Originality vs. Cleverness

So what makes my top anime series of all time list? For the next few posts, I’m going to go over the categories that make me fall in love with a series and why certain series have it and certain ones don’t.

Category One: Cleverness

I hate the word originality when people use it to describe anime, or it’s evil cousins – unique and derivative. Why? Why do reviewers do this to me? It makes my brain hurt. Let me set the record straight: FICTION IS NOT ORIGINAL. Period.

If you want some proof of that take Romeo and Juliet. It’s a fantastic play and Shakespeare (whether he wrote it or not) was a genius. No one ever says, “Oh wait but all he did was rip off Pyramus and Thisbe. He’s such a hack.” Why not? No one holds up a copy of Pulp Fiction and says, “But this is just a rip off of a bunch of other mobster movies.” Inherit the Wind, Time to Kill, Goodfellas, 12 Angry Men, Vertigo… the list goes on of moves that were influenced by either books or other movies or other types of stories.

So why do anime reviewers (and yes Zac BertschyI’m looking at you) insist that anime needs to be original or unique or non-derivative? Is it because they have some grudge against the plebeian anime watcher?

Or is it that they can’t find a better word?

Maybe both, but I’m not such a conspiracy nut that I think the major blogs are out to get me, so I lean toward the latter. Well here’s a better word for you – cleverness.

I know it’s not a pretty word and it does have some negative connotations, but it’s the right word. So what do I mean about cleverness? Cleverness is the ability to combine already existing archetypes for themes, story lines, character types and worlds. Basically it’s what people really mean when they say unique.

For this let me pull out Kenshin. On the face of it, Kenshin is just another shounen action series. Older swordsman swears off a life of killing, but must face off with other swordsmen who are better (and sometimes worse) in duels to protect friends and loved ones and occasionally his country. If you replace swordsmen with demons and you have Yuyu Hakusho. If you replace it with alien type of things, you get Dragonball Z.

All and all, it’s just like every other shounen action series out there.

Except that it has two fairly clever elements to the plot. First, unlike most shounen action heroes, Kenshin can’t kill anyone. This adds a whole new level of tension to the series. Not only does he somehow have to manage to defeat the bad guys, he has to do it without killing them. Second, it has a solid historical basis. There really was a Bakamatsu. The Shinsengumi really are folk anti-heroes. In fact in the manga, Nobuhiro Watsuki details where all of his inspirations for these characters came from and which ones really were people.

This is clever.

Another example of this is Twelve Kingdoms, which isn’t nearly as hopelessly mired in cliches. But it could have been another Escaflowne or Fushigi Yuugi. Instead it takes a the fantasy world and oh, makes it a world with it’s own history, characters and rules. What I especially want to point out is something that seems pretty innocuous when you’re watching it – babies are born on trees.

So what, right? That’s not anything too exciting, it sounds like that normal claptrap that always pops up in some fairytale/YA/children’s book. And if the story had just let it die there, then it wouldn’t have been anything. But what happens in a society where women don’t give birth? You know, that classic line about why women aren’t supposed to be in combat, because we need them to produce young. They can fight, they are regarded as equals, prostitution doesn’t have as many ugly side effects. All of those things happen in Twelve Kingdoms, which makes it clever. In fact more clever than it’s counter parts which focus on the one strange thing in the world and then base the story around that.

Now on the other hand, there are series that are too clever. Take Lain for instance. That series has a whole bucket of clever. In fact, it has sooooo much clever that it drowns out things like story line and characters.

But on the whole, all of the series in my top eight have some form of clever to them. Some combination of characters and themes and plots that strike me as interesting. And maybe, yes, a little unique.

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