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Author Topic: Cynicism and Dark Themes in Anime (Is it getting played out and taken to far?)  (Read 2219 times)

Offline KS

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Yo, have a topic I felt like discussing that I've kind of been mulling over this week.  It's kind of been a shitty few months in real life and obviously some depression has set in, but I feel like I'm starting to realize something about the course of modern anime again after watching the recent debut of Selector Infected Wixoss or at least a trend I'm starting to see that I'm not sure I like...like at all.  Historically I've been a fan of anime with dark themes, a degree of turmoil and hardship that must be overcome by the cast and just a realistic sobering take on the human condition and that not everything in life is always happy go lucky and positive nor do all problems have simple solutions that will please everyone.  It's part of the reason I've never been a huge fan of a lot of slice of life stuff, but I digress....I never thought I'd say this, but I almost feel like anime has taken too much of a swing in the opposite direction of saccharine slice of life stuff at least in terms of what's really popular and I'm not entirely sure I like it.  Here's why:

Part of the problem is I don't feel like some recent popular stuff is dark or harsh in tone in a way that serves a particular narrative or positive purpose in terms of how it influences the audience other than it just is and it kind of comes across as mean spirited in a way rather than sobering or reflective.  I feel like there's almost been this commercialization or simplification of this idea of "despair", nihilism, social angst, and cynicism particularly with the recent rise in popularity of Gen Urobuchi as a writer, who I do think is a pretty good writer, but also a somewhat disturbed one who also may have started something that is beyond his control.  I think there's quite a few shows of late, particularly those being promoted by Aniplex that are trying to put a really simplistic almost crass outlook on the idea of the teenage condition and the hardships the demographic faces or feels it faces (very important), how it views the world at it's most angsty and cynical and that it's not really serving anybody or anything other than commercial interests that well nor sending any coherent discernible message and that this is making anime and the idea of darker more realistic tones kind of shitty by generating what are coming across as wish fulfillment power fantasies where the characters (often underage or really too young to be that cynical and pensive realistically) get to wank on screen about their issues then take it out on the world they feel is oppressing or denying them satisfaction.  Valvrave, Madoka Magica, Guilty Crown, Monogatari all come to mind as some recent high profile examples of hard edged "**** the system" ultra cynical social angst anime where I think this sort of "despair/power fantasy" approach that lacks a certain sense of maturity and tact (a lot of these shows can't help but dip into otaku fanservice wink/nod type stuff which often serves to undermine the idea that they are dark/smart/relevant/topical social commentaries and character studies but rather just further commercial exploitation wearing that skin or reputation) has tripped shows up thematically and really is just kind of reinforcing and to some degrees appears to be exploiting the problems of a demographic that is clearly facing some serious social and identity crises as well as struggling to find it's place in a rapidly changing world that seems to be lacking in foresight and preparation for the future all for commercial gain and leverage.  What upsets me is that I think that anime could be doing good work and serious social commentary here at this juncture in time where the future of society is more than a little uncertain, but has instead, and I know I keep using this word, chosen to simplify and commodify these ideas into a soulless and unsympathetic formula to be applied in a way that is little different or any more meaningful than say watching cute girls doing cute things for "healing/iyashikei" purposes.

There's this idea in Japan that anime is a corrupter of youth and morals and contributes negatively to the growth and development of youth psychologically and socially and I can really just see these current trends exacerbating that and lending more credence to it.  What do other people think here?
« Last Edit: April 03, 2014, 03:12:38 PM by KS »

Offline Marid King

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The most recent season was really saccharine. The examples you list are from last year, or the year before. I'm not really seeing a trend here.
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Offline DrIdiot

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To support the OP a little bit, I think there are certain anime like... Gantz, or Elfen Lied, which lend credence to this.  You don't really see that kind of stuff in primetime TV.  I don't know about current trends though.

I've also been kind of bothered by this stuff.  I don't really like it, and I don't relate to it.  When I was a teenager I related soooo much to Shinji and his eternal whininess, but not so much this kinda stuff.

I don't really want to play pop-psychologist here, but anime-types are generally shut-in types, though I would say that the shut-in type is more diverse than mainstream media would lead us to believe.  Tatami Galaxy is an anime about a shut-in, and Tao Lin writes about shut ins, to name some examples to contrast with these "dark nihilistic types" the OP brings up.  But there's no denying that there's also a subculture of shutins which maybe feels disassociated from people and to whom these anime where basically everyone dies in kind of ****ed up ways might be sort of appealing.

Maybe another case: Kill Bill was a movie about violence, but these anime seem to be more about games and death.  I knew some people who would recommend these anime to me on the grounds that they were "so ****ed up."  It wasn't the right sell but maybe to some it is.

I don't think anime is the *cause* of these attitudes, I think it's the other way around.  I mean if it's something people really want to excise they have to look at more than anime.  Otherwise we can just ignore it.  I think most people also just kinda grow out of it.

Offline The Big Guy

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Considering the anime that really got me hooked on the genre was good old Elfen Lied, I think this is directly my area. I would definitely agree with you that there is a trend in the direction of darker shows which was mostly likely caused by the overwhelming popularity of Madoka and other shows. Admittedly, I disagree with your examples because Monogatari in particular is arguably more inspiring than dark considering how the characters get over their various issues, but I digress.

 I don't think the trend itself is a problem as much as bad writing is, but it is impossible to avoid that. Just like how great shows like Evangelion and Urusei Yatsura has to let to the moe trends (which you call pandering and I call appealing to your target demographic) that ruin many anime today, Madoka (and Code Geass in the case of Valrave and Guilty Crown) has and will influence darker storylines for shows that suck. As I've mentioned in previous posts, there is a lot of crap out there and we have easy access to all of it, so it is easy to be cynical about it. However, it may lead to good shows that reinvigorate tired genres like Madoka did, so overall I think there is some good potential to come out of all this.

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Offline KS

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Considering the anime that really got me hooked on the genre was good old Elfen Lied, I think this is directly my area. I would definitely agree with you that there is a trend in the direction of darker shows which was mostly likely caused by the overwhelming popularity of Madoka and other shows. Admittedly, I disagree with your examples because Monogatari in particular is arguably more inspiring than dark considering how the characters get over their various issues, but I digress.

 I don't think the trend itself is a problem as much as bad writing is, but it is impossible to avoid that. Just like how great shows like Evangelion and Urusei Yatsura has to let to the moe trends (which you call pandering and I call appealing to your target demographic) that ruin many anime today, Madoka (and Code Geass in the case of Valrave and Guilty Crown) has and will influence darker storylines for shows that suck. As I've mentioned in previous posts, there is a lot of crap out there and we have easy access to all of it, so it is easy to be cynical about it. However, it may lead to good shows that reinvigorate tired genres like Madoka did, so overall I think there is some good potential to come out of all this.

For sure absolutely, as I said one of my formative anime is U.C Gundam, which I've always seen as a really dark cynical and critical take on the post WWII Japanese condition and features themes of among other things how combat trauma/fatigue and the losses one witnesses and incurs during military service ****s them up at a young age and well into the future, ruins their potential for greatness and positive contributions to society by wasting their talents and sense of human dignity on warfare (see newtypes and making them fighting each other) and always seems to lead to a future where people are worse off in the long run even though the instigators of the conflicts always cite reasons that one could argue are just cause. 

It's the fact though that a lot of these dark cynical edged shows coming out recently seem to be inspired more by commercial considerations and trends than just telling a good story or the story that the staff really felt they needed to tell (something Gundam's original creators had to fight against tooth and nail as it exploded in popularity over the years) and seem to get the wrong staff that don't really seem to know their audience as well as they think they do or are just feeding into it's audiences insecurities and power fantasies that's the problem rather than dark themed stories themselves.  Basically they lack the human touch by overdoing the cynical angle or oversimplifying what ought to be complex situations and thus kind of breaking ones sense of disbelief.

From a gaming standpoint I also really love the Persona series which tackles the ideas of moral dualism, nihilism, the human condition and sense of self (the ego is either one or many), as well as themes of fate, desire and destiny in a way that I think is eminently relatable regardless of age group and it also doesn't offer easy answers over try to oversimplify anything.  What's more it hides all of this behind what otherwise looks like the story line of what appear to be textbook anime archetypes and their daily school lives (sound familiar) creating a neat little contrast of foreground and background tones.  That is to say the games also feature some more lighthearted moments and balance all of the above out through a calendar system that takes you over a well paced arc that really does a good job of mimicking the pace of real life.  I don't think I've ever seen what Persona does done better in any other format or medium (it's astonishingly mature by JRPG standards and has almost ruined the genre for me in terms of storytelling cause everything else just kind of feels like it pales in comparison now thematically and dramatically with the sole possible exception of Yasumi Matsuno's games from when he worked at Square Enix), it was just meant to be a game and meant to be told in that calendar style system, but then Aniplex (grrr) had to see $$$ signs and turn Persona 4 into a shitty adaptation that they seemingly knew would be a huge seller cause of the games huge popularity, but it misses much of the point of the original tale and plays out like a cliff notes version with about a fraction of the surprising levels of depth and maturity that went into the framework of the game to the point where it almost doesn't even feel like the same cast or at best an ultra simplified version of the cast that only hits upon the most popular and recognized aspects of each of them.  They're trying it again with a Persona 3 adaptation, a story which is even darker and possibly better told than 4's and trying to do it with a movie series the second entry of which is coming out in June so it's kind of like here we go again.  That's sort of what I'm trying to get at here if that makes any sense.

There really just seems to be a lot of dark tinged cynical stuff saturating the market next season (there's even a spiritual successor to Elfen Lied in Gokoku no Brynhildr) too and while I'm pretty hopeful it'll be a very enjoyable season in the long run, as someone who is historically a fan of the darker mature themed anime I just don't want to see it get played out for commercial purposes to much such that I become sick of it and it starts to feel more juvenile than anything.  Basically I don't want more dark stories or despair just because it's hip and cool again now thanks to popular titles like Madoka and Attack on Titan, but because they're good and the person making the show has a good idea and knows how to tell their story.

And yes before anyone mentions it I realize the irony of using U.C Gundam as an example when it's in retrospect the biggest cash cow anime franchise of all time.

Offline Sorrows Neptune

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Ever since anime stopped being just for kids and expanded it's demographics to adults and manchildren, there have been shows trying to be dark and edgy. And for as long as there's been dark and edgy anime, there have been anime which have been dark and edgy just for the sake of being dark and edgy. Evangelion and Madoka may have inspired their fair share of clones trying to tap into the market for dark and edgy shows, but I wouldn't say we're seeing an overall trend where dark and edgy shows are getting worse. The market for them is just seeing a revival, and that's naturally leading to more bad anime trying to be dark for the sake of selling BDs. Sturgeon's Law is more the issue here than anything else.

And you've all got it backwards. Evangelion is anything but a moe show, and moe trends were around long before that show popped up. It also started setting the trend for dark and edgy shows a decade before Madoka even aired. And Monogatari Series is hardly dark and edgy, unless you've only got Nadeko Medusa in mind.
« Last Edit: April 04, 2014, 01:02:00 PM by Sorrows Neptune »

Offline Shadowmage

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Personally, I think the issue here is that it's really hard to make a good show period.  I see cynicism, dark themes and edginess in general as tools to shake people out of their normal state of apathy.  When employed effectively, they are a real punch in the gut that sticks around with you a long time.  However, you need an all around good ensemble of characters, story, world building, atmosphere, etc to get people invested enough in the world to make said element work.  I do agree that a lot of shows just kind of throw in shock devices and have nothing else to capitalize on the frayed emotions of the viewers (Guilty Crown being particularly egregious). These shows seem juvenile because they really are childish; they understand that a specific action will have a certain reaction without really understanding where those feelings come from.  I honestly think that shows like Gundam and Evangelion had such profound influences because the darkness reflected in the shows are genuine manifestations of emotions that the directors had.  Gundam is very much Tomino's critique of the mentality that created WWII, and Evangelion is a look into Hideaki's suicidal depression.

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