We can’t all be otaku, I get that. Even when going into a foreign media such as anime with an open mind, there are some of us who still just can’t “get” it. I’ve heard all kinds of things about the reasons as to why people say they can’t enjoy anime, some solid and understandable. Mostly though, what I’ve heard tends to be shallow-minded and either very vague or weak. Things like “I can’t take it seriously because it’s still technically a cartoon,” while personally upsetting, I can understand because many people just can’t dissociate cartoons from kids’ programming. But things like “it’s too weird” or “it’s only ever about kids in high school” I can’t understand. That last one is a bit I’ve heard parroted from pretty much all nonotaku, from spammy Youtube comments, real life friends and coworkers, and even implied by fellow reviewer and self-proclaimed nonotaku Cas in his recent review of Watamote for this site (though he did seem to be able to look past it for that article, good on ya mate). So let’s talk for a bit about why you shouldn’t discredit a show based on it’s being set in a high school.
What is a setting?
Every story, no matter what medium or style it’s told in, has a setting. It has to, in the same way that no story can have no characters. So for those of you who slept through every English class in school since 3rd grade or for those of you who simply haven’t thought about it and forgot, a story’s setting is simply where and when it takes place. Typically, but not always, the setting is established to provide some kind of frame of reference for what kind of story is going to take place. People see a story set in outer space and realize it’s likely to be a science fiction story. They see a story set in a Tolkien-esque medieval world and expect an epic fantasy quest. There’s a layer of expectations between genre and setting that has been established, with certain types of stories commonly having similar settings, which leads me to my next point…
Anime doesn’t tend to follow these trends as much. Whether it’s deliberate on part of the authors or a culturally different approach to storytelling in general between the East and West, I’m not really sure. What I am sure of through many years of experiencing anime is that it has a tendency to not let it’s setting define it’s genre, instead choosing it as a point of reference for it’s target audience. The western expectation of a story set in high school is that of a teen drama, a genre not highly regarded by much of anyone. You see a story set in high school and think “it’s just going to be about kids having trouble with relationships and homework and parent issues,” and I can’t blame anyone but the likes of western television for that. Anime tends to only treat it as a way to establish demographic rather than genre though. A story set in high school will be a story aimed at teens and young adults using the setting to justify characters that relate to that age group, but the show itself can end up being about just about anything. I’m not going to deny the fact that there are some anime set in a high school that are just about high school life, but they really aren’t the majority across the medium as a whole.
What you’re missing out on by writing off a show based only on the high school setting
For some emphasis, here are a few shows just off the top of my head that are set in high school or that star high school students, but that really have nothing to do with high school:
In a world where virtual reality is the new cell phone and people walking around with personalized Iron Man-like HUDs is the norm, a particular program has been developed as a brain hack that directly accelerates your mental processes to the point where time basically slows to a standstill and allows you all the time in the world to do whatever you want. This program hides under the guise of a video game, where if you lose the game you lose the ability to use the program and players within the game engage in wars to determine who has the right to hold this power in the real world.
A technology that miniaturizes motor engines has been used by street gangs to implant these micro-engines into their roller skates, allowing them unparalleled thrill-seeking and speed on the streets. What happens when you find you don’t care about the violence and dangers of illegal street gang life in the face of the most extreme “extreme sport” ever created?
A local town has a mysterious legend where a particular class at a particular school might be cursed. This curse causes one of the students or a close relative of one to die horribly every month. But the technique they’ve been using to prevent the curse from happening is no longer working, and people are dying all over again.
A former prince of the world’s predominant superpower nation has been exiled and forced to live in a colony away from his homeland. Upon an accidental run-in with a terrorist faction against his former home nation, he is granted an opportunity and under a secret guise becomes the leader of the terrorists in order to overthrow the country and nation that abandoned him.
Highly sensitive technological secrets have somehow become lost to the world, only to somehow have been hidden away in the subconscious of a select few young girls across the country. These girls have no knowledge of this information being stored in them, and in an effort to recover the information and protect the lives of those who now unwittingly hold host to it from dangerous anti-government and rogue military groups, a small mercenary team has been assigned to watch over each girl who has been identified as a target.
There is a girl who happens to literally be God. If she so desired, she could rewrite the entire fabric of the universe and create a new reality overnight. The thing is, she doesn’t know this about herself. Other supernatural entities have taken notice of her though, and in an attempt to preserve their world they send agents to watch her and, while never alerting her to her powers, make sure she never becomes disinterested in the current reality so that she will continue to maintain it rather than simply grow bored of it and accidentally destroy all of reality through sheer apathy.
When presented with the option to have any one thing your heart desires, what do you wish for? With only one chance it needs to be something really important and literally life-changing. There’s also a catch, in exchange for having your heart’s desire granted, the being granting your wish will bind you to a contract where you must then work for it to fend off evil spirits that wreak havoc on the positive and negative balance of the world. It gives you what you want, and in exchange you work for it. A group of young girls is presented with this choice, between having whatever you desire and enlisting in a mystical calling straight out of fantasy.
And these are just the ones that I’d recommend to people. When you consider the ones I omitted because they aren’t quite as good as the ones here as well as the ones I simply haven’t seen, there are many, many more shows out there that break the setting.
Story and setting are connected, but they don’t define one another. A story can be set in high school, but be about anything it wants to be. Imagine saying “I don’t like science fiction because it’s always just about people in space.” That’s how much you’re limiting yourself from experiencing a whole culture of shows when dismissing high school in anime. Don’t do that. Please.
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