Over the last few months, I’ve heard a few comments dismissing the importance of genre. These vary from saying that you can’t say that a show is bad because you don’t like a genre to genre is a marketing tool developed to sell more stuff.
First, I want to say that genre is important for so many reasons that I’ll get into later and that it’s a natural outcropping of human bieng’s desire to categorize and understand their environment. When faced with a plethora of entertainment choices it would be almost impossible to pick what you wanted to watch without genre. If I say that Kenshin is a shounen fighting show, then it brings to mind certain plot types. The viewer is going to know it’s going to involve fighting (perhaps tournament style, perhaps not), that it’s probably going to involve a plucky young hero (although it doesn’t in this case) and it’s going to involve some big badasses that the hero has to beat, even though it won’t seem at the time that he has a chance.
The viewer is going to “know” all of these things without me saying anything more than shounen fighting show. The actual genre becomes a type of short-hand communication tool, so I don’t have to say, “Well there’s this show set around the beginning of the Meiji era in Japan that focuses on this swordsman who has sworn not to kill any body. He ends up getting into a lot of fights with people who try and pick on his friends or his country. And some of these people are real badasses and he has to train some so he can beat up on them.”
While that second description is more accurate, it certainly isn’t as easy to say as shounen fighting show. Also another important use in language is distinguishing it from other things. If I argue that Kenshin is the best shounen fighting show ever, it actually means something different than Kenshin is the best anime ever or even the best television series ever.
But even more important than its use as a communication tool, is its importance as a analysis tool. While I agree with Saturnine that a show can be analyzed outside of its genre, a show also has to be analyzed within the conventions of it’s genre.
If you noticed on my little discourse about shounen fighting shows, I mentioned at least one way that Kenshin is different from the conventions of the genre. Instead of a plucky, young hero, Kenshin is a battle-weary ronin trying to atone for his sins. Now without understanding the genre, this would lose any importance. Essentially he’d become just another hero. And you’d be stuck analyzing him as just another hero. (Of course by applying that label to him I’ve classified him, so I’m not sure if that’s okay with the anti-genre advocates).
This holds true for any genre. Without a sense of the history and conventions of the genre, then you’re just as likely to say a mediocre series is great because individually it is. The funny thing is that nobody ever does this, and that’s because they know that those series aren’t great because they used the genre as a gauge.
While I do agree that judging as good or bad based on it’s genre is a mistake. It’s just as much of a mistake to go the other way and say that genre isn’t important, when it’s so obvious that it is.