It’s true that most of us get into anime or manga during high school. While many of us were introduced to shows like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, or Evangelion as young children, our new autonomy as adolescents gave us the chance to take an active interest. For a lot of teenagers, that meant high school anime. Romance, drama, vivid colours and beautiful characters: all the stuff that seemed totally absent from normal high school life. It’s understandable that we’d escape into a high school that was actually interesting, but why has the genre remained so popular? Why as adults do we still watch it? Which shows exemplify the genre?
For many, high school anime reminds them of a time when things were less complicated. The formulaic structure of the high school genre is something of a comfort; we’ll have the introductory episodes, budding romance, a beach/hot spring episode thrown in there (for some much appreciated eye-candy), all ending in a love-confession scene and hopefully a kiss. Shoujo romances like Kaichou wa maid-sama! are a prime example of the structure that, since the noughties, we have come to expect. Let’s be honest, if the fans didn’t get to see Maid-sama’s Takumi Usui open-shirted in the beach episode, there would be something missing.
The characters might start off at the beginning of their first year, a beacon of innocence. In long-running manga series, the characters will grow up and face the inevitable – choosing their university, their careers, whether to stay with their love interest. Young viewers can blow it off as something far into the future that only the characters have to face…whereas older viewers can look back at the characters’ naiveté and laugh (bitterly). This relatability gives something of a universal appeal to high school shows. We can either look forward to good times to come, or look back at a time when things were much easier – though they seemed to be the hardest things in the world.
Even other anime which don’t completely centre on ‘life in high school’ are based in a school environment, either using it as a backdrop for these extraordinary teenagers or as a way of inverting the genre completely. The 2013 anime Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the boundary) is about a boy who can’t be killed and a girl whose job it is to kill him – with a sword she makes out of her own blood. With what sounds like a plot embroiled in the supernatural, we are still given the comfort of the high school backdrop. Their first confrontation is in their school, as are most of the episodes. The show also explores adolescent issues like being a latchkey kid or having absent parents, and a forbidden romance.
While the high school backdrop can be used as a comforter, that’s not always the case. Gakkou Gurashi in summer 2015 presented to us a group of adorable girls with big eyes and ‘moe’ personalities to match any great high school, romantic anime. And, they even lived at school because they loved it so much. Instead, what we actually got was the biggest plot twist in anime history. Words like ‘apocalypse’ and ‘barricade’ and ‘evacuation plan’ are not really words we’d associate with a high school anime, but with Gakkou Gurashi, they have to be. Check it out if you have time, because it’s an anime jewel.
So even while the purest form of high school anime remains as well-loved as ever by all ages, shows are beginning to emerge that flip the stereotype on its head and give us the complete opposite.
Anime like Kaichou wa maid-sama! exemplify the high school genre and present it as a nostalgic time filled with romance and love confessions. Adding to the list of cardboard cut-out anime could be Special A, Say I love You, Ore Monogatari, any number of shows. They don’t need the plot explaining because we already know what will happen – and that’s okay. These shows aren’t there to surprise, but to amuse, comfort and be loved.
Simplicity: it’s the core of why we still continue to watch the shows. Even as bumbling students and twenty-somethings, we can remember how we used to think high school life was the be-all and end-all of our worlds. We’ll enjoy it when shows invert the genre into something more exciting, but we’ll still find comfort in the familiar setting of our past life as a teenager. The anime we watch present an version of school that most can only dream was real.