A few years ago, when I already knew enough english to start participating in real discussions with native speakers, I started to notice an interesting quirk of the language: people using the phrase “literally” in front of figures of speech. After double-checking my dictionary to make sure that it really means what I think it means, I concluded that it must be a really difficult word to remember, and smugly congratulated to myself for noticing it even in spite of that, and for having a better grasp of english vocabulary than many native speakers.
Except that soon after that, I started to notice that people around me, myself included, are kind of doing the same in my own native Hungarian, with our own figures of speech. For example, I say “[the words literally froze into me]” when I am so shocked that I couldn’t say anything, or “[these pigeons are literally getting more eyeless from day to day]”, where “eyeless” is an idiom for “bold”, “brash”, or “cheeky”.
It looks like people aren’t really having a problem with remembering what “literally” means. When someone says that their large-scale movie is “literally a blockbuster”, they truly mean to say that it’s not just an exaggerated praise for a medium scale movie, but it’s a real large scale movie. They just fail to remember that “blockbuster” is supposed to be more than a synonym of that, it’s also a figure of speech comparing movies to bombs. To me, it is easier, because I learned to meaning of “block” and “buster” long before first hearing “blockbuster” being used about movies. On the other hand, saying that bold pigeons are “[eyeless]”, is the most normal thing to me, it’s the primary usage of the phrase in Hungarian, and I have to think hard to even remember that it originally had something to do with actual eyes. And it’s the other way around with you. You might find “blockbuster” to be a word that means “big movie” by default, and it’s old meaning is only an obscure etymological trivia, while calling something [eyeless] would instantly give you a very grotesque mental image.
Strangely, it looks like someone who only heard a word a few times, for example a foreigner, can be more reflective about finding idiom’s original building blocks, than an experienced speaker who instantly jumps to thinking about the intended message of the phrase, and doesn’t need to stop thinking about the smaller elements.
So, you ask why am I talking about Hungarian idioms, and about linguistic theories, on an anime blog?
Let’s try to make an analogy with the above thoughts. Or rather, an analogy has already been made: These figures of speech, metaphors, idioms, phrase turns, that I was talking about, are known together as “literary tropes”. And a few years ago, some people on the Internet started to apply the concept behind them to the larger system of storytelling, and created the concept of “media tropes”, as an analogy that works by the same principle, but also includes visual symbols, plot types, characters, music, etc.
So let’s use this analogy that has already been made for us, to connect the dots: Just like there is something in the literary tropes of a language that makes them stand out for beginner speakers,while they blend into their surroundings for more experienced ones, maybe the media tropes of different cultures are also standing out more for foreigners who didn’t grow up with them. In other words, this is a “Why Do Anime Fans Keep Bitching About Clichés And Originality Like No Other Audience” post. Why is it, that every single anime viewer feels obliged to give titles to scenes, subgenres, and character archetypes, that in any other medium, only the most OCD-ridden tropers would bother categorizing, and everyone else would shrug off as a self-evident genre convention? Why is it that by the third time we see something, it is aready called a “cliché?”
Which of these two is more likely to be picked up by viewers, as a visual trope? The floating pink heart shape symbolizing love, or The Nosebleed, symbolizing arousal? Technically, they are used exactly the same way. Yet, there is something about the Nosebleed’s foreignness, that brings attention to it. Just look at it’s name! Even the fact that it has a name! “The Nosebleed”. Like “The Cold Open”, or “The Pan-up”, as if we would need special jargon for it. Why is there no similar name for the other one? Like “The Loveheart” or “The Floating Lovesymbol”?
It looks like the fact that we have truly Seen It A Million Times while growing up, turned the heart symbol into such a self-evidently present thing, that we don’t have anything to say about it. Meanwhile, we may have seen The Nosebleed maybe a few dozen times over the few hundred anime that we watched, and it still seems to be a much more noticeable trope, to the point of being called an overused cliché.
The same can be applied to many similar anime tropes. For example, Panty Shots: Are they really all that excessively smutty, or it’s just strange that Japan puts emphasis on that specific clothing element?
Or there is “Yuuji Everylead the Bland”: Is he really more bland than all the other heroic protagonists in stories who don’t have any extremely quirky attributes (John McClane, Frodo, Harry Potter, Superman, James T. Kirk), or he is just more noticeable because we are baffled by the fact that that Japan, a high school student fills that role?
In a way, it would be pretty ironic if really this would be behind it: If we are so fed up with these “clichés”, that’s only because we haven’t seen enough of them yet.