For the longest time Anime was noted by both fans and detractors of the medium for an unwillingness to venture into the real world. I’m referring specifically to Shoujo series which often take place in some sort of idealized, cute world with specific character archetypes and eccentricities and dialogues which don’t really match the real world, which is dirty and politically charged, and which is also heavily influenced today by the use of Social Media. Forgive me if I come across a tad bit pessimistic, but I chose those descriptions of the real world because they are the most relevant to the topic of this article.
It is no secret that the world today is especially divisive, what with populists exploiting people’s naïve fears and prejudices to gain power, terrorist attacks, and people disagreeing heavily on the solutions to these problems resulting in endless debates, which then deteriorate into petty shouting matches, with no definitive answers being found, and the rest of the population being left to suffer in a pit of ignorance, poverty, and prejudice. It is ugly world out there right now, and so most of us use escapism such as anime to turn away from that world. But sometimes that escapism can provide the answers in life that are sorely missing from the real world. Sometimes, writers and artists can paint a more accurate portrait of the real world than news presenters and politicians ever could.
Going back to the whole thing about Anime as escapism that exists in it’s own world, I have noticed however that more recently the medium has displayed more of a willingness to tap into the real world. Many series from last season used real life social media accounts such as Twitter to convey their narratives (previously fake websites were used in series), such as Girlish Number‘s use of the site to describe the reaction to the main character’s failing career. More importantly however, it has also brought more social issues to the forefront lately. Last year I remember seeing quite a few posts relating to how 2016 was “the gayest year in Anime history”, and series such as Sound! Euphonium and Flip Flappers certainly lived up to that reputation, but the most significant representation of social issues from the Fall 2016 season was Yuri on Ice, a show most of you have probably heard of before about a Japanese ice skater who becomes coached by his idol to rejuvenate his career and aim for the World Championship. The series initially seemed to be a typical sports anime with the typical yaoi fanservice, but as the series progressed it became evident that the gay elements were more than just that, as the title character Yuri and his coach Victor seemed to hold a deeper intimate connection between each other (it never became too explicit, but it was obvious). The series moreover, seemed to take place in a world where the idea of homosexuality was considered perfectly normal, even in countries which in the real world have a notoriously negative attitude towards gay people. It was also a heavily multi-ethnic series, as it’s setting in an International Ice Skating Championship gave it a diverse cast of characters, many of whom again come from countries which treat gay people like dirt. The series managed to break barriers regarding ethnicity and sexuality in this regard, and did so without feeling the need to draw attention to itself, and in turn managed to become an International hit which opened the door for Anime to more explicitly tackle social themes.
This brings us to Winter 2017, where there are two series in particular that I wanted to highlight which both tackle the idea of discrimination (albeit one being more explicit than the other as we will see) in a way which makes them both heavily important in today’s aggressive world. Both of them are uplifting reverse escapist Slice of Life series based on currently ongoing Manga about supernatural beings living in the human world, allowing for a perspective which can look at the nature of humanity as a whole from the outside. The first of these is Interviews with Monster Girls, a series set in a world where varieties of Mythical monsters known as Demi-humans, or just Demis, have historically been treated with fear and prejudice by humans but in recent years have, in theory, been granted equal rights. The series takes place from the perspective of Tetsuo Takahashi, a human biology teacher who, never having encountered a Demi in his life, suddenly discovers four Demis at the highschool he works at. Three students, a Vampire named Hikari Takanashi, a Dullahan named Kyouko Machi, and a Snowwoman named Yuki Kusakabe, as well as a fellow teacher, a succubus named Sakie Satou. Takahashi develops an interest in Demis upon encountering these four, and thus begins to interview each of them in order to gain an understanding of their experiences.
From this premise, we are able to learn about the experiences of the different girls, who each have experienced living as an outsider in society, even with the love and support they receive from their families. They are a stand in for many different types of real life minorities, the disabled, racial and sexual minorities etc. And through his interviews and interactions with them, Takahashi becomes something of an ally to each of them, helping them to find their footing through themselves and with each other, and helping them to grow. This is represented visually by a sequence in the opening, in which each individual Demi is shown against a background reflective of their personalities. The backgrounds have changed as the series progresses to represent their growth, most notably when Yuki defiantly changes the cold background behind her into a shinier one with a proud look on her face. Or the Ending, in which the characters are represented by drawings which become coloured in by crayons to represent how they are becoming content with themselves as the series goes on.
The series is reminiscent of the interpersonal emotions and the beauty of the mundane examined in KyoAni’s works. And that’s my lazily made Segway for the introduction to the other series I will talk about, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. The latest series from Kyoto Animation tells the story of a computer programmer named Kobayashi, who after a night of drunkenly wandering into the forest and coming across a Dragon (which she initially assumes to be a drunken hallucination) whom she gets on extremely well with, and invites her to live at her place. The dragon, Tohru, becomes incredibly smitten with this human (she explicitly says in the first episode that her attraction to her is sexual) and agrees to become her personal maid for her. Miss Kobayashi, potentially trying to comprehend the fact that a dragon exists, agrees to let her stay. Along the way, a younger dragon named Kanna also stays with them, becoming something of an adopted daughter to the pair of them.
As the series goes on we are also introduced to Aztec Dragon Goddess Quetzalcoatl Lucoa whose character just like her mythical counterpart lost her divine status after causing a scandal, a personality she commits to through her hyper-sexualized actions, and Fafnir, another dragon and Black Butler cosplayer who initially holds a strong distrust of humans until he is introduced to geek culture through Kobayashi’s friend Takiya whom he grows a strong bond with and becomes roommates with. As a slice of life series, this one focuses more on character relationships than a consistent plot progression. The individual episodes are more split into separate comedic setpieces which serve to introduce more minor characters and display the dragon’s unique reactions to activities in everyday life that we ordinary humans find to be so mundane and seeing the incredibility of them, which is where the Reverse Escapist element of the series comes in.
I have chosen these two series for examination because they quite clearly share a lot in common, both of them being about supernatural beings interacting with the natural world, both of them being primarily comedies with a gentle and uplifting attitude, and because most importantly they both examine important social themes of prejudice. We have already observed the background of the prejudice themes in Monster Girls, but Dragon Maid may seem less obvious about it at first. Apart from the stand-in lesbian parents of Kobayashi and Tohru, as well as the presence of other queer ships, one perhaps wouldn’t see anything particularly sociological. Where the two series intersected with one another however, and the reason I decided to write this comparison of the two, are rather serious scenes from episode 4 of both.
In the case of Dragon Maid, this occurred in a scene where Kobayashi and Tohru were shopping for a backpack for Kanna, who decided she wanted to go to school with human children, wishing to adapt to the new world she lives in. A conversation is brought up between the two in regards to school uniforms which Kobayashi notes are designed identically to each other regardless of the person wearing them, which causes her mind to casually linger towards discrimination and how society treats those who are different with cruelty, a fact which both she and Tohru agree is an unpleasant factor in the human world. This poignant little moment really resonates, helping to bring a sense of serenity to what is otherwise a fairly silly series, and affirming the dragon characters position in the series as outcasts or more specifically immigrant surrogates. Kanna, being a younger figure is more excited by the prospect of living in this society. The scene also displays some development for the backstory of Tohru, who has had bad experiences with humans in the past and prefers to keep a distance from normalising herself in this society but is still open to others, as seen later on in episode 7 when she feels welcomed at an otaku convention where her odd appearance is admired by tourists, giving her a lovely moment of lucidity.
This scene, with its reference to prejudice brings this series to the comparison with Monster Girls, which had a vaguely similar if less lucid moment also in episode 4 concluding a character arc involving Yuki. After the end of the previous episode in which a misunderstanding occurred following her overhearing two other girls talking about her behind her back. A conversation which implied she was “stuck up” and would never give the time of day to a boy due to her being a snowwoman (she is shown later on in the series to have a strong connection to Romance Manga, disproving this stereotype). The last part of that wasn’t said by the girls, but was the impression Yuki got due to her holding a long resentment towards her Demi identity. Hikari, whose defining characteristic is her openness, decides to confront these girls. Her intrusion, although seemingly disrupting her from being able to create a coherent response in the form of an angry rant instead, displays the character’s indignation and temerity, implying that she may feel an obligation to defend others against bullying due to some experience she had in the past though we have seen so far that she seems to have a rather comfortable home life with her supportive human family. Ultimately though, the conflict is resolved through each of the girls coming to a mutual understanding. The girls apologise for their arrogant behaviour, Yuki meanwhile apologises because she realises she is still bothered by her Demi nature, bringing to the foreground the series’ themes of how prejudice affects individuals psychological wellbeing.
Both of these scenes share an incredible amount in common, even with the latter taking a more pivotal role in the story. Both of them deliver monologues regarding how society treats people, both of them hold an unequivocal pathos in relation to the rest of the series, both of them provide hints to the deeper layers of the characters to the audience, and what struck me was the fact that these two scenes were broadcast within the same week.
Of course, beyond simply this scene, the two series also display their themes in different ways. In Dragon Maid for example the dragons are mostly unknown of by most of human society, and the humans we do see them interact with never really display any discrimination towards them, if anything they’re the source of the most support towards the dragon characters while serving as representations of discrimination themselves. This is most evident when we see Kobayashi in her workplace being singled out by her boss as a target for verbal harassment and unjust castigation, a scene which many women in the real world are all too familiar, and which we sympathise with Tohru’s disgust towards when she repeatedly trips him in response under a disguise of invisibility (since doing this with witnesses, no matter the context, tends to result in unjust backlash). It is apparent in this scene that Tohru represents a more vocal side to Kobayashi which allows her deep rooted frustrations to be handled with a magic fix she was sorely missing from her life before, helping her to gain more satisfaction in life while in turn helping Tohru to develop a sense of intimate connection with others which she was missing beforehand.
Of course, the supernatural elements in Interviews with Monster Girls are the source of the prejudice element, taking place in a world which though paralleling ours is very much different, whereas in Dragon Maid that element comes from another dimension into our world. There are hints of real prejudices in the society though these are miniscule, such as a standard Shoujo portrayal of perversion in male school students towards girls, specifically from Yusuke, a minor character who holds an extreme infatuation for Satou and becomes scolded for it by a detective at the school named Kurutsu (don’t ask). Or when the existence of gay men in society is acknowledged by another detective who brings it up in relation to Satou’s succubus powers and how it apparently doesn’t affect them. He refers to them as “the gays” which I don’t know, I just find to be a weird description. Also he says they’re the only men who aren’t affected, no acknowledgement of asexual men, I’m ashamed. Actually this also brings up another point, I haven’t read the manga this is based on, but I read somewhere that in that it was said that Satou’s powers affect men and women, but in this anime adaptation it only affects men which is certainly something I can see as a problem considering it erases what could have added a new dimension to the world portrayed on screen. Overall though, the portrayal we get on screen is of a world where people seem first and foremost concerned only with personal wellbeing without feeling the need to display prejudice towards others.
Speaking of which, one thing I think both of these series convey is the surprising ability of the slice of life genre to develop incredibly subtle world building due to the moments of introspection which allow for exposition brilliantly hidden within moments of character building in how that character relates to the world around them. When we think of slice of life, we normally think of ordinary characters in ordinary settings, but here we have two series in that genre which provides fantasy characters whose existence makes it a fantasy setting. As such we require details on how society functions, particularly in Monster Girls, with the existence of such beings. We are explained in different ways, whether they be monologue or dialogue, how society functions. One detail we are given regarding Hikari’s vampirism is that she is provided with blood by the government, which is both a positive for the society in the series and a realistic display of what it would be like if such people existed. Or in one instance where her human sister Himari becomes distressed at what might happen if she tries to look in a mirror after hearing that Vampires don’t have reflections, but this turns out to be false as many of the attributes associated with these beings are shown as old myths in the series itself developed by the sordid history surrounding these people.
This is often used for visual comedy, such as with Kyouko’s headless appearance leading to instances of her body and her head becoming separated by accident such as the body walking onto a train, or when it needs desperately to go the bathroom and tries to relay that information on it’s own which also develops information on how the physiognomy of her species functions. While the nature of the Demis is generally used for comedic effect throughout the series it is never really in a way which denigrates them as characters, helping to stay consistent with the series’ themes.
Most of the world building in Dragon Maid has largely relied on exposition through dialogue so far, the fantasy dimension the dragons come from isn’t really a focus of the series, and the comedy is more intricately personality based in terms of its characters. One recurring joke being Lucoa’s ignorance in regards to standards in the human world leading to her putting herself in inappropriate situations involving her voluptuous body. Though this little joke does still displays how innocent the world in this series is. It’s a world filled with adorable kindergarteners, kind-hearted cosplayers, and very minimal drama which helps the world to feel kind, even if not all aspects of it are perfect. Just the type of escapism that many of us need in the world we have right now. The same can be said of the world in Monster Girls, where direct prejudice has never been shown and people are shown to be more or less ambivalent towards demis, with Takahashi willingly handing out hugs to each of the students in a totally adorable display of emotional support from an ally.
I don’t really have much else to say about either series that wouldn’t spoil too much about either of them. I will say that if you enjoy slice of life and fantasy based comedy these series might be to your taste. But the main point I wanted to highlight about these series in this article was how well they function as escapism. Both of them are largely cute and admirable in the world they present, and in the climate we live in right now such a possibility can certainly satisfy people who feel undervalued in society, portraying a type of society which is kinder and where people are nicer than what we see in the world today. Both of these are series that I’m incredibly happy to see right now, each week leaving me with a feeling of happiness and comfort, and I’m glad that these two also represent a move towards social consciousness in anime which I hope to see continue at a time when it truly is necessary.