I think that anyone who likes anime and manga has had the ‘Okay, yes, but’ conversation when trying to convince a friend to get into the subculture. All fans know that it’s difficult to explain all the manga and anime tropes that some feel define the medium.
They’ll say, ‘isn’t Gurren Lagann just a series of panty shots broken up by giant robots?’ and then you’ll say, ‘Okay, yes, but, it’s an inspiring story about believing in someone who believes in you’. They’ll also say, ‘Isn’t Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure just a bunch of muscley dudes making weird poses’ and you’ll say ‘Okay, yes, but,’ and then maybe not have quite a response to that one.
There are certain cliches and tropes that anime and manga have created for themselves. A lot of the more recent popular anime has succeeded largely because of a denial of those tropes, but I feel like a lot of the stuff that I appreciate about both mediums is when they decide to either lean into those tropes shamelessly or even draw attention to them. I just love a sense of meta-humor that says ‘we get it, we understand’, or even plays so blatantly into tropes that there’s no way that the writers don’t know what they’re doing.
For example, Gintama is one of the longest-running shonen anime and manga series out there, and some of its best moments come when it’s sending up other popular series. While it is, under everything, a shonen manga with samurai fighting aliens and occasionally cyborgs in pitched combat, it’s also very well known for its comedic sensibility and self-referential humor to the conventions of anime.
Gintama is a pretty versatile series, a trait largely developed by its structure. The anime, at any rate, is largely episodic, so if you just kind of hop into an episode, you can probably figure out what’s going on outside of the basic conceit of ‘aliens took over Japan during the Edo period so everyone has swords and kimonos but we also have scooters and manga.’
However, tomes and tomes of online forum posts have been dedicated to what the best arcs of Gintama are. An arc is usually around two or more episodes long, and in Gintama they can vary wildly in regards to tone. Some arcs will stick to the show’s shonen roots and introduce characters central to other characters’ dark and mysterious pasts and feature enough swordplay, lasers, and blood to fill a… well, shonen anime, I guess. But sometimes they can introduce characters central to other characters’ dark and mysterious pasts and spend four episodes with nothing but lewd jokes and innuendo.
One of Gintama’s greatest strengths is its ability to hop back and forth between these two worlds, lampooning each of them while inherently making fun of itself. Despite moments where Gintama takes itself and its world incredibly seriously, it will also shred any sort of adherence to convention or tropes at a moment’s notice. And more often than not these moments will be lewd and/or crude, and even possibly rude.
For example, a little-known fact about the series is that the show’s female lead, Kagura, is thought to be the first female lead in manga to be depicted vomiting. For those unfamiliar with the history or definition of shonen manga, being that its primary demographic is young boys, for most of its existence women were demure, beautiful, and cute characters without much going until around the 1980s. While female characters developed since then, making your female lead puke is a pretty major advancement, of sorts.
Anime like Gintama help to kind of show what anime is and can be, while also poking fun at what anime is and can be. It’s more accessible in its irony and its flip-flopping between serious and wacky, and while it more often than not veers into the realm of downright immaturity, it’s got a certain silliness that makes it stand out amongst its peers.
These sorts of anime exist on somewhat of a spectrum. Maybe even a grid? I dunno, I’m not doing an exact science here. At the other end of Gintama are works like Mobile Fighter G Gundam. Pretty much every iteration of the Gundam franchise is very squarely in the ‘This is a Serious Anime for Serious People’, with the exception of the SD Gundam series, but sometimes even that is hyped for its drama. When G Gundam was released, it was looked upon with a fair amount of criticism for being such a major departure in tone and concept from the Gundam series.
While most Gundam series focus on the conflict between the Earth Federation and the Zeon colonists, with massive space battles featuring warships and mobile suits and pausing to reflect on what it means to take life in war, G Gundam focuses mostly on the protagonist Domon Kasshu engaging in one-on-one Gundam fights with other robots to see which space colony will control the fate of the rest of the colonies.
The ol’ Wandering and Fighting trope doesn’t on its own make much of a tonal difference, but the rest of the series capitalizes on this to become what I can only describe as ‘delightfully goofy’.
What G Gundam really traffics in is a sense of melodrama, as the series is really propelled by Domon Kasshu’s engagement in various Gundam fights. It largely serves as a cover for his search for his missing brother in order to save his father, who was frozen as punishment for building a Gundam that Domon’s brother stole and razed a bunch of soldiers with. But the series also has a weird sense of consistency, as every episode is opened with a Gundam Fight referee explaining the conceit of the series, and every episode features a somewhat gratuitous transformation sequence where Domon puts on the skintight bodysuit necessary for piloting a Gundam. As many are aware, the skintight bodysuit is an indispensable anime trope.
Every other episode features the introduction of a new Gundam based on the culture of the country it represents. In a lecture to Georgia State University, G Gundam’s director Yasuhiro Imagawa explained that many choices made in the series, especially the design of the Gundams, were in order to boost toy sales. This would explain the rather imaginative designs of various Gundams, including Neo Mexico’s sombrero-wearing mustachioed Tequila Gundam and Neo Holland’s half-robot half-windmill Hurricane Gundam. These aspects of the series are presented point-blank and with little to no sense of irony (Except maybe the transformation sequences?) which I personally find amazing.
I think part of the campy aspect of G Gundam comes from the fact that there’s not really anything in the series that quite announces the tonal shift from space opera to toy advertisement. And as anyone who is a fan of animation should know, just because something looks like it’s made for kids or even designed with kids in mind doesn’t mean it can’t attract older audiences.
The preceding series, Mobile Suit Victory Gundam (directed by Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino), also tried to attract younger viewers but because of the mature themes in it skewed more toward fans who had enjoyed the series before it, Gundam ZZ. But because G Gundam’s abrupt but subtle tonal shift and appeal to tropes is played completely straight, it becomes one of those series that’s just kinda fun to watch.
Compare G Gundam to a show like Chargeman Ken, a show so classically bad that it has turned around and became something of a cherished cultural icon in Japan. Chargeman Ken is the story of a boy who is gifted with special powers that make him the only one who can stand up to an alien menace that seeks to conquer Earth. Destroy Earth? Plunder it for resources? I don’t remember and honestly it matters as much here as it did to the creators of the show, because while anyone or any team that creates a piece of media puts a lot of effort into it no matter what it happens to be, Chargeman Ken is a glorious apathetic and almost cynical void because of the lack of care or oversight that went into creating it.
It’s not just in the sense that ‘everything is WEIRD and nothing has any REASON to it’, because for one thing, plot holes and unexplained circumstances (or developments that just sort of happen) are almost as much anime tropes as transformation sequences.
Yes, Ken’s abilities are never really explained, and he gets strengths and weaknesses that seemingly fit what’s narratively necessary at the moment, as do other characters in the show; and yes the show will establish a rule and then break it moments later; but the show itself has been crafted with such a haphazard sensibility that pointing out its flaws almost becomes part of the experience of watching the show.
In the first episode there’s a moment where Ken is rolling away to avoid danger. Because the animation cel and the background are misaligned, Ken seems to be rolling five feet off the ground. Other episodes feature lapses in quality such as backgrounds not entirely colored in, people facing one way but moving in another, strands of hair that will show up in frames, and in one episode there’s a frame that just simply doesn’t exist. Someone put a placeholder frame there for whatever reason and just did not remember to put in the actual animation frame until the thing was released.
While it’s important to remember in any aspect of media criticism that it is immensely difficult to create and put out any piece of media, there are aspects of Chargeman Ken that suggest that this level of care was not put into its production, which I would say makes people feel better about mocking it. In comparison to other anime, Chargeman Ken is only really accessible because of the immediate realization that the viewer doesn’t really need to go through the mental process of trying to understand it, anyway.
Japanese culture has certainly embraced it because of this. To make a somewhat fraught comparison, it’s a similar phenomenon to The Room, one of the original so-bad-it’s-good midnight movie cult classics. But even in The Room the audience gets a sense that Tommy Wiseau was really trying. Watching Chargeman Ken delivers a very specific sense of enjoyment, not so much out of appreciation for the medium of anime, but more shock and awe that this is the product of someone’s efforts.
I think currently one of the most popular examples of anime spectacle that knows what it’s doing is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. If you’re reading OTAQUEST, you’ve probably at least heard of Jojo, and if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about. And I say ‘current’ even though the manga has been released since the late 80s, and the newest anime adaptation came out two years ago, but it’s undeniable that the entire series is one of the main forces in the current zeitgeist.
The chief aesthetic of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is truly ‘bizarre’, and it gets more and more prominent the deeper one gets into the anime and manga. It is not weird because of the vampires, superhumans, and Stands, but just because of the visual aesthetic of the show itself. In the first ten episodes that make up the Phantom Blood saga, things are comparatively normal; sure there are some weird poses, some dialogue choices, references to classic rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Tom Petty, and of course Dio, but ultimately nothing really defies the cliches and tropes of most anime or manga.
But as the series progresses, it’s clear that creator Hirohiko Araki seems to be leaning into the aspects that set it apart, part of which was initially just a lot of muscle-bound manly men in flamboyant outfits making the infamous ‘Jojodachi’, or Jojo poses. After the Stardust Crusaders arc there comes a definite series shift to focus on fashion, but in the anime it’s very clear that there is an experimentation with a new stylization present in the art, particularly in the way the backgrounds are colored in. Previously this was a technique used in the series to heighten tension, and the colors would eventually return to normal, but more often than not you’re going to be looking at a yellow sky and purple clouds in Diamond is Unbreakable, and you’re just going to have to accept it. And buddy, if you think that’s kind of odd wait till you get to the Torture Dance.
Jojo manages this interesting coexistence where it absolutely adheres to standard anime tropes (big strong muscle guys punching other muscle guys, combatants cleverly outwitting and out-thinking their enemies, overcoming obstacles with a hidden strength) but its aesthetics in many ways are off-the-wall in such a specific way that it’s unclear as to whether it’s done on purpose or not. For most of the series, things are somewhat grounded outside of the Stands and vampires, if not outright bizarre.
It’s crafted in such a way that it is constantly winking at the viewer when things become too serious or too grounded, as if to just kind of pull back into this sort of postmodern space that acknowledges it’s an anime about people fighting each other with psychic ghosts that make poses some have referred to as ‘homoerotic’. I always appreciate a piece of media that knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do in that way, but also manages to subvert those expectations in an almost tongue-in-cheek way.
Animation itself has been going through somewhat of a revitalization as all the kids who watched anime grew up and got into animation themselves, and the works they have created have begun driving a boom in animation geared toward a more mature audience. This seems to drive a more proliferated appreciation and interest in anime, both current and classic. As someone who had a more casual relationship with anime when they were younger, finding things in series current and past that I can recognize as self-referential regarding the tropes and conventions of the medium helps make the veritable labyrinth of yearly anime releases a little more navigable.
The creators and writers of these series have grown up with this medium, and can make these sorts of jokes and references and even add self-deprecating bits about other series and franchises. Eventually, when a medium gets so saturated, it can sometimes help to stand out by making a point of highlighting what makes them similar or even making discussions of what goes into them part of the piece itself. And sometimes highlighting and shamelessly exaggerating these tropes can also be a source of humor.