Please Stop Making School Anime
by Andrew Erickson
Anime producers have a tried-and-true method of coming up with crowd-pleasing shows. Every few years, executives from every big-name studio meet up, put all their old ideas on a bingo board, and play a round. Every square that gets covered on the winner’s sheet has to be used in every anime for the next five years. Sometimes a rogue Watanabe will throw a wrench in the works, but so far it’s served them well. Need to develop a rich new universe for your upcoming series? No you don’t! It’s school. It’s always school. Just as there are no cities but Tokyo, there is no place where people socialize outside of Japanese grade school.
Granted, I understand the attraction, from a writing standpoint, of choosing a school setting for a show. All potential viewers either are or have at some point been students, so there should be some shared experience to make the characters more relatable. And it provides a number of low-effort plots and characterizations: you have the studious one, the jock, the straight man, the stupid one, the spacey one, the nerd, the foreigner, the one with blue hair, and so on. And what do they do? They take tests, prepare for entrance exams, go to the beach on vacation, participate in the festival (this last one is very important), and there you go. That’s your show. The characters attend school and they graduate in the final episode. Having saved your writers all the time that would have gone into the background and storyline, you can now focus on turning out brilliant jokes, or alternatively adapt an existing 4-koma manga. Let’s face it, you’ve probably resigned yourself to never producing anything on the level of Cromartie High School and accepted that any effort above the bare minimum is wasted.
Slice of life is already a barren moonscape of a genre, but there’s something about choosing a school as the central location that rubs the laziness in even more. Probably because the only entertaining parts of such shows are the ones that have the least to do with school. The orange cat thing in Azumanga Daioh that speaks in broken English. The… OK, I can’t come up with anything for Lucky Star. There was an interminable discussion about the proper way to eat chocolate coronets, I don’t know. It was awful. But how about the deer battle in Nichijou? Go on, leave this page and look up that scene. I’ll still be here.
It’s a fantastically funny scene. But you don’t have the context if you only watch the deer scene itself. You might think the whole show is like that! But it isn’t. Preceding that amazing scene are five and a half episodes of nothing. On the surface, it looks like there’s plenty going on in Nichijou: one of the characters is a robot who was created by a little girl who stores pastries inside her, and she’s friends with a talking cat, and can people please stop getting randomness confused with humor? At any rate, the writers must have worn themselves out coming up with characters who aren’t schoolgirls, so a significant chunk of the runtime is spent dwelling on bento boxes and test taking. The whole show is just a zany veneer stretched thin over another boring school anime. Take, for example, the stock tsundere character who shoots people with a minigun when she gets flustered. It’s funny because she secretly likes a guy but doesn’t want to admit it, so she shoots him a million times to no effect! That’s the joke.
The deer scene stood out to me, though. In case you didn’t watch it, it starts with one of the main characters spotting a deer that wandered onto school grounds. She gets upset when she sees the principal sneaking up on the poor, defenseless animal, which proceeds to rear up and try to murder him. A battle ensues, culminating in the principal using pro wrestling moves to beat the will to fight out of the deer. This scene convinced me to try watching the series, which I quit when I realized it was just a brief interlude between the same trite scenes of schoolkids standing in the hallway with buckets of water, or panicking because they forgot their homework. I don’t even remember which episode it was where I finally quit, because it was a cumulative process of hoping for another bolt out of the blue and being disappointed every time.
You know what would have been a funny show, or at least had great potential to be one? If the protagonist had been the principal instead of a student. Yes, I understand Azumanga Daioh had a teacher in the main cast, but with the way she acted she might as well have been a student. What I’d appreciate is a show revolving around a character like the principal in the deer scene: an older person, clearly past their prime, who has been through enough shit that they’re long past the point of caring. I want a show about the kind of man who looks at a deer peacefully chewing on a bush and thinks to himself “I’m going to suplex that son of a bitch.” Slice-of-life wouldn’t be boring if it was based on an interesting life. And maybe I’m just saying that because of my experiences with my father, a school administrator himself, who has spent the last several years waging total war against the snapping turtles that keep invading his property. But I like to think there’s some unexplored ground in this genre that, too frequently, boils down to “cute girls doing cute things.”
There has to be a point at which this becomes too much. I understand wanting to appeal to a target demographic, but there’s appeal to be found in things other than “that character is my age!” Humor is appealing. So is novelty. Why can’t there be a slice-of-life show set in a prison? America figured that one out in the 1960s and called it Hogan’s Heroes. Or a show about a psychiatrist and all the oddballs they deal with on a daily basis. Or more Inferno Cop. Or if school absolutely has to factor into it, how about a series focusing on college? Don’t tell me there’s no material to be mined there. These are free ideas, please, someone take them. Or at least Kyoto Animation, which is by far the worst culprit here.
Maybe, at some point, watching mundane high school and junior high students doing mundane high school and junior high student things was an unfilled niche in entertainment. Now that it’s been oversaturated almost as badly as giant robots, how about everyone stop making school anime for a while? Please? Anything, anything at a-
God damn it.