A Generic Entry

Psychological thriller which will probe the very darkest depths of the human soul

Genres are words – labels – we attach to things, as part of some giant, messy and Escher-esque Venn diagram. As genres are words, it’s all a matter of definition by example, which I have harped on about before. Continuing my commitment to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, I thought I’d throw down [?] a few thoughts on the way that we classify anime.

[The first two parts of this post are the boring bits. The third part is the interesting bit. Feel free to skip ahead.]

Let’s Talk About Sex¹ How We Talk About Anime

Moe Ishida
Moe moe show, featuring (as seen here) tearful meganekko

What do we say when we classify anime?

People’s labels for anime are constantly being altered – I won’t say refined – by the exact set of things to which they are attached. If – to select an improbable example – for the next several years every comedy that was produced had mecha in it, saying ‘comedy anime’ would connote a different set of concepts in 2011 than it does today. No one would say ‘comedy must equal mecha’, but there would be a distinct aura of big, stompy metal feet about the term ‘anime comedy’. [Thankfully, I doubt this is actually going to happen.]

Conversely, attaching a genre to any given show also changes our perception of that particular anime. To bring up a recent example, classifying Blue Gender as horror turned me off it, but once I heard that there were mecha involved, I became interested. [Yes, I did take note of bateszi’s recent remarks and try Blue Gender. Yes, I do let other people control my taste – though the fact that Takahashi was involved helped too.] Now, another person might have the opposite set of reactions – positive to ‘horror’, negative to ‘mecha’ – but we would both have our perceptions of Blue Genre altered. Genre terms – like all words – are not a neutral flow of information into which you can dip. They alter the lenses which you see the world through, ever so subtly, whenever you or someone else speaks them

A lot of the classification we do focuses on content: comedy involves jokes or amusing situations; harem anime runs on a central male character’s relationships with a group of girls; romance anime includes what it says on the tin (there is an interesting argument to be had about whether harem and romance are two separate genres, or whether the former is a subgenre of the latter); action hardly needs explanation; recently shows which supposedly have lots of moe content have begun to be referred to as ‘moe anime’; and mecha anime involves mecha.

Mobile Suit QUALITY
Whimsical romance which makes the most of Ghibli’s trademark: breathtaking and painstaking animation

Classification by content might seem simple rather simple. It’s not hard to spot comedy, even unsuccessful comedy. So it’s easy to tell if a certain series does or does not have elements of comedy in it – though being able to say that ‘X is primarily a comedy’ requires more thought. But the mecha fascination is complex – and perhaps this suggests that my initial statement ‘[i]t’s not hard to spot comedy’ is a case of someone who’s no great fan of a genre taking too simplistic a view – and this complexity colours the definition of mecha content.

More complex still is classification by age and gender of the series’ demographic: shonen, shojo, kodomo(muke), josei (josei manga is rarely adapted) and seinen (and probably others of which I am unaware). These words are ostensibly about the target audience, but of course they are also making – slightly broader – statements about the content. Show me a kodomo(muke) show which features half of someone’s face being scraped off by his flying impact on a runway.

I’m tempted to compare these demographic terms to the idea of literary mode – the broad moods or manners of writing which aren’t tied to specific content-defined genres (satiric, pastoral, lyric et cetera). Although demographic categories are still associated, because of demographic tastes, with certain types of subject or content – shonen and action, for example.²

Finally I’ve noticed that certain studios have become associated closely with certain types of anime, to the point where we get classifications by origin: ‘it’s a Kyoto show’ now means a lot more than ‘it’s a show animated by Kyoto Animation’, while ‘Sunrise Trainwreck’ has become, in certain mouths, a classification all of its own. [I hear the ghost of Bakhtin laughing at this battle for language.]

Formal Considerations

Furry porn

Leaving aside what story is told, and how it is told, anime has form. Even things as mundane as temporal duration can be significant.

Kaiji and Akagi both have OPs which are shorter than the traditional minute-and-a-half; this gives an impression of punchiness and drive, and of not being bothered about supposed superfluities. The fact that both series have a shorter OP also serves to highlight the thematic links between them.

Conversely, Macross Plus (which is an OVA) has episodes which are roughly forty minutes long. Watching these when you’re used to a diet of ‘twenty-fives’ creates a greater-than-usual sense of buildup and tension as each episode reaches the point where one habitually expects a climax and continues on. By accident or by design the episodes play on this by having superbly cathartic (in the loose sense) action sequences near their real ends.

And form can sometime tell us quite a lot about something’s status. The ONA, being a form in its infancy, tends to be rather inconsequential, lacking in influence on future productions and more likely to be a side story from a larger franchise. [One of the few actually viable criticisms I have to make of Kyoto Animation is that their only original work to date has been an ONA. And – amusingly enough – the part of the SEED franchise which ‘U.C. fans’ apparently dislike least is Stargazer.]

The use of animation, as opposed to live action, is arguably itself a formal feature. So, too, would be the animation techniques used (cel shading, use of CGI et cetera). This, too, is not irrelevant. Those familiar with the LaMarre’s article ‘The Multiplanar Image’ in the first volume of Mechademia may recall that Miyazaki’s choice of a ‘non-ballistic’ animation style is read as a consciously ideological rejection of violence.

Genre Danger

Shonen Action
Epic shonen action saga

Vitriolic first impressions have been declared the Enemy of the Free World³ this month, and it would be easy to join in the general going-over process. [Which reminds me of a member of the public who was interviewed after helping to apprehend a terrorist at Glasgow Airport. Interviewer: ‘Were you able to assist the police, then?’ Interviewee: ‘Well, I got a kick in.’ Glaswegians: Do Not Mess.]

But I’m not the violent type, and there’s a line between reasonable force and Grievous Bodily Harm. Rather, I think I’ll drop a little commentary on Owen’s concluding paragraph:

I believe that we’re slowly but surely arriving at an age where the fail-safe security of a genre label no longer applies to a sizeable amount of anime available. I don’t know if we’ll be using different labels by then, like the post- affix or combinations of existing ones aka the Nanoha franchise and its mahou shoujo-shounen mix, but what I do know now is that sticking rigidly to the semantics of what was valid maybe a decade or so ago just doesn’t cut it anymore, and that’s what I mean when say that genres are irrelevant.

Isn’t there a certain lack of perspective here? I propose that genre labels are always a little behind the times – always a little irrelevant – when we’re trying to talk about the bleeding edge of a medium. Labels are based on what’s past, not on what’s being produced right now.

To take a grandiose example: in 1995, swiftly summing up Neon Genesis Evangelion would have been very difficult because it had few direct predecessors (Space Runaway Ideon must be mentioned here, but it’s still a very different kettle of fish). But since NGE, we’ve had a slew of dark, psychological mecha shows, so many that these ‘mindfuck mecha anime’ now have a loose subgenre all of their own. If one erased NGE from history, and then released something like it now (with 21st century animation – waitasec . . .), would it seem so revolutionary? I think not.4

Bloody, carnal and unnatural revenge tragedy

The shock of the now blurs distinctions which it will be easy to make in ten years’ time. Just as we find it harder to categorise a novel published in 2008 than it is to categorise one published in 1858 – even though the older work may be more different from any of its contemporaries than the more recent one.

We will never escape from what was valid a decade ago, although our discourse regarding anime is a constant attempt to do so. There will never be an age without out-of-date general categories; humans work on them. And a decade ago, they weren’t using the labels we use now. They were using a slightly different set of labels, which were valid for the products of two decades ago. And so on. [I apologise for not buying into Enlightenment ideas about progress.]

We never know how to read what’s happening until it’s already past us. Or, to put it another way, genres operate (at best) at roughly that traditional timegap between broadcast and Region 1 DVD release – that very same timegap which exercises so many people.

And a final thought – just to try to irritate some justifications out of people. Can we be so sure that all genres are equal? Isn’t ‘high-school romance’ on the whole more inconsequential, less weighty, than certain other genres? Answer that charge, and we’ll have both a) provided more reasons not to refer to something as ‘just’ a high-school romance and b) said some very interesting things about the genre itself, hopefully with insightful examples of really good moments from said genre.


1. Some of my readers probably think I talk about sex too much already.

2. Shojo and romance are connected so by some that I’ve heard Love Hina described as shojo. (And is Love Hina actually harem, or romance, or romance-harem?)

3. ‘Enemy of the Free World’ = any object, behaviour, group or individual which is patently A Bad Thing, but which receives so much hyperbolic censure that one begins to secretly sympathise with it. (‘Tis still A Bad Thing, though.)

4. Not that NGE is a bad series, or anything. 7/10 material, and of course it’s required viewing because of its influence.


  • Aside from anything linked in the above, all this kicked off because of the Search for Number Nine’s suggestion that ‘Genre is Important‘.
  • Mecha is complex, once a neutral starts thinking about it.

10 responses to “A Generic Entry

  1. Hrm… interesting. I’m going to have to think about that last question, because part of me agrees that the generalization is good and part of me thinks that basing the opinion of a specific show on the generalization is not good.

  2. Although I’m starting to thing the gender/age genre types are a bit outdated, personally.

  3. Pingback: The Otakusphere: News, Rumor and Hearsay « In Search of Number Nine

  4. Vis. note 1: I wouldn’t worry, the amount you talk about gender divisions and other such relevant things compares favourably to certain other well-known blogs wherein shows are actively marked down due to a lack of fanservice…

  5. I’m nearly out of actual good commentary on this whole ‘genre’ issue, having just to say that “genres are a good way to explain a show, but not a good way to sum it up”. Aside from that, another question I wonder about is whether a show should be judged based on the genre it’s in, or on a more broad basis. Is it enough for a show to be good in its field, or should it be some mythical genre-spanning masterpiece? If such a thing exists…comparing a magical girl show to a giant robot show is probably an exercise mostly in futility anyway.

    I personally think this topic is getting a bit stretched out (at least for me; but maybe I’m burning out on repetitive editorials. Just give me a second with an IV of distilled moe here and I’ll be fine.), but it’s good to see some nice back-and-forth discussion here between blogs, and the subtle jabs on each picture in your post make it totally worth it. I think you may have hit upon why I like Ishida’s character in Kaiji…

  6. @ iniksbane: I think genres should feel outdated. I’m kind of arguing that that’s their nature: the only reason old shows seem so generic compared to new shows is that the genres we have today are based on said old shows, and so fail to account for what’s being produced now.

    @ Shiri: I know what you mean! Usually (I hope) such marking-down is being done for the sake of humour – and I suppose for the fans out there who watch anime for fanservice, it’s a fair comment.

    @ CCY: I am (as per usual) trying to avoid talking about how we should judge shows, and rather attempting to talk about how we talk about how we should judge shows. Whether there’s some over-arching, genre-defying way to assess anime is a big, tough question.


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