‘Anime’ is a very broad term – and as a community, we are often quick to break this term down into more digestible, categorizable sections where we can immediately draw lines and see what we like and what we don’t. Humans are drawn to convenience- we will do something if it makes life easier.
So, we cut up ‘Anime’ into genres. Shounen or Shoujou, Mecha or Fantasy, Slice of Life or Supernatural – there’s a category for just about everything. And for good purpose – it guides new viewers to jump onto shows that they like. Does someone like Naruto? They might be interested in another Shounen anime like One Piece. Is your friend interested in Lucky star’s derpyness? Nichijou may also give them simlar giggles. What about a pal who loves both the action of Bleach but also the comedy of Keroro Gunsou? You’d think these two genres can’t possibly overlap – but Gintama proves that wrong.
See, these categories are useful – but some categories are overlooked. Of course, we have certain criterion that defines each category. We all know what qualifies as a ‘Shounen’. We assume certain traits and qualities that the genre possesses. A supremely powerful hero, an intimidating number of side characters and a long, long plot. When we think of watching a Shounen anime, these are the things we expect.
But what happens when a type of show comes along and turns these tropes on its head?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the idea of deconstruction.
What is it?
Before we begin explaining what deconstruction is, let’s first look at what there is to deconstruct in the first place.
Fundamentally, all forms of media sends out a ‘message’. Nothing is made without a purpose, and a viewer always leaves with some new idea or perspective. For example, Naruto emphasizes the importance of friendship and effort. Watching Naruto grow from a kid totally rejected from society because of something he was cursed with to becoming the village hero that everyone relies on is an incredible message to send to kids. It’s inspiring.
And after such a take-off success, it’s inevitable that the media of anime as a whole will have shows with similar themes. Look at all of the shows that spawned from Jojo’s popularity as a power fantasy. People want to feel inspired, powerful, and in control. So, if one thing is doing so well, what’s the purpose of breaking off to do something entirely different?
This idea inevitably strings together fundamental similarities between all shows in a genre. Let’s look again at Shounen’s main characters and how they are similar in the fact that they are ‘built to win’:
Son Goku’s power stems from both his effort to better himself as well as his Saiyan blood that puts him apart from other humans.
Naruto Uzumaki’s power stems from both his effort to better himself as well as the nine tailed fox that lives in his body, and the fact that he was a prophesized reincarnation of god’s child, putting him apart from other humans.
Ichigo Kurosaki’s power stems from both his effort to better himself as well as the fact that he possesses hollow powers and is part Quincy, putting him apart from other humans.
The similarity is clear – there is something that immediately distinguishes our main character from the other side characters. They are built to be the strongest in the room. That way, when they enter the scene, we feel an incredible rush of hope. For example – when Naruto entered the scene against Pain. It was an epic moment because it carried with it a sense of ‘and at that moment, the hero arrived and the day will be saved’.
Another similarity between all Shounen anime is how villains are mostly irredeemable bastards with little complexity. This is written so that the audience will always cheer for the heroes no matter what. There is clearly a good and evil to everything in traditional shounen, and we would like nothing more than to see our heroes beat the villans’ face in.
Let’s take, for example, the character of Freeza. Freeza is irredeemable, psychotic and tyrannical. Basically acting as a dictator, there’s no possible way for an audience member to sympathize with Freeza. We don’t know about Freeza’s goals in life, what he likes (besides ‘terrible oh-so-evil things like genocide) or what kind of things make him human. As such, we don’t even consider rooting for him. He’s done plenty of evil things, and, more than anything, he needs to be broken into pieces by our right and just hero, Son Goku.
An innate power status and a clear cut evil are just few of many of tropes that a genre is bound to have. It’s inevitable – but if it makes an entertaining show, why should we complain? And in the perspective of the creators, if it makes them money, why should they break free of the formula?
As stated earlier, all media sends out a ‘message’. Since shows in a genre are all connected by their tropes, they all share a somewhat similar theme. And thus, their ‘message’ is similar. Solid, traditional and entertaining – but similar.
But with every idea comes an equally compelling opposite idea.
The idea of deconstruction is a direct challenge to the commonly accepted tropes of a genre, often taking it and flipping it on its head. Offering new viewpoints, a unique approach, and most importantly, a different message, deconstructive anime questions the accepted ideas of a genre’s tropes. They often bring with it an element of surprise and intrigue that other shows cannot, simply because, by nature, they challenge what we know about a genre. They make us think and reconsider what we have believed to be common and normal. And sometimes, a good deconstructive anime can change the entire industry.
Examples of Deconstruction
Take, for example, Hunter x Hunter and how it challenges traditional Shounen elements. We’ve established earlier that two common Shounen tropes are an innately over-powered hero and a clear cut line between the good and the bad.
Hunter x Hunter is having none of that.
Not only does Gon lack any sort of advantage over his opponents (he wasn’t born stronger), the show actually makes it abundantly clear that there is none of that ‘chosen one’ business going on here. Gon loses more fights than a typical anime protagonist ever should, and we are never truly confident in asserting that he’s the strongest in the room. As such, even though he does lose sometimes, and oh boy, does he lose, every victory of his feels earned. It’s him who won the victory – through hard work and effort, not through some prophecy or hidden power.
Furthermore, there is literally no clear-cut good or evil in this show. Even those who are antagonists to the story are shown to have feelings, relationships and general human qualities. It’s not like Freeza where we hope the next episode brings him closer to death – we instead see antagonists with kinships, aspirations and human qualities. They are not so much villains to Gon’s crew than they are their own people whose paths happen to cross with Gon’s in the wrong way. They are their own people, they are redeemable, and most of all, they are sincere. Their reasons for fighting aren’t outright unforgivable like Freeza’s habit for planetary genocide, but they are motivated in ways all that aren’t all that different to Gon.
Hunter x Hunter is a more subtle example though. Instead, let’s look at an example of Deconstruction that was so influential that it changed the way that its genre was seen as a whole.
Neon Genesis Evangelion came out in a time where the idea of Super Robots were massively abundant. It included heroes, young and ambitious, being thrown into a mecha suit to save the world and bring peace to the galaxy. The robots draw on some form of willpower and it seems like everyone wants to own a mecha suit. A prime example of this was the massively successful Gundam series. For example – G Gundam was a super-robot show about soulful adventurers piloting incredible super robots, and through their hot-blooded spirit, they end up saving the world.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is having none of that.
Looking at the two genres on the surface, a viewer who knows no better may draw some parallels. Two very big robots being piloted by two somewhat young kids? Isn’t that enough by itself to lump the two together? Maybe – but every single typical trope seen in a super robot anime is destroyed by Evangelion.
Do you remember the protagonists of such anime? Hot blooded. Energetic. Passionate. They enter the mecha suit with every intent to save the world, and through the process, they find friends, make bonds and pursue a love interest. All in the name of peace and justice. Well, Shinji is not the typical protagonist. He’s shy. Insecure. Immature. He enters the mecha suit not of a volition to change the world and make it better. He’s just a child in a robot – and the torment on his psyche is apparent. He just can’t endure it mentally, and goes insane. Which depiction sounds more realistic?
What about the protagonist’s female companion in these shows? They’re usually cute, timid, need protection and are generally the character behind the plot, being protected by the protagonist. Often in love with the protagonist, they often act as damsels in distressed to be rescued later. It’s obvious where I am taking this, because Asuka is not a typical character. She’s not timid – she’s hot blooded. She’s not cute – many would even argue that she’s far more masculine than Shinji. She’s far more of a hot-blooded tsundere than a classic cute girl. In fact, it’s even possible to claim that the rise in popularity of the tsundere started with Asuka, but that’s a subject for another day.
Even the nature of the mechs and what the story goes through is put through a different spin. Instead of a loving community or a deceased role model passing on their love through the mecha, Evangelion’s mechs are the equivalent of cruel experiments by scientists. The show isn’t so much a feel-good typical super robot series like G-Gundam, but a deep, psychological thriller that makes us reconsider the glamour of using a giant robot.
The mecha genre – even the anime industry as a whole was never the same again after its release.
In recent anime…
There are other brilliant examples of deconstruction in recent time that have risen in popularity. It’s incredibly interesting to watch the trends of popularity – it’s easy to pick up animes that focus on deconstruction. With every point comes an opposing point.
Let’s start with an anime that has recently become one of the behemoths of all of anime in general – Sword Art Online. It came out in a time where being ‘trapped in an MMO-like universe’ was incredibly innovative. Everything down to the protagonist being a beacon for power fantasies to the massive cast of harem fodder, SAO brought about the rise of a new genre : “Trapped in another world” genre. This was in 2012.
Four years later, in 2016, we get two incredible responses to SAO’s message – two very different responses that essentially bounce off of each other’s momentum.
Re:Zero’s answer to Kirito’s OP Hax power was to make their protagonist a magnet for all things painful. Subaru doesn’t have any substantial strength on his own (certainly not compared to the other characters), and his progress in the story is benchmarked by each traumatic, painful, psychologically thrilling event. Re:Zero focuses on the trauma – something that SAO tried to touch on with Kirito’s mini-arc with Sacchi, but inevitably failed in. And especially in the department of the protagonists – the difference between Kirito’s incredible power over all other characters
Konosuba’s answer to SAO was to put a muzzle on all the edge, all the drama and all the attempts at being super emotional, and turn the ‘trapped in another world’ genre into more of a light-hearted comedy. Kirito is supremely overpowered and usually has zero trouble getting whatever he wants. But what if we take that and turn it around – making a character so ridiculously incompetent and uncool that it, through some miracle of god, it makes them more likeable than Kirito? Even the tropes of ‘tank’ , ‘healer’ and ‘mage’ have been ballooned to the point of hilarity. Not only does Konosuba’s tank have a physique that lets her take insane levels of punishment, her personality even leads her to enjoy it.
Both of these shows are critically acclaimed by the masses – arguably even more so than Sword Art Online itself. Deconstruction Anime doesn’t always stay under the shadow of their inspirers – often times, they rise above and surpass them.
Of course, ‘Deconstruction’ isn’t a genre that can really be categorized – because what counts as ‘deconstruction?’. A show can deconstruct an entire genre – like what Evangelion did to the Super Robot Genre, or a show can deconstruct a single trope – like what Re:Zero did to Sword Art Online and tackled the idea of a super-powerful protagonist being essential to the ‘trapped in another world’ genre.
What about parodies, though? Shows like One Punch Man do indeed deconstruct the essential elements of the shounen genre – but not by breaking the tropes down into a new light. Instead, One Punch Man deconstructs the tropes by blowing them up out of proportion to shine a new light on them. What if we take the trope of the ‘slightly overpowered protagonist’ and then inject it with steroids, force it to do 100 sit ups, 100 pushups and go for 10km run? We get the untouchable Saitama – a character whose powers lies dozens of leagues above everybody else in the show. But with this level of power, new questions come up besides “Is our hero strong enough to beat the villain?”. Instead, questions like “Is Saitama doing the right thing” or “What does it mean to be a hero, anyway?” are asked – questions that would otherwise have been swept under the rug in favor of the flashy explosions and fights of other Shounen shows.
So, it’s clear to see that Hunter x Hunter and One Punch Man both deconstruct the Shounen genre – but in ways completely different to one another. That’s why ‘Deconstruction’ isn’t often a genre that can just be googled – it means so many different things. It can range from a genre to a trope, the breakdown of traits to the buildup of them. It’s at least interesting to acknowledge that with every element of media comes a response – and with every characteristic of a show comes an equally entertaining answer to how else it can be interpreted.
This has been An Idiot’s Guide to Deconstruction in Anime – but hey, don’t take my word for it. I’m just an idiot.