High school appears so often in anime that a story doesn’t feel right if it lacks a high school setting. But why does anime focus so much on high school?
High School is a Universal Setting
Anime is an international product. Studios attempt to create stories that appeal to both their Japanese audience and the greater Western audience. High school provides a universal setting. Unlike many aspects of Japanese culture, high school doesn’t need explanation. Japanese high school has quirks that make it unique, such as the emphasis on clubs and school festivals, but on the whole, the setting remains recognizable. This makes the story more accessible for casual anime fans, and for storytellers, this reduces the overhead needed to tell the story. World-building or cultural explanations can hurt the ability to tell a story when the number of episodes are limited. Such explanations remove the story’s focus on the characters. This is the same reason anime falls back on character stereotypes—the tsundere, the impulsive hero, and other stereotypes.
High school comes with universal experiences, which helps a story appeal to audiences. It’s a time of exciting love and painful heartbreak, of stepping into adulthood, of self-discovery, of challenges, and of disappointments. High school marks some of the most formative years in life. Relationships form that often last throughout life. Experiences during these developmental years shape worldviews. Basically, high school makes a natural environment for coming-of-age stories, love stories, and other stories of change. In many regards, the high school becomes its own character. It’s not unusual for anime characters to view the school with fondness or with dread. High school becomes the center of their teen lives and represents both parental influence—with its rules—and teen-hood.
It’s all about teenagers
Anime developed with the concept of teenager. This concurrent development married anime’s story telling to the experiences of the teen years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘teen-ager’first appeared in 1921, but teenagers as we know them didn’t appear until after World War II. Before the war, people in their teen years were called youths and held adult responsibilities. As public education replaced farm-work post-World War II, teenage subculture began to develop. Anime developed during the same period. As the teen subculture developed in Japanese society, it latched onto manga and anime as a part of its identity. This led anime to focus on coming-of-age stories.
At their core, these types of stories focus on identity. The hero discovers who they are through various traumas and trials. Bleach,High School of the Dead, and others feature teens because in the modern world being a teenager centers on discovering one’s identity. Anime gets to leverage universal milestones on these journeys that its audience have also experienced: first dates, first loves, first breakups, first jobs, and other firsts. These shared experiences help older viewers identify with the characters. They also serve as teaching tools for teens going through them. High school anime provides a map for the teen years (often by showing what not to do) and encouragement for those who struggle through the minefield. Anime characters provide role models to emulate or to encapsulate actions to avoid. Many high school characters act like boneheads, socially inept and emotionally dense, because such characters show us how not to act. Storytellers use these characters to show the consequences of such behavior, often with funny outcomes, and to help teens realize awkwardness is a part of the experience of growing up. If this hero can make it despite screwing up far worse than you can—writers say—you’ll be fine too.
Because teens and anime are closely married, it is possible to grow out of anime. Although anime offers other types of stories, high school anime remains the most common export to the West. For older fans like me, this gets wearying at times. What allows anime to appeal to a wide, international audience also limits its age appeal. Nostalgia is all well and good, but after a time, older fans want something that resonates with their adult lives. Japan has these stories, but they are not as common in the United States. However, this isn’t necessarily the anime industry’s fault. Attitudes toward animation in American culture contributes to growing out of anime. Animation closely associates with childhood and immaturity. It’s okay for high school teens and university age students to watch anime because they are immature (according to American cultural expectations), but mature adults don’t watch animation—comedy shows like Simpsons and movies like Finding Dory providing exceptions. Anime’s association with high school contributes to this perception. Studios desire to make money, so they will go for sure bets. High school-based anime are sure bets, while building a new older market in the United States poses a riskier proposition. Although, as anime fans grow older, the market builds naturally.
Anime is a Map
High school stays with us throughout our lives. It’s a pivotal time that defines our sense of selfand the early years of adulthood. It is a tough period of trauma, awkwardness, doubt, and discovery. Teen years can compress decades of emotion and confusion into just a few years. Anime captures this with its characters, characters that usually turn out just fine in the end. Anime provides an outlet for fears and concerns associated with the high school years, providing a map of what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. They teach the importance of emotional intelligence when navigating love and friendship. In the end, high school becomes shorthand for coming-of-age and all the joys and trials associated with such stories.
Writer. Librarian. Japanophile. Chris enjoys a good, musty book-fort. As a librarian, he gets to indulge his love for books and research on a daily basis. When he isn't writing about Japanese folklore, he enjoys painting and getting lost in the woods. You can read his attempts to smash words together at www.japanpowered.com.