Anime: The World of Fake Romance
If I were given a dollar every time I’ve watched a truly “romantic” anime, I wouldn’t be able to afford to heat my house during the winter, and living in inland Southern California, I have very, very little use for my heater anytime at all.
Most anime fans have seen the same romantic tactics being used repetitively in a variety of anime. It’s come to the point where romance has become either an excuse to include fan-service or a worn process that is hollow and artificial. Romance no longer seems to be a genre; rather it has become a template that any series can stamp on as a promise to viewers that there will definitely be something more than a one-sided crush. Romance has been degraded to something that no longer has depth or impact. It is now a tool to easily and cheaply create moments of tension, reveal overused characterization patterns, and pull the audience into a world of fake love.
It wouldn’t be fair to criticize something without knowing what it is, but categorizing romance is a bit of a subjective task. Wikipedia has a nice, all-encompassing definition that states that romance is “the expressive and pleasurable feeling from an emotional attraction towards another person associated with love.” It’s a ridiculously broad definition, but for the purposes of outlining a genre, it serves its purpose. An anime labelled with the tag of “romance” should convey the feelings of love between characters and capitalize on those emotions as a prime way to capture the audience. At least, in theory, it should. As I’ve stated, the current state of the category is dismal, and recent works demonstrate this deprecation quite thoroughly.
Many people have watched the series Infinite Stratos. I can hear a mix of groans, giggles and glorious shouting through the screen. The reviews are as varied as the reactions, with no set consensus on any part of the show. The anime represents everything that subtracts from and is a burden to the genre of romance. For those of you who haven’t watched the series, here is a brief synopsis.
Infinite Stratos (IS) takes place in the future, when new technology allows scientists to engineer a powered suit known as “Infinite Stratos”. Orimura Ichika, a male high school student, discovers that he has the power to control these suits, and starts attending a school specifically for those who wish to work with Infinite Stratos. Until Ichika tapped into his ability there had been no previous male pilot. Consequently, the school he attends is an all-girls academy. Cue in massive amounts of fan-service, awkward moments, and scenes of dense girls fighting over a denser male protagonist. Is there any true romantic development? No, only scenes that spawn from the so-called “love” situation.
This anime is a notoriously perfect picture of the entire “stamp and go” issue of romance. The overlying problem is easy to pinpoint: where exactly is the romance? It’s hard to convince people that a group of girls that embody overused stereotypes is truly anything genuine. It doesn’t hurt that none of the main cast is given an opportunity to expand — almost no character development occurs. There is no real romantic development. It’s the typical one lucky man with a gaggle of girls drooling every time he passes by. The attraction that the heroines feel is as vague as any real high school crush and remains that way, lacking any interpersonal maturation aside from a few “skinship” moments.
However, this is not the main obstacle. The primary complication is that this fake romance is even included. Romance, as mentioned, is flexible in that it can act as the central reason to include an array of props. Want tension? Create awkward scenarios that sprout from romance. Mind some comedy? There are countless cliché gags based on a romantic relationship. Want to keep a healthy male fan base? Add girls, some naughty camera angles, and you’ve got yourself a steady audience. Romance is versatile, but requires a lot of characterization and work on the story. Some anime producers decided that these weren’t important, but liked the broad spectrum of actions that romance covered. So they included the drama, comedy, and fan-service, but left out the tedious process of developing a proper romance.
Important to recognize here is the fact that harems do not necessitate a romance tag, nor should they. IS proves that a harem can fall exceedingly short of what is required to acquire such a label, but the genre itself should not invite the thought that a certain work cannot be romantic. In fact, that a series that is only about a single relationship between two people always deserve the romance tag is never true either. Think of the ridiculous courtship between Shinishi Chiaki and Megumi Noda (Nodame) in Nodame Cantabile. Nodame’s feelings for Chiaki is her motivation for pursuing and achieving many musical endeavors and vice versa, ineffable evidence that romance was planned as a major part of the anime. In this aspect, the series failed miserably, presenting to us a relationship that was half-baked at best, but tiresome and inane in the end. The problem with Nodame Cantabile is the same one that appears in IS. The supposed love that both series show is never buttressed by anything more than the occasional blush. Both integrate the perks of romance without properly developing the areas of necessary effort. A single story arc with meaningful interpersonal character development is worth 1000 piano duets.
The pattern of leaving out the essence of romance is not a new procedure. Harem anime in particular seem to enjoy the successes utilizing such a method has brought. The issue is not in that production companies employ the technique. I personally welcome some senseless harem action from time to time. However, in substituting this fake romance, there is a lack of truly “romantic” anime.
As was previously defined, romance anime should capitalize on the emotional interaction between characters in their quest of love. Now that the qualities of not so good romance has been confirmed, it’s easier to clarify what should be done in a decent series. Since a harem was introduced as the bad, it seems only fair that a harem be used to describe the good, and this is where Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai! (from here on out referred to as Oreimo) comes in.
Again, I’m sure many of you have watched this anime, and I consider it the pinnacle of what a romantic anime could be. The story revolves around high school student Kousaka Kyousuke and his relationship with his sister, Kousaka Kirino. Kirino has an addiction to sister-based erogames, and requests her older brother’s guidance in “life counseling” sessions. The series goes through the archetypal trial-overcoming and hurdle-hopping to reach a romantic conclusion. Seems pretty normal, and a lot like what IS embodies. So what sets apart Oreimo from the rest of the pack?
Most basically, there is real emotional development between characters. Though some are rushed and others are vague, there is a definite character development ongoing throughout the entire series. Take the main female protagonist, Kirino, for instance. She clearly despises her older brother to the point of ignoring him for years. To make a long story short, she ends up feeling a passionate love for him. Only at the end is it revealed the complexity and dredging progression her love has made. Little by little, through sacrifices both significant and trivial, the two recognize their feelings for each other. This evolution was marked by a series of events, not just a single instance of “he was nice to me so I ended up liking him” sequence that so many other series embrace. Their changing relationship is a result of real character development.
This anime also proves that there can be such a thing as a “romantic harem”. Director Hiroyuki Kanbe does a remarkable job of adding significance to the relationship that the main heroines have with each other in correlation with their personal relationship to Kyousuke. Kirino would not be as appealing of a protagonist if her interactions with her best friend Aragaki Ayane were not shown. The obstacles the two overcome give depth to both their personas, and that in turn makes for a more favorable overall selection within the harem. Ayane also ends up confessing to Kyousuke, but because of the connection between her and Kirino, this event isn’t just another check off the capture list for Kyousuke. By breathing life into characters other than the main two protagonists, Oreimo allows for a more complex love diagram in which every participant carries significance.
There is much, much more that contributes to the overall feeling of true romantic development in this anime. The subtle way in which details are presented, the plot events themselves, and in-between, independent character interactions that individually are unimportant all add to the pursuit of capturing the essence of romance, but only work because of great characterization.
As long as the foundation is there, romance can blossom anywhere at anytime. Even works that don’t necessarily focus exclusively on romance display believable and persuasive romantic situations. Bakuman is an ideal example of this because the spotlight couple in the series make a deal to refuse to see each other until they get married. That’s as out of focus as it gets, and particularly in the mid to late part of the series, the herione, Miho Azuki, is rarely seen at all until the ending arc, and even then, does not physically interact with her person of interest, Moritaka Mashiro. Despite their lack of contact, the love between the two is unforgettable because the author uses the separation to display unique idiosyncrasies of each character independently. The two do end up breaking their promise, and each uncommon, sporadic meeting shows how each of the newly discovered traits distributed to each character end up interacting. Through thorough detailing and clever exploitation of the story, Bakuman takes a slice-of-life drama and squeezes out a great romantic backstory.
What’s clear is this: great romantic works are surely possible. There a number of anime that could have easily taken to spot of Oreimo, but the quantity of these series is rapidly declining and giving way to the more popular “gotta have ’em all” mentality of pure harems that severely lack romantic qualities. I sincerely hope that the anime industry will understand that a progression in fictional love doesn’t always have to be cliche, or even normal as in the case of Oreimo. It just has to have something real, something that really pulls at the heartstrings, emotionally investing the viewers in the characters. Maybe the anime world will start showing some signs of revival in this particular genre, but until then, welcome to a world of fake romance.
What do you think? Leave a comment.