There’s a certain school of thought about anime (usually held by people who don’t watch anime) that it’s all just the same thing repeated over and over again. High-school girls in uniforms a little too tight for their assets, high-school boys with a strange gift for falling and perfectly face-planting cleavage, high-school kids in general who discover their magical powers and/or wind up in fantasy realms and/or have to save the world. And sure, these themes crop up a lot whether we’re looking back at classic series, or looking ahead at the simulcasts for the next season, but they’re often linked to the genres familiar across cultures, like fantasy’s hero of prophecy or the kid out of time in sci-fi. We in the west are no better at steering clear of those tropey comfort zones. And as for making women little more than boob pillows – hey there, James Bond.
We can wave aside tropes in our culture’s franchises purely because we enjoy them, so why shouldn’t we do the same for anime? It’s an art form, after all, so as with anything else under that broad umbrella, you can take out as much wonder and enjoyment as you want, depending on the attention and imagination you’re willing to put in. Take Madoka Kaname’s fairy godmother, Sailor Moon. It may well fall into the shojo plough line of a ditzy and fragile heroine discovering her inner strength, but have a look below the surface and you’ll discover a more empowering message. A tiara, a magic wand, even the tears seen as the benchmarks of feminine weakness become powerful tools for enforcing good. The fairytale princess evolves into a guardian. Sorry, a Pretty Guardian of Love and Justice. Once you pick up on these symbolic treasures, suddenly a whole series can take on new meaning, and it’s surprising where you can find them if you keep your mind open to them.
School-Live! was another to use a cuteness front to twist tropes, this time with the slice-of-life format. But I think this series tackles another favourite trope even better. Namely, the Zombie Apocalypse. I was sceptical about the moe ‘n’ zombies approach when I first heard folks raving about it, but the direction it took soon won me over. The focus on the humans left alive in the School Living Club and their daily antics means you quite often forget about the living dead and end up laughing along with the rest. But when it drops you back into the disaster, it’s devastating. By going through all the heartbreak with Yuki and her friends, you understand the somewhat bizarre situation they’re in and why they need it to stay strong. It becomes about the power of friendship in a sense I’d never seen before in anime – how it provides sanctuary when confronting the world becomes too difficult.
Looking beneath the surface has even managed to bring me around to a genre of anime I thought I’d never see any point in; the straight-up, guy-centric harem rom-com. The Comic Artist and His Assistants started off predictable enough, with the titular artist Yuki Aito obsessed with drawing panties, and getting himself into compromising situations for the sake of inspiration. But somewhere between his fumbles, his pleas for forgiveness and the discovery that he’s a masochist, I started to find him rather charming. In part, it is a case of him being so hopeless it’s cute. But the exploration of his kinky ineptness brought me closer to him, breaking through my assumption that his perversion would be the usual direct line to punchlines. I could read into the backstories of characters through their perversions, and what my imagination created made the show all the more delightful.
So, when faced with tropes, don’t write an anime off as predictable trash. The tropes themselves don’t make something terrible, that all depends on the creator, and on you. Keep your mind open, and you may find that if you’d just switched off, you’d have missed out on a worthwhile experience, whether thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious or inspiring.