The Slice-of-Life Genre – Why is this a Thing?
If you’ve watched anime for any significant period of time, you know that the term “slice-of-life” has a very distinct definition. After all, isn’t it odd that “slice-of-life” is a descriptor of anything at all? Think about it for a moment: the term itself implies something involving people living out their lives. But by this definition, if a show possesses characters that aren’t dead, the show falls into the category slice-of-life. Yet, slice-of-life is a genre any anime goer will not think twice about, for slice-of-life is also one of the largest genres in anime. As a result, I’ve come to ask, and attempt to provide an answer, to the question of why? Not so much why slice-of-life is so big or why it has its set definition, but more importantly, what is the point of making a slice-of-life anime vs. making one in any other genre? What does the slice-of-life genre provide that others don’t? To put it bluntly, why does slice-of-life exist? I want to show that slice-of-life sort-of has a point in existing, but has not had itself fully vindicated as a legitimate genre because it’s potential, still to this day, hasn’t been fully exploited. But before we go there, let’s first define, for those unfamiliar, what on earth this slice-of-life thing is.
What makes a Slice-Of-Life?
I feel the best way to get across what slice of life is, is to tell the story of my first experience with a pure slice-of-life anime, a show called Lucky Star. I watched Lucky Star when I was first getting into anime and came in with all the expectations of a normal show. The expectations weren’t that grand; I expected a story with goals that drive the characters to develop and grow while they solve the central conflict of the narrative. You know, I expected the absolute most bare bones definition of what a narrative is. For those who haven’t had the fortune (or misfortune) of watching Lucky Star, it’s a show about high school girls and the things they talk about. There is no story that connects episodes together; there isn’t even a cohesive story in the each episode. It’s just events, with no connections tying them together. I found this incredibly odd; so odd in fact, that I couldn’t believe it. The thing that put anime above the western cartoons I grew up to was the fact that they all had a story to them. Sure, many of the famous animes of the late 90s that came to the west (Ex. Sailor Moon, Cardcaptors, DBZ) were episodic, but there was an overarching narrative attaching each episode, which built a sense of progression and made me want to watch each new episode even more. This to me was one of the most defining aspects of my naïve view of anime.
But then, before me was a show that didn’t have any character development, any story to speak of, any structure, anything at all! What on earth was this? I assured myself, this was nothing but a very long buildup, and sure enough the plot would arrive, and then the characters and I would all embark on a wonderful ride of protagonists, antagonists, and causal relationships!
I should have you know that I went through 17 episodes of Lucky Star before finally realizing this wasn’t the case. It was really this experience that made me start asking the question, “Why is this a thing?” Why would someone want to watch a show where girls talk about stuff and do silly skits?
You would think that after my experience I would avoid touching slice-of-life with a 10 foot pole, but I actually ended up watching almost every major slice-of-life on the market. Don’t ask me how, not even I know the answer to that question. But as a result I can define what the gist of slice-of-life is.
First off we need to make some distinctions. As I said in the intro, every show in existence can be called a slice-of-life. Full Metal Alchemist spends most of its time following the lives of Edward and Alphons Elric, but it wouldn’t be considered a slice-of-life. This is because Edward and Al’s lives aren’t considered normal in the scope of their world. This is criterion 1:
1) Must involve characters leading normal lives by the standards of their universe.
Next, we need to look at shows that have a hint of slice-of-life. Take Clannad. Clannad takes place in a world not that different from our own and has characters leading pretty normal lives by our standards, making it partly a slice-of-life. But Clannad isn’t a true slice-of-life because there are other genres it can fit into, such as the romance or coming-of-age genres. This is important, because slice-of-life is a type of minimalism; there can’t be too much going on. As a result slice-of-life is a genre defined by having so little going on that it can’t fit into any other genre. While this isn’t universally the case, we can say, for the most part, this. Criterion 2:
2) Is defined by the absence of any other defining genre.
But without question, the most important point can be summed up as this. Criterion 3:
3) Overarching narrative, character development and a sense of progression, are all optional, and are never present in every episode.
This is the defining trait because almost every slice-of-life is missing one of the three items in that list. Lucky Star lacks all three. Kirino Mosaic, after the first 3 episodes, lacks all three. K-On! lacks character development, and is missing all three when you ignore the first 2 and last 2 episodes. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya lacks character development. Non Non Biyori lacks narrative or progression. Nichijou lacks narrative for the majority of its episodes, and is missing a sense of progression for its entirety. Slice-of-lifes like Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight are the exception in a way because they exhibit all three attributes, but as the second clause states, these aspects are not consistent over the entire series. Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight momentarily becomes plot-centric midway through the show, but returns to standard slice-of-life behaviour by its end.
While my categorization has more holes than I could possibly clarify or fill, it’s a good start to discussing the issue I want to bring up. Why would any artist want to follow condition 3?
The Big Question facing Slice-of-life
Slice-of-life seems to get rid of most of the things that make up a narrative, but why? Why would an artist purposefully choose to not have character development, an overarching story, or a sense of progression? And even more importantly, wouldn’t adding plot, character development, and progression to a slice-of-life add all the benefits of proper story structure while taking nothing away? If so, then why does slice-of-life exist?
To fully show the dilemma, we need to show how adding story, character development and progression to a work makes it, in some way, better, without taking anything away from it. While many people might have an issue with this premise, I think it is, for the most part, reasonable.
Plot is the causal link that leads to the emotional and psychological pleasure of narrative. Strongly coherent and complex plots lead to immersion on the part of the viewer as they are drawn into the narrative fabric of the story being told. At the same time, these narrative threads are the main focus of many contemplative viewers, as they seek to analyse and understand the interworkings of the story.
Progression, I would argue, is even more fundamental than plot. Think of the “narrative” of having to get water from a well. It involves causal events linked in time and space, but unless it is connected to some greater plan or scheme, it doesn’t advance anything. Progression is the difference between events happening towards a goal and events existing for no other sake than having something happening.
Progression is key to engagement and represents the very reason we take interest in a show. Surely you have asked yourself, “Why do I care about this story and this series of plot events?” The most common answer is because you want to see how they build to a climax, how the new twists affect the characters course of action; you care because the show’s going somewhere, and you want to be there to see that journey. Think filler episodes: they tie into the story, but end where they start. Why does filler elicit such hate, and why do many people go so far as to skip these episodes entirely? It’s simply because progression is that important to most people.
In addition, one thing that always attaches people to narratives are the characters and the transformations they undergo. Simply speaking, character development not only makes more interesting characters, it makes characters far more endearing and human than if they were unchanging entities.
So hopefully you understand — with all this potential benefit — that one must be well-justified to make a show that ignores these 3 otherwise integral parts of narrative.
The Possible Justifications for Slice-Of-Life’s Existence.
When it comes to reasons a person would choose to ignore the guiding principles of narrative I can think of a few, but only one can truly offer a solution to the dilemma I presented.
In regards to fantasy slice-of-lifes like Mushihsi, the answer is relatively simple: these slice-of-lifes want to exposition their world to the viewer and don’t need a narrative to accomplish that. The reason they don’t use overarching stories is because they are engaging in their own right as they paint creative and imaginative universes and hence can afford to utilize episodic formats and stagnant protagonists. In addition, a narrative would make expositioning the universe they created more cumbersome, as each aspect of the universe would have to somehow tie into the narrative. But this class of slice-of-life is the exception; the real challenge is answering the dilemma for the high school slice-of-life genre (which is by far the largest sub-genre), where shows like Lucky Star fall into.
One would at first simply reply “comedy”, as that is the main thing high school slice-of-lifes do, but this doesn’t answer the question. It seem pretty reasonable to believe that comedy can be done while having a plot, character development and a sense of progression (think GTO or One Piece). We are going to have to dig deeper than this.
Experimentation is the next thing that comes to mind, as it has always been a reason for ignoring the grounding principles of narrative. You see this a lot with avant-garde works, but this really doesn’t apply to slice-of-life. Slice-of-life is very much grounded in classicism and hence, its main pursuit is to make an enjoyable experience for the viewer. But this does lead to a possible solution: what if slice-of-life is trying to do something else other than simply being enjoyable?
The solution that I believe justifies slice-of-life as a genre is this. Answer:
- Slice-of-life seeks to depict life as it actually is, and hence ignores the principles of narrative to create a more genuine atmosphere of actual life.
When you watch a show with a narrative, there is a suspension of disbelief you bring to it. In real life, nobody’s life is so exciting and full of events as to be considered a TV show-grade narrative. This can detach you from the actual experiences of the characters, and make the experience feel artificial. While this is never a major issue in a narrative, when you are going for something more subtle, more simple, and more atmospheric, the little things matter, and this is what I believe justifies slice-of-life. Slice-of-life exists to show life in a genuine way and create a more intimate, atmospheric experience, and the only way this can be done is to make it not feel like a story.
But while I do offer this as the main solution to the question, I must clarify; I feel this actual purpose hasn’t been fully exploited. The vast majority of slice-of-lifes are still cheap gag shows with moe overdoses. Even ones that could be justified under my rational could be doing their job better. K-on! is so detached from reality, all atmospheric effects it produces feel accidental at best. Lucky Star tries to create that feeling of understanding when you recognize other people have the same view as you, but the fact that I’m not Japanese makes it hard to assess if this is pulled off or not (I mean, I’m not going to treat a show where 18 year old girls look like their 8 as an ethnographic series illuminating the Japanese psyche). In the end, the two slice-of-lifes that come closest to truly fulfilling this genuine atmospheric effect are Non Non Biyori and Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight, but even they have room for improvement. Non Non Biyori could have had a stronger focus on its rural township and less clichéd characterization, while Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight could have had a better progression and more thorough exposition of the lives of its characters.
So to sum it up, slice-of-life has a point in being a thing, but has a long way to go before I can consider it a genre I actively seek out to watch. More focus on atmosphere and genuineness as opposed to kawaii and comedy. As anime progresses, hopefully, slice-of-life will be defined by the likes of Mushishi and Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight as opposed to the cheap pandering works that seem to be ruining every other genre of anime. And if you think that remark stings, you need to check out The Vault’s Anime Wrap-up 2014, where I’ll dish a healthy spoonful of scorn towards a year of anime that definitely had much room for improvement (article coming in December).