The most important anime of the 2010’s might have been Saekano
Yes, this is (more or less) an untimely follow-up to “Shoujo-tachi wa Kouya wo Mezasu is brilliant you fools!” Read that if you want a tad more perspective.
Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata might very well be the most important anime of the decade. The fact that such a funny idea blossomed within my mind throughout the duration of my Saekano rewatch was as much concerning as it was novel. The absurdity of this statement likely has many reeling at the idea, and feverishly composing a list of several other venerable series they deem “better” in all regards. I must confess I went through a similar thought process upon the terrifying realization that such an amusing idea was already nestled in the recesses of mind. But alas, the idea itself was far too intriguing to not entertain, and to which extent I found- could not yet fathom the rabbit-hole I would soon find myself stumbling down. Upon my first viewing immediately after it aired, my maladjusted hormone-ravaged teenage mind could barely even conjure up such a wild idea such as “Saekano being good” for any reason other than it being dumb fun. That was the extent of my understanding of the show and subsequently filed it away as being nothing more than what it was. But in the years that followed, the spark of a comedy such as this would alter the tides of the then-contemporary and echo far into the future- beyond what I originally perceived as possible. The lineage of the show extends much further than I expected and found itself wedged somewhere between master-class and meandering. Yet even through the messy connections drawn thereupon the push-pins connecting seemingly unrelated news clippings on the walls of my plain text document written almost exclusively on an unregistered copy of Sublime Text 3, I found profound meaning. You see, Saekano arrived perfectly on time to preemptively welcome the beginning of a new era, and elegantly signify the ending of something rapidly aging in the eyes of modernity. That is to say, Saekano was both ahead of its time and perfectly indicative of the era it was released in. With a broader understanding of anime at large, and years of hindsight left to reflect upon, I have concluded that my one-off hot take might have had more merit than I initially figured.
A decade’s worth of anime is certainly a lot of anime to consider. Moreover, the 2010’s was a bit of a renaissance in the industry where anime was beginning to be produced at rates never before seen with dozens of new shows starting every season. With so much anime, it’s not exactly fair to pick one show in particular and call it “the most important” of the decade. But I’m going to try and justify it anyway. To do that, however, would require me to explain what exactly my parameters for an “important anime” are. Important anime are much more than what they appear on the surface. One must take a peak underneath the exterior to see the gears turning below; how these anime are assembled will give more insight to the industry than what it appears to be on the surface. For instance, Sword Art Online was not popular simply because it was an isekai escapism anime, it had more to do with the many moving parts that it was composed of. That is why the plethora of isekai escapism anime released subsequently were not all able to capitalize on the trend with even a fraction of the same success. Additionally, the value of “time and place” must be stressed, in which the context a show was released plays into this metric quite significantly. When I think about “important” anime I think about Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kidou Senshi Gundam 0079 or Akira. Surely, this romantic comedy harem anime cannot stand alongside these legendary anime, right? I thought the same thing as first as I was brainstorming a few titles to list as my most important anime of the 70’s through the 90’s just a moment ago. Yet, even saying that, and knowing full-well the absurdity of the words I’m about to speak: I like Saekano significantly more than the aforementioned series. But it’s not simply because I like Saekano that I consider it the best of the 2010’s. In fact, it might not even be the best anime of 2016 or 2017 when each respective season aired. Importance does not signify universal enjoyment, Saekano instead cemented it’s legacy over time by proving itself as a bit of a trailblazer in much the same way Western colonizers were- that is to say, in title only. Saekano was not anywhere near the first anime to commentate on the meta in which it resides, nor is it that exceptional at doing its job either. Saekano can stand alongside the legendary series that came before it not despite being a harem romcom, rather, because it is a harem romcom. Saekano is the “most Heisei-era” Heisei-era anime. Love Hina this was not- this was a different beast entirely. Otaku culture has finally “grown up” and somehow the result is the television anime Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata.
My definition of “important” really ought to be clarified further before I get too deep in the weeds discussing Saekano further. I don’t want to potentially mislead anyone into thinking I equate importance with quality either. In fact, the anime I think are the most important of each era are hardly ever seen in my top 10 of their respective decades. When brainstorming the list of most important anime of the 70’s through 90’s, I found it difficult to align my personal favorites with shows that I know are more indicative of the times. I find Evangelion to be fairly problematic on a personal level and I view Akira as somewhat lukewarm compared to other cyberpunk and sci-fi pieces. But removing my personal stances of these anime, I find much value within them. They are indicative of not only their respective contemporary cultural zeitgeist, but also manage to silently start new trends under the noses of an unsuspecting otaku audience. Furthermore, my definition of “most important” does not place much emphasis on the variable of quality per say. It’s a title retroactively given to a piece of art that proves it was the defining work of the era. Important anime defines the generation in much the same way the best game on a given game console might define a generation of games. Gears of War might not have been the best game of the 7th generation of consoles, but it was perhaps the one which influenced the majority of future blockbuster hits within the console gaming market throughout the generation. This means that these aren’t necessarily the first of its kind nor even the best. Influences must be felt in waves. For this reason, it’s hard to judge something as “important” or a “classic” at the moment, since you need perspective to gauge the validity of that point further down the line. As was the case with Saekano, since I found the value of the show to emerge years after it finished. In short, watching the “most important” anime of a certain era will allow anyone to see it and understand to some extent what anime was like at the time, and understand how we got the present because of it. In some respects, Sword Art Online should be a strong contender for the most important anime of the decade. However, the problem with this is that I cannot justify this without acknowledging the backbone to which Sword Art built its success off. Let’s just say, the parts were greater than the sum it ultimately amounted to. Yes, Sword Art Online refined and popularized perhaps the biggest trend within anime recently, “isekai“, but similarly popularized the tropes critical to its success- tropes that would be greatly expanded upon in the coming years.
If I were to draft a list of my favorite anime of the 2010’s, my list would usually be front-loaded. The best reason I can give for this is that the decade started off a bit too strong, and those shows went on to define a lot of future iterations of similar ideas. Though in all actuality a more accurate explanation might be that the shows that are the most highly regarded are the ones that have been around longer, and have been given the time they deserve to fester within the internet otaku hivemind. Now-legendary anime such as Steins;Gate, Fate/Zero, the Monogatari Series, Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass come to mind. However, we should also pay our respects to the likes of Sword Art Online, No Game No Life and Shingeki no Kyojin– shows which might not receive critical acclaim, but should be remembered regardless for being insurmountably more popular and receiving more attention than the aforementioned “critic’s picks”. This is because the general anime community is not a round-table of basement dwelling tape traders anymore, unfortunately. Instead, there is a larger audience than ever before thanks to the ease of access thanks to streaming and internet discussion making more aware that anime is even a thing. The scope of anime was greatly increasing and the extent it would reach was still unknown.
So, when I talk about the “most important anime” I am not talking about the best of the decade. In the 90’s I would be inclined to say Neon Genesis Evangelion was the most important show. But the 2000’s is a bit murkier followed by a considerably more clouded 2010’s. However, even when I easily can conclude that Evangelion is the most important anime of its respective decade, I don’t think it’s the best of the decade per say. Yes, it was both a critical and commercial success, but I don’t really take that into consideration when speaking as my subjective point of view. With such criteria, my vote would go to the likes of Steins;Gate or Fate/Zero in the 2010’s otherwise. Instead, I want to focus on both the cultural and subcultural impacts these series made; ripples that can be still felt to this day. Evangelion was notable not just as the thinking man’s Gundam, but also for being so fascinating that it inspired dozens if not hundreds of artists to chase the same high Anno Hideaki briefly revealed to them. Evangelion was a show that pushed the envelope for “smart anime” and proved just how commercially viable it was to make television series like this. The era of the experimental OVA was beginning to end. It also inspired certain creators to be more ambitious- and dare I say, masturbatory- in their anime, by being able to quantify that there was indeed an audience for more cerebral storytelling in animation. Without Evangelion, we wouldn’t have Serial Experiments Lain– who’s creation wouldn’t have been possible without Evangelion most definitely being used as an example as to how creating a cult experimental animation could have more rewarding ramifications than simply bringing in a quick return on investment. These are the shows I can’t stop thinking about. But now I am often left examining a list of shows that began airing further and further in the past when creating a hypothetical “best of all time” list. Evangelion is older than me, Lucky Star was 15 years ago now. And before I knew it, 2007 was further away than I remembered.
I remember seeing somewhere a video or blog titled something along the lines of “Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai ruined a generation” or something along those lines. I didn’t watch the video because I already knew the person was wrong. Because in fact, Haganai was not responsible for this. Perhaps it was their straw man to point at and shake a finger at for all the world to see. That this little harem comedy anime was responsible for killing everything sacred about anime of the 90’s, I guess. I thought that was what Sword Art Online was already being accused of, but I digress. Though I do understand the sentiment, as there are shows airing now that I can try to raise the same points as. I said the same things about Kimetsu no Yaiba, before I realized that holding grudges against the popular thing that spawned imitators is reductionary and does a disservice to the potential breakthroughs allowed through learning from experience. I don’t think that creators are as cynical or egotistical as to approach a new series thinking “I’m going to pen the next best thing that everyone will want to copy”. Maybe they want to be successful enough to put food on the table, but probably not necessarily want to spawn the next great ultimate multi-media franchise. Perhaps my way of thinking is too naive or optimistic, but I like to think that at least mangaka or light novel authors are in the game because they like bringing stories to life. They do have to game the system a bit to get recognition through archetypes and studying demographics etc., but at the end of the day, I think they do reserve some pride in their abilities. They are willing to go so far to comply with popular trends before beginning to interject the work with their own creative spin. Of course, I can think of examples where a story was seemingly created in a test tube, but they are rarely as successful as one might be led to believe. But that’s beside the point.
Returning to Haganai, I believe the reason it would be looked down upon is for being popular as a result of the most common denominator archetypes. It was a fairly low-brow harem comedy anime that didn’t have anything to say about anything and strove to be dumb fun- in the way it’s fun to munch of potato crips or cheese fries. And like those two foods, they are not the type of foods that are well regarded by the masses nor by your physician. But these snack foods are still terribly popular despite their obvious shortcomings. Haganai is not as good as even half the shows that aired in 2011, and it goes without saying that it shouldn’t even be in the conversation regarding the best anime of 2011, much less the decade. Yet, it’s in the top 30 of the decades in terms of popularity on AniDB. It was a half-serious harem anime that weaponized Heisei-era anime archetypes and tropes to create a glorious bowl of saturated fats that was gobbled up by burgeoning new age otaku. It wasn’t indicative of the best of the harem genre either, but it should be noted how well it did for itself. Now an entire generation knew what this type of anime was and what to look for as entertainment or what to avoid. A new era of harem romcom anime was upon us, and this was nothing like the bishoujo game adaptations nor the usually honest Takahashi Rumiko adaptations of the decades prior. Instead, it was their self-deprecating, sharp-tongued and horny Heisei counterpart that basked in the light of the indulgent otaku metanarrative.
All that is to say: Haganai walked so Saekano could run.
So what did Saenako do exactly? I have been fairly nebulous regarding the tangible factors that inspired me to get this deep into a serious discussion regarding the possibility that Saekano is the most important anime of the 2010’s. The fact that I’ve been seemingly putting off the topic at hand and expanding upon various tangentially related flash-in-the-pan type ideas is mildly concerning, I would imagine. But unfortunately, I’m not here to respect your time. Rather, I want to give a mostly-comprehensive illustration of my perspective and how the otaku subculture evolution can be traced through the media it encompasses. With that in mind let’s focus again on Saekano, which, simply put, I can distill a lot of what the series did well into three main bullet-points: exemplified the commercial ability of modern otaku anime, showcased the viability of meta anime, and modernized the 2000’s bishoujo game structure that brought forth a revolution of sorts. There are of course other factors at play here, and other things the series did well. And I do not want to go the entirety of writing this without at least acknowledging the fact that Saekano is a deeply flawed series. In fact, I much prefer its contemporaries as well as other shows similar in essence like Oregairu. However, those series were missing something. That “something” was an unusual energy radiating around Saekano that gave me goosebumps- it felt like I was watching something that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a show that doesn’t really do anything new, but instead refines a lot of ideas that somehow brought together the best and worst of the 2010’s into one amalgamation that you either love or hate.
Perhaps the most superficial assessment of Saekano I can make is to say it has merit due to the commercial ability of the franchise. Though, to be fair, that is not necessarily indicative of the quality of the show. Though to qualify Saekano as the most important anime of the 2010’s, that is enough to give anyone pause. Yet, half the reason for an anime’s success is the staying power. Let’s look back through two of the anime I name-dropped earlier: Gundam and Evangelion. The former managed to keep its head afloat because of the success of plastic models based on designs from the show, while Evangelion manages to remain a sales juggernaut through licensing everything possible. Part of the reason why I and many others still discuss shows like Evangelion is because we can’t escape them. You can go 5 minutes in any critical discussion of anime without hearing that weird loner guy start rambling about Eva. This is largely in part due to the commercial success of the series, which consequently allowed it to exist in an undying, ever-present state of stasis; perpetually ingrained within the digital pop culture zeitgeist of sad internet boys and free-thinkers alike. Within this context, what the show was is just as important as the marketability it had. When I think of Eva, I think of Asuka and Rei, Eva Unit-01, the movie and the characters. As is the case, so did companies selling merchandise based on the series. Without the frightening amount of Asuka and Rei goods, would Evangelion be remembered as fondly? Incredibly likely, but not with as much relevance. The unprecedented success of Evangelion was a result of the ability it had to craft a unique, thought-provoking story whilst also being mainstream enough that it didn’t alienate any side of the fanbase completely. Evangelion similarly popularized the idea of having a waifu, and fans quickly rose to attention at the announcement of scale figures and dakimakura. Otaku culture wouldn’t be nearly as consumer-based as it is now without Evangelion merchandise flooding the proverbial market.
Saekano released at a time when Blu-ray and DVD sales were slowing down, where investors and licensors had to ask themselves: “how can we be profitable?” During the 2000’s, DVD sales were a key metric in judging the success of a show from a business standpoint. Whether or not the series sold enough to bring in a profit would indicate the chance of further seasons or the ability for a studio to remain in business. In the 90’s, original video animations (OVA) served as anime’s direct-to-video productions, and survived solely off their VHS and LaserDisc sales. However, as the internet found its way into the homes of otaku, the need for buying physical discs began to lessen, since downloading or streaming anime became more viable. As such, the industry began to shift towards a more premium and collector-centric market, selling much more expensive Blu-ray and DVD box sets. These oftentimes included uncensored footage, collector bonuses and special features, but came at a significantly more premium price when compared to standard disc prices for non-anime TV series and movies. This was not exclusive to Japan, as we can see this shift much more obviously in the American home video distribution anime market. In the height of the 2000’s when licensors such as ADV, Pioneer and Bandai were releasing premium editions of their series because they knew they would sell. This is why there are significantly more premium box sets of early 2000’s series as opposed to what we have now. But as the internet matured and streaming gained more traction, disc sales fell; the early 2000’s anime boom began to fizzle out, and distributors like ADV found themselves without a footing in the industry anymore. To a lesser extent, this was happening in Japan. As such, the anime industry began to find new outlets for making money. While not entirely the result of the falling disc sales in a more modern market, there began to be a rise in character goods and a focus on other collectable products within the anime industry.
Otaku culture has traditionally been focused on the act of archiving and database fetishism so this shift found an audience relatively quickly. There previously had been character goods such as figures, miscellaneous trinkets and the like, but they were more obscure or entirely fan made. For example, many early figures were either plastic models or garage kits- the latter developed by hardcore fans and distributed on a small scale at organized events such as Comiket, or by mail order. Nowadays, a quick look at sites like AmiAmi or MyFigureCollection shows just how many figures are being produced based on popular anime, manga and video game characters. These are premium products aimed at otaku with the intention of simultaneously helping the producers get a kick-back, as well as help their series gain notoriety through mass-producing icons. Commercial ability itself is referring to the tangible iconography of a piece of media that is worthwhile enough to inspire fans to purchase it. With the least abstractions as possible, look at the aforementioned PVC figures. Otaku pay a premium price to obtain a desktop statue with the likeness of a character they fancy. The metric of revenue earned on these goods can be the first step in showing how successfully marketing character goods implicitly proves how good the classical silhouette test of a character design is. If your Kato Megumi bath towel is selling, well screw it, put her on a water bottle or something. She is now the mascot to your success. Otaku have always been superficially biased database animals and the first impression of a character deals quite a bit of a moe-damage. The databasing begins at the twintails before trickling down to the tsun-tsun and warm dere beneath. Though discussion on the idea of top-down vs. bottom-up moe should probably be had another day, since one could argue the appeal begins and does not rely on visual design, but I digress. So this begs the question: is commercial success necessary for a series to be “important?” Not exactly, but they are rarely mutually exclusive for wildly successful anime.
Evangelion was quite notorious for having a large amount of character goods and unusual products based on it. While there were other series that came before and after it that might have been able to match its commercial success- both with disc sales and merchandise- none have been able to quite match the absurdity of Evangelion goods. That said, Saekano is a serious offender of a series that “sells-out” and exemplifies the almost perverted levels of commercial ability within modern otaku anime. In many ways this assessment is absurd, and it leaves me perplexed. I am left wondering if the sell-out status is earned intentionally or simply a product of the times. The protagonist Aki Tomoya is a hardcore otaku who resides in a room full of anime merchandised very clearly from contemporary anime and light novels. This is a large departure of the parodied anime-within-anime from the likes of Genshiken. There that series dropped calculated references to popular series at the time through imitating art styles, archetypes and story beats. Saekano instead forgoes subtlety entirely and drops a PNG of a Kaname Madoka scale figure on Tomoya’s shelf and very clearly depicts him reading Date A Live. The name-dropping of Date A Live or Madoka are not so much an advertisement as it is a means to convey believability. If you were a high school aged otaku in the 2010’s like I was, you would also likely be into Madoka Magica and Date A Live. Saekano is not really advertising these series in so much as it is telling the audience that Aki Tomoya is “one of us” or “/our guy/”, because clearly, most people watching and enjoying Saekano had probably already seen these aforementioned series. Publisher Kadokawa clearly had some level of confidence with this series and allowed A-1 Pictures to sprinkle overt references to its other popular series, as a form of marketing within itself. Unless, of course, the directive came from above. Alongside the copious amounts of Saekano merchandise it’s easy to see this series as nothing more than a vehicle for marketing character goods to otaku with a disposable income, right? Superficially yes. The series is a romantic comedy series with references to otaku culture- very clearly targeting the average viewer in a not-so-subtle “fellow kids” manner, though less heavy-handed than you may think. The otaku references are less important here and end up serving as lazy world building, but also clearly date this series and chronicle 2016 in much the same way Lucky Star treats 2007 otaku-isms. What I find most curious about Saekano is not the references or advertisements themselves, but the manner in which the series ends up selling itself out. In a similar sense to Evangelion, Saekano became a cash cow to milk dry. Figures, clear files, pins and other trinkets were everywhere. Unlike in the case of Evangelion, where “at least the show was good” could be used to defend the absurd amounts of character goods, Saekano’s commercial success was seemingly at the cost of the show’s integrity. Saekano’s image morphed from a meta-narrative series subtly critiquing otaku culture while simultaneously refining and relishing within the more crude aspects of ecchi anime, to becoming a show about Megumi Kato, Kasumigaoka Utaha and Sawamura Spencer Eri. That is to say, it became the waifu show. In much the same way that a superficial assessment of the Monogatari Series‘ made to being the “waifu wars series” undermines it’s true depth, Saekano became mangled in a filthy web of it’s own artificial popularity. Yet, it was a trailblazer because of it; Twitter-tending statuses and public consensus be damned! The 2010’s saw an unprecedented rise of popularity of anime worldwide alongside an increasing amount of seasonal anime. The girls sold the show, Saekano had something for every nu-taku, and the sales proved it. Perhaps it was able to succeed because of its otaku-oriented foundation. While similar shows were previously relegated to niche circles of discussion, as was the case with Otaku no Video and Genshiken, Saekano instead broke into the mainstream as a revised piece that reached more people than it might have intended. But it was perhaps better for it, since it proved just how big the modern worldwide otaku audience now was. Saekano was an anime about otaku, for otaku, and exemplified how such an anime was able to succeed in a modern market.
What is perhaps most polarizing about Saekano is the meta-awareness, and the lack therefore of. It’s hard to put my finger on it but the entire existence of Saekano feels much like my own- one baked in consistent attempts to call attention to its own intentionally developed idiosyncrasies, but similarly not being socially well-adjusted enough to recognize the subtleties to its own autism. Saekano’s punchline is that it’s self-aware of otaku culture and understands that it is an anime. The characters frequently call attention to the fact that they are aware, to some extent, of their existence within a television anime. The absurdity of the show lies within its critiquing of otaku culture while simultaneously refining and relishing within the more crude aspects of the 2000’s harem anime. Though the usage of “critique” should be taken with a grain of salt. The show instead uses its self-awareness as a means to dilute the viewer’s immersion and ask them to start asking the hard questions. It’s less a critique and more of an elaborate inside joke told by the production staff and presented to an otaku audience, because even with the perspective allowed by 6 years of anime’s evolution, I still can’t tell you how intentional a lot of this really was. The deeper you are the less it makes sense and tangents spiral out of control. The show uses archetypes to seemingly both deconstruct and reconstruct- sometimes at the same time. The intended audience of this anime was supposed to be hardcore light novel reading otaku who would fully understand the point of the archetype and cliche manipulation, but still be able to enjoy the schlock for what it is. Perhaps the greatest fault of the show, however, was that the popularity it reached likely eclipsed the intended audience. This results in a division between people who see Saekano as a tongue-in-cheek anime that has fun with cliches, and those who see it as regressive for continuing to fall on its laurels. Without the perspective, this anime appears as otaku bait that is intentionally playing within the same sandbox as Love Hina with failed attempts to punch holes in nearly two decades worth of this formula. But alas, the point of Saekano was to think within the box. The best way to explain this is someone seeing Sawamura Spencer Eri and thinking “Eriri is supposed to be a tsundere” as opposed to someone seeing her and thinking “this is a tsundere”. The latter of which is the most problematic but also highlights the biggest problem with Saekano’s legacy. A distinction must be made between specifying a definition around a single experience versus that of a year’s worth of databasing. Though this is more indicative of the general cultural shift within the 2010’s as a whole. That is of course, the more frequent employing of meta humor and a steady shift towards a post-cringe culture. This was an era where “weeb” was used in a tongue-in-cheek manner, where the uninitiated would see this as an absurd act of someone degrading themselves. Yet, this practice was quite popular and I even participated within it myself. It was an unusual post-modern post-waifuism movement where the new vocal majority of anime watchers were raised on the social internet and bathed in RGB lighting. It was the generation of ironically unironic-Oreimo enjoyers; the ability to discern truth behind layers of irony was the point. The obfuscation of the joke was the punchline. Consequently, I hate using and identifying with the term “weeaboo” now. It’s a badge of honor for the insincere, or at least harkens back to the time when it was cool to joke about something you care about sincerely. Anime is serious business! But alas, the trends persist mostly and I tend to associate Saekano with this movement. The anime attempts to critique the frequent archetyping within anime and call to attention the faults of the characters by utilizing those same cliches. It’s a classic bait-and-switch scenario. The entire point of characters like Utaha and Eriri is to initially present them as an archetype as an otaku like Tomoya would see them as, but subvert expectations by adding depth to them beyond what other characters in a lesser show might. The problem lies in the reconstructing stage, since Saekano doesn’t really succeed at redefining the archetypes. Though I don’t necessarily think that was the point. If you think about archetyping too much you will eventually start to tell real women at work that they have poor character development or are cliche. Ultimately, I think Saekano was poking fun at archetypes without much malicious intent. It was a victory lap for otaku to watch and have a laugh at the expense of their own integrity.
Saekano best can be described as “otaku culture growing up”, though there ought to be a distinction made between “growing up” and “maturing”; the former implying passive aging with the latter calling to attention a higher understanding. With maturity comes a perspective to situations that allow one to see patterns (pettan recognition) and play their cards with a basis in knowing the likely outcome. That is not Saekano, as it still repeatedly finds itself tripping into the same pitfalls as the so-called brain-dead otaku pandering fodder that colored the decade prior. Does its sheepish grin beaming up from the pit of generic dere archetypes grant the series some sort of immunity from criticism? Not quite, and I’d actually say it encourages it. Anime that playfully poke fun at and play with the meta of the medium tend to invite critique and the ire of those not often seen in the shady corners of torrent sites downloading hundreds of gigabytes of only the most obscure moe fansubbed anime. On the surface Saekano looks calm and ready and even has a few interesting things to say. Yet, it still lingers in the fluff that many critics will readily point out as the reason why it does not work. Quite frankly, Saekano is simultaneously more complex than most people give it credit for being, but not exactly as complex as the implications of using such a word invokes. It sits in a middle ground that is more smart than what the bar for bishoujo type anime set itself years prior. Saekano only grew up as much as we allowed it to.
Self-parodying anime tend to sit in a complicated place within the general otaku sphere. Saekano specifically has me a bit torn on how to feel about it let alone categorize it as progressive or regressive. On the one hand we have a series that reflected the trends of the contemporary anime industry, readily acknowledging its otaku as the primary demographic. On the other hand, it had a very small measurable impact on the industry it sought to commentate on. But Saekano was not so much a call to action as it was a “this is where we are” type of series, with much of its commentary providing a snapshot of the current otaku landscape. Take Lucky Star for example, where it neither seems to take a particular stance on otaku culture nor tries to say anything about. Some folks might even say Lucky Star ruined anime to exemplify and amplify the problems with the current state of affairs, while popularizing the very archetypes it used in a tongue-in-cheek manner. For instance, Hiiragi Kagami was obviously a twintail tsundere and that’s the joke- Izukmi Konata was an otaku who projected anime tropes onto her real-life friends with similar behavior patterns. Many otaku likely shared a similar worldview to Konata, as the tropes within our anime helped us understand or at least perceive and process the world around us. The developers of these anime tropes likely drew inspiration from reality in friends or family before amplifying the most extreme traits to cartoonish effect to be used within anime. As such, Lucky Star using the punchline that Kagami is a tsundere suddenly became an ill-omen for the years to follow. The fact that Kagami was a tsundere was equated to being the key to her success, and the archetype was milked dry. Lazy Shana clones cornered the proverbial market and nothing was ever the same. But as is the case, not everyone who liked Kagami liked her because she was a somewhat-subversive and unintentionally-progressive tsundere; they liked her because she was Kagami. Many others simply liked her because she was a cute tsundere. There is nothing wrong with simple-mindedly liking tsundere, as I was once incorrectly led to believe. My burning passion for their verbal and physical abuse would not extinguish despite the endless criticism of them. I knew I unequivocally loved tsundere and nobody could convince me otherwise, and what was wrong with that? Being progressive can only be, and should only be, pushed so far before losing sight of itself. As I like to say: “keep grinding the sword against the grindstone and eventually you have no sword left”. At what point do we need more complexity to a formula, and why can’t we enjoy the archetype at face value? I think that’s where the unconditional love of anime comes into play. Otaku unconditionally love what they love, and while able to understand and perhaps construct their own criticism, will still be able to enjoy the simplest form of the thing they care about. Simply put: tsundere fans will never not love Kugimiya Rie verbally abusing them. Saekano leverages this- intentionally or not- but showing a just-progressive-enough anime that still provides decent commentary on otaku media, while still relishing in the more unsophisticated trappings of ecchi harems. The otaku watching it know of the existence of a “poorly written tsundere” and can laugh at the idea, yet are still able to enjoy an anime with a tsundere because that’s what they like. Saekano grew up only as much as we did and us post-Sword Art Online otaku still enjoy an untasteful panchira given the opportunity. Saekano did not necessarily affect the industry, but it affected the fans and reflected the evolving otaku zeitgeist.
As foreshadowed in previous utterances of the unholy series- “Sword Art Online“, light novels are an important factor in any discussion of Saekano. Superficially, we know Saekano is a franchise based on a light novel series. Though perhaps because of its roots, the series has a certain reverence for the medium that extends beyond the fact that Kadokawa published the original series and helped fund the project. You could see the Date A Live novels being in Tomoya’s room as nothing more than Kodansha advertising its own series. But on the other hand, what would an otaku in the 2010’s have on their shelves? Light novels marked a paradigm shift in the storytelling, aesthetic and culture of a modern otaku landscape. Being such a modern occurrence, it’s actually quite easy to trace the roots of series in the early 2000’s like To Aru Majitsu no Index and how deeply it impacted a generation of writers soon after. Within 5 years, light novels as a phenomenon were so insular and contained as a perfect representation of itself that you knew exactly what it was. That’s why mentioning “light novels” is seemingly such a loaded word- because we all have our own idea of what “light novels” are. It’s not as nebulous a word as “manga” that is as broad a term as “movie” is to the general public. Yet, “light novel” often invokes an image of a low-fantasy story with a suspiciously well-drawn girl with a sword on the cover of the first volume. Self-insert protagonist, anime tropes, poor writing, fanfiction, terrible anime adaptation. That’s what we have been led to believe- by whom exactly, well, “they” of course. They told us that light novel adaptations were the bottom of the barrel and ruining anime in the 2010’s. “Seasonal anime” henceforth is treated with apprehension. Saekano was born within the endless tales of legendary swords, ill-conceived magic systems, battle harems and tsundere imouto characters. Terrible to you, but endearing to a new generation of otaku. That is where I come into the story, being someone who got into anime because of Sword Art Online. Sane enough to recognize the faults, but not yet jaded enough to disregard it. Because of that anime I was introduced to an entire world of Japanese animation and culture that I would not have known about otherwise. At points, I was Aki Tomoya laying in my bed flipping through a stack of cheesy light novels. To me they were brilliant- they still are. I won’t reserve any room for doubt as to my love of light novels, as they influenced me more than manga or visual novels did. I love the urban fantasy stories, the stilted dialogue, bat-shit insane exposition dumps and wimpy protagonists. Because of that love I actively made it my mission in early 2018 to watch literally every battle harem anime. It’s still ongoing, but I still care. I care because I understand something you cannot, and trying to convince you otherwise is fruitless effort. But alas, I don’t need to convince anyone to start reading battle harem light novels. Even with the perspective of nearly 8 years of anime watching and more than a thousand shows completed, I still shed a tear watching Sword Art Online: Progressive Movie – Hoshi Naki Yoru no Aria in theaters, hearing Kajiura Yuki’s beautiful rearrangement of “Swordland” playing over a boss fight on the first floor of Aincrad. These light novels were important to a new generation of otaku, and Saekano understands that.
Tomoya Aki had Date A Live volumes on his shelf because that is what high school aged otaku were into at the time. He represented the thousands of otaku born after Evangelion aired and were getting into anime during a completely new age of anime. This was the post-Haruhi generation of new age otaku; not so much Newtypes much to my dismay. The reason I make an effort to delineate the 21st century digital otaku is because of how much it ties into the modern culture, attitude and eventual impact of Saekano. Simply put, the primary demographic of people most likely to enjoy Saekano are 16-25 year old male otaku who grew up in a post-Sword Art Online anime landscape. Many of us got into anime because of that series, or perhaps another one of those light novel adaptations I alluded to previously. So in a sense, all of us already had Date A Live on our shelves in 2016. We were raised on battle harems, played rhythm games, and spammed dumb gifs in Discord servers. We grew up online and told self-deprecating jokes. Some of us even bought comically overpriced “Anime is trash and so am I” in white text on a black t-shirt. We were born too late to experience Toonami. This was the age of the nu-taku who got into anime when words like “weeaboo” and “otaku” meant definitions far removed from their seemingly ironic lineage and were co-opted to be something more honest, but still too afraid to look them in the eye. Enter Date A Live, a 2013 anime series about a high school guy attempting to romance celestial beings, and is very clearly utilizing branching path storytelling based on player-directed dialogue-based gameplay; such mechanics define bishoujo games. Date A Live is, at its core, an elaborate “what if” scenario if a sekai-kei anime script was accelerated to match the speed of a 2010’s battle harem and incorporated bishoujo game mechanics to gamify an otherwise abstract and elusive emotion unbeknownst to most otaku- “love”.
Date A Live was, in fact, doing nothing unique after all. Rather, the gamification of romance was already prominently done and perfected in 1994 when Konami released Tokimeki Memorial. TokiMemo’s romance mechanics were an elegant solution to quantify the abstract. Date A Live, curiously, builds upon the public perception of bishoujo game romance mechanics and in doing so parodies while also pandering to fans of them. In much the same way that most people think they understand light novels, more people think they know “dating sims”. Though in all actuality, they only know this secondhand. Most “dating sims” were not even translated to English so most people only have a general idea tainted by popular culture of internet hearsay, in much the same way most people “know” Super Mario Bros. after playing World 1-1. When thinking about dating sims, you likely remember that one article about a Japanese guy marrying a Love Plus character, or hazy understandings about “flags” and “routes”. Though it is most likely that the majority of the western audience only knows about these things because of efforts to “deconstruct” these concepts as seen in the game Doki Doki Literature Club. However, this depiction of dating sim “tropes” is entirely based on vague inklings of what these ideas might represent and not what they actually are based on your own subjective experiences, ultimately painting an inaccurate picture of the original without the understanding or perspective as to what made the original work. Capitalizing off this phenomenon, Date A Live utilized the mechanics of a “dating sim” to bring to attention the absurdity of the situations, but did so without hinging its punchline on the fact that it was parodying bishoujo games. The series already knew that otaku knew at least the basics of what a bishoujo game was and wasted no time explaining itself. Instead, it pandered to otaku by introducing dialogue choices so comically off-base that would make even the most joke-choice-only runs of a Persona game blush.
But here’s the thing: Date A Live is not exactly smart or even that good about its unintentional subversiveness of genre conventions. Much of its novelty lies in a fairly surface-level parody of bishoujo game genre conventions from the perspective of someone who’s only exposure to the genre was watching a failed attempt by a friend to romance Fujisaki Shiori in Tokimeki Memorial. In fact, most 16-25 year old otaku watching or reading Date A Live likely had not even played a bishoujo game. By this point the industry was already running on fumes. But the comedy still worked because the aforementioned otaku-pandering humor is fairly in-touch with said genre; much of the 2000’s otaku cultural zeitgeist was informed and drew much inspiration from the archetypes of bishoujo games, itself informed by modernizing the trends by 1980’s mangaka like Takashi Rumiko. These games were adapted into anime, henceforth establishing the inevitable incesteous nature of these two respective industries. Bishoujo game trends have since grown ever insular and self-referential to the point where the absurdity found in modern takes on such games almost encourage a decade’s-worth of understanding to snicker at the subtle remarks made by the protagonist- and why he might be making such remarks in the first place. The joke becomes less what is being presented at face value and evolved to encompass the very existential 4th wall break that the act of playing the game at all is the punchline itself. We all knew the mechanics even if we never touched a game like this before, because getting so deep into anime would inevitably lead one to, by proxy, at least a baseline understanding of an abstract concept. Consequently, Date A Live’s “alternative” dialogue choices were transcendent. I would wager that Date A Live was conceptualized as a story that didn’t expect readers to fully grasp the extent of its mechanics because the heart of it lay within the ability to enjoy what it presented at face value. There wasn’t a significantly more profound experience to be had at lower depths. It was the Madoka Magica for someone who never watched Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon growing up but without the lofty aspirations. The viewers perceived understanding of something they were never intimately familiar with filled in the gaps to an abstract concept to being that of vague understanding. Teenage otaku watching this in Japan grew up in a time after bishoujo games had their glorious run and likely were not playing them like their predecessors were. But even in spite of this, Date A Live foreshadowed the looming spectre of the new era. It invited a style of anime once only relegated in the shadows for only the most hardcore otaku to consume, to beginning to break into the mainstream. That is to say, anime was starting to become self-aware despite getting increasingly insular. And the consequences to this phenomenon were exemplified in Saekano.
The 2000’s harem anime had slowly begun to unravel as it was carried on into the wasteland of late-2010’s mobage-inspired “waifu collectors”. I tend to think Saekano was the turning point, or at least the missing link, between the old guard and the aforementioned new emerging style. Though it’s more apt to say that this was beyond the point of no return. You see, harem anime have always been a critical part of the “neoclassical otaku” image, if you will. Where the “classical” otaku would be the plastic model obsessed sci-fi geeks, as seen in the early days of the subculture, specifically that which was portrayed in the likes of Otaku no Video. It took nearly a generation later for the “neoclassical” otaku to emerge within the web of cyberspace and bishoujo games. I would delineate the two primarily based on how much they interfaced with computers in their hobbies. The neoclassical otaku tend to have been raised on early 8 or 16-bit video game consoles and were early adopters of computers. They would travel to Akihabara specifically to shop for components and were largely responsible for cultivating the modern Akiba-kei subculture the town is now known for. While the previous generation was more involved with grass-roots efforts of penning the earliest doujinshi and promoting science fiction in university clubs, the then-modern otaku could interface with fellow database animals across primitive net-based bulletin boards and mailing groups. Plastic models of Gundam mobile suits were swapped out with plastic garage kits of pretty girls in short skits. The general attitude of otaku has essentially changed within a generation and it’s happening again. The old guard- the Knights of the Old Republic, so to speak- will be the harshest critics. At arms to protect the sanctity of their once holy ground from desecration of those who fail to understand; those who don’t comprehend the glory that was once celebrated. Science fiction conventions morphed and merged into the monolithic “Comiket” and sales of erotic books overtook encyclopedic fanzines. By all accounts, the old guard had reason to believe that what they once loved was no longer. Anime had changed- but it was not lost. There was a shifting of hands as a new generation emerged. This phenomenon happens all the time, albeit less dramatized, in other mediums, though anime was simply too young to have known about before. The last significant instance of this happening was around the release of Saekano, when the generation of “nu-taku” emerged. And nothing was ever the same.
I want to call your attention to the popularity of KEY Visual Arts anime adaptations, specifically Kanon (2006) and the Clannad duology, and the significant impact they had- not only on the industry but otaku culture at large. Both games were not so much bishoujo games as they were playable soap opera’s targeting an otaku fanbase, henceforth dubbed “nakige“. I have reason to believe that they were conceived with the intent to be appealing to a significantly larger demographic outside of the typical audience of bishoujo gamers. These games were originally released on personal computers and included er0tic scenes, which was typical at the time. In fact, not including these scenes often was met with backlash from the hardcore fans of these games. This oftentimes led to many games shoehorning in out of place H-scenes. For example, early Kinoko Nasu works such as Tsukihime infamously included terrible H-scenes now notorious amongst fans. I suppose the point of this ramble is that the erotic content in KEY visual novels is not the reason you’re interested in reading these visual novels. You’re instead reading Clannad to get emotionally involved with a story and bawl your eyes out at the oncoming tragedy. As such, these games were later released on home consoles such as the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 with the H-scenes removed and marketed to a larger demographic of gamers. The success they had outside of the average eroge enjoying otaku helped me understand why there is so much crossover between genders in their love of these KEY series. Whereas before with games such as Da Capo or manga like Love Hina, the overwhelmingly majority of fans were bespeckled males who were terribly likely to dress in plaid shirts tucked into their slacks. There are reasons for this- some obvious and some not- but just goes to foreshadow the shifting of times. Realizing the potential market, bishoujo games began to freshen up their appearance. They were no longer fighting for sales on the battlegrounds of Tokyo Big Sight or the cramped storefronts of a small shop in Akihabara. These games could now be ported to home consoles. Complacency set in and the less compliant aspects of the medium were shed and ended up alienating the original fans. Galge became emasculated and lost their edge. The absurdity was lost. Henceforth, bishoujo games attempted to present itself as a more refined and marketable medium. Although it still is as self-aware as me at 15.
I guess there is a point as a fan of any medium where the type of thing you enjoyed so much is no longer the focus or simply not made anymore. But the mark of a true fan is that of the deep-diver; someone who quite literally rejects modernity and embraces tradition. You could simply exist to consume all the things you missed before. Complete rejection of the medium you once enjoyed simply because the industry is moving away from what you once enjoyed goes to show how little you cared about the medium in the first place; superficially enjoying what the cherry-picked series you liked offered and projecting those traits onto your own definition of what that medium is. Instead, the medium- in this case anime- is constantly evolving with the times. Anime will inevitably change and we must either ride or die by its evolutions. Though no matter what, the past that happened will always be there. The past has more to offer than what a mere mortal could consume in their lifetime. It’s quite common with video game fans to see someone who exclusively plays retro games, or even dedicates their entire life to focusing on a single console and knowing its catalog front-to-back. I used to know someone who did this with the Playstation 2, and is not all that uncommon in the gaming sphere. If you have a special connection with that era or console you stick with it and see everything it has to offer. You still get to play the games you enjoy and reject the overhyping of modern games that tends to plague the medium. If you miss mecha anime, watch every mecha anime ever released before decrying “the death of anime” and the like. There will always be those old men yelling at clouds. I personally shift my own focus and immersed myself within the endless sprawl of bad 2000’s harem anime and bishoujo game adaptations, watching OVA seen by only a handful of people who probably don’t appreciate them for what I do now. And even as much as I bemoan the rise of these new age waifu collector anime, I still find myself enjoying a few of them. That is to say, they are not without value. Modern waifu collectors are not harems though. They are something new for the “nu-taku” to enjoy just as I did the same with Amagami SS, Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and Mizuiro years prior.
Harem anime are dead. We now see much more emasculated “waifu collector” franchises; emphasis on “franchise”, as we are now seeing dozens of these types of multimedia franchises vying for their fifteen minutes of fame. Anime is seeing another changing of hands, and perhaps that process has already been completed. I’m already seeing myself becoming more alienated from the general stream of seasonal anime than I ever was before. I don’t closely follow seasonal charts nor feel like I’m missing out on something by not following the tides. Many modern waifu collectors are seemingly conceived with the intention of being a highly marketable model of a whole generation’s worth of foreknowledge- they are freshened up and refined unlike what the smutty 2000’s bishoujo game brought to the table. Those were games sold in Akihabara shops off the beaten path and marketed towards brain-dead otaku in plaid-shirts who unceremoniously dropped thousands of yen on character goods. That era is my Old Republic and I look upon it fondly. Otaku culture was still seemingly “punk rock” in its deviation from the cultural standards at the time. We were the denpa otoko who protected the streets of Akiba. But no kingdom lasts forever, no king rules forever. The ambiguous “anime industry” of men in higher castles directed a changing of the tides and cleaned up the image. Blame “Cool Japan” on making this subculture an exportable commodity for stupid Westerners to readily indulge within, or maybe even the neoclassical otaku who proved how profitable their niche market was through haphazard spending. I don’t think anyone was at fault though, it was going to happen eventually. All subcultures reach their upper limits when females are let in and the like. They eventually become too large to ignore and the masses soon get ahold of them. Perhaps that is why we see the same seishuun summer movie being made over and over again these days. Maybe that is why all characters in Trigger anime look like what I assume middle aged men assume Japanese youth are supposed to dress like these days. And maybe that is why I wasn’t all that surprised when I saw a clip for Shizuku in a recent hazel video Denpa is no longer understood as what it once was, otaku culture is being perverted. The subculture is now growing exponentially larger and continues to keep on expanding; whether or not the integrity of the movement could hold is a topic far too daunting for me to even approach right now. You see, Honda Toru prided himself as being the last of the denpa otoko– the “true otaku” and a Knight of the Old Republic. I do as well, but what meaning does it hold anymore? What do we protect, and where do we fit in anymore? Who still is an Ideological Warrior and can he still fight? Perhaps we exist in the place beyond the wasteland of waifu collector mobage adaptations and clean-cut emasculated isekai harem anime of the late-2010’s. We still remember the onsen OVA episodes! At the border lies Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata to remind us of where it went all wrong- or where it went all right? You are the judge of that, ultimately. Much of what Saekano presented embodied and refined the general trends of the 2010’s anime industry. It was a show that exemplified the commercial ability of modern otaku anime, signified the encroaching era of tongue-in-cheek meta anime, and freshened up the bishoujo game structure to become that of a safe for work “reddit waifu wars”; a modern take on eroge emerged. You still holding reservations for me even having the audacity to claim that Saekano is “the most important anime of the 2010’s” might very-well prove how out of touch you’ve become. Or maybe I’m the one who’s lost in their own metanarrative delusions. Context is narrative and Saekano has a thousand things to tell me before the first second of the first episode started. That is why “episode 0” included a critique of the story and the characters over persistent images of extremely hot joushi kousei in mizuki. But I can’t explain what you cannot already see. The formulas I used to derive meaning from a seemingly inconspicuous 2016 harem anime are unknown to the non-believers, and culminated into something too abstract and needlessly convoluted. So in the end, Saekano is still my pick for the most important anime of the last decade; this is the punchline.
BGM: DJ Sharpnel – SOLITUDE SUN