Keepin’ it REAL!June 29, 2009
There is a belief most people have even if they do not realize it: The grittier and more hopeless something is the more representative of life it is. Stories that are happy and bright are fake because the world is full of pain and suffering. While only the delusional believe that the world is always a cheery place, it does not mean that bright and cheery stories can’t be realistic. However, for some stories tortured characters who have horrible lives filled with misery ring more true to many people. This topic came up when Narutaki and I were discussing Genshiken. We both agreed that most people liked Genshiken. I mentioned that a major qualm people had was they felt it became increasingly unrealistic. Essentially people who did not like Genshiken accused it of being a candy-coated otaku pandering fantasy. Why can’t people accept a positive image of otaku? Why do people more readily accept a negative image of life than a positive one?
Being an optimist by choice (nature?), I often get into conversations about the state of the world and people’s view of it. When discussing Genshiken I was floored to hear that some found it wildly unrealistic. It has become some sort of life trope that the important and memorable moments are all made up of drama. If you look at the news, at celebrities gossip, or so-called reality television this is what it is chock-full of. More importantly people seem to emphasize the tragedies in lives as the pinnacle and that a happy ending is fictional. As I see it, most of our lives are made up of hilarious incidents rather than never-ending hopelessness. That is not to say nothing heartbreaking happens to people, we all have those times in our lives, but I’d argue for most it is not the common part of their everyday existence. My philosophy aside, the major qualm here is whether or not something sad is more true to life than something happy.
This trend of depressing works being viewed as more real is hardly just found in the providence of anime and manga. It is a universal prejudice that applies to all sorts of media and art. You may see it reflected in book, plays, movies, TV shows, games, and all forms of fine art. Take the category realistic fiction. There is pleasant and uplifting realistic fiction. However, a good majority of the titles held up as realistic fiction have characters with scarred pasts and/or live troubled lives. So while there are exceptions, overall realistic fiction tends to lean towards the negative and depressing. There is this ingrained concept that for stories to have weight or the ability to ring true to the audience there must be pain and suffering. I feel this is a disservice to realistic fiction with a lighter tone. It implies that if you want your story to have any impact then you must trod down a darker path and ignore or downplay the lighter portions of existence. If anything, life is a combination of tragedy and triumph. To ignore one or the other is more unrealistic than anything else.
The most basic definition of realistic fiction is a story that could be real or could happen even though the situation is fiction. If a novel focuses on: depression, death, eating disorders, self-mutilation, drug addiction, mental or physical abuse, or add-your-favorite-tragedy-here then you may see it categorized as realistic fiction. Conversely, in case you were unaware, real life also contains the following: laughter, friendship, love, rainbows, candy, coincidence, adventure, puppies, kittens, and add-your-favorite-thing-here and sometimes they are categorized as realistic fiction. But I put it to you that one is held in much higher regard than the other. Why? Is it because it is real or is it because it is dramatic? This is not to say that people don’t like stories that are uplifting but many simply don’t see them as true to life. So where does anime, manga, and fandom tie in to all of this?
One of the most intriguing examples is the “real romance” genre of anime. These anime tend to be shonen romance with characters who have scarred pasts and find themselves in complicated relationships. Anime based on Key games are exemplary of this. These shows usually have extremely dedicated fan bases due to their ability to draw powerful emotions from the viewer. Fan will often say that the characters and situations are more realistic than other types of romance be it shonen or shojo. This is a mistaken perception on the part of fans. The power of the emotions brought out by the tragedy in said shows are misinterpreted as a sense of reality. This is an easy mistake to make but it gives the wrong impression of the show. Most “real romance” shows are just as unrealistic as their other romance show brethren. These shows just as often use the same archetypal characters and situations but by giving them a tragic twist we accept them as more realistic than the same exact set-up in a happy situation. This does not inherently make one better than the other. But at the same time it does not inherently make one more real that the other.
You may have hit the nail on the head, perhaps it is the powerful emotions pulled from the viewer that cause confusion. The most common themes in these shows is tragedy either in the past or the future of the stories, sometimes both. Many of the female leads can easily be described as needy, incomplete, and extremely accepting of their romantic interests. There is also a certain amount of dominance and control in being the love interest to one of these emotionally hurt girls. Something about this really appeals to the emotions or possibly the fantasies of some. Many of these shows could be described as harem shows with a dark underbelly. But just as easily they can take on the role of a traditional romance but laden with darkness. I couldn’t say one is better than the other but neither really reflect the quality of life that is out there in the world. Would anyone claim to actually know people who live lives like the ones in these shows?
Now back to the show that sparked this whole conversation in the first place: Genshiken. While some parts of Genshiken might ring untrue, overall the situations and characters in Genshiken are not inherently unrealistic. There are a standard list of complaints people have with Genshiken. The first being the prevalence of female characters in the club and those female characters being too attractive to be in such. The second complaint is that too many of the club members wind up in relationships by the end of the series. Tacked on to this is the belief that the characters lives turn out too cheery overall. Too many of them get jobs they like and come to accept who they are through the club. Essentially, Genshiken is not harsh enough. Real otaku are sadder and more pathetic. Real otaku life is darker and drearier. To generalize the complaint, Genshiken white-washes the life of an otaku and makes it seems happier than it is. Genshiken is accused of having just enough realism to get you to ignore the lies and placates with what you want to hear but does not give you the true story.
Genshiken was the first manga I read about otaku and I still hold it in very high regard. I actually have never found another that quite hit the same spot. How to describe why it is great if you haven’t experienced may be hard. It is a very simple story centered around a club in college and the geeks that make up its members. The story is simple and funny and sometimes very poignant but the characters are complex. The appeal of Genshiken is that you are part of the club. You may or may not see yourself as one of the characters, but you always see yourself within the context of their lives. Genshiken has the feeling of “I know these people!” Some of their stories turn out better than perhaps our own but some do not. However, not everything is wrapped up in a nice little package at the end. Surely to laugh at ourselves, and Genshiken is us, is the only way to truly accept yourself.
The best counter-example I can give is one from my own life when living on CoRE (Computer, Robotics, and Engineering) module in college. It was two floors in the dorms designated for people with a wide variety of geek hobbies and interests. We had a decent number of women on the module. They were always outnumbered by the men but there was always at least two female members at any given time. They ranged in attractiveness but there were some very stunning ladies who were into geeky hobbies just as much as many of the male members. Heck, some played table top role playing games often considered one of nerdiest past times with the worst male to female ratio. It is hardly impossible to have a club with female members who are attractive. Genshinken’s Ohno is clearly a male fantasy due to many factors but she is hardly impossible. Also a good number of the people on the module dated within the group as well as outside it though there were those who never dated, too. Similarly there are members of the Genshiken who don’t fall into relationships just as much as ones that do. I also found that while I might not have a job I in any way care about others from college have wound up in jobs they have been very content with. Genshiken is not supposed to be everyone’s experience. It’s also not supposed to be the readers’ exact life in manga. Genshiken’s goal is to be relatable; to have at least one or two characters that the reader recognizes from their own life; and to throw the characters into situations that the reader has experienced for themselves. These make Genshiken ring true. Why people would consider Welcome to the NHK more real than Genshiken makes no sense. They both exaggerate situations for humor and drama. One just does it in a positive fashion where the other does it in a negative one.
I have to say I disagree about Ohno. Her character design, especially by Japanese standards, is not ideal to most. But even if you do find her attractive (which she is) what is so unrealistic about that taken in the whole of the Genshiken cast? Go to any convention and you will find a few good-looking cosplayers guaranteed. But generally the cast is a pretty average looking group. Even Kousaka and Saki are pretty tame looking attractive characters. So much so that I might forget that they were if it wasn’t so heavily implied. Speaking of Saki, she is an interesting case, she essentially gets dragged into this group because of her boyfriend. I have seen this in action and it isn’t so hard to believe that if you really listen you will eventually become close with your significant other’s friends. I helped run the anime club in college for a bit so I really got to interact with a plethora of otaku types. And one thing, which Hisui also alludes to, is that when you are in close proximity with a group for long periods of time, relationships are bound to happen. Does everyone in Genshiken get a date? No. But you’d be hard pressed to say that no otaku date, ever. Heck, just thinking of other geeky hobbies like Star Trek, there are people who get married dressed up as the characters! Where in the rules does it say that geeks don’t date? Admittedly there is less of it going on, but it isn’t unrealistic that some end up in relationships. Genshiken isn’t everyones’ experience as an otaku, it may not reflect our day to day lives, but it is a probable scenario. You have to admit though that there are inklings of our own strange random days in the series. Genshiken is somewhat of a “slice-of-life” of otaku. So where does “slice-of-life” fit in to all this? I mean doesn’t the genre title alone imply that it is reflective of life?
“Slice-of-life” is an odd duck when it comes to realism in anime. On a general level people consider “slice-of-life” shows more realistic than most but still overall sanitized. They tend to be slow-paced shows that focus on the extremely mundane events of everyday life. The focus is more on the little moments in people lives rather than the momentous ones. By zooming in on the in between days that are neither too high or too low is gives bath a sense of reality and unreality to the viewer. If you were to look over your day you would find that most of the things you do are not that amazing. They are neither greatly great or horribly horrible. This is what makes things that are major events so powerful because they are so rare. We have all gone through periods of our life where nothing special seems to happen. Time moves forward but nothing changes. But since “slice-of-life” shows tend to ignore the major tragedies and let downs in life “slice-of-life” is also disingenuous. I would say that a show that ignores both the positive and the negative is just as false as one that only emphasizes one. The average person’s real life is made up of all three. The high, the low, and the in between.
When thinking of “slice-of-life,” my thought is there is little forward motion, no major revelations, and no over aching plot to speak of. The way I see “slice-of-life” may not be completely accurate but I think it stands rather well. Wouldn’t everyone agree that each day is not filled with momentous events but rather a seemingly mundanity that is interrupted now and again? This is where it falters a bit, things DO happen to us! We can go for a few days completely unmoved from our routine but it doesn’t last for long. Even if the incident is small, not life changing, more often than not something will crop up and you’ll say to someone, “hey, know what happened today?” To paraphrase a friend, everyone has stories they just don’t always remember them!
I don’t feel that storytellers should ignore that fact that people can have horrible lives filled with utter desperation. Sometimes stories not only can have tragic endings but sometimes it is the only type of ending that a story legitimately can have. But that does not mean they should be considered the only type of story that is real. There are all types of stories in this world. What makes a story real or not is the characters acting in a realistic manner that is true to their character as the story presents itself. A sad character with a sad ending can be just as disingenuous as a happy character with a happy ending if written incorrectly. Forcing a plot or character in a certain direction due to a perceived need is a tragic mistake. Limiting a genre to a certain tone straight jackets that genre and in turn diminishes its possibilities.
I would never go so far as to say works involving tough and gritty issues approached from a dark angle aren’t good. They don’t always rank high on my personal scale but that means little about their place in the world of imagination and fiction. However, I will argue that they aren’t as much a reflection of life as many would have themselves believe. One heavy or emotional element does not make a show true to life. Using a dark element doesn’t not automatically equal depth. This form of audience manipulation is quite easy to come by and rather cheap. However, just because something is not a mirror to our lives doesn’t mean we can’t connect to it or see a piece of ourselves in the characters. That is just short changing some really great work out there. This is a conversation I’ve been itching to get out in the open for a while now. This is a open-ended discussion that I don’t have any clear answers to just thoughts.