K, and the dangers of originality

It is common, both in the anime fandom, and in other media fandoms, to use phrases such as “originality”, “innovation”,  as synonyms of “good”, while dismissing all “formula”, and “trope” and “cliché” as signs of being bad.

Then again, it is also common, to argue against that, and claim that there is nothing truly original in the world, and it is the execution that matters, not that it is comparable to the things before it. In my experience, that argument usually takes a back seat, and normally only brought up as an excuse for why the speaker’s favorite show still happens to take place in a high school, or involve a mysterious girl dropping into a boy’s life.  But in principle, we all seem to agree, that the more innovation the better, and the more clichés the worse. So what’s behind this?

The way I see it, we all like to be surprised by the stories that we watch, but at the same time, to be surprising, every story needs to build from pre-existing expectations. We sometimes dismiss a show like Accel World or Sankarea with the claim that they are unoriginal, because they are so predictably following their genre conventions, that  you can pretty much tell how the characters will behave based on their hair color, and when starting an episode, have the unshakable feeling that the last scene will end with the protagonist shouting “Eeeehh???” while a girl moves in with him. They fail at surprising you so spectacularly, that you might as well be watching another show for the second or third time, and that would be just as exciting.

Then we have a show like K. Everyone can see that it’s original, even the first few scenes tell that much:

Look at this In Medias Res opening, with characters talking about some mysteriously elaborate setting! Behold the extreme lack of imoutos waking up ordinary teenage boys in their bed! Marvel at the glory of the character designs not being similar to K-on!

And so here we are, staring at the Original Anime in awe, and feeling obliged to say something about it. Of course, it doesn’t have to be positive, we are not sheeple after all, we can all read all the other opinions first and then construct a comfortably controversial counterpoint: The costumes are silly, the color filter and the fisheye effect is pretentious, the plot is confusing…   But hey, it’s original! So why is there this nagging feeling that it will be the next Guilty Crown? Well, if you think about it, Guily Crown was an original anime too. Even what seemed to be stereotypes at first, like Inori being a typical bland love interest, or Shou being a bland Nice Guy,  were subverted later. The criticism that it got, and it’s infamy as a “trainwreck”, came exactly from how nonsensical it was. Dead characters suddenly reappearing, murmuring some made-up words and then pulling a magical ability out of their ass, personalities quickly shifting between good and evil, etc. In other words, the criticism came from how unpredictable it was. How original it was.

Because at this level, when a whole series can be described as being “original”, it means the same as being “nonsense”. And that’s what K signed up to. That there is no comfortable foothold to stand on, that the show won’t just subvert your exectations about a genre, but it will ignore them to make  a point about not being cliché. Lots of made-up words will be uttered, magic will be used that won’t look like magic from another show, and characters won’t behave as you would expect characters to behave.

Compared to that chasing of an “original story”, or macro-originality, I’m much more interested in a sort of micro-originality,  when only the scenes are original enough that they keep my attention. When I might recognize the genre, the basic character archetypes, and the setting, but the individual scenes are interesting enough to keep my attention anyways.

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4 responses to “K, and the dangers of originality

  1. Interesting points about K and the idea of originality in general. I think it’s kind of early to tell if K is going to be THAT original…but the first episode at least didn’t seem like your average anime. I’ve heard people complain that it’s more “style over substance” – it has great, high-budget animation and fancy cinematography, but story and characters might not be up to par. But again, it’s too early to tell. I think a lot of people would rather see a good take on familiar tropes and cliches than something very original but also very train-wrecking (I’m guilty of this myself). But anyway, I look forward to seeing how “original” K manages to stay.

    • Yeah, we can’t be sure if K itself will really continue to be an example of that.

      I actually kind of hope that it will, a good old-fashioned adventure would divert my attention from all the glorious shiny, while a nonsense plot might not.

  2. But in principle, we all seem to agree, that the more innovation the better, and the more clichés the worse. So what’s behind this?

    I don’t know if we all seem to agree.

    The key issues here are 1) that innovation and the amount of cliche applied are not two opposite values; and 2) people liking something most often have nothing to do with either. I think the more I look at people describe things using those terms, the more likely it’s just because they don’t really have the right words to express themselves, or because they’re feeling a certain way irregardless of what they have just watched.

    • I can see that, how some people just first conclude that they didn’t like something, and then retroactively justify the hate by claiming that “it was bad because it was cliche”, but even that shows something about how our priorities work.

      Innovation and cliche not being opposite values is an interesting and complex theory of narratives on it’s own, though.

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