Whose Genre Is It Anime? Cross Audience Appeal and “Labelling” Anime

Gundam Wing: mech anime or bishonen drama?


If there’s one thing I love about anime and manga, it’s how little the quaint notions of demographics and labels tend to matter. Oh sure, Naruto may be defined as “shonen” (boys manga) and be published in a shonen magazine with all the trappings that ostensibly make young male audience sing with glee… but a huge proportion of the fanbase consists of female fans of all ages, doing everything from squeeing over the potential romances to enjoying the slapstick humor.


Obviously, anime and manga are not alone in their cross-gender/age/class/sexual appeal. Western media has plenty of movies and TV shows, from Lord of the Rings to Law and Order – which appeal to many extremely large and inclusive demographics. But one thing I have noticed is that there are many anime and manga titles which seem to be explicitly or implicitly “coded” for one audience and yet end up attracting another audience instead… sometimes on purpose. As a result, it can get very hard to figure out which anime is being made for what audience, and what genres are actually in the mix. Is Naruto an anime for 12-year-old boys who like the fighting or for 21-year-old women who like the interpersonal relationships? Would you define Oh My Goddess as a shoujo romance or a harem series? Why is this adorable plushie mascot for kids suddenly smushing its face into someone’s breasts? HOW DID THIS GET HERE I AM NOT GOOD WITH GENRES!


Let’s take a look at how anime and manga have managed to achieve such strong cross-audience appeal and why it’s sometimes very hard to fit them into neat little “boxes.”


You Got Your Moe in My Magical Girl Series!

Firstly, as I alluded to in my previous article on moe, there are quite a few kinds of anime that exist in a sort of weird gray area between audiences, where the plots and visuals seem like they’re for one group but the marketing and content is for another. This can often result in a lot of confusion over who exactly an anime is supposed to be for, and whether it’s appropriate for a young audience when there are undercurrents of prurient fanservice or other adult content.


A perfect example of this is My-Otome, the first anime I ever worked on. At first glance, it was in almost all respects a magical girl anime for young 8-12 year old girls. A world where young women gain tech-based superpowers, become “Otome” and fight for their kingdoms! A kind-hearted and energetic teenage girl with dreams of becoming an Otome like her mother! A mysterious school with frilly uniforms and a beautiful fairy-tale castle with a princess! More talk about friendship, dreams, love and hope than you can shake a stick at! Semi-magic powers that are lost as soon as the Otome has sex with a man… wait… panty shots… a tentacle monster that spent an entire episode groping… wait, what?!


The resulting phone conversation between my producer and me was interesting, I’ll say that much.

ME: So, when I’m writing this script, what kind of target audience am I aiming for here?

PRODUCER: Well, I think it’s meant for adult men. It’s… it’s supposed to be fanservice, quite frankly.

ME: Wait, so they’re watching a show involving magical necklaces, sparkly transformations and the whole Love and Friendship routine… just to ogle girls? And… and that’s the entire reason the show even exists?

PRODUCER: Er… sort of?

ME: Oh god, I’m working on a moe anime, aren’t I?


Of course, not all examples of this phenomenon are ridiculous or negative; there have been some hilarious shows where the “kiddie” veneer has made the adult content that much more hilarious (e.g. Ebichu, in which the explicit sex is given a ridiculous twist with the addition of the adorable hamster). And not every “adult” kid show is actually meant for adults; Japanese culture tends to be much more open about exposing children to sexual references, hence why even a show for 5 year olds may end up with tons of boob jokes. Still, it can prove rather complicated to pick a show for the whole family to watch when the wide-eyed and adorable heroine ends up spending the tenth episode evading potential rapists while singing a song about the power of friendship.


You Got Your Mancandy in My Mech Anime!

Another thing I’ve noticed about anime is the habit of having a series which seems mostly geared for one particular demographic but also slips in something relatively minor that another demographic will latch onto. Sometimes it’s as simple as a single character who appeals to another group, and sometimes it’s as complex as the relationships between the heroes, the villains, and the people within the created world. It’s fanservice, but a different kind than moe or other “gray area” anime; whereas those blend multiple genres and end up being a bit confusing as to target audience, these tend to go for fans of one genre while cheerfully throwing a bone to fans of another. The result is often a well-balanced and popular anime/manga with, in some cases, a divided fanbase.


A good example of this is the Gundam series. Gundam has always been about the mechs and about the personal cost of war, and for a long time, the fanbase reflected this. Boys (and some girls!) loved the big shiny mechs with lazer beam swords and transforming legs and what have you, while those seeking meatier drama could usually expect a helping of introspection on the nature of war, the necessity of soldiers, the traumatic effects on youth, the political struggles of nations and so on. Things like the artwork, character appearance and so on was somewhat important and appreciated, but it took a backseat to the main drama and shooting.


Then Gundam Wing happened.


All that stuff about cool mechs and political strife? That was all still there. But this time, someone had the brilliant idea to tweak the character design and produce a cast made almost entirely of attractive bishonen with tons of interpersonal interaction that could easily head into full on Ho Yay territory. And lo, the fandom exploded. Fangirls of all ages were suddenly clamoring for Gundam in a big way, squeeing over the characters, shipping them with each other, creating fanfiction, fanart and even fancomics and doujinshi. While there were certainly Gundam fangirls and yaoi shippers previously, it had never really hit it big like this, and it certainly made Bandai tons and tons of money. Thanks to their willingness to try out a new shift in art style, Bandai found a huge and lucrative new market for their series. And they certainly show no signs of neglecting that market; the character designs for Gundam Seed and Gundam 00 were also filled with attractive eyecandy for female viewers.


Gundam is a great example of how an anime can successfully pander to multiple demographics and fan groups; unfortunately, it also is an example of how bringing multiple fan groups together on one series can lead to sharp divisions and antagonism. If you think the stereotypical hipster attitudes of, “People like it and now it sucks,” are annoying, imagine an entire fanbase muttering the same thing. Even now, there are people on Gundam fan boards and forums that complain about how “fangirls ruined Gundam” and how now there’s more focus on pretty bishies than cool mechs; some fangirls will volley back with complaints that they have to sit through tons of political meandering and over-the-top action sequences to get to any meaty character interaction. Outside of anime, Final Fantasy also suffers from similar divisions, sometimes over the same character (e.g. Sephiroth fanboys vs. Sephiroth fangirls). And while Naruto and Bleach may not suffer the same acrimony, there’s definitely a sense that the fan groups move in different circles.


You Got Your Awesome in My Awesome

In the end, the debate about what genre each anime is and who it’s made for and what audiences are supposed to like which may be academic. It’s the old issue many people struggle with in real life, the issue of labels and wanting to fit things into little boxes. In the end, we can argue all day as to whether the anime about lesbian Shinto priestesses in giant mechs fighting demons while attending high school is shojo, shonen, adult, child, romance, action and so on… perhaps the better question to ask is, is it any good? Because if it is, then they will come.


“They” apparently being pretty much everybody.


What genre-busting anime or manga have you come across? Have you ever read any manga or watched any anime which made you wonder, “Hang on, who WAS this made for?”



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