This post comes as a result of another conversation I had with a familiar acquaintance. This time around, the topic swung to the so-called Slice of Life genre of animation. Okay, it didn’t begin there (rather it started with a surprisingly excited misreading of a previous post), but eventually it ended with Slice-of-Life, or rather, why is it that people easily dismiss the flaws apparent in the genre when compared to something like Mecha anime, which always seem to just attract (in his opinion) unwarranted criticism. While I think it’s really just due to his personal tastes (and dislike for the simple, which Slice-of-Life shows often are, structure and narrative-wise), it got me thinking about the shortcomings of the genre, and if they could critiqued (aside from “They’re simple! So there!”) in a more (pseudo) formalized manner.
Of course, before we can even begin looking at the flaws of the genre, we would have to define the term ‘Slice-of-Life’ first.
According to Wikipedia, a Slice-of-Life Story (tranche de vie) is defined as “a story that portrays a ‘cut-out’ sequence of events in a character’s life. It may or may not contain any plot progress, or little character development, and often has no exposition, conflict, or denouement, with an open ending. It usually tries to portray the everyday life of ordinary people, sometimes but rarely with fantasy or science fiction elements involved.” Wikipedia also adds that, “the term (slice of life) is considered a dead metaphor,” as originally it seemed to mean an author literally taking a ‘cut’ out of a characters life to focus on, without concern for narrative placement.
Merriam Webster defines the term much more simply, calling it an “…adjective relating to, or marked by the accurate transcription (as into drama) of a segment of actual life experience.”
Finally, TV Tropes (what might be the biggest time sink on the net) calls it “…life, observed, and examined. A cast of characters go about their daily lives, making observations and being themselves,” adding “Slice of Life series don’t usually have much of a plot or, if taken to extreme even the omnipresent Conflict, but they don’t really need one.”
Just by their definitions, it is easy to see what might be considered shortcomings of the genre for some, and a draw for others. Bear with me here, as I’m no expert (it’s why I’m taking up a Master’s Degree after all) in the presentation of Literary Theories, but I hope to be able to, hmm, shed light on these shortcomings.
Slice-of-Life not as a Simulacra of Reality
One of the criticism’s heaped upon the genre by my very determined friend was the fact that, for (anime shows) that are supposedly based on everyday lives of real people, they don’t seem to be very ‘real’, in a sense that they present events that not many people have actually experienced. For example, while many of us have undergone the pains of going through elementary school and high school (and hopefully college), not all of us have experienced going to an all-girls school (I have, to my detriment), or a co-educational institution where the male side of the equation are just faceless placeholders. Or gone to a school that still follows the Victorian system of educational advancement.
Put plainly, most of the recent shows connected to the ‘genre’ follow just the adventures (and misadventures) of a group of teenage girls. And since this is Japanese anime we’re talking about here, the setting is almost always a middle-school or high school. If there are males, more often than not they are not the focus at all of the narrative.
The inevitable focus on just the female side of the equation also gives some watchers the feeling that a show (or comic) is pandering to a very specific demographic — that is, love-starved single otaku. For these poor souls, the shows that showcase these girls become a strange (and creepy) kind of vicarious living, where emptiness is filled with images of cute females that may or may not fill their specific expectations of real (’3-D’) women.
This gender imbalance when it comes to character focus might just be a case of author’s fiat (where the author or manga artist might be a girl herself, and is just writing what she knows), but for many viewers it’s not an accurate representation of how they might have experienced high school for example. Sure it’s based on reality, but on a heavily idealized reality, that many of us will never have gone through when growing up.
Speaking from experience, my school uniform was never as nice as the ones in these shows. Sheesh.
Plot, or Lack Thereof
For those who are used to an Aristotelian Plot Structure, Slice-of-Life shows could be trying indeed. There are expectations in a story after all, where events in it all move toward a specific end point — characters and setting are first introduced, then conflict is introduced that inevitably drives the characters (and the story) to a culmination or climax, before we are treated to the aftermath of the climactic event and the inevitable resolution to the issue, and a return to normality for all the parties involved. It might be as mundane as Mr. Juan DeLa Cruz going to work and accomplishing a task his boss dumped on his shoulders, to as epic as the Ibalon’s Bantong vanquishing Oriol.
Slice of life, frankly, has little to none of that. One could very well begin a story in the middle of an event already happening, in media res, without due introduction to the setting or the characters, with very little context to go on (at least at first).
The first episode of ARIA the Animation, for example, plunks the viewer in the middle of a place that seems like Venice, in a company of gondoliers… who just happen to be women. The viewer has no means of knowing that the setting is a) not Venice, but a facsimile located on Mars, b) why all the gondoliers are women, and c) the significance of the gondolier companies first introduced. What conflict there is in the episode amounts to an curious little girl trying to blackmail the female gondoliers into showing her the sights of the City of Canals, and that’s it. And even then it’s resolved relatively simplistically.
People who live for complex (or ‘proper’) plots will, obviously, be disappointed with the example outlined above.
There is also a matter of Resolution: a proper narrative, at least to many people, will need to have some kind of resolution (the hero dies, the hero goes home, etc.). Many Slice-of-Life shows don’t have that. Indeed they just continue on, often leaving it to the viewer to think of a possible ending. For the characters, and the world they live in, life goes on, but for many a non-resolution just would not do.
Teenage Life isn’t Everything
People grow up. It’s as inevitable as the rising of the sun and the coming of night, despite what many would like. Many Slice-of-Life shows however focus on this particular span of life to ‘take a cut out of’. It might be a practical and demographic consideration — most of the source material for these shows happen to be manga written for teenage readers, so obviously they would like to read what they’d expect to experience (idealized or not).
As mentioned however, people inevitably grow up. Our teenage years, which sometimes we wistfully remember, are just a small chunk of our lives. And yet many (but not all) anime slice-of-life shows just love focusing on this particular span of time in the lives of their characters. Is it because it’s more exciting/interesting than the period where someone properly joins society as a responsible (I would hope!) adult? Or is the fact that becoming an adult things start to lose their color, their excitement factor?
It’s not something I could answer myself.
Not the End of Things
Those are just three of the shortcomings of the Slice-of-Life genre of shows that came to mind, but I’m sure that many of the older hands in the anime blogging community can name some more. Much like any SF-descended genre, it’s by no means perfect, and indeed the fact that it has shortcomings is something to be pointed out.
Still, inasmuch as I’ve described some of the genre’s flaws, I’m nowhere close to answering that little question my friend posed to me just this afternoon: why do Slice-of-Life shows, despite the fact that they have flaws, still come off as ‘better’ than some other shows? What makes them seemingly ‘immune’ to criticism, or rather, what makes the viewers just accept the flaws without as much as a complaint, where something like, say, a Mecha anime would be pounced on like a heretic by the Inquisition?
My answer, which boiled down to “When you’re enjoying yourself, you don’t sweat about the imperfections,” feels incomplete. No wonder I still have a lot to think about.