… or not every anime needs to take place in high school.
I think one of the biggest changes to anime in the past few years is the advent of the older, post high school protagonist. Would The Great Passage been possible as an anime ten years ago? Is it even in the ballpark demographic of a typical anime viewer? Can anime fans relate to it? We know the reasons why anime likes high school as a setting: One, it is what the majority of anime consumers want. They want to engorge on the high school tropes. There’s a strange and unsettling comfort from seeing yet another dysfunctional high school club or seeing ero hon discovered under a high schooler’s futon. It is a weird reassuring feeling like visiting a strange new country but seeing the Golden Arches.
Two, those shared experience high school tropes make it easy to write for. It gives authors the ability to gloss over settings via the shared experience. High school is also a largely uniform experience that is generic enough for anyone in Japan to understand. For example, Rail Wars totally does not need to occur in a high school setting, yet it does because they can then shoehorn in high school trappings. Nor does Seraph of the End. Hey, vampires have taken over the planet. How does humanity make a last stand? Build high schools and soft serve ice cream machines. Vampires hate learning about algebra while enjoying a choco-vanilla swirl.
Three, there is a lot of maturing and self-discovery and possibly interesting life events in high school. First love? First time piloting a giant robot? First time dealing with a snake oddity? First time running into the hawt student council president and groping her?
Four, fantasy and self-insertion, or a.k.a. why any entertainment exists. Do I want to pretend I’m piloting a giant mecha while shacking up with hawt, nubile teenaged girls? Or do I want to pretend I’m working a dead-end job as a dictionary editor with an eighty year old grandma as my only friend? There is some longing or wishing of better high school days. RE:LIFE is exactly this fantasy concept in harem anime form. The older protagonist regrets his high school life and gets a chance to relive it while possibly boning hawt, nubile high school girls. Rozen Maiden (2013) is another example, except it goes back to middle school.
But there are a lot of reasons to have a setting and age range out of high school. I’m only going to present one: They exist.
As someone who is moving quickly and scarily into OMFG midlife crisis territory, I can’t help but look back on my past. Did I become who I am because of high school? Or did events that occurred after high school have an effect as well? I think the time after high school had a greater impact than high school. It is good that anime is finally addressing the adulthood gap of post high school. Sure, one can put it off for a few years (or few decades via a Ph.D.) with college, but there will always be this time in one’s life when one goes, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with my life now?” That hits everyone, and you don’t typically realize it until you’re out of the educational system bubble.
Anime is has taken stabs to address this serious yet very anime-able time. Love Hina (2000), Ah! Megami-sama, and Chobits (2002) were early attempts. These anime featured protagonists post-high school trying to figure out their lives. Keitaro, Keiichi, and Hideki were redeemed by shacking up with hawt, nubile girls. The lesson, at least from these three franchises, is that a hawt, nubile girl will fall into one’s lap and make your life worth living. That’s not a really feasible life lesson to learn for most people.
Great Teacher Onizuka (1999) features an older protagonist but still takes place in a high school. Patlabor (1989) and You’re Under Arrest are both police anime with adults. Darker than Black (2007) features an older protagonist. Too bad they never made a second season of that show. You hear me? They never made a second season. They did make a second season to Black Lagoon (2006), which also features old people killing each other. Psycho-Pass(2012) and Dimension W (2015) have an adult cast too. Cowboy Bebop (1998), Trigun (1998), and Outlaw Star complete 1998’s “sci-fi anime without high school kids” and “you really should watch these if you consider yourself an anime fan” boxset. A lot of the shows that I previously named are science fiction-ish. They are all in very similar genres. Generally, action sci-fi is where the majority of older leads hung out.
(I’ll take a quick aside and talk about 1998. 1998? Besides a lot of seminal anime airing, it is when two big things happened in America. One, Princess Mononoke came over to America and showed in quite a few theaters. Two, Cartoon Network started airing Sailor Moon, Robotech, and Tenchi in their Toonami block… culminating in America being introduced to Gundam Wing and numerous Heero x Duo slash fiction. The late 90s was when a lot of people got into anime thanks to Toonami and Ghilbi in the US and the Sunrise sci-fi explosion in Japan. I wouldn’t see such a wave of new fans created until Haruhi Suzumiya. 1998. Keep that year in mind.)
Mushishi (2005) had an older expert of his field as the lead. He solved mysteries with his experience. Lupin is ageless. Gundam Seed (2002) made sure to depict Kira Yamato as a college student and was probably the last time a Gundam anime implied a sex scene — very different from Iron-Blooded Orphans showing Mikazuki kissing Kudelia and then completely forgetting about it.
Nodame Cantible (2007) is a rare romance (I guess) anime featuring two college students. Hataraki Man (2006) featured an older office lady, which is still a rare thing for anime to do. Natsuyuki Rendezvous (2012) had a widow tending to a flower shop, as widows tend to do. Wakako-zake (2015) features an office lady dining alone.
There’s a lot of anime out there, but there’s not a lot featuring an older protagonist. For every Natsuyuki Rendezvous, there’s like ten The Asterisk Wars.
To address that gap, anime has finally and recently thrown out some heavy hitters in the past few years. Tatami Galaxy (2010), Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (2016), and Barakamon (2014) all address the early adulthood phase. Tatami Galaxy illustrates how college can be as influential as high school… by repeating it 15,532 times. Rakugo shows the intertwining of love and career outside of a college setting. Barakamon ushers in this “healing anime” genre but really it is a stepping into adulthood genre by connecting with something good and wholesome genre. Handa-kun is discovering what it takes to be a better adult and human being by interacting with kids.
This season’s Poco’s Udon World (2016) uses the same formula as Barakamon. I am just waiting for anime that is courageous enough to
remove the 3.5mm audio jack depict the main character with their actual children. Bonus points if the TV anime main character is a woman (like in Wolf Children, but that is a movie spanning generations). I guess Clannad After Story (2008) touches on this aspect, and it makes for a very strong and compelling story. I might have even given it an okay review, but I still consider it a high school as most of the show takes place in high school.
The recent murder mystery anime, Sakurako’s Beautiful Bones (2015), has an older female protagonist, but features a high school sidekick alongside many stories set in high school. The other recent murder mystery anime, Subete ga F ni Naru: The Perfect Insider (2015), features an all university cast. Erased (2015) I guess features an older protagonist but much of the time he’s spent in a child’s body. The Lost Village (2016) features characters from a wide variety of ages… yet I still have an overwhelming urge to toss Love-pon into the child broiler.
GATE features an older protagonist, but the fantasy cast is too fantasy to determine ages. Or they just make shit up. I think they just make shit up. It’s as fantasy anime. Nothing more fantasy than shooting guns and banging nubile elf girls. There are also murderverse anime with older characters like 91 Days (2016) and Gangsta (2015).
Even shounen anime is getting into the older protagonist game. Not counting the never-ending Dragonball series, One-Punch Man features a shounen protagonist who doesn’t really know what he is doing with life until he met his life partner: Genos.
Joker Game has older gentlemen doing the work of gentlemen. It is also one of the few military organizations in anime (alongside Ghost in the Shell) that has an elite force composed of adults rather than teenagers. Quick, other than Gundam, name one giant robot anime featuring pilots post high school? Hint: I named earlier. Yet I can think of many, many giant robot anime where the pilots are teenagers because of reasons.
(I guess most pilots in Full Metal Panic are adults, but the two ace pilots who get the ultra powerful giant robots are both teenagers. The submarine captain is also a teenager who likes to walk around at night in sexy underwear.)
Even rarer than adults as ace mecha pilots? Fanservice anime where all the characters are adults. Most fanservice anime like to age down, not up. A lot of anime come up with reasons to make a loli be older like “Skuld might look like a middle schooler, but she’s really 590 years old in goddess years.” Keijo!!!!!!!! (2016) features post high school heroines. Hawt college co-eds finally make it to anime.
Genshiken, on the flip side, showed college as where people became themselves partly because they weren’t trapped by the bullshit that is high school. Genshiken is the awkward bridge between education and adulthood. The characters each deal with their life situation in different ways. Some try to latch onto school for as long as they can. Others turn into salaryman before rejecting that fate. Others are dealing with their gender identity issues. Everyone has their unique place in life, and they are all trying to find it. But not everyone has good friends and a supporting environment like what most of the Genshiken cast has. Yuri on Ice (2016) is like if they squashed all the Genshiken characters into just two.
And this brings me back to The Great Passage. The Great Passage features the oldest cast in any anime without magic or fantasy or goddesses. Three of the five members of Team Motherfucking Dictionary are at or approaching retirement age. The main character’s best friend outside of work is an elderly grandmother.
Yet it feels like a genuine story about adult interaction. The main character, Masumi, is brought into Team Dictionary because of a job opening. He befriends the people in the team because they are his coworkers. He meets his romantic interest because she is living in the same dorm. He is awkward at meeting people because we are all awkward at meeting people. He takes a wrong turn in life before he finds where he belongs because we all take a while to find where we belong. And then he doesn’t realize it because sometimes we don’t realize what we have around us. He is someone who could be any one of us, eating ramen alone at night, in an unfilling job, wondering what else is out there for us. That is not a feeling exclusive to high schoolers. Or university students. Or, really, anyone. In some ways, those doubts and that loneliness is the most universal human feeling.
The Great Passage is a really human and very smart look at someone at those crossroads, and I’m not talking about just Masami. Most of the situations are not necessarily solved or overcome but rather improved through human interaction, friendship, and a little bit of luck. It doesn’t have groping, giant robots, magic, student council presidents, magical girls, or time loops. I think for anime to evolve as a medium, it needs to start tackling scenarios outside of grade school years because those feelings of belonging and uncertainty permeate all ages of life.
If you were one of those people who jumped into anime in 1998, maybe you were in high school then. You’re probably in your thirties now. Time has flown by, hun? Anime has a big swell of fandom now in their older years. There is an audience for work that isn’t just yet another anime featuring high school students. Just in the past three years, there has been significantly more shows with older protagonists that isn’t just action sci-fi shows. Would Yuri on Ice and The Great Passage and Rakugo been possible in the early or mid 00s? I think we are just seeing the tip of anime’s diversification. As anime fans get older and start to have their own young families, I think the types of anime will change to embrace that audience. (Hopefully, we will never get another season where we have ten magic battle high school shows airing at the same time.)
There will always be harem anime set in high school as well as plucky high school teenagers who have to pilot giant mecha, but anime, as a genre, will grow old with us. I am excited to see what other stories can be told through anime.