Quick warning, this editorial does have spoilers for the first episode of Gakkou Gurashi! in it. I highly suggest watching that episode first if you haven’t yet, as a few paragraphs towards the end, I ruin all the magic. You’ve been warned.
This week the topic I came up with at around one in the morning is one that I remember trying to ignore when it was at its maximum pushing point, back when Gaijin Goomba and Aki Dearest were able to stir their surprisingly large fanbases into a somewhat large fuss. Even if I hadn’t seen that video at the time it went live and drove a select few of the people I was following on Twitter to rant either for or against the points being made in the video, it’s something I remember. I still thought it was dumb, and still do, but it’s at least something worth talking about seeing as the topic unironically brought back up every so often and the topic was still somewhat prevalent before the aforementioned incident occurred. As the queen of clickbait and getting the Vocaloid community to hate her would say, is moé killing anime?
First of all, I’d like to point out my extremely biased answer to this question, which is no. It’s not. My answer is influenced by a few things, the obvious being that I like cute shows, but I feel like I have a few points that make my opinion at least look a little bit more valid than “I don’t want cute shows to stop being made because I like cute shows.” The most common argument that I’ve seen is that cute or “moé” (I hate using that word because that’s not always the correct way to use it) shows have completely taken over recent anime. Everything is cute now. We have cute battleships with Kantai Collection, cute tanks with Girls und Panzer, cute magic with Madoka Magica, and even cute zombie apocalypse with Gakkou Gurashi!. So much of anime is cute now that the stereotype of anime is starting to lean towards cartoons trying too hard to look cute. This brings on the question of whether or not this is a bad thing. Aside from me just liking cute shows, I’d like to say that it isn’t, and for hopefully a good reason.
As much as cute shows have taken anime by storm, I would only say it’s a bad thing if you hate shows like AnoHana, Nichijou, Kiniro Mosaic, K-On!, Clannad, Amagi Brilliant Park, Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka?, Fate/Prisma Illya, Gakkou Gurashi!, and honestly the list goes on for quite some time. To some people, you’ll look at that list and not even understand what those shows have in common. To a select few others, you’ll look at that list and see a bunch of anime you hate. Every last one of the shows above were influenced by the boom in popularity of cute shows. Kyoto Animation as a whole has been the lords of cute shows, being responsible for Lucky Star, K-On!, Chuunibyou, Kyoukai no Kanata, Hibike! Euphonium, Clannad, Kanon, and you get where I’m going with that. Kyoto Animation has literally become synonymous with “moé” shows and people in the anime fanbase who have began to recognise studios for their works know exactly to expect, at the very least from a visual perspective, from Kyoto Animation. Some hate them for that and some love them for that.
I’m going to go out on a whim and credit the success of Lucky Star for being the catalyst of the boom of cute shows. I’m probably wrong, but the success of that show told not only Kyoto Animation but the entire industry that fans like cute. Unlike Hollywood who just sees something as working and everyone collectively jumps on the “Let’s remake this a billion times” bandwagon, Japan has had the idea of cute sells for a long time. When you’re stuck with a principle like that, that cute shows like AnoHana will guaranteed bring in a larger audience than shows not primarily focusing on a cute appeal like the currently airing 91 Days, you begin to think about how you can twist this to be interesting. Rehashing the same thing over and over not only makes creativity die out like an overused dry erase marker, but it’s almost guaranteed to make your audience gradually shrink. So, let’s get creative.
What if we used cute as a contrasting element? What if we used cute as a focal point that was shocking when it was torn away? What if we used cute not as the only topic and visual style that sells well in anime, but as an element of the narrative? The element of cute in shows, to me, is a lot like fan service. A lot of people like it, a lot of people dislike it, but they can both be used as a powerful device to amplify the purpose in your production. I mentioned in my post about fan service that fan service was used beautifully in shows like The Monogatari Series and Date A Live not as just meaningless sexualising, but as an element of the narrative by clearly showing that the production is from the point of view of our protagonist in the former and by taking an interesting spin on the usual in the latter. Cute shows not only can do that same thing, but already have. For this, I’m going to point to two shows, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica and Gakkou Gurashi!.
Madoka Magica, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, is a genre breaking show. It takes the usual elements from a magical girl series, and twists them in a way no one could be expecting. The show starts off looking cute and adorable and like they’re going to have a great time fighting witches and working together as a team, with the usual elements of suspense and small tragedy fans of the genre have come to expect. Then it slaps you and shows you that it’s not going for that appeal, but instead is going to take you on the darkest rollercoaster ride of your life. The cute element is in direct contrast with what is actually happening. Characters have emotional breakdowns and give up on all their personal values. Some of the most powerful lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard come from this show and every time I rewatch it, which is a lot of times, I notice more and more complexities about it. Everyone who’s seen the show know how misleading the promotional poster for the show is. No one looked at that image and was fully prepared for what was about to happen. The element of cute in this show wasn’t to make them cute magical girls doing cute magical things in their cute girly lives, the cute element was to create an incredibly clear contrast, and it worked amazingly well.
Gakkou Gurashi!, aka School-Live!, on the other hand used it as an incredibly interesting twist on the usual. Throughout the entire first episode the show treats itself like an everyday slice of life show about a cute girl who goes to a school with other cute girls and is in a cute club with other cute girls who do cute things together. But throughout the entire first episode as it was playing the cute card, it was dropping hints at what was really going on. From messages in English on the chalkboard, to broken windows, to stacked rows of desks, even to a grave on the roof of the school. Something here wasn’t right. However, it was very very easy to overlook these things. So easy, in fact, that the people who weren’t looking for them, having no experience with the original manga, missed them completely. With the slow build up and hints being dropped, the show began its first lesson in how to do horror by, in one perfect moment, revealing that everything we had witnessed up until that point was through the eyes of our delusional main character, and the reality of the situation these girls were in was extremely grim. Not only was that moment brilliant, but they did several things of that nature over and over, using the element of cute as a pivoting point, and because of how the show carefully treaded around the expectation that it’s audience was an intelligent group of people, it not only never got tired, but also was a key defining feature of the series.
I could continue coming up with example after example of why cute shows aren’t “killing anime” and how, if anything, it allows for more gems to come out with the expected slice of life shows. Cute shows aren’t killing anime. In fact, cute shows are only killing anime as much as fan service is killing it. Both are incredibly powerful tools when used correctly, incredibly enjoyable on their own, and have the power to be used incorrectly and only hurt the production they were featured in. If cute shows are killing anime, then anime has been dying since 2007.
Thank you all so much for reading today’s editorial! It’s amazing, I actually know how to use the Insert Media button! In all seriousness, I hope you all enjoyed my ramblings and if you did and are interested that I usually do on a daily basis, why not follow me on Twitter? As always, I’ll be back next week!
The featured image for this post is a screencap from the anime Gakkou Gurashi!.