Unlike last year we didn’t receive many suggestions in advance of the panel. Steveg and I therefore prepared a little list.
We stuck with the same format of:
a) Brief Description.
b) Earliest usage that the panellists (aka the Grumpy Old Fen) can remember.
c) Best usage that the panellists can remember
d) Discussion as to whether the archetype is generally good or bad
e) Should you run away now if you encounter it? (And failing that are the panellists just over it because it keeps coming up again. And again. And, oh look, there it is again).
So here is the list, they’ll none of them be missed (if never seen again):
1. Giant Robots (audience suggestion).
a) Brief Description: This term is something of a misnomer as it usually refers to powered armour writ large rather than to actual giant robots.
b) Earliest Usage: Macross/Robotech, or the original Mobile Suit Gundam.
c) Best Usage: Patlabor!
d) Discussion: This trope is pervasive and is often combined with the One True Pilot we discussed last year (# 6 in last year’s list).
Giant robots aren’t good or bad per se, the real issue is how they’re used. The key issues to look out for are whether the focus is on the characters or the cool toys, and whether some (or any…) effort has gone into the design especially the universe as a whole. The latter is about explaining why there are giant robots, and whether they make sense in context.
e) Run Away Now: Maybe. I tend to look elsewhere these days, but they can be cool if used well.
2. The 5 Team (or Sentai, as suggested previously by seawasp)
a) Brief Description: Essentially describes any story with 5 main (or major) characters with predefined roles. Usually a leader, an uppity second, a smart guy, a glass cannon, and the chick.
b) Earliest Usage: Gatchaman / Battle of the Planets, Voltron, or Bubblegum Crisis for an early gender flipped version.
c) Best Usage: Almost anyone’s top 10 anime will include a 5 team somewhere. Mine is Silent Mobius.
d) Discussion: Often combined with Giant Robots (which is why the panel segued neatly into this topic), this is a pervasive trope seen in more anime than can be easily named.
Like many tropes it offers clear communication of who the characters are, and how they are expected to relate to each other. This is sometimes helped by having colour coded uniforms (the uppity second may be in black for example).
This is where the problem lies: it can all too often be a crutch for lazy characterisation/plotting, and contains dubious gender roles. Most will have at most one member of the opposite gender (if that). Note that the last member is the one referred to as “The Chick”, and this is rarely a good sign.
e) Run Away Now: Not on its own. However keep an eye out for other dubious tropes, and be prepared to cut your losses quickly.
3. Taboo Breaking Humour
a) Brief Description: Humour triggered by a, usually cultural in nature, taboo breaking act. The example given by Steveg was Alexei Sayle standing up and saying “Bum!” in front of English audiences was hilarious to those audiences. Australian audiences OTOH just went “huh? Is this supposed to be funny?”
b) Earliest Usage: Ranma 1/2 (first 10-18 episodes only) or possibly (not mentioned in the panel) Urusei Yatsura.
c) Best Usage: Revolutionary Girl Utena (first 13 episodes only, I haven’t seen later than that).
d) This one is problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which is that they often do not translate well. In particular I suspect that much of the taboo breaking humour in Ranma 1/2 for Japanese audiences is largely the dialogue with the Ranma-chan still using male terminology for self references. For western audiences the casual nudity is likely to be a bigger component of the humour.
Another issue to be aware of is does the anime rely on this humour in place of a plot. This is why I limited Ranma 1/2 to the first 10-18 episodes.
e) Run Away Now: If it looks like the series will be relying on it, especially if it doesn’t translate well. If it is a side note to the main story, you can probably not get the joke but still enjoy the series as a whole.
4. Cross Dresser
a) Brief Description: Often a specific form of Taboo Breaking Humour this is usually a male cross dressing as a female. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a relatively rare anime example of a female cross dressing as a male.
b) Earliest Usage: Steveg mentioned The Hakkenden for two traditional examples of attempting to dodge a curse that would fall on a son, and an actor in a time when women were not allowed on the stage. The earliest I could recall is Yellow Dancer in Robotech.
c) Best Usage: Nuriko from Fushigi Yugi, although I am fond of Makoto in El Hazard for the comedy value.
d) Discussion: This trope can be misogynistic, particularly when the cross dresser is inserted into a voyeuristic or abusive situations in place of a female character. “If we use this character no-one could possibly be offended by this incident which will be a trigger for X”.
Yeah, right. 😦
However it can also be handled well, particularly when it is just part of who the character is, and not treated in an exploitative manner.
e) Run Away Now: Again depends on usage, but one to watch carefully.
5. The Hot Springs Visit and/or the swimsuit episode
a) Brief Description: Fanservice for all. Excuses for voyeuristic behaviour all round.
b) Earliest Usage: So pervasive I’m not sure we did mention one. Dirty Pair maybe?
c) Best Usage: Fruits Basket where it actually mattered to the plot development, and the voyeurism was left out. Also Omoide Poro Poro where it was a character shaping event and again a completely innocent one.
d) Discussion: There are very few good examples of this. It is better to say that there are a number of tolerable examples where it doesn’t get in the way of the story too much.
This can also be used as a bit of light relief before, or between, darker story arcs.
But all too often it is simply an excuse to put female characters into minimal clothing as fanservice to the adolescent audience. Pass.
e) Run Away Now: Quite possibly, and definitely if it comes up too often in the same series. May be tolerable in small doses.
6. The Living Doll
a) Brief Description: The emotionless girl/woman who barely interacts with the rest of the world, a mirror that reflects the humanity of the other characters.
b) Earliest Usage: Key the Metal Idol
c) Best Usage: Key the Metal Idol, Gasaraki, (possibly) Martian Successor Nadesico.
d) Discussion: The Living Doll is a character who is mostly disconnected from the world, and emotionally shut down in most respects.
Usually female (which is a problem with the trope) although I think there were one or two male examples mentioned in the panel, and often with a traumatic background to explain it.
The key to making this trope work, as well as to avoid the Eight Deadly Words (“I don’t care what happens to these people”), is reconnecting the Living Doll to humanity over the course of the show. From the beginning you need sympathetic characters around the Doll who care about her, and are trying to help her.
e) Run Away Now: Only if it’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. For the rest, assess the other characters, see how the interactions will work, and if you’re likely to care enough to see the outcome.
7. The Traumatic Background (audience suggestion)
a) Brief Description: How it sucks to be me, I’ve had such a horrible past.
b) Earliest Usage: Key the Metal Idol again
c) Best Usage: Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop.
d) Discussion: This trope can be problematic when it is used primarily as character decoration.
“Adding a horrible past to character X would be really cool!”
“How will it affect the story?”
“It won’t, it’ll just be really cool. Trust me on this.”
This rarely works out well. It is far, far, better for the background to shape or influence the character, and for dealing with the background to be a significant plot element. In Faye Valentine’s case, it is the Broken Bird she is hiding behind the Ms Fanservice shell, and the episodes where you find out are deeply moving.
That is good writing, and inclusion of a background for a reason.
e) Run Away Now: Probably a good idea if it pops up in a Studio Gainax production. Otherwise, see what the writers do with it but start running as soon as it looks like it was added to be cool, rather than added to be relevant.