
Yet, we can see a constantly increasing number of them here as well. Ancient theatre only recgnized two basic genres, tragedy and comedy. Romance appeared later, with the format of novels. Horror came in the 18th century. Genres that rely on moment to moment tension and excitement, such as action, or thriller, didn’t really get recognized until they were made in movies, even if now we also duplicate them on paper. Titillation, with pornography and other “ecchi” genres, got recognized only after the sexual revolution. Of course they existed before, but there is a big difference between just putting some tits into some of the low-class entertainment, and openly recognizing it as a genre, that has it’s own goals, and that has to be done well, the same way as coedy needs to be actually funny, or horror needs to be actually scary, sex needs to be actually titillating.
Probably because it’s such a recent genre, the implications still didn’t fully reach our consciousness. “Sex sells”, says the folk wisdom, not “attractiveness sells”. Sex is something that is either there or it isn’t, but we try not to overanalyze how attractive it is. If there is an ecchi anime at the top of the sales list, we still think of it as if it was “cheating”, because it was just throwing in some nudity, instead of focusing on quality. The same accusation wouldn’t work against more established genres. No one says that a successful comedy was cheating because it was “just throwing in some jokes”, or that an action/fighting series was cheating because it was “just tense and exciting”.
Yet with sexuality, every time there is an outstandingly popular ecchi series, like Nisemonogatari in the past season, or Lupin III in this one, there is a confused flock of bloggers arguing whether or not these are “ecchi done right”, or if the ones making the former claim are weeaboos trying to justify their perverted animu. Some of the creators themselves don’t seem to be able to grab the difference, and insist on adding the most formulatic panty shots and bathing scenes to their show, apparently putting their faith in the simplified “sex sells” wisdom. (it usually doesn’t work).
There is also one more emotion-genre in anime, that is even newer than that, and even less legitimized.
With moe shows, even when one does get surprisingly popular, you can hardly see any comments admitting or challenging that fact, just a resigned acknowledgement that it is yet another moe show, but this one has a surprisingly large fandom. As if certain moe pandering would just randomly get a hundred times more successful than another, without any difference between them.
These genres can’t get legitimized soon enough. Not because I want to see more ecchi shows and moe shows, but because I want less clueless shows that don’t even consider doing their job well, because they don’t even know that they have a job other than using a series of clichés. If moe shows would recognize “trying to evoke as much adoration as possible”, instead of “try using these exact visuals and dialogue, these always evoke adoration”, it could be an actual genre that could constantly improve itself.