Originality and Anime


And we have liftoff.

Way back when info about Angel Beats first started to trickle down the pipe, people drew immediate comparisons to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Those turned out to mostly be premature, yet even now some still complain about how it rips off other shows. I generally compare it to Haibane Renmei, and sometimes, if I’m in a bad mood, to Bleach (though that one is really stretching it). Add in how it bears all the marks of your standard Key adaptation, and maybe all those accusations aren’t completely unfounded.

But I come neither to bury Angel Beats nor to praise it. Rather, I’d like to discuss a question that probably has no clear answer: What makes one anime “original,” where another is “derivative”? Give it enough thought and you could make just as many claims of plagiarism about any other show: Natsume Yuujinchou borrows much from Mushishi, as does Needless from Scryed, and Ergo Proxy from Serial Experiments Lain, and the aforementioned Haruhi from Daisy Miller of all things (not an anime, I know, but go with me).

Now, a fool might here conclude that there can be no originality in fiction if all works derive from those before it to such an extent as listed above, and he would be wrong. I dare anyone to seriously accuse Haibane Renmei or Ghost in the Shell of being knock offs, of being unoriginal. See what happens.

Care to say that again?

What, then, is originality? Does it even matter?

For the first question, most definitions of the word include some variation of “new,” or “fresh,” but that’s a bit too abstract for my purposes. Thinking about the above list, I’ve come up with a few more concrete ideas: difference in audience, difference in thematic elements, evolution of genre, and combination of genres. The second question will have to wait a bit.

Could this be anything but shoujo?

To begin with, audience. Mushishi and Natsume Yuujinchou follow similar stories in a similar fashion: An individual who can see and must deal with supernatural entities has episodic adventures. But they appeal to entirely separate audiences; the former is seinen, the latter shoujo. The author must tailor the story to fit the expectations and tastes of its particular audience, and therein emerges the originality. Both works explore isolation, but that theme manifests in subtly different ways. Mushishi‘s Ginko must stay on the move lest he bring misfortune, leaving him with few friends. Natsume has the same worries, but he can only work to preempt what danger he attracts, whether through action or self-imposed isolation. And where Mushishi (the anime, at least, I haven’t read the manga) hardly deals with it, it forms the focus of several episodes in Natsume.

Then, theme. Lain and Ergo Proxy both deal with an average person discovering he or she is some artificial entity of great power in a mostly cyberpunk setting. Lain focuses on the interconnectedness of an internet-based society, and Ergo Proxy on societal structure and function in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They’re both very abstract in how they tell their story, and they resemble each other in other ways, but this difference in central theme forces them to diverge. By tackling connectedness, Lain tells its story through esoteric references and obtuse dialogue. While Ergo Proxy has plenty of both of those too, its post-apocalyptic nature necessitates a more action-oriented approach. Their different themes mean different styles.

Now, tell me about your childhood.

Next, evolve. Any genre, it doesn’t matter which in particular, has its own conventions and standards. After a time these grow tired and cliched. And then the genre must evolve. Ghost in the Shell is one of the earliest incarnations of what some call post-cyberpunk. While it owes its existence to the likes of Neuromancer, it takes those same tropes and makes something new of them. The heroes work for the government, not against it; the world actually is a mostly decent place to live. It not only continues the genre, but advances it.

Now, combine. Haruhi (the show, not the character) is a lot of things to a lot of people, and I don’t aim to review it. But there is one thing it does that distinguishes it from its predecessors. I say one thing, but it’s more like several: It takes and combines multiple genres to where you couldn’t classify it if you wanted to. But unlike how Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star pioneered a new genre (the space western), Haruhi combines so many you can’t really say it’s started one of its own. It simply is, for better or worse. It cannot become a new genre because it has no genre, and so it defies our expectations.

Perhaps that could do for a definition: originality is a deliberate defiance of expectation. Deliberate there is a key word, I think, though I suppose originality could arise by accident.

Where does that leave Angel Beats? It’s a bit early to be sure, but I see it as a combining of genres. Not quite to the extent of Haruhi, but it has the epiphanic prison aspect of Haibane Renmei, only with a lot more action, in a Japanese high school setting. Though I can’t really see it as founding a new genre itself.

Careful what you say.

But does it matter?

Well, yes and no. To be fair, I have and do enjoy a swathe of stuff which have no original feature whatsoever. Mostly they fall under guilty pleasures, but I do still enjoy them. The anime I really enjoy and remember, though, those all are more original things; they stand out in my mind because they are different. And sometimes they even affect the guilty pleasures. Consider what Evangelion did to the mecha genre.

Being unoriginal hardly keeps a show from being good, nor are all original shows the best. But which are you more likely to remember, I wonder.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted May 30, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    On originality and anime, check this out: You and your fandoms are constructs (and that’s okay)!

    Pontifus deftly talks about originality and derivativeness as distractions to the evaluation of a subject text’s quality.

    As for your use of the term “guilty pleasure,” ahem, I find this (not necessarily you) one of the laziest, most inauthentic acts of thinking (or lack of it) associated with the appreciation of media. I’ve written a lot about guilty pleasure (there is an authentic manner of experiencing such, after all), but this perhaps is the best place to start:

    Anime is Serious Business Because Guilt is Serious Business

    I’m not ‘correcting’ or lecturing you in any way, just to make things clear. I offer these links merely as matters of relevance or at least interest as far as I find the subject you take on here interesting and entertaining.

    • Impz
      Posted May 30, 2010 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      First of all, an official welcome to the blog!

      I think the issue with the term “guilty pleasures” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. For e.g., it can mean something that is socially unacceptable and that you are fearful of showing a bad taste. However, if you read clearly on the context of Chronolynx’s writing, it is clear that the guilty pleasure is nothing as noted in your argument, he is using it in a more colloquial way where guilty pleasure is simply something that just doesn’t make sense, and that he likes it nonetheless.

      The truth is that most people don’t look into anime to be anything other than entertainment, and anime in itself is a guilty pleasure. Do I care about defending it and feel guilty about it? Not really, I simply use the term liberally as a form of saying that I could have used that time for a better purpose. Who cares :P

      Probably what is missing is a definition of what he defines as guilty pleasure, but then we will be trying to overly define and bore the reader. It’s better to open up some dialogue rather than presenting a comprehensive discussion that is hard to discuss anything at all. That could help to shape the discussion in a certain direction. That said, I see it more as afterthought after thinking about originality in anime.

      • Posted May 30, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        Thanks ^_^

        It’s the ‘who cares’ part that makes it rather lazy. If nobody is meant to care, why mention it at all? Why classify a pleasure as ‘guilty’ if the act itself is meaningless?

        Then it’s just a pleasure and that would be that; as you say, it’s entertaining/entertainment.

        I’m not trying to be debate anyone here (I only do so with Crusader when he’s being belligerent about hating on Minmay). Being a commenter who is also now a member of the site I’m being extra careful in framing this as a discussion rather than a contest.

        If the subject is indeed too tangential, then so be it. I just find it interesting how certain people (like Martin in Pontifus’ post) feel like they need to apologize for liking a show deemed derivative or unoriginal (K-ON!/!!), as I did not long ago.

        At the risk of being even more tangential, my own personal aesthetic/appreciation values has much to do with homage/tribute/derive from a tradition or genre. I even gave it a name: “remembering love.” In this case originality only has to do with building on what came before, not producing something new as if from/in a vacuum.

  2. Posted May 30, 2010 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Interesting thoughts. I think a lot of people do place too much emphasis on whether something is “original” or not, when all that really matters on an individual basis is whether one enjoys it or not. On a broader scale I do think originality is something to be strived for, but it’s not a necessary element of quality and, as you’ve outlined well here, originality is an increasingly precarious concept and there are multiple ways to achieve it.

  3. Impz
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    On the issue itself, originality is an obsolete topic in my humble opinion. The thing is that there’s really no such thing as original anymore in my opinion in the strictest way, simply because anything that actually can be done is already in some form of media. I will say that originality is no longer anything to strive for because it cannot be done. It’s the same thing as objectivity in the media: you are just grasping at straws.

    I think what we consider to be an objective way of looking at originality is how certain tropes and pieces of ideas/stories/characters are used in a different manner that is not usually portrayed. The main ideas and stories shouldn’t be that different, but in a different context, that becomes an evolving piece of art that is considered to be original. Hence, it is really a re-hashing of old standard media values, and giving it a small little twist by combining genres, putting a type of character that usually doesn’t belong to a genre (the slight movement of strong cool female leads who don’t turn to damsels in distress in shoujo is considered original in some cases) become originality.

    Another possible question will be: Is originality really good in the first place (since some will consider it to be the holy grail)? I leave that to someone else to answer it.

    • Chronolynx
      Posted May 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      I’m tempted to agree with you about originality being obsolete, but the optimist in me won’t hear it. It might be harder than it used to be, but it can still be done.

      But is originality good? It at the least is necessary, otherwise the medium would stagnate. I think it’s good, and appreciate it when I see it, but that’s my own taste.

      • Posted June 3, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I’ll play Devil’s advocate (well sort of) and agree with both of you. There IS no such thing as originality, in that virtually all plots and character types can fit into one of a finite number of categories (which makes sense given the thousands of years people have been telling stories, let alone the critical theory that has been published on the matter). However, you CAN still be original, in the way you INTERPRET these various plots/ characters/ issues etc. Also, I’m a firm believer in the ‘be personal’ approach to whatever people produce/ write/ direct etc – after all, there’s only one ‘you’, so if you’re true to yourself (as well as knowlegeable enough about what you’re trying to to of course), then your individual voice will sing through and people will recognize it as a unique/ original style… hopefully! Either way – grrreat post comrade! :D

  4. Onion
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I find people complain about originality when they’ve either not watched a series or find the series poorly executed. When a show is done well, even when blatantly borrowing from earlier shows, people don’t really complain about it.

    Take Alien for example. Outside of H.R. Giger’s creature design there is nothing original about that movie. And yet, because the film was so well handled people often forget/don’t realize that it didn’t start the claustrophobic space horror genre. (And the genre traces its origins back to supernatural horror movies with people locked in a castle with ghosts or vampires and stuff, which in turn where inspired by horror radio plays -> novels -> folk tales -> ect)

  5. deaky
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I agree with Onion, people generally complain about “originality” when they can’t quite pin down what really bothers them about the anime.. most of the time it’s just “too generic” to them or they are just disappointed and felt it was lazy in some way.

    For my part, originality isn’t important. What’s important is delivering something that I don’t feel I’ve entirely watched already, especially when I feel it’s been done better. Otherwise there’s no payoff.. I know what’s going to happen ahead of time and any twists feel wholly artificial. It’s doubly worse for parodies or homages, because they are low-hanging fruit – not putting any ass into them almost feels insulting.

    Shows like Mushishi feel more original to me because they are more subtle in their use of tropes and cliches. They don’t feel like blunt instruments as they do in a show like Angel Beats. I don’t feel like they are crutches for lazy writing as much as I don’t even notice them at all. But at the end of the day, even a show like Angel Beats can still be marginally entertaining if it selects the right tropes and twists them well. As long as they’re not trying to squeeze blood from a stone, I’m willing to look the other way.

  6. Posted May 30, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Originality is not important to me. If a new series wants to borrow ideas from an older one, I say go for it, so long as it borrows the good ideas or improves the bad ones. Everyone (hopefully) learns from mistakes.
    But at this point, is anything original anymore? Are what we consider ‘originals’ actually the originals? I think this goes into the territory of subjectivity. And with that, originality becomes a moot point.

  7. Matt
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I think originality is still relevant, but the sense of trailblazing I definitely think is something of the past. The map has been filled in (to steal a Pirates of the Caribbean line of all places), but maybe there are a few things that haven’t been traveled to as much so they still feel relatively new based on frequency and not having alot to compare it next to.

    Trying to flesh out my argument maybe a little more, things like the high school setting. It is done in literally almost everything, to the point we turn a blind eye to it, but its there and alot of shows can be summed up as daily school life with a few putting in something external that uses the school as a neat centralizing function. How many shows that we would describe as above average or of superb quality are set in high schools? Im going to not qualify this, but Id reckon not a lot. So I think there are certain things that are red flags that stereotype a show before it is seen, like a commenter above talked how Angel Beats was getting slagged because as little details of it linked, fans jumped to find shows that already did it to discredit the new work. I love Angel Beats by the way, mostly because Im a sucker for piano and I love the opening, but yeah, the show isnt breaking new ground, it is similar to other things, but thats fine because frankly I havent seen many shows that use the high school or a central location that traps everyone there with a large mechanism in place that isnt well understood by the characters. It qualifies as new to me, while someone else has written it off as being derivative already.

    One last thing, also sorry for post frequency, ill need to cut back, but I like having discussions with you people, very good articles inspire discussion.

    I would say that there are still many situations and story’s that anime particularly hasnt hit very often. Not often are things set outside of Japan in foreign countries. Young people in other countries and following their lives (although the reason for that is kinda obvious), things set in various historical periods, better use of mythology etc. There are still stories out there that can come off as original even if it has used some things that derive from other locations. You just have to make sure you are doing a good job at it. From someone who just graduated from University, Id know this first hand, I dont think I wrote an original paper in 3 years. It was basically allocating people with similar idea’s and allocating the people on the opposite side. This is due because as a Political Science major, its hard to write new stuff. The teacher’s expect this or else the failure rate would be through the roof. Maybe that is a bad comparison, but Im sure they are looking more for quality, how you write, how you think, if you can organize and structure and if you would be in line for something that requires research and maybe taking something new, that you have the tools for it. Anime can do the same. Works that you are deriving off of are toolkits, you can use them to assist it, but at some point you need to hit something that is at the very least interesting to give the fans and critics the entertainment or insight that they are looking for.

    • Posted May 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Post frequency is good, no need to hold back now.

      Editorials like this one are rewarded by commenters like yourself who really take the subject on. I can’t speak for the post author, but I can’t imagine any blog writer who won’t appreciate your contribution.

      As you said, it’s difficult writing new work, as even this post perhaps doesn’t acknowledge the material in the anime blog bibliography on the subject, there are probably redundancies made or insights not taken into consideration.

      However, the important thing here I think is that it got people like you to discuss the subject, and we can always hunt down the previously written essays on the subject at our leisure — if other, informed readers don’t leave the links here in the comments first ^_^

    • Chronolynx
      Posted May 30, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      Certainly don’t apologize for commenting. I love when my writing sparks discussion.

      I didn’t mention it in my editorial, but one of the main things I look for in an anime is the quality of the writing. I’m sure there have been cases where a series took what a previous show offered, but told it better so that people only remember the later show. That’s why Shakespeare is famous: most everything he did was based on earlier stories.

      Regarding high schools, I could name several that I have enjoyed, but you’re right that only a small number are in any way groundbreaking. That probably stems from how common the setting is; people come in with certain expectations, and that binds what the series can do.

  8. Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, I recently wrote a post about originality in anime, too. To summarize, I’ve come to the conclusion that most anime, or even most works of fiction, can’t help but copy a previous work in some way. But what makes it appealing anyway is how it combines cliche elements and how the creator has a talent for telling the same story in a refreshing way. Of course, there are some series I feel are very original, like Haruhi and Death Note, but you can always find some cliches within.

  9. Micchon
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t want to say the ‘g’ word (genre)…oh wait, I said it now. Anyways, for me, originality/genre/diversity in anime don’t really mean that much to me any more. For something like Haruhi, when I first started watching it, I was hearing everyone praise it and give it all sorts of genres; Surreal, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science-fiction, Action, School. Does anime need so many genres now? And are people willing to label anime with assorted genres?

    I’m just starting with Angel Beats, so whether I’ll be thinking action or comedy or whatever is anyone’s guess at the moment.

  10. Posted May 30, 2010 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    I personally don’t feel that originality in anime is that important. After I read this post I was just basically thinking about what makes an anime unoriginal? In my view at least, it’s really difficult to label any anime as “derivative” just because most animes change something fundamental from the “original” source. Going back to Shakespeare, even though he ripped off the plot of a lot of his plays from other sources, the way through which they’re presented and the way he made some small tweaks to the plot don’t make his work any less “original” than if he crafted his own narrative.

    In my view, there are far more important aspects about an anime than worrying about whether it’s original or not. When we start to question about whether an anime is original, then you know that we really have nothing better to say about it. I consider writing, animation, sound, art style, presentation, and all elements like that to be far more important discussion points than originality.

  11. Posted June 6, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    i don’t really give a shit whether something’s original or not.

    It bugs me at how people label most shows trash because the plot’s been done already. And people seek original works. I mean, you’re right. Original shows aren’t always that great.

    Just cuz it’s original, doesn’t make it good. A completely generic show beating out something original… yeah, anything can happen when people write shit. That’s why no writer gives a shit when they write plots for shows i think.

    I know i don’t.

  12. Posted November 21, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Originality, hmmm. As I understand it, there’s only 3 basic plots: Man vs man, man vs nature, & man vs
    himself, with 14 basic derivations (Used by Hollywood.).

    Maybe there’s no such thing as originality anymore, but if people keep coming up with “new” combinations
    & handle them well, I’ll still be watching.

    My take on Angel beats here:
    jaysteevee.blogspot.com/2010/10/not-haruhi-clone.html

One Trackback

  • By A Look At How Anime Is An Art on June 10, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    [...] incorporates elements from each of those types of art into crafting its own identity. Going off of Chronolynx’s definition of originality, anime is indeed an original art form, one to be placed alongside other mediums of [...]

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